During the early nineteenth century, some southern states passed laws to prevent slave mistreatment, and their material conditions did improve. Many slaves supplemented the food owners provided by raising crops and livestock, gathering, and hunting. They had better diets than slaves in the West Indies and Brazil. Paternalism contributed to slaves’ material improvements over time. And the increasing price of slaves encouraged planters to care for their slaves’ basic well-being. Yet, slavery was tightened in this period, and states passed laws making it harder for owners to free their slaves and for slaves to buy their own freedom.
Slavery helped define the status of free blacks. By the Civil War, half a million free blacks lived in the United States, the majority in the South. While whites defined their freedom by their distance from slavery, free blacks were not radically different than enslaved blacks. In most of the North, free blacks could not vote and had few economic opportunities...
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...ut and sometimes even keep their earnings. Many urban slaves even lived by themselves. By the 1850s, most slaveowners began to remove urban slaves to the country, fearing their independence was eroding the relationship between master and slave.
Slavery was based on force. Slaveowners used a variety of methods to maintain order and discipline and persuade slaves to work productively. Masters could inflict almost any kind of punishment, and it was the rare slave who was not whipped at some point in his or her life. Even minor infractions invited whipping. Owners used subtler methods, too. They exploited divisions among the slaves, especially between field hands and house servants. They created incentives for hard work, such as time off or even cash payments. The threat of sale was the most powerful weapon owners had, since sale disrupted families and slave communities.
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