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The Market Revolution in the South, Changes in Slavery
plantation slavery, slave families, economic dependence, community ties, whippings
During the cotton boom, slaveholders attempted to organize plantation slavery as a paternalistic system in which the planter exercised a fatherly authority in every area of slaves’ lives. Some evidence suggests that discipline of slaves became more strict and systematic in the second quarter of the 19th century, and that whippings and other forms of physical punishment persisted. The brisk interstate slave trade often destroyed family and community ties among slaves. At the same time, however, the food eaten by slaves improved, and more slave families lived in individual cabins than had in the past. After 1830, masters who had participated in Baptist and Methodist revivals (and who had been frightened by a bloody Virginia slave revolt led by Baptist preacher Nat Turner) provided religious instruction to their slaves. The goal of these changes, proudly stated by the planters, was to create not only economic dependence but also emotional dependence of the slaves upon their masters.
For their part, slaves learned to put the masters’ paternalistic efforts to their own uses. They accepted the food and housing, listened to the preachers, endured the labor discipline, and then made their own lives within slavery. Slave family forms, for instance, were a mix of the European nuclear model and African matriarchy and village kinship, shaped by the limits imposed by slavery. And while they became Christians, slaves transformed Christianity into a distinctly African American faith that served their own spiritual interests. In particular, Moses the liberator (not the slaveholders’ patriarchal Abraham) was the central figure in slave Christianity.
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