Building for Slave Welfare
During much of the nineteenth century, planters generally considered it economically prudent, if not an ethical obligation, to attend carefully to their slaves' physical well-being. In the 1840s, the average price of a top field hand hovered near $1,000, and by 1860 the figure was approaching $2,000 in some markets. 1 One contributor to the American Farmer cautioned as early as 1820: "The blacks constitute either absolutely, or instrumentally, the wealth of our southern states. If a planter, as it often happens, is deprived by sickness of the labour of one third, or one half, of his negroes, it becomes a loss of no small magnitude."2 That such warnings were appar ently heeded, at least on the larger estates, was demonstrated in part by the construction of two kinds of specialized buildings, dining halls and hospitals. These structures were intended chiefly to ensure that slaves were fed efficiently and provided with adequate health care. Eugene Genovese has noted that between 1831 and 1861 the treatment of slaves grew progressively better as planters attempted to improve the physical conditions of the daily plantation routine in hopes that slaves might become more inclined to accept their fates. 3 The new buildings constructed in the interests of slave welfare were intended, then, as a kind of propaganda aimed at convincing the slaves that they would not find better conditions elsewhere. Even freedman status, this argument claimed, would not match the plantation owners' promises of material benefits. Such contrived gestures were, however, decidedly ineffective instruments of propaganda. Even where the material circumstances of servitude were improved, slaves continued to break their tools, abuse livestock, work to their own pace, threaten to run away, and otherwise refine their tactics for resisting the demands placed upon them.