Gleanings of Freedom

In Gleanings of Freedom: Free & Slave Labor Along the Mason-Dixon Line, 1790-1860, Max Grivno explores how understanding “the lives of the men and women who worked the land along the Mason-Dixon Line open[s] a window onto the evolution of race, class, and labor regimes in the early national and antebellum United States (page 6).” Grivno examines “a narrow swath of territory near the Mason-Dixon Line;” specifically, “six Maryland counties that abutted the sectional border (Baltimore, Carroll, Cecil, Harford, Frederick, and Washington.) (page 9)”

Grivno’s basic argument is that “unfree and free labor balanced each other; slaves could be used to bring unwieldy free workers to heel, and hired help was needed to keep the relatively inflexible system of slavery running smoothly (page 7).” He aims to write a history that integrates the stories of free blacks, slaves, women, itinerant laborers, skilled workers, and landowners, cutting against historians’ tendency to separate histories of slavery from that of other forms of labor.  He writes, “the boundaries of labor regimes and the meanings of workers’ statuses are best viewed through a shifting lens that is capable of viewing individual groups of workers in detail, of expanding outward to view the workforce as a whole, and of widening to encompass the larger national and international forces that interacted with local processes to shape the landscape of slavery and free labor.” (296)

One of Grivno’s most convincing arguments is that the small wheat growing region (formerly tobacco) in northern Maryland is inextricably linked to the booms and busts of external markets.  Grivno’s argument advances in a chronological order, following changing labor patterns and the decay of slavery from the end of the American Revolutionary period to the antebellum period right before the Civil War.  With the closing of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Grivno argues that slavery was declining in Maryland because farmers could not manage to compete in the global wheat market as prices plummeted. As a result, landowners sought to rid themselves of fixed property, including slaves.  The economic panic of 1819 led to a further erosion of slavery in northern Maryland as landowners scrambled to sell slaves they no longer needed (since wheat required only was seasonal labor support) to the Deep South where burgeoning plantations of sugar and cotton were beginning to require greater numbers of slaves to ensure large profits. At the same time, as Maryland’s enslaved people were becoming increasingly vulnerable to being sold South as part of an interstate slave trade, many migrated north in an escape to freedom.

As some slaves escaped North and others slaves were sold South, northern Maryland wheat farmers experimented with new labor arrangements.  As demand for year-round agricultural labor decreased, it made more economic sense to retain only a small number of laborers year round and to hire more when needed during harvest season.  Thus the labor force in the border counties on which Grivno is focused became an amalgamation that included slaves, free blacks, and indentured servants—“northern Maryland was a region where ‘slavery was just one form of labor among many’ and where ‘slavery was just one form of labor among many’ and where ‘no one presumed the master-slave relationship to be the social exemplar.’” (11)

Grivno’s work presents an important example of how to make the history of slavery relevant and central to the American story. Gleanings of Freedom is an inclusive history that connects the stories of slaves, freedmen and women, poor white laborers, and the landowners. These connections enable us to begin to address larger, thorny, and persistent questions about race and identity in American culture —“If you don’t tell it like it was . . . it can never be as it ought to be.” (Blight in Horton, 33)

Adapted from Northern Maryland: “Where slavery & free labor jostled, mingled, & merged” by Heidi Carbaugh

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>