Variations, Exceptions, and
Any brief survey of the slave system is almost bound to convey a spurious impression of uniformity, at odds with the untidy historical reality. The balance may be restored a little by a reminder of some of the variants and the exceptions--the edges of slavery--where its dividing lines, so often very sharp and clear, become blurred and uncertain. There is a more positive reason, too, for devoting attention to these areas of the slave system. Much of the character of an institution may be revealed by its margins and its abnormalities. Exceptions may not prove rules but they can put them into clearer perspective. Inevitably, the key books which have transformed the history of slavery during the last generation have been comprehensive, panoramic, or synoptic in their approach. In attempting to treat the subject at large, Stampp, Elkins, Blassingame, Genovese, Fogel and Engerman, and several others, all tend to flatten out differences and variations (whether of time or space, or social context or individual personality) and to pay inadequate attention to slavery in its more unusual forms.
At the same time, there have been excellent studies of particular aspects of slavery. It may be helpful to examine briefly four examples from the exceptions to the rule, the edges of Southern slavery: slaves in the towns and cities, slaves in industry, slaves hired out to employers other than their owner, and the free blacks living in slave states. Each of these four groups represented only a very small minority of the total black population of the South in the antebellum