James Henry Hammond, knight errant on behalf of slavery, made the following statement about wages and slavery: “You think it is a great ‘crime’ that we do not pay our slaves ‘wages,’ and on this account pronounce us ‘robbers.’ In my former letter I showed that the labor of our slaves was not without great cost to us and that in fact they themselves receive more in return for it than your hirelings do for theirs. . . It is altogether praiseworthy to pay the laborer a shilling a day and let him starve on it. To supply all his wants abundantly, and at all times, yet withhold from his money, is among ‘the most reprobated crimes.” (Hammond, 27) It seems puzzling that Hammond would dare to make a claim like this when the cruel reality of slavery was known, not least from the first-hand accounts of runaway slaves themselves whose bodies and psyches bore the scars of slavery and its cruel mistreatment.
Among these slaves was Solomon Northrup, whose writing about his experiences a slave for twelve years became a compelling movie, and also revealed the moral and economic bankruptcy of slavery. Included in his account were several statements that demonstrated the falsity of Hammond’s comparisons between “beloved” slaves and supposedly oppressed hirelings, such as: “I was now compelled to labor very hard. From earliest dawn until late at night, I was not allowed to be a moment idle. Notwithstanding which, Tibeats was never satisfied. He was continually cursing and complaining. He never spoke to me a kind word. I was his faithful slave, and earned him large wages every day, and yet I went to my cabin nightly, loaded with abuse and stinging epithets.” (Northrup 7). Here we see a case where a skilled slave, who would have been paid well in the North, worked in rough conditions, was ruthlessly exploited, and did not even receive kindness and respect for his profitable labors. This is far from the status one would expect those to follow who truly wished to honor others and avoid being criminals in a moral sense.
As might be expected, Northrup’s discussion of the kindly and affectionate treatment of slaves on cotton plantations gives the lie to Hammond’s defense of slaveholders: “When a new hand, one unaccustomed to the business, is sent for the first time into the field, he is whipped up smartly, and made for that day to pick as fast as he can possibly. At night it is weighed, so that his capability in cotton picking is known. He must bring in the same weight each night following. If it falls short, it is considered evidence that he has been laggard, and a greater or less number of lashes is the penalty.” (Northrup 11) Here we see that slaves clearly were beaten as a way of encouraging productivity, as one might expect where people are considered to be mere chattel. Again, it is not merely the absence of wages that makes the treatment of slaves to be so criminal, but rather the fact that slavery provided a context where people were free to release all of their viciousness on human beings who were prohibited from self-defense.
In a matter of speaking, though, at least one small part (if not much) of Hammond’s claim is correct, though not in the way he wished it to be understood. From the claims of Northrup and others, it is clear that slaves received more in return for their labors than white free workers did. That is, they received more beatings, more whippings, more threat of death, more starvation, more abuse, more swearing, and more mistreatment, than the workers of the North. This is not to say that early factory experiences (or modern sweatshop conditions) were acceptable, only that as bad as it is, slavery was far worse. Slaves received no wages for their labor, had little hope of advancement, and even such modest and unofficial legitimacy as they were able to gain for themselves, their wives, and their children was subject to the whims of “owners” and highly insecure. Even the most degraded free laborer at least had the hope that a fresh start was available in a new territory. The poor slaves of the South were denied even this hope.