The Clay Measures: Why the South Wanted a New Fugitive Slave Act

I meant for this post to precede the previous but screwed up yesterday. I think it still works as a companion piece, but my apologies for the disruptions in the narrative.

Fugitive Warning

A warning to Boston’s black population about how the new law made the local constabulary into a slave patrol.

Clay offered the North a free California and no slave trade in the District of Columbia. He bought off Texas, settled its disputed border, and offered up as many as four new slave states for the South.

But the South had one other great concern to compromise away. Southern leaders long feared shrinking. Should it no longer have room to expand, demand for slaves would fall and take their prices with it. The loss of capital would ruin Southern planters. But the South also feared a kind of unwitting expansion by shrinking: slaves stealing themselves to freedom. In Congress during the debates on the Clay Measures, Southerners first inveighed against the Underground Railroad under that name for stealing their property.

The steady bleed of slaves escaping to free states where they often enjoyed limited legal protections, sympathetic white minorities, and supportive free black communities came largely from the Border States. As Border State slave populations shrunk, those states culturally and politically aligned more and more with free states, to the minds of Deep South thinkers. Those men, Calhoun especially, feared that the Border States would follow the example of the Lower North decades prior and free their waning numbers of slaves. The South would shrink.

The Deep South feared not in vain. A single senator gone soft on slavery delivered the Senate to the North with its Wilmot Proviso. A great deal of two-party politics in the South involved arguments over which politician had more loyalty to the peculiar institution. Sometimes less prominent critics of slavery, or just outsiders in the wrong time and place who Southerners could imagine disliked it, ended up lynched to keep order and serve as an example to others. Furthermore one could hardly deny that the Lower North had, in fact, emancipated when its black population declined. More than personal interest in being able to recover human property drove the South. The fugitive slave issue reached deep into the ideological psyches of Southern leaders.

The Constitution required states to hand over fugitive slaves. Law dating back to 1793 put in place mechanisms to enforce that provision. Fugitives under that law for life, any runaway could never be perfectly secure no matter how far he or she ran. Runaway female slaves would transmit their status to any children, just as they would had they never absconded. To claim a runaway, the owner or designated agent simply had to seize the person, haul them before a judge and swear out an oath that the person in hand belonged to him. The accused had no right to as much as speak in defense against being taken. Naturally, this meant that any reasonably dark-skinned person could be stolen South on nothing more than the accuser’s say-so. As slave-catchers had a financial interest in delivery and any “mistakes” could be sold in some distant slave auction, the fugitive slave law legalized kidnapping in all but name.

Those facts sat poorly with the North and Northern legislatures responded with personal liberty laws granting accused runaways jury trials before they could be removed, barring state officials from helping with the arrest or detainment of the accused, forbidding the use of state jails for that purpose, and generally making a slave catcher’s job harder. In 1842 the Supreme Court ruled in Prigg vs. Pennsylvania that while owners had a right to recover their fled property, states did not have to help them do it. Personal liberty laws proliferated, greatly improving the security and safety of fugitives and free blacks in the North alike.

The Great Compromiser took aim at those personal liberty laws with a greatly strengthened Fugitive Slave Law, which would enrage the North nearly as much as the Wilmot Proviso enraged the South.

The Clay Measures: Something for the South (Part Two, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850)

James Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

James Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

As aforementioned, Henry Clay offered the South a new, strengthened Fugitive Slave Act. Written by Senator James Mason (D-VA), the bill rejected Clay’s suggestion that accused fugitives receive a jury trial in the South after being taken. It maintained the old system that an owner or hired agent of an owner had only to swear out an affidavit to a commissioner, but reached much farther. These commissioners received $10 for every fugitive sent South or $5 for every person set free.

The law overruled the personal liberty laws that proliferated in the 1840s, specifically laying out that:

In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence; and the certificates in this and the first [fourth] section mentioned, shall be conclusive of the right of the person or persons in whose favor granted, to remove such fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall prevent all molestation of such person or persons by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.

No fugitives testifying. No molestation by judicial processes like habeus corpus. The once profane power of federal law to overrule that of supposedly sovereign states when that law threatened slavery stood transformed into the sacred act of so doing when that law preserved slavery.

Under the new law, all law enforcement officials had to cooperate with slave-catchers and comply with the act. For the first time, enforcement of the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause (Article IV, Section 2) became a specific duty of the local, state, and federal constabulary. The previous regime relied on private agents and local compliance rested largely on local willingness. Failure to comply carried with it a thousand dollar fine ($26,630.94 in 2011 money). No more preventing state officials from assisting slave-catching.

The new act reached beyond just law enforcement, though. It authorized and empowered commissioners and their deputies to conscript any able-bodied person to aid them in catching and detaining accused fugitives. The law explicitly included casual bystanders.

One can easily imagine the scene: a black person races past you walk down the street with a slave-catcher or the sheriff in hot pursuit. He yells, “You, seize that man!” Whatever your purpose a moment before, you now stood deputized and obligated by force of law to help see that fleeing man shipped off to slavery.

But what if you said no? The nation offered you a fine of up to a thousand dollars and up to six months in prison to “any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent” a claimant, agent of the claimant, or anyone else so engaged from seizing an accused fugitive. Harboring or hiding fugitives, even if it didn’t involve directly obstructing capture, won the same sanction. In addition the claimant could seek civil damages against you for up to one thousand dollars per fugitive.

In effect, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 drafted every person in the North into the slave patrol. Even disinterested bystanders who ignored slavery or didn’t mind it so long as the institution remained out of their sight now became party to its enforcement, drafted in an America a decade away from its first draft.

Some Programming Notes

A few words, Gentle Readers:

I must start with an apology. In planning my posts on the Compromise of 1850 I confused a pair of important speeches and so skipped over one, and its associated results, that really belongs back in the reactions to the Wilmot Proviso. Mea culpa. Thus expires my hope to keep the Road to War posts in chronological order. Interrupting the description of the Clay Measures to take it seems jarring and possibly confusing so I shall treat that speech, Calhoun’s Southern Address, immediately after I finish up with what the Measures offered the South.

In less personally embarrassing news, I’ve added categories (over in the sidebar) for Slavery by the Numbers and Road to War for greater ease of navigation. Clicking on either should take you to a page with all the posts under the heading.

Happy navigating. I’m off to perform my Hail Lincolns and be fitted for a hair shirt.

The Clay Measures: Something for the South (Part One)

The US before the Compromise (Wikipedia)

The US before the Compromise (Wikipedia)

Having offered the North a free California and abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia, Clay hoped it would come on board for the proposals designed to appease the South. To offset a free California breaking the even sectional balance of the Senate, Clay proposed a mix of fairly naked bribery and hope to the South.

The Texas Republic ran up large debts in its decade as a semi-independent nation. Those debts remained a great burden on its government, as the United States did not assume them. Worse still, Texas planned to pay them off via tariffs that as a state it could no longer levy. So the Clay Measures offered to assume Texas’s debt in exchange for Texas surrendering its claims to vast swaths of territory it never controlled.

This resolved the border dispute with New Mexico and paved the way for organizing that territory under two territorial governments: the eponymous New Mexico Territory and Utah. These territories did not correspond to modern state boundaries. New Mexico included the modern state and all of modern Arizona, the southern corner of Nevada, and a piece of southern Colorado. The Utah territory contained that modern state, the remainder of Nevada, about a third of Colorado, and a section of Wyoming.

The US after the Compromise of 1850 (Wikipedia)

The US after the Compromise of 1850 (Wikipedia)

That amounts to a lot of land, but the normal course of development entailed territories shrinking as the population grew and portions came in at states at different times, with the rump remaining a territory. The Northwest Territory became Ohio and the rest became Indiana Territory. Arkansas Territory split between that state and Indian Territory, to which Jackson exiled the Five Civilized Tribes of the old Southwest along the Trail of Tears. Everyone understood that those two territories probably meant more than two states. That kind of size complicated both Texas Annexation and California’s statehood bid, as both came in much larger than the states out East. Established practice would have divided them. Polk’s Missouri Compromise extension plan would have likewise bisected California. Clay offered a return to past practice and the hope of as many as four new slave states with their eight slave state Senators and four (to start) slave state Representatives over the next few years.

Clay’s plan left no territory in the Mexican Cession unorganized. No new Californias would blindside the nation. No blank territorial slates remained for slavery to expand to or be barred from, as the other unorganized territory in 1850 rested within the Louisiana Purchase and thus fell under one of Clay’s old Missouri Compromise. (Aside the modern Oklahoma Panhandle, which the compromise accidentally made unorganized.) It resolved the lingering Texas border issue and offered Texas plenty of cash to accept that settlement.

Between what Clay offered the North and his territorial settlement for the South, with its potential for future slave states, the crisis might appear defused. But the South had another great complaint against the North, even in the days when the Wilmot Proviso failed to become law and the Free Soilers took only 10% of the vote. As that last concern would sweep most of the rising sectional tension leading up to the war under its banner, the problem of what to do about runaway slaves deserves its own post.

The Clay Measures: Something for the North

To work as a compromise, Clay’s resolutions had to include something for each section. Clay needed to appease the Deep South, where Calhoun and even more radical politicians threatened secession, but that appeasement had to take a form that the North could stomach and vote for too. So Clay enlisted Daniel Webster and gave him two things to please Northern, antislavery voters.

Firstly, California would come in as a free state. Clay took this as a fait accompli. It had more people than Delaware or Florida. It needed government. Its convention rejected slavery unanimously. The 1850 census found 962 black people lived in California, all free. Furthermore, slaveholders do not move quickly if they want to take their property with them.  The Gold Rush brought not Charleston patricians or Alabama cotton magnates to California, but rather a great tide of small farmers and townspeople. If Congress rejected their convention’s decision on slavery and demanded a referendum, California would vote itself free yet again.

What could the South ask here, that Congress go in and impose slavery on the new state against the expressed will of its voters? That might please Calhoun, as Mr. States’ Rights rarely failed to find grounds for exceptions when the federal government acted in slavery’s material interest, but would surely inflame the North and hand the abolitionists the specter of Congress forcing slavery on future territories to crusade against.

An abolitionist tract about slavery in the District.

An abolitionist tract about slavery in the District.

Second, Clay gave Webster the answer to more than a decade of abolitionist prayers. Ever since abolitionists began organizing in the North, they’d sent Congress petitions. As Congress enjoyed full control over the District of Columbia, these petitions asked that it abolish slavery there. In the 1840s, that amounted to a relatively moderate demand as it did not challenge in any state where it existed nor in any territory that might in the future become a state. The position that Congress had the power to enact abolition in the District stood comfortably in the mainstream.

But the District had slave states to either side and slaveholders always feared their slaves getting hold of abolitionist propaganda and from it ideas about freedom. (The Gag Rule Controversy of the 1830s centered on how Congress should deal with those petitions.) A free District would put free soil on the border of Virginia and thus expose that state to the kind of baleful antislavery influences that encouraged Delaware and Maryland, with their borders on free Pennsylvania, to break with the Slave Power bloc. The South could not risk the Old Dominion, its most populous state, becoming another inconstant Maryland. Nor did southern Maryland, home to many plantations and directly adjacent to the District, care much for its own slaves getting ideas.

Clay split the difference, offering abolition of the slave trade but not slavery itself. Southern office holders could still bring their slaves with them without fear of their achieving freedom, as Clay himself often did, and slaves could still pass through the District with traveling owners enjoying the same security, but Clay proposed closing down the huge slave market, one of the larger ones in the nation, that operated not three blocks from the Capitol.

Calling the place a market can obscure the truth of it. Owners came from far around to buy choice slaves, who the market could hold for some time in what amounted to a private jail. Then at regular intervals, interested parties would gather to question the slaves, check their teeth, examine their bodies, and generally do everything one would do when buying a horse. Even many Southerners found the slave trade, if not the slavery it fed, distasteful. It too easily pierced the charade of domestic, genteel patriarchal tranquility in which they preferred to cloak their institution. Even for the proslavery extreme, abolishing the trade alone in the District still permitted it directly across the Potomac in Arlington and over the line in Maryland for the convenience of residents.

Surely the Deep South could accept that in exchange for what Clay offered it.

The Clay Measures

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster

When Clay stood up with a piece of Washington’s coffin to offer his last great compromise and save the Union then and forever after, he did not quite stand alone. He teamed up with Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster, one of the finest orators of his age and a man widely hated in the South for both being antislavery and simply for representing antislavery Massachusetts. Like Clay, Webster had a long career that ran through the great controversies of the nineteenth century. Webster positioned himself as an antislavery man, but above that a Union man. In support of the Clay Measures, soon called the Compromise Measures, Webster spoke: “not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States.”

If not quite to the same degree, seeing as Webster represented Northern antislavery interests, he lived the compromises like Clay did. Webster opposed slavery but could live with it. Clay had slaves, but imagined living without them. The two men shared a party and by bringing Webster on board Clay hoped to win the moderate antislavery North over to his proposals.

Space prohibited detailing those proposals yesterday, but here are Clay’s eight resolutions in his own words:

  1. “That California, with suitable boundaries, ought upon her application to be admitted as one of the States of this Union, without imposition by Congress of any restriction in respect to the exclusion or introduction of slavery within those boundaries.”
  2. “That as slavery does not exist by [Mexican] law, and is not likely to be introduced into any of the territory acquired by the United States from the Republic of Mexico, it is inexpedient for Congress to provide by law either for its introduction into or exclusion from any part of the said territory; and that appropriate territorial governments ought to be established by Congress in all the said territory, not assigned as the boundaries of the proposed State of California, without the adoption of any restriction or condition on the subject of slavery.”
  3. That the western boundary of the State of Texas ought to be fixed on the Rio del Norte, commencing one marine league from its mouth and running up that river to the southern line of New Mexico; thence with that line eastwardly and so continuing in the same direction as to the line as established between the United States and Spain, excluding any portion of New Mexico, whether lying on the east or west of that river.
  4. That is be proposed to the State of Texas that the United States will provide for the payment of all that portion of the legitimate and bona fide public debt of that State contracted prior to its annexation to the United States, and for which the duties on foreign imports were pledged by the state to its creditors, not exceeding the sum of $—, in consideration of the said duties so pledged having been no longer applicable to that object after the said annexation, but having thenceforward become payable to the United States; and upon the condition also that said State of Texas shall, by some solemn and authentic act of her Legislature, or of a convention, relinquish to the United States any claim which it has to any part of New Mexico.
  5. That it is inexpedient to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, whilst that institution continues to exist in the State of Maryland, wtihout the consent of that State, without the consent of the people of the District, and without just compensation to the owners of slaves within the District.
  6. That it is expedient to prohibit within the District the slave-trade, in slaves brought into it from States or places beyond the limits of the District, either to be sold therein as merchandise or to be transported to other markets without the District of Columbia.
  7. That more effectual provision out to be made by law, according to the requirement of the Constitution, for the restitution and delivery of persons bound to service or labor in any State, who may escape into any other State or Territory in the Union.
  8. That Congress has no power to prohibit or obstruct the trade in slaves between the slaveholding States; but that the admission or exclusion of slaves brought from one into another of them, depends exclusively upon their own particular laws.

And so the Henry Clay proposed to save the Union.

Henry Clay and the Coffin

We left off with the Gold Rush giving California urgent need of government, with New Mexico (then everything east of modern California and west of modern Texas, plus area Texas then claimed) in a similar, if nowhere near so extreme, state. To resolve the problem, the lame duck Polk administration proposed to the lame duck Congress governments for each area, as territories, and settling the slavery question by extending the Missouri Compromise line to the ocean.

Polk’s own Secretary of State, James Buchanan, had just lost the Democratic nomination on the Missouri Compromise line, so I don’t know who Polk thought would agree to that. Fistfights erupted in the House and Senate. Southerners shouted for secession. In the House, the Northern majority put forward the Wilmot Proviso and a territorial bill for a consequently free California. They also passed a resolution to ban the slave trade, but not slaveholding itself, in Washington. They thought about going that one extra step, long sought by abolitionists, but lacked the votes.

Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser

Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser

In the Senate, Kentucky’s Henry Clay stood to speak. Clay retired after not getting his party’s nomination in 1848 but returned to the Senate less than a year later. For decades one of the nation’s most prominent, powerful politicians, the Whig leader and perennial presidential candidate saw the Missouri Compromise passed. He negotiated the end of the Nullification Crisis. He favored expansion but opposed Texas annexation and the Mexican War, where he lost a son. The hemp planter from Kentucky owned sixty slaves but also founded the American Colonization Society to remove free blacks and slaves to Liberia. Aside slavery, Clay made John Quincy Adams president in 1824 and, while in the House, transformed the Speakership from a chiefly disciplinary role into the second most powerful office in the land.

Born during the revolution and first sitting as a Senator in 1806, a few months before he reached the required thirtieth year, the Great Compromiser stood to present one last compromise. As he did he held up a piece of wood that he told the Senate came from George Washington’s coffin. He had it from a supporter of his bid to have the government buy Mount Vernon. Short of a piece of the man himself, what more patriotic relic could an American politician have as a prop? Would slavery tear the nation the pieces? Would it undo the work of his father’s generation and bury it next to the sainted Washington? No. In its darkest hour the Great Compromiser, seventy-two and sick with the tuberculosis that would kill him, returned to save the Union one last time.

Clay put forward eight resolutions he drafted in late January in consultation with Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster, who had just as storied a history. After four years of nearly constant strife, it could all finally end with the Union saved. Clay aimed for the stars: “to settle and adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy between [the states], arising out of the institution of slavery, upon a fair, equitable, and just basis.” The Great Compromiser would make a permanent settlement on slavery his gift to posterity.

Clay lived those compromises himself as a slaveholder who supported restrictions on slavery and called it, years after such statements fell out of fashion, a temporary evil that could one day be gone. While Clay prevailed on Missouri and Nullification, he lost on Texas and Mexico and so would not come with the swagger of a constant victor. Representing Border State Kentucky, Clay’s career did not rest in the hands of proslavery absolutists who prevailed in the Deep South but rather with voters and fellow politicians who had a history of breaking with them. If anybody in America could save the Union in 1850, Henry Clay could.

Thomas Jefferson, the Founders, and the Slaves

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great post up today about Thomas Jefferson’s position and practice on slavery. I plan to write one myself eventually in the unlikely event that I can ever find something to say about it that he hasn’t said better, but it also touches on how Americans view their founders and includes something I did not know.

Tadeusz Kościuszko

Tadeusz Kościuszko

Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who came from Poland via France to become a general in the Revolutionary War, befriended Jefferson and named the Sage of Monticello executor of his will. That will instructed Jefferson to sell everything Kosciuszko owned and use the money to buy as many slaves as could be managed, explicitly permitting Jefferson to use the money on “buying” even his own slaves if he liked, and then free them.

As TNC notes, apologists sometimes defend Jefferson for only freeing two slaves in his life by saying that he would have impoverished himself to do so. Later on, Virginia law required that in addition to paying the cost of the slave, directly or through labor lost, the person freeing a slave also paid for that slave’s removal from the state. However unconvincing, that argument simply does not apply to Kosciuszko’s estate. Jefferson had in his hands the chance to buy slaves he would not rely on for any of his own income and provide for their transport, education, and so forth, both with someone else’s money, and free them. Jefferson demurred. Why? TNC explains:

Jefferson may well have intellectually understood slavery’s great evil, and I don’t think any non-slave has explained it better. But there is no reason why this immunize him from the social pressures of his class. Jefferson may well have not liked holding slaves. But he loved the society that came from it. That society was a republic of white supremacy. And the next generation following Jefferson would dream of stretching that republic down into the tropics. The way Lenin believed in communism, the way we believe in capitalism, that is the way Jefferson’s heirs believed in white supremacy — so much so that they would come to denounce Jefferson.

I think that living after the Civil Rights Movement, with a black president, we have a lot of trouble getting that point through our heads. John C. Calhoun can tell us he thought slavery a positive good, but he owned slaves so his opinion hardly surprises us. But ordinary whites in both sections really did believe in America as an explicitly white republic. Wilmot’s anti-abolitionist declaration comes from the same place, at least in that respect, as Calhoun’s positive good speech.

They differed not so much on having White America for White Americans, but on whether or not White America for White Americans would be carried on the backs of slaves. Proslavery Southerners wanted to keep blacks around as slaves. Antislavery Northerners wanted to be rid of them and competition with them, whether through colonization or some other, vague means of diffusing black people away. Very few, even up through the war, wanted to live in a nation where white and black stood as equals. Even many of those who eventually did preferred not to live anywhere close to where that kind of equality took place, as they showed during Reconstruction and then again in the later stages of the Civil Rights Movement. We still live in what I hope is the waning of the era of that white backlash.

Rushed by the Gold Rush

When we left off on the Road to War, blank slate Zachary Taylor of the Whigs won the presidency in November of 1848 and the question of slavery in the Mexican Cession hung unresolved over the nation despite nearly three solid years of Wilmot Provisos, Alabama Platforms, Conscience and Cotton, and Popular Sovereignty. In part to avoid having to settle the issue immediately, Congress left California under military government after taking possession with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo on February 2 of 1848.

Sutter's Mill in 1850, with the foreman who found the gold in the foreground.

Sutter’s Mill in 1850, with the foreman who found the gold in the foreground.

Nine days earlier, on January 24, a foreman working at Sutter’s Mill found shiny yellow metal in the channel beneath the mill’s waterwheel. Further investigation confirmed Sutter’s fears. Despite his best efforts to suppress the news, word got out and in March a newspaper editor, after prudently setting up a shop to sell prospecting supplies, marched through the streets of San Francisco (population about 1,000) holding a vial of the stuff aloft and announcing that he held gold from the American River.

San Francisco ceased to exist. So did Sutter’s operation, his employees deserting to pick up the free money laying on the ground. Hundreds of ships in San Francisco Bay stood empty, their crews joining the often violent feeding frenzy.

News reached the East Coast in August to general indifference. Wild stories about the West prompted much the same reaction as a chain email would today. Polk’s message to Congress, what we would call the State of the Union but submitted in writing by every president until Woodrow Wilson, changed that with a few short words:

It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.

James K. Polk

James K. Polk

Just two days later, those officers in the public service arrived in Washington with a Chinese tea caddy full of 320 ounces of gold that soon went on display in the War Department. Eighty thousand people arrived in California during the following year. San Francisco swelled to 25,000 residents. By 1850 California would have 92,567 residents, more than Delaware or Florida.

The rush of humanity overwhelmed the military government before the East Coast believed in the gold and it called a constitutional convention in June of 1849, which worked through September and October. That convention set up a government and made California a free territory by unanimous vote. Most delegates lived in California before the Gold Rush. Those from the South held that the climate and terrain simply did not favor slavery. The convention adopted a compromise border for the presumptive state, leaving outside its bounds modern Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah despite their inclusion in the Mexican province of Alta California. This removed the state from any conflict with Texas over that state’s western bounds.

By all reasonable standards, California deserved statehood. It had the population. Its convention drew borders that did not conflict with those of another state. It certainly needed more than the military government that threw up its hands and called the constitutional convention. But California did not stand alone on the Western frontier. New Mexico with its population of Mexicans and Indians, growing Mormon settlement, and unsettled border with Texas need organization as well.

The sections hardly lived together peacefully before the Gold Rush. Tempers ran high on both sides. But the Gold Rush gave the already dire issue of slavery in the territories a new surfeit of urgency.

Slavery by the Numbers: A Scale of Slaveholding

Peter from Louisiana, not a number despite the census.

Peter from Louisiana, not a number despite the census

I said yesterday that the precise scale of slave holdings (or put more bluntly: how many people a given slaveholder owned) is a hard nut to crack. That data exists for 1860, 1850, and possibly other censuses, but not in a form accessible to me. I’ve done previous Slavery by the Numbers posts off census aggregates, using the University of Virginia’s census browser as augmented by directly crawling through the census tables. I can tell how many slaves lived in a given county and how many slaveholders owned more or less than a certain number, within certain ranges, but the personal name of the owner (slaves appear only as a number) and how many people exactly that owner possessed is in microdata I’ve only seen as scans of microfilm. I can’t query a database or look up a county on a table and get a ready list of all its slaveowners with their human property in the third column.

For generally famous people, I can often find out how many slaves they owned from books or the internet. But 393,967 slaveholders lived in the South in 1860. Even in tiny Delaware, the census lists 587 slaveholders. Virginia weighs in with 52,128. Even with the microdata, doing a thorough survey daunts this random guy on the internet.

But the aggregates gives some rough ideas. They list the number of slaveholders who owned X, where X is a single number up through nine slaves and then covers increasingly large ranges until it reaches 1,000+. (The estate of Joshua John Ward of South Carolina stands alone here with 1,130 slaves.) Large slaveholders, however, often owned plantations in several states and substantial numbers of slave at each. Those larger holdings, being divided among the totals of several states, can dilute the numbers. I have read elsewhere estimates as high as three thousand slaves, spread over several states, for the biggest slaveholder in the antebellum South.

People who owned few slaves probably did not own four plantations in as many states. Working a plantation required a lot of bodies. I’m consequently much more confident that slaveowners in the lower ranges have a single entry that covers all their human property than I am about the slaveowners with hundreds of slaves.

Accepting the limitations of the data I have, here is a thumbnail sketch of slavery in the whole South:

Slaveholders by state and slaves held

Slaveholders by state and slaves held

Of the 393,967 slaveowners counted in the 1860 census, 78,726 (19.98%) owned only a single slave. They probably did not as a rule put those slaves into plantation labor, but might have hired them out to planters who did. Many likely served as domestic servants and lone farm hands or shop hands who worked beside their owners. That generalization holds somewhat for small-scale slaveholding, but becomes much weaker the more slaves owned. No planter needed two hundred valets, but many had use for two hundred field hands. At any rate, 283,049 slaveowners (71.85%) owned fewer than ten slaves. The below twenty club finishes up with 346,396 slaveowners (87.93%).

Small-Scale Slaveholding as a fraction of total slaves in the South.

Small-Scale Slaveholding as a fraction of total slaves in the South.

Looking at those numbers can give a false impression of slavery as a small-scale, domestic, intimate institution. They speak only to how slaveholding directly touched the lives of the slaveholders. Given the fact that the census broke down small-scale slaveholding on a slave-by-slave count, we can do some multiplication and dividing to reveal a better picture of slavery from the slave’s perspective.

Only 1,010,770 (25.59%) of the south’s slaves were owned by a master who had less than ten slaves. Of those, only 78,726 (1.99%) were the only slave their owners had. The vast majority of slaves, in short, had almost the precise opposite experience of the vast majority of slaveowners. While 71.85% of slaveowners had only one slave, 74.41% of slaves had owners with ten or more, across the South as a whole.

The same math can be done with the higher echelons of slaveholding, but the ranges grow considerably so it becomes harder to make fair comparisons between them. I can’t simply multiply the number of slaveholders by the number of slaves held to get an accurate count, since a slaveholder could own any number of people within the range. Those ranges climb as high as 500-999. I can take minimums, maximums, and means but as those would not return the true number of slaves, making comparisons with the total number of slaves in the South to find out proportions more of a shot in the dark.