Rockman, Seth. (2009). Scraping by: Wage labor, slavery, and survival in early Baltimore. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
At a moment of great entrepreneurial energy and social mobility, prosperity came to Americans who could best assemble, deploy, and exploit the physical labor of others. The early republic’s economy opened up new possibilities for some Americans precisely because it closed down opportunities for others.
. . . the perpetuation of slavery in a place like Baltimore owed less to the actual labor compelled from enslaved workers and more to the fact that plantation purchasers in Charleston, Augusta, New Orleans, and throughout the South were willing to pay hundreds of dollars for Baltimore slaves. Under the “chattel principle” that facilitated the instantaneous conversion of a person into cash, Baltimore slaveholders reaped wealth from slavery that had little to do with urban labor itself.
Other historians have suggested that the “cultural work” of slavery should be considered alongside the actual work that enslaved men and women performed. What slaveholders obtained from their human property was not merely labor, but a way of conceptualizing themselves as “masters,” a vehicle for performing patriarchal obligations to one’s wife and children, a means of class differentiation relative to nonslaveholding whites, a mode of social discipline to keep impoverished European immigrants grateful for their low wages, and a tool for undermining interracial solidarity of working people in general. Slavery sustained, if not promoted, many of the values and practices associated with early republic capitalism, such as the performance of self, the attainment of middle-class standards of respectability, and the pursuit of upward mobility. Seen in this light, slavery appeared worth preserving as a system not merely for compelling labor and accumulating capital, but for its ability to shape the contours of a broader range of social and cultural relations.
Both a property regime and a system of cultural power, slavery was also a labor system that accelerated economic development. Payroll records and job advertisements from Baltimore reveal the ready assimilation of enslaved workers into a fluid labor market. Through the practice of hiring slaves, employers reconciled slavery with the most advantageous aspects of a “free-labor” economy, namely the ability to hire and fire workers at will and to jettison traditional responsibilities of providing laborers with room and board. However, they were not so committed to the free-labor ideal that they sought to abolish slavery or convert all labor relations to a wage basis. There was no need to choose between a labor force entirely of enslaved workers or one entirely of free, self-owned, and legally equal workers. Instead, the system that emerged in Baltimore blurred boundaries between categories of labor, assuring the interchangeability of different workers along a continuum of slaves-for-life to transient day laborers – with term slaves, rented slaves, self-hiring slaves, indentured servants, redemptioners, apprentices, prisoners, children, and paupers occupying the space in between.Scraping By is an essential text for understanding the equation of labor = prosperity of the earlier decades of the U.S., and how this grew out of the laws and regulations of labor of the colonial eras previously.