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Jonathan D. Martin. Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South.

Jonathan D. Martin. Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004. 237 pp. $39.95.

In reading Jonathan Martin's Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South, I was reminded of Albert O. Hirschman's analysis of the "spirit" of capitalism before its triumph in his book of almost three decades ago, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. In it, Hirschman argues against the idea of capitalism as an external system that imposed itself "on preexisting systems of ideas and socio-economic relations." Rather, Hirschman contends that capitalism's "triumph" was the result of an endogenous process "whose final outcome is necessarily hidden from the proponents of the individual links, at least in the early stages of the process."

In similar fashion, Martin revisits the slave system of the American South, focusing on slave hiring as a set of intra-systemic practices that both sustains and undermines the institution of slavery. He does not fail to give the reader a descriptive, historical account of how the perpetuation and rise of hiring practices correlate to the expansion of slavery in the Western territories and to the growth of urban centers in the South such as Charleston, South Carolina. However, the strength of this book is his analysis of the social and economic relations in the South beyond the master-slave divide. Martin brilliantly shows that the system of slavery contained the elements for its own undoing through the triangular relationship between owners, hirers, and slaves and the divided mastery that hiring practices required.

Martin makes two main points regarding hiring practices. For one, slave hiring provided flexibility within the slave system that yielded benefits for all parties involved in the triangular relationship. For owners, slave hiring gave them another way to liquidate and adjust assets based on fluctuations in the markets or changes in their personal situation--such as the death of the head of household--in order to maintain or increase capital. Hirers benefited from these practices in that they were provided with an affordable labor force and, according to Martin, "a taste of mastery." Slaves benefited as well in that hiring allowed them to manipulate the two masters, pitting owners against hirers for a myriad of small perks and incentives; hence, they enjoyed some semblance of power over their well being and quality of life as it were.

Whatever benefits owners, hirers, and slaves enjoyed within the many ways in which these hiring transactions were made, these were undermined or complicated by the second principal point that Martin makes regarding these practices. Slave hiring destabilized the system of slavery by dividing mastery; it not only challenged the presumed racial solidarity of whites, but also the absolute mastery needed to keep the enslaved under complete subjection to a master.

To prove this point, Martin gives examples of legal decisions that helped shape the relationships between owners, hirers, and slaves. The case that has "the most faithful discourse on 'the logic of slavery'," according to Eugene Genovese, whom Martin cites, is State v. Mann (1829) in North Carolina. This case involved a hired female slave who was shot in the back while fleeing her hirer, John Mann, who attempted to punish her for a "small offense." The charge against Mann was "'battery on a slave by a stranger.'" In his decision to this case, Judge Thomas Ruffin held that "the power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect." Ruffin reasoned that hirers and owners should hold the same power, else the entire system of slavery would crumble.

As Martin points out, the "categorical equation" of owners and hirers was difficult to maintain in practice; the logic of State v. Mann was challenged time and again in subsequent cases in southern courts. Many believed, as Martin notes, citing the McKinney decision in James v. Carper (1857) in Tennessee, the right of punishment "should 'properly belong only to the owner.'" Further challenges to the logic of State v. Mann were issued by slaves themselves, who, according to Martin, were the subjects or initiators of the disputes between owners and hirers. Slaves were able to convince their owners of mistreatment by their temporary masters, hence cracking the presumed solidarity of whites.

Martin's discussion of State v. Mann and other cases appears in the latter half of the book. It is in this half of the book that Martin presents his most compelling and strongest examples, making clear whose interests are protected by the law: the owners. So, concerning disputes between hirers and owners, hirers usually got a raw deal, already typecast as not being trustworthy in that they did not hold the same level of interest for the owners' slave property. Moreover, the owners' interest in slaves, as Martin emphasizes throughout his book, was not based on human attachment to slaves, but, instead, was a translation of paternalism grounded in an understanding of their slaves as property.

All said, the point that Martin makes about the hirers' desire for a taste of mastery does not take into full account the social strata they occupied. Martin generally assumes throughout most of the book that hirers had aspirations to become part of the slaveholding class when, in fact, many were already slaveholders, as he states in chapter four. He cites examples that show, on average, less than 50 per cent of hirers were non-slaveholders. A particular example from the correspondence of Sarah Hughes shows out of a sample of 57 hirers, approximately a dozen were non-slaveholders. What these few examples show is that the majority of hirers were slaveholders. Of course, there is not enough data here to substantiate this conclusion. But given the evidence he presents in his book, Martin's claim that hirers desired a taste of mastery only applied to a minority. That some or even, perhaps, a majority of hirers were slaveholders exposes an unexamined element to Martin's analysis of the relationship between hirers and owners.

This point notwithstanding, Martin does present owners and slaves as differentiated in other ways, and devotes a great deal of his analysis to examining the effects of gender differences on hiring practices. Additionally, in his examination of hired slaves, Martin includes an entire chapter on self-hiring, providing a detailed look at how slaves' "quasi freedom" contributed to the increasingly strained social relationships between all classes and races of people in the South as a result of hiring practices.

Martin's book makes a valuable contribution to the scholarship on slavery in the American South. However, as Martin himself admits, there is, interestingly, both a plethora and a paucity of information regarding hiring practices. That is, while a number of scholars have written articles and chapters on slave hiring, there is no extensive, book-length analysis of these practices and their impact on the economy and social relations in the South. What is especially important about Martin's book is his incorporation of the perspectives of slaves on slave hiring. For this view, Martin had to suture fragments of information from a variety of disparate sources, from slave narratives to letters and diaries of slaves, owners, and hirers. In the end, Martin presents a formidable and worthy reexamination of slave hiring in the American South.

Patricia E. Clark

State University of New York at Oswego
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Author:Clark, Patricia E.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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