Slave Management: Attitude to Work and Work Ethics

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There is something different about the idea of slavery. In North America an invention called the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, shaped the vision and future of slavery very dramatically. The invention of the cotton gin increased slavery and the need for cotton. The main discussion of my paper is “What were the attitudes of American slaves toward their work experiences.” It increased the need for cotton because they could pick the cotton faster, and make cotton faster. Slave’s attitudes changed immensely about the way they were treated when put under certain circumstances. For example the slaves would rebel against their owners because they were unhappy with their treatment. There was always the fear and threat of a slave rebellion or uprising. For example, the yardsman and who had to manage the slaves when they were working in the field. The attitudes and thoughts of slavery and their treatment varied from slave to slave.

Historians have shown the attitudes of slaves from conflicting information. The three different historians are from Kenneth M. Stampp, Eugene D. Genovese, Robert Fogel, and Stanley Engerman. They show their different views on slavery through their three writings. Each author had a different question on the impact of slavery. Kenneth Stampp believed slaves were just a property that you could own. Eugene D. Genovese talks about the black work ethic and how the slaves worked. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman the way slaves were treated. He talked about how their conditions were always up for debate.

“A Troublesome Property” By Kenneth M. Stampp looks at the good and the bad masters in slavery and the slaves desires for freedom through rebellions and uprisings. In the article, Stampp argues none of the uprisings and rebellions slaves had, would have actually been successful. They were not successful because there was a lack of coordination, a lack of communication, and hardly any weapons. It caused the high or master class much casualties because that was who the slaves were gunning for. Stampp looks at how the labors of slavery were used to the white advantage. A Virginian master believed slaves had their faculties “sharpened by constant exercise” and their perceptions were “extremely fine and acute”. An overseer of the slaves believed a man who “put his trust in a Negro is simply a damned fool”. Slaves were afraid to speak out because they feared their masters would punish them. Whites believed one could not trust the slaves or African Americans because they thought they were deceitful and the planters never got the truth. The planters thought they were deceitful and never got the truth because the slaves would put stones in their baskets to make them heavier so they could be done faster. The planters hated this because they would have been shorted the cotton they needed for the day.

In “A Troublesome Property” By Kenneth Stampp mentions how the slaves were rebelling or “killing” white men because they wanted revenge. They also staged rebellions, in one incident that occured in a small village on the eastern shore of Virginia one night. The sound of gunfire alarmed the white people very much and they thought the slaves were coming to kill them so they left their houses and fled into the woods for safety. It was ascertained after what had happened it was a false alarm. It was indeed a disagreeable way to live for the people in the village. The most acute and widespread insurrection panics occured in 1856 and 1860 each of them rising from the Republican Party and exciting political campaigns. There was no slave conspiracy comparable to Denmark Vesey’s and no rebellion comparable to the Nat Turner rebellion. What made Nat Turner’s Rebellion so significant was the amount of white’s Nat Turner and his fellow recruitees had killed. They killed sixty whites in two days. The Denmark Vesey rebellion was horrible because Denmark and his fellow escapees vowed to kill any white they met on the road, burn down the town, take they money and weapons, and escape by ship to Plymouth. In the end, what made these two rebellions stand out so much was the brutality they used.

In truth, no slave uprising ever had the chance of ultimate success, even though it may have caused the master class many casualties. The great majority of the slaves did not join in any of the uprisings or numerous plots. The slaves rarely went beyond individual disorderly action with in turn caused the masters little annoyance. The survival of slavery cannot be explained due to the contentment of the slaves or their failures to comprehend the advantages of freedom. Most slaves wanted liberty and resisted bondage as most people in their situations would, but their longing made the masters unconvinced and they did not render the institution unprofitable to most. The myth that slavery survived because of the cheerful manner of the slaves was not true because the masters were striking refutation into that myth. Refutation is the act of proving a statement, myth, or accusation.

“The Black Work Ethic” By Eugene D. Genovese touches on what free slaves did in their free time. The slaves liked to choose how much they worked and when they worked. The black work ethic grew up within a wide protestant Euro-American community with a work ethic of its own. The black work ethic represented at once a defense against an enforced system of economic exploitation and an autonomous assertion of values generally associated with preindustrial people. It formed parts of the southern work ethic, which developed an antagonism to that of the wider American societies. A Euro-American, essentially Anglo-Saxon work ethic helped shape the general population of the southern people. This includes the slave work too. “We didn’t own no clocks in dem days. We just told de time by de sun in de day and de stars at night. If it was clouded we didn’t know what time it was.”

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Some of the activities slaves liked to do were as follows: Corn shucking, Hog killing, and Log rolling. They would shuck corn because it was one thing they liked to do at night after they were done with their work. They often worked on holidays and Sundays for longer hours and more money. Slaves would rather do hard work with the community than working alone. They enjoyed this because they would do things like sing, race, and make jokes. When the slaves would make jokes they often had to be careful because they could get caught by their master and get into serious trouble. They could get in trouble because they were not supposed to make jokes that were bad about their master. Slaves also had races/contests and galas. It was a break from their work. They stressed hard work and if they did extra work and it was good they got paid a little extra. Most businesses liked this because the slaves would work on holidays when everybody else would be at home. So the businesses got more money and customers. Some of the businesses were open on Sundays, because the slaves would volunteer to work so they could get more money for their families. All in all when the slaves or ex-slaves worked they really stressed togetherness.

The slaveholders turned the inclinations of the slaves to their own advantage, but at the same time they made far greater concessions to the value system and collective sensibility of the quarters then they intended. The slaveholders had their way but sometimes had to pay the price. Most slaves fell victim to the demands of their exploiters, but some had success in pressing their own advantage. The slaves had a willingness to work really hard and to resist the discipline of regularity accompanied by certain desires and expectations. During this time the blacks sought their own land, they worked it when they could and resisted being forced back into anything even resembling the gang system for white man, they had to be terrorized, swindled, and murdered to prevent working for themselves. Black people, in short, learned to take the blow and as best as they could. They did because the blacks and the slaves were kind of looked down upon like they were not as good as everyone else.

“The Quality of Slave Labor and Racism” by: Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman expresses the use of plantations. Plantations were a big thing in the South, especially the area called the “Black Belt.” The Black Belt was one of the worst areas for slaves to go to. Slaves did not want to go there because the masters were not nice and they treated the slaves like garbage. There were harsh conditions and not very nice masters. As it got closer to the civil war era the slave holdings and plantations grew bigger. In fact they got so big that on the evening of the civil war a slave holding in Virginia was moderately sized with fifty slaves, while others around it had as high as one-hundred and twenty five slaves per holding.

Among moderate sized holdings or plantations (sixteen to fifty slaves) less than one out of every six plantations used a white overseer. On larger slave holdings (50 or more slaves) one of every four owners used a white overseer. Even on estates with more than 100 slaves, the proportion was just thirty percent and the majority of these planters were usually in residence. The one big issue they always brought was that of slave management. The planters recognized this as a critical issue. It was a critical issue because if they could not control their slaves then there would be chaos and rebellions. Whatever the differences among the planters in the resolution of these particular issues, there was widespread agreement the ultimate objective of slave management was the creation of a highly disciplined, highly specialized and well-coordinated labor force.

No aspect of slave management was considered too trivial. Details of housing, diet, medical care, marriage, child rearing, holidays, incentives and punishments, alternate methods of organizing field labor, and even the manner or air to be assumed by a planter in his relationship with the slaves were deemed all worthy of debate. The discussions on that of the diet included: balance between meat, vegetables, grains, and dairy products, the virtues of fat versus that of lean meats, and the optimum method of food distribution and preparation. Planters debated whether the respective merits of single- and multi-family dwellings. They debated whether or not slaves could be married across plantations. With respect to field labor, the various hands formed into gangs or teams in which the independence of labor was a crucial element. During the planting period the interdependence rose largely from within each gang. The jobs the hands performed was disciplining the slaves and making sure they do their work. They formed in gangs because they thought they could gang up on somebody if they were in a group.

The three articles all talk about the slaves, their actions, how they acted, and the qualities of their labor. The authors whatever path they moved, usually returned to the theme of inferiority of slave labor. For Olmsted, Rhodes, and Phillips the inferiority was due to racial factors. For Elkins the cause was psychological. For Stamp the inferiority was due to “day to day resistance”. Paradoxically, it was the slaveholders who were at least inhibited in acknowledging blacks were better workers than whites, although they attributed this to superiority to themselves than to their bondsmen. Overall, they found it hard to acknowledge slaves could be diligent workers. They found this hard because they believed the slaves were not trustworthy and did bad work. They thought they did not like to work at all.

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