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Language and Politics: Slavery and the American Civil War: A Caution

Updated on December 11, 2015
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Slave For Rent

I want to do this very quickly. As you know, there is a school of thought that maintains that the American Civil War of the 1860s, was not really about slavery. As proof of this, those who take that position, will point to the bulk of the soldiers who served in the Southern Confederacy; and they will point out how they did not own slaves.

Since they, themselves, did not own slaves---so the reasoning goes---they could not have possibly been fighting to maintain the institution of slavery. Since they did not own slaves, the average soldier, obviously, had no interest in fighting to maintain an institution that did not concern them.

It follows, then, from this line of reasoning, that the average Confederate soldier had to be fighting for other motivations.

I want to share an amazing factoid I learned a couple of days ago. Though, when I think about it, it really should not have amazed me. Just understand that the small planter, who owned not a single slave, was, likely, just as practically invested in the labor system of slavery as the large-scale, virtual manorial baron, who owned, perhaps, hundreds of slaves.

The small planter, who did not own a single slave, could and did avail himself of slave labor, on a temporary basis --- in much the same way as the small American planter of today avails himself, on a temporary, transitory basis, of the dirt-cheap labor of undocumented migrant Mexican labor.

Now, the migrant Mexican workers are not regular employees of any of the farms on which they work. But you and I know that, virtually to a man and woman, the small American planter will declare that they could not even be in the farming business without access to that labor system: dirt-cheap, undocumented, migrant Mexican workers.

The simple fact of the matter was that slaves could be rented for the day, month, or by the year. There were different reasons why a planter might go this route. Some white farmers just could not afford slaves, at the moment; others only had a temporary need for the services of a slave and thus saw no need to actually buy one; and others felt that it was more economical, in the long run, to buy services rather than titles: that way, one evaded the responsibility that fell to the owner during a slave's illness or old age (1).

From the point of view of slaveholders, this process was called slave hiring and it was closely allied with the internal, domestic slave trade that was going on in the nineteenth century. Slave owners had reasons of their own for hiring out their slaves rather than simply selling them (2).

Some owners wanted to spread the income from the investment over a long period of time. Others, though actually slave owners, still wanted to evade any stigma there was for being known as a slave seller. Others wanted to keep the slaves for the prestige that came with ownership (as opposed to slave dealing) (3).

The operation was highly organized. There were hiring agents, who prepared the papers, collected the money, and performed other administrative services. At times the agents were also slave traders. In some cases, these agents simply did not have the resources to engage in the far more lucrative activity of slave trading (4).

Slaves were hired out for all kinds of work. They were hired by small planters who needed a few extra hands at harvest time. They worked in forests as woodcutters and "turpentine hands." They might be found in factories, mines, on railroad construction jobs, and in canal digging. There were also a good number in the towns serving as maids, porters, messengers, cooks, and so forth (5).

It seems to me that the burden of proof suddenly increases for the Civil War-was-not-about-slavery camp. It is not enough to say that the bulk of Confederate soldiers were innocent of the sin of enslavement of their fellow human beings simply because they did not actually own slaves.

A small planter, who did not own a single slave, can only be said to have been innocent of the sin of enslavement of his fellow human beings, if and only if he can be shown to have never once rented slave labor. Indeed, we can detect another possible reason why a planter might have elected to rent rather than buy: Perhaps one wanted to avoid a perceived future stigma of slaveholding.

Thank you so much for reading.



1. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History Of Negro Americans. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. 109

2. ibid

3. ibid

4. ibid

5. ibid


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      3 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thanks for your support, junko!

      You know, you have offered me something new. I never knew that taxes were a driving issue of the American Civil War. I thought the matter of taxes only applied to the American Revolution against England, from 1776-1783.

      You learn something new everyday. :)

      Thanks again, junko! Take care.

    • junko profile image


      3 years ago

      You have a good point and your reference to the simular and like comparison of undocumented cheap labor used today and legalized slavery before the civil war. I never heard someone claim that slavery wasn't the biggest reason for the civil war because, most whites didn't own slaves. I've heard it claimed that the biggest reason for the civil war was Taxes. The South didn't want to pay a fair share of taxes on King Cotton and Caribbean Sugar. Some things never changed since the Boston Teaparty, Capitalist Conservatives will fight to not pay taxes to this day. If taxes had anything to do with the South fighting a civil war, that to was about slavery producing cotton in the United States and slavery producing sugar in the Caribbean.


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