That “Twelve Years a Slave” won the Oscar for best picture is a stunning achievement in Hollywood cinematic history. Solomon Northup’s autobiography, upon which the movie was based, provides a powerful insider’s account and critique of one of the nation’s founding institutions, while the film rendition disrupts the long tradition of derisive and romantic portrayals of slavery in motion pictures.
Northup was a freeborn New Yorker who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana and then rescued to become free once again. He published his narrative in 1853, when slavery was still vital to the economy of the entire country, not just the South. Slave-produced cotton was as much the lifeblood to Wall Street and American finance capital as it was to the profits of slaveholders.
The plantation labor system that snatched up Northup was irretrievably damaged 150 years ago, thanks in great part to the actions of slaves who seized the opportunity of the arrival of Union troops in Confederate territory to flee. By early spring 1864, as the Civil War was entering its final year, the Union had imported its version of “free labor” throughout occupied areas to replace the brutal labor regime that Northup described in excruciating detail.
Judging by the profits reaped by this point “free labor” experiments were a rousing success. Several hundred thousand former slaves labored under this new system. But did the North, the combined forces of the federal government, philanthropy and private enterprise, actually install a just or better alternative?
Abolitionist rhetoric had long suggested that slavery was a crime because it deprived captives of their ability to supply their own needs. This assumed that slaves were “given” adequate food and supplies by their masters, were not compelled to take care of themselves and had no skills for doing so. This vision fueled the implementation of a free-labor system with the primary objectives to discourage dependency and to teach slaves to become self-sufficient, productive neophyte citizens.
The Union Army’s acceptance of fugitive slaves as “contraband of war” was premised on putting them to work on behalf of the labor-starved military. They were hired to cook, clean and wash for officers and soldiers; to enhance breastworks, cut down trees and dig trenches and ditches. As plantations were seized and run by government agents, erstwhile Confederates’ slaves were sent back to work as agricultural laborers.
This time they were supposed to be paid. Yet many fugitives never received a dime. Others were promised rations in exchange for their labor, of which they too were deprived. The earnings of all black workers, regardless of whether they were slave or free before the war, were diminished even further by a tax deducted and deposited into a contraband fund. The tax was established so that the families of military laborers would not become burdens on the government. Most of the money never reached its intended beneficiaries. In Tidewater Virginia the fund had accumulated $7,000 by January 1862, but ration distributions were actually reduced; the money went instead to the United States Treasury.
One reason was a cruel double standard on the part of Union officials. White Americans were not taxed to provide for the infirmed, the aged or any dependents of their race. That care — provided to Confederates and Unionists alike — was provided by the federal government, with no concern about fostering dependency.
In contrast, Union agencies were quick to note that former slaves needed less assistance than whites. The American Freedmen’s Commission, appointed by the secretary of war to investigate the condition of ex-slaves, said, “it is a mistake to suppose that assistance has been needed or obtained exclusively by persons of color.” In fact, it found evidence throughout Union occupied territories that poor whites were receiving more rations and other military resources than poor blacks. The report continued: “Nor, where relief has been required by both whites and blacks, have the latter usually applied for or received, in proportion to numbers, nearly as much as the former.” African-Americans typically received charity only in the most dire conditions (the youngest, oldest, and sickest) and then only temporarily. By the time the war ended virtually all freed people were self-supporting.
That lack of dependency was, of course, a good thing. But despite talk of desiring self-sufficient freed people, in most cases, Northerners did all they could to discourage self-governance and self-employment. Freed people were less inclined to work for others when they could work for themselves and refused to submit to exploitation as much as they could. But their pursuit of alternative economic activities outside of plantation and military labor was actively suppressed and disparaged as “sloth” and “indolence.”
Most Northerners did not know, in advance of occupation, that many ex-slaves were already experienced with exchanging their work for some form of compensation, including cash, a fact of slave life in Tidewater Virginia, the Mississippi Valley and the coastal regions of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Many slaves received incentive pay for extra work or odd jobs. Many controlled plots of land to grow their own produce and raise their own small farm animals, the products of which they used and traded as they saw fit.
All of this was on full display to the Union soldiers who frequently took advantage of the perishable and durable property that the slaves relied on for their self-care. The accumulation and distribution of these resources within their extended families, neighborhoods and communities made all the difference between malnutrition and adequate food, insufficient shelter and decent housing, modest garments and nudity. Many ex-slaves were accustomed to hiring their own time; while they were typically required to give the greater portion of their wages to their masters, they were allowed to keep a portion for themselves and their families.
None of this interested Northern agents, who instead went about establishing “peasant cultivators” to reinvigorate the plantation economy. Ex-slaves on the South Carolina Sea Islands were among the first to undergo the imposition of a free-labor regime designed to prove its superiority over slave labor and to recoup the profits left sprouting from the scorched earth by evacuating planters. Venture capitalists of an evangelical bent took charge of running abandoned plantations there, driven by faith in the laws of the market to govern staple crop production. They judged the value and worth of ex-slave laborers on how much they contributed and how well they obeyed the rules of that enterprise and little else.
They paid ex-slave workers below-subsistence wages based on the perverse logic that, as one philanthropic entrepreneur, William Gannett, reasoned, “Nothing will rouse and maintain their energy but suffering.” With little regard for recompensing vested tenants of the land, the proceeds were to be redistributed outward and upward to the federal treasury – and private lessees privileged to buy up the largest and best tracts. The unencumbered and incommensurate rewards reaped were hard to miss. Private lessees, like Gannett, made phenomenal profits, despite the protests of African-Americans and a handful of whites.
In short, the labor system imposed throughout Union-occupied areas was rigged by racially derogatory views of the cultivators. The antebellum antislavery rallying cry “free soil, free labor, free men,” did not take root in the South. The system that took root instead wasn’t slavery, but it erased many of the ways in which slaves had managed to carve out elements of self-sufficiency. The exigencies of the war and commercial agriculture governed the creation of wage slavery that was hardly a vast improvement over chattel slavery. As one elderly ex-slave man in Northup’s Louisiana described it: “Dis here is worser dan Jeff Davis.”