Sales of Slaves
Slaves were freely bought and sold across the antebellum South. Southern law offered greater protection to slave buyers than to buyers of other goods, in part because slaves were complex commodities with characteristics not easily ascertained by inspection. Slave sellers were responsible for their representations, required to disclose known defects, and often liable for unknown defects, as well as bound by explicit contractual language.
Hiring Out Slaves
Slaves faced the possibility of being hired out by their masters as well as being sold. Hired slaves frequently worked in manufacturing, construction, mining, and domestic service, often labored side by side with free persons. Bond and free workers both faced a legal burden to behave responsibly on the job. Yet the law of the workplace differed significantly for the two. Employers were far more responsible in cases of injuries to slaves. However, nineteenth-century free laborers received at least partial compensation for the risks of jobs. Whereas free persons had direct work and contractual relations with their bosses, slaves worked under terms designed by others. Free workers arguably could have walked out or insisted on different conditions or wages. Slaves could not. The law therefore offered substitute protections. Still, the powerful interests of slave owners also may mean that they simply were more successful at shaping the law.
MARKETS AND PRICES
Market prices for slaves reflect their substantial economic value. Prime field hands went for four to six hundred dollars in the U.S. in 1800, thirteen to fifteen hundred dollars in 1850, and up to three thousand dollars just before Fort Sumter fell. Even controlling for inflatio...
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...ves could raise and sell, confining them to corn or brown cotton, for example. In Louisiana, slaves even had under their control a sum of money called a peculium. This served as a sort of working capital, enabling slaves to establish thriving businesses that often benefited their masters as well. Yet these practices may have helped lead to the downfall of slavery, for they gave slaves a taste of freedom that left them longing for more.
Slavery never generated superprofits, because people always had the option of putting their money elsewhere. Nevertheless, investment in slaves offered a rate of return -- about 10 percent -- that was comparable to returns on other assets. Slave-owners were not the only ones to reap rewards, however. So too did cotton consumers who enjoyed low prices and Northern entrepreneurs who helped finance plantation operations.
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