Kathleen M. Hilliard. Masters, Slaves, and Exchange: Power's Purchase in the Old South. Cambridge Studies on the American South. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 226 pp. $27.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-107-63664-4.
Reviewed by Robert Borrelli (Central Michigan University)
Published on H-USA (January, 2015)
Commissioned by Donna Sinclair (Central Michigan University)
The internal economy of slaves of the Old South has been noted for decades, and historians continue to expose the dynamism of slaves’ independent economic activity during their “off” time where they benefited from the fruits of their labor, procuring dietary supplements and other “luxuries” above the provisions allotted by their owners. Still, as slaves marketed their produce and acquired goods and performed services on and off their plantations, slaveholders, for their part, sought to control this activity and maintain hegemony. In Masters, Slaves, and Exchange: Power’s Purchase in the Old South, Kathleen M. Hilliard closely examines the master-slave relationship as it played out within the internal economy, arguing that the consumption of goods served as a vehicle through which social relations—and politics—were produced.
Drawing from historian Eugene Genovese’s paternalist framework of slavery that views slavery as a political struggle in which slaves and owners were connected in an organic and reciprocal system of rights, privileges, and responsibility, Hilliard focuses on the internal economy to assert that the transactions of goods, services, and money on southern plantations were “politics distilled”—a realm where slaves and masters negotiated the limits of one another’s power. Through a “malleable” lens of consumer studies, Hilliard examines southern paternalism and the rigorous attempts of planters to shape the terms of the master-slave relationship through the internal economy. Slaves for their part pushed back to “redefine the paternalist bargain on their own terms” (p. 13).
Masters, Slaves, and Exchange begins by focusing on the attempts of planters to moralize slaves’ market exchanges. Seizing on the dynamics of market exchange, slaveholders looked to enlarge the dimensions of their hegemony by serving as the “models, protectors, and judges” of their slaves’ market transactions (pp. 16-17). Across the plantation South, owners offered their slaves money, crops, livestock, and other luxuries. With these exchanges, coupled with privileged access to stores and merchants, slaveholders hoped to instill certain market values to further dependency on white mastery through benevolence and management. Hilliard follows planter management with subsequent chapters discussing slaves’ opportunities for market participation, the goods they sought, and the means by which they acquired property—arguments that support, verify, and contribute to other work on the internal economy. The strength of Masters, Slaves, and Exchange rests on its sophisticated consumer perspective of the paternalist struggle. After all, marketplace transactions and the consumer process was a double-edged sword for slaves, and Hilliard regularly reminds readers that the consumer process was never fully in their grasp as southern planters could seriously restrict and manipulate the independent economic activity of their slaves.
Paternalism is never far removed from Hilliard’s analysis, and she elucidates slaves’ black market activity and the struggles between slave and slaveholder over illicit consumption. Her discussion of gift giving in the chapter “Gilt Chains,” which linked slave and slaveholder, is noteworthy and reflective of the blurred lines between gift giving and commodity exchange. Hilliard concludes her study with “The Choice,” a chapter in which she discusses self-purchase to depict the careful considerations taken by slaves in order to obtain freedom and the obstacles they faced, as both consumers and commodity themselves. By the end of Masters, Slaves, and Exchange, Hilliard has described an active and consumer-minded South where planters’ attempts to manipulate slave economic activity were potential risky to hegemonic control. Still, as Hilliard contends, while slaves bought, sold, and bartered, and brought their own set of values to the consumer process, they were always “challenged by the limiting influence of their own enslavement” as chattel property (p. 47).
Masters, Slaves, and Exchange attacks the slaves’ internal economy from a variety of consumer angles with breakdowns of planter records and account ledgers spanning four states (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) as snapshots of small-scale patterns of African American consumption across space and time (1815-60). Hilliard combines an impressive array of slave and ex-slave narratives, planter manuscripts, travel diaries, southern agricultural journals, court records, government inquiries, and legislative petitions to underscore the complexities of the social and economic relationships of the slave South. Her use of scant store ledgers and account books derived from archive manuscripts are complemented by a strong assortment of secondary literature reflecting a broad historiography of slavery, consumer studies, and material culture.
Masters, Slaves, and Exchange is a short yet comprehensive analysis of market exchange, power, and compromise in the Old South. Its broad analysis of rural southern slave life leaves much to be discovered in urban environments, one arena of slave life the book avoids for the most part. Still, Hilliard convincingly argues her points, exposing a variety of perspectives and the dynamism of the internal economy, as planters and slaves continually negotiated a “paternalist bargain” amid an expanding market culture that amplified such a struggle. Her approach and framework opens the door for further research on African American consumption, especially in the post-emancipation era. Masters, Slaves, and Exchange is an important addition not only to slave studies but also to early consumer studies and for those seeking a deeper understanding of the slave system and market expansion in a modernizing Old South. It is a book every southern, slave, or consumer historian should read.
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Robert Borrelli. Review of Hilliard, Kathleen M., Masters, Slaves, and Exchange: Power's Purchase in the Old South.
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