"There Slavery Cannot Dwell": Agriculture and Labor in Northern Maryland, 1790-1860

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2007-07-26

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There were many paths from slavery to free labor in the Americas and the Caribbean. In some cases, freedom came with a thunderclap amid civil war and revolution. Elsewhere, governments sounded slavery's knell through a prescribed process of immediate or delayed emancipation. The people of northern Maryland experienced a different kind of emancipation in the decades preceding the Civil War. Final freedom came when Maryland adopted a new constitution in 1864, but slavery along the Mason-Dixon Line had been collapsing under the combined weight of slave flight, manumission, and the interstate slave trade since the 1820s. This dissertation examines the dynamic, multifaceted relationships that developed among northern Maryland's labor regimes during the region's gradual transition from slavery to free labor.

Having expanded into the Maryland piedmont during the flush decades of the Napoleonic Wars, slavery experienced a sharp decline in the lean years that followed the Panic of 1819.  Faced with mounting slave resistance and stagnant demand for wheat, their primary staple, landowners struggled to forge a more efficient, economical workforce.  Many espoused the emerging free labor critique and began to divorce themselves from slavery by liberating their bondspeople or selling them southward.  Slavery did not, however, die a quick death.  Many owners freed their slaves through delayed manumission agreements, which guaranteed that the institution would linger for several decades.  During this extended emancipation, landowners and their free and enslaved workers fought pitched battles over the terms of emancipation and the contours of the emerging free labor regime.  

Unlike previous scholarship, which tends to examine the various segments of a given workforce in isolation, this dissertation considers the evolving workforce of northern Maryland as a single, unified whole.  It examines how landowners cobbled together workforces from a diverse laboring population of apprentices, indentured servants, slaves, and wage laborers.  The study also explores how--and why--the composition of the workforce changed over time, and how the region's myriad labor regimes jostled and merged.  In tracing the evolution of northern Maryland's kaleidoscopic workforce, the dissertation considers how wage laborers and slaves navigated the treacherous shoals of the rural economy and how workers' gender, race, and status shaped their experiences.

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