Economy and Slavery

The economic realities of slavery influenced lived experiences of enslaved persons’ throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century by creating harsher conditions to stabilize and maintain the institution. One reason that slavery and the economy were so closely linked was the south’s reliance on the institution to drive its economy. As the southern economy was predominantly based on agriculture, the south was almost entirely dependent on the use and exploitation of enslaved labor. As time progressed, enslaved persons began to seek freedom. Worsening conditions and harsher regulations were initiated due to enslaved persons seeking freedom and the rise of abolitionism. Slave masters feared a loss of profits from their enslaved labor if emancipation was to occur. Fear of monetary losses fueled the deterioration of enslavement conditions within the United States, as an attempt to maintain and stabilize the institution of slavery. Profit seeking slave owners fostered violence, rape, the separation of families, and the death of many enslaved persons.


One important aspect of enslavement that slave owners created, was the idea of commodification. Enslaved human beings were progressively viewed as property within the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The commodification of enslaved persons was the process of viewing and selling enslaved persons as tradable goods. Human beings were traded alongside crops, livestock, and raw materials. Commodification existed throughout the entirety of the sale of enslaved persons. “Court order stating $200, value of Negro man, be credited to Benjamin [Fudel], January 1, 1849-December 31, 1849” evidences that enslaved persons possessed a certain monetary value. Within “Court order stating $200, value of Negro man, be credited to Benjamin [Fudel], January 1, 1849-December 31, 1849”, the Court of Frederick County, Maryland declares that “credits are levied to Benjamin Fudel, two hundred dollars, the value of a negro man”.[1] The bill of sale ommitted  the enslaved person’s name and any type of physical description, instead they were only referred to as a “Negro worth two hundred dollars.”[2] Commodification within this source represents the stripping of identity and humanity that occurred towards enslaved persons throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Commodification was a tool used by slave owners to exploit enslaved persons and maintain the institution of slavery. If enslaved persons did not possess a level of humanity, then the institution of slavery could not be challenged. If an enslaved person was not viewed as a human being, how would people create an argument for the rights deserved of this enslaved person?


Commodification supported the view that enslaved persons could only be viewed as property. They were regarded as equals to other commodities and physical possessions within “Daybook, entries for Negros for brandy, tobacco, etc, poems.”[3] Within “Daybook, entries for Negros for brandy, tobacco”, Mitchell places the monetary value of his enslaved persons directly next to his expenses of brandy from Methia’s Tavern. The fact that the slave owner viewed human beings as comparable to brandy represented the depths to which commodification reached throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The perception that enslaved persons were merely property created the foundation for their exploitation. Property did not possess any rights or freedoms afforded under the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. The idea that enslaved persons were not human beings, but only property, allowed slave masters to commit “justified” acts of violence towards their human property.


The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was created due to the pressure from white southerners as a result of the heightened economic concerns of slave owners. Though there were other reasons for the passage of this act, one reason was because of the increased number of successful runaway slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was created to halt the loss of profit that slave owners experienced as a result of runaway slaves attaining freedom. The fugitive slave act placed a legal requirement on all persons living within the north to help capture and return runaway slaves to the south. A “Reward for runaway slave, broadside advertisement, Frederick, Maryland, 1793,” represents an advertisement created prior to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. In the advertisement, Ignatious Davis offers a ten-dollar reward for any person who returns his “active Mulatto slave.”[4] Prior to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, slave masters had to offer rewards for the return of their fugitive slaves. The fact that there was no legal support for the retrieval of their human property suggests that it was likely harder to recover a runaway slave prior to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.


The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act was a direct representation of the worsening conditions for enslaved persons living in the United States. The Fugitive Slave Act created a legal requirement for northerners to take action when they encountered someone they believed to be a runaway slaves. A “Reward poster for runaway slave, 1853” depicts an ad for a reward for a runaway slave in 1853.[5] This ad depicts a one-hundred-dollar reward for the return of W. D. Bowie’s enslaved person. This advertisement was written after the creation of the Fugitive Slave Act, creating a legal obligation for people to aid in the return of the enslaved man.. The Fugitive Slave Act, as represented through the two ads to return runaway slaves, depicts the worsening conditions for enslaved persons during this time in the United States. At first, slave owners could place ads for the return of their enslaved persons with no legal backing, but the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act created a legal obligation for people to turn in runaway enslaved persons. The Fugitive Slave Act also created an infrastructure that allowed for any person to be accused of being a runaway slave, allowing for the forced return of free African Americans.


Economic concerns intensified the violence perpetrated against enslaved people. Increased violence was typically perpetrated by slave owners as enslaved persons attempted to run away from their plantation, attempting to gain freedom, or to attempt to organize. Bethany Veney was an enslaved woman living on a plantation in Luray, Virginia.[6] While enslaved, Veney would commit acts of ‘truancy’, or,  temporarily running away from her masters plantation. Although Veney never actually left the plantation, she would venture to the back of the plantation and hide out in the woods. On one occasion when Bethany Veney’s owner caught her trying to escape, she was forced to put her hand inside of a bucket that was lined with nails.[7] The horrific act of violence taken against Bethany Veney was as a result of economic conditions. The slave master feared that Veney would run away and that her acts of truancy would inspire others to do the same. Bethany Veney’s slave master committed this extremely harsh act of violence as a way to instill fear and her and the other enslaved people she owned.  The slave master would lose profits if his or her slaves ran away, therefore, economic concerns motivated his or her actions. The experiences of enslavement, as well as the treatment of enslaved persons, got progressively worse from the inception of slavery in the United States until the Civil War.


The economic concerns of their masters  shaped the lives of enslaved persons within the United States. The constant fear of slaves running away or attempting to seek freedom threatened the economic stability of slavery. As northern states began to emancipate and ban slavery, southerners responded by intensifying the bondage of enslaved people The growing fear of an economic downturn due to a decrease in profits fueled worsening conditions for enslaved persons. Slave owners attempted to use violence and the detraction of humanity from enslaved persons to justify their actions and the institution of slavery as a whole. Slave masters attempted to protect their economic interests and the institution of slavery at the expense of enslaved persons. A slave master would attempt to protect his economic interest, at all costs, to perpetuate his profits and strengthen the institution of slavery.


[1]Frederick County Court of Maryland, “Court order stating $200, value of Negro man, be credited to   Benjamin [Fudel], January 1, 1849-December 31, 1849”. University of Maryland Libraries: Maryland Manuscripts Item 1030.

[2]Frederick County Court of Maryland, “Court order stating $200, value of Negro man, be credited to Benjamin [Fudel], January 1, 1849-December 31, 1849”.

[3]J. Mitchell, “Daybook, entries for Negros for brandy, tobacco, etc., poems”. University of Maryland Libraries: Maryland Manuscripts Item 371.

[4]Davis, Ignatious, “Reward for runaway slave, broadside advertisement, Frederick, Maryland, 1793”. University of Maryland Libraries: Maryland Manuscripts Collection Item 5389.

[5]W. D. Bowie, “Reward poster for runaway slave, 1853”. University of Maryland Libraries:          Maryland Manuscripts Collection Item 4253.

[6]Bethany Veney, “The Narrative of Bethany Veney: A Slave Woman”. Boston, Massachusetts:     Press of Geo. H. Ellis, 1889.

[7]Bethany Veney, “The Narrative of Bethany Veney: A Slave Woman.”

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