Antebellum Slavery/Control

Control Section Objectives
Section Objectives

Qiao Chen
Amanda Sell
Alexis Soffian
Jessica Valdes


How is it possible that slavery lasted for so long when it is quite obvious that it was not a happy institution? The only probable answer to this question is that the masters maintained complete control over their slaves such that the slaves could only submit. Not all masters were alike; some used minimal force to force slaves to submit, while others used very ineffective methods. Not only that, but the slaves were also not alike, some rebelling against the masters, and others yielding. Some masters understood that not all slaves were alike and that different slaves had to be dealt with in different ways. Thus, it was from this understanding of the slaves that the different methods of control developed (Stampp 143).

The first step in maintaining control was to have a strict discipline over the slaves. "Unconditional submission is the only footing upon which slavery should be placed." said one Virginian slaveholder. No slave had the right to oppose the words of his master.

The second step was to lead the slaves to believe themselves inferior to their masters. They needed to feel that slavery was their natural status; that their color defined them as slaves. They were forced to submit to even the lowliest white man.

The third step of controlling slaves is through the use of fear. This method was very effective in demanding submission from the slaves. James Hammond believed the reason for this method was the result of abolitionists. These abolitionists "forced" masters to rely more on fear to make sure the slaves would not revolt (Stampp 146).

The fourth step was to convince the slaves that what they did for their masters, they did for themselves as well. If a slave believed his work was in his own interest, he was more likely to do his work better and faster.

The fifth and final step was to make the slaves completely dependent upon their masters. It was thought to be very dangerous to allow a slave to become a skilled craftsman in town because it promoted independence. Many slaves, it was believed, would not want to return to submitting to their master. Those slaves kept on the land would formulate the idea that they could not survive without their master.

Thus were the methods formed in controlling the slaves: maintain strict discipline, require complete submission, instill total fear and dependence, and convince them of their inferiority.

The slaveowners also had sets of rules which they expected their overseers and slaves to follow:

1.  Any overseer must receive the consent of his employer if he is to leave the estate. His priorities were to watch over the slaves, search their cabins, and to guard important buildings.

2.   No slave was to be outside after the horn was blown.

3. The slaves could not leave the grounds without first getting a pass stating their destination and their return time. Some masters gave out these passes generously while others were not as lenient.

4. The slaves were not allowed to work with nonslaves (which included free blacks).

5. Slaves were only allowed to marry other slaves, which did include slaves from other estates. For the most part, though, the slaves were required to marry slaves from the same estate as themselves.

6. Slaves were not allowed to sell anything without a permit. Nor were they allowed to keep whiskey, fight, or use foul language (Stampp 149-151).

These rules were to be enforced strictly and consistently if the slaves were to be kept from obtaining the upperhand. If the master and overseer were to differ at all in their enforcement methods, the slaves would take advantage of this break in order to make their lives easier. In some cases, the overseers won the affections of the slaves, but in the cases when they did not, the slaves took any chance they could get to work the master and overseer against each other.


"...[T]he surest and best method of managing negroes, is to love them," said one Georgia man. This was the view several masters took in the treatment of their slaves. If the slaves were treated better, they would generally be happier. Along with kindness, masters maintained control over their slaves with rewards in some form or another (Stampp 1663-164).

One of the most common forms which rewards took was allowing slaves to have small plots of land to grow their own crops. In some cases the masters allowed this so that the slaves grew their own essentials, but the slaves did not object to this. By growing their own food, they could add it to the little food they got from the master or they could sell their food for extravagances. Slaves were occasionally also allowed to raise livestock which they would sell with the harvests from their gardens. Some masters would allow the slaves to sell their goods in town, whereas other masters bought the goods directly from the slaves.

Most slaveholders believed that allowing slaves to raise livestock and grow crops was an incentive to keep the slaves from running away. A slave in the midst of raising chicken or growing vegetables was unlikely to attempt an escape: the risk simply was not worth it. Not everyone took this view, though. Other slaveholders believed that allowing slaves to be partially independent was too great a risk to take and chose to give the slaves rewards instead.

In return for working more than what was normally expected of a slave, some slaveowners gave the slaves rewards. Those slaves that worked overtime were compensated for their work with a few extra dollars. Yet another method was to raise competition among the slaves; by offering a "prize" to the one who worked the hardest and fastest, it prompted all the slaves to work their hardest and fastest. Still another method was to give the slaves money for their work. For example, one farmer may give his slaves a dollar for each bushel of the main crop they produced. Another form of this method was to take part of the crops the slaves produced and allow the slaves to keep the rest to be split amongst themselves. These methods, however, were quite uncommon.

Most slaveholders allowed their slaves to rest on Sundays and some even gave the slaves Saturday but only in return for obedience during the week. During these periods when the slave was relieved from work they were allowed to visit friends and/or relatives and were allowed to go into nearby towns. Even though it was rare, a few slaveholders allowed the slaves to have dances on Saturday night.

The majority of the slaveowners allowed their slaves to celebrate when Christmas came around. Some gave the slaves a couple days off while other masters allowed the slaves to relax for a week, making sure that the slaves were content. The masters even went so far as to allow the slaves to have a little alcohol on Christmas. Although a minority feared the practice of allowing the slaves to have such freedom, most slaves and masters agreed that it was a necessity in controlling the slaves (Stampp 169).


Whip used to punish slaves

Slave caught without a pass
Slave without
a pass.