The Peculiar Institution Essay
The book The Peculiar Institution takes an in-depth look at slavery in America from the beginning. The author tells the story after doing a lot of research of how the entire south operated with slavery and in the individual states. The author uses a lot of examples from actual plantations and uses a lot of statistics to tell the story of the south. The author’s thesis statement throughout this book is stated in the title of the book that tells that slavery is a peculiar institution, which also means that it is a very interesting form of service.
There are many strange events that not only led up to slavery but that also happened while it occured. Slavery is a very strange and complex thing when you look at it as a whole. Over the past few yeas, the subject of slavery in the South has really appealed to me. This started when I traveled to Ghana, Africa along with Togo and Benin. While there, I got to tour some of the largest slave trade forts in the Dahomey kingdom.
The entire time I was there I continued to ask myself how something like this could have existed for so long of a time in our history. I believe that the author is trying to point out the very strange and interesting point about slavery. Although I knew that there were smaller plantations, I didn’t know that the large plantations weren’t very common. The author tells that the smaller plantations were most common with many farmers owning about three slaves and working the land themselves.
One aspect I never even thought of was that the mega plantations were often divided into several smaller ones because of the travel time it took slaves to walk from their quarters to the fields to be planted. This would severely cut down on production and makes sense why smaller plantations were more common. It is also very interesting that so many slave owners allowed their “bondsmen” as they were called to live on their own and hire their own time just so long as they pay their master a certain amount of money a week, such s $3, and anything more than that they can keep and use as their own. Although this act was illegal, it seems interesting to me that this practice didn’t happen more often. The slave owner had to do nothing but sit back and collect money. I also found it interesting that there were some opportunistic white Americans who although didn’t own any land, owned slaved and made a great deal of money renting them out. The author describes the use of slaves in the skilled trades professions that was interesting.
The book tells that a slave acted as “the third hand” for many skilled artisans and that nearly all of them in the south owned at least one. This seems very different of a life then I previously envisioned slaves living. Something that seems hard to control back in the day was knowing if a freed slave was actually a runaway or in fact he did obtain his freedom the right way. Back then there was no computer system to look them up or clear identification card that would tell of a slave’s status.
With slaves being freed in ways such as through a will, purchasing their freedom, or just that their owner released them, there was many slaves that indeed obtained their freedom. It would be interesting to know just exactly how many slaves had been returned to bondage after their release. Slavery was a huge psychological battle between the slaves and their owners. This book does a very good job of showing that. If a driver pushed his slaves harder and required more work out of them, they were more likely to revolt back or do things that hindered their work.
They would hide rocks in their cotton basket to make it appear like their daily load was greater then it was. The idea of slavery has the centralized theme of greed and as to how greedy the master is determined how hard he wished to work them. Some farmers even went as far as cultivating rice so that the slaves could be worked year round. One aspect of slavery that I didn’t think about was when a woman becomes pregnant. The woman is not only no longer able to work as hard as she once did but also requires an additional ration of food.
It makes sense why when women because child bearing age that they were considered “useless tools” and why so many of them faked a pregnancy to get out of work. Faking sickness was also a common practice among slaves who were worked too hard. There was also the psych battle between the farm owners and the overseers of the slaves. I can understand why the ones managing the slaves progress where only ever at a single farm for a year or two before parting ways. Not only is it a physically demanding job but it isn’t a very rewarding one.
Those who got paid based on production couldn’t stay at one place for a very long time because more than likely they drove the slaves too hard and risked their health. The book talks of owners who purposefully pushed their slaves to exhaustion for a time period of 7 years only to get rid of them and get others to do the same. I know that they would beat them for disobeying but I don’t know why they wouldn’t want to protect their assets as much as possible, although the reward for doing so must have been great. I greatly enjoyed reading this book and did so relatively quickly.
This not only was a interesting subject manor but the author used a lot of statistics which I appreciated and it was told in a way that made you wanted to read on. I liked how he compared many of the regions in the South as well as individual states. Slavery in South Carolina was a very different practice than that in Texas. I enjoyed learning of the differences between everything. This only made for the realization that chattel slavery is indeed a peculiar institution in the sense that it struggled to make sense. After you get past the greed there is not much left to explain it.