The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland

In The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland, T. Stephen Whitman argues that examining economic growth Baltimore alongside economic stagnation in Southern and Eastern Maryland, sheds important light on the experience of slavery and freedom in early Maryland (page 4). While it has long been argued that the relatively high number of manumissions that took place in Baltimore between 1770 and 1830 are evidence of a growing anti-slavery sentiment, Whitman argues that economic factors were more important than moral or political ones in convincing slave owners to reduce their dependence on slave labor. Between the Revolution and 1830, the profitability of tobacco declined. Tobacco is a labor intensive crop that had fueled the rise of plantation slavery in colonial Maryland and Virginia. In the early national period, many Maryland farmers switched to wheat, a crop that requires less labor and fewer workers, except during planting and harvest. As a result, term-slavery became more common. Rural slave owners sent enslaved people to Baltimore during down times in the agricultural cycle. There, some enslaved people found paid employment, and the possibility of purchasing freedom became more likely (page 13). Others were forced to perform unpaid industrial labor. But industrial slavery was more difficult to manage and less obviously profitable than agricultural slavery. Whitman argues these economic realities led to a trend of manumission. For example, while the Maryland Chemical Works is often cited as an example of how industrial slavery could be profitable for slave owners, there is also evidence to suggest it was never stable (page 33). If enslaved workers ran away, production was interrupted, damaging or destroying the factory’s products. This, in turn, led to a loss in profits and made it difficult to justify the expense of finding and returning escaped worker.s Ultimately, J.K Mckim and Sons, owners of the Chemical Works, decided that it was more economically sound to rely on a paid labor force.

Whitman argues that the rising number of manumissions which resulted from these changing economic conditions, also led to changes in remaining master-slave relationships. Slaves could threaten to run away or simply not return from their term of service in Baltimore. The presence of a large and growing free black population gave enslaved people the opportunity to disappear into the community (73). Opportunities for paid work made it possible for enslaved people to negotiate a price for their own freedom or the freedom of family members. Rather than risk losing enslaved workers, slave owners sometimes agreed to negotiate, and manumission was became a tool in negotiations as well as a tool of control. Sometimes, slave owners refused to allow enslaved people to purchase freedom, but they were willing to propose a gradual process of manumission that would delay the loss of workers. At the same time, the promise of eventual freedom for themselves or family members could be enough to prevented slaves from running away, enabling slave owners to protect their investment in human property.

Whitman’s book identifies several individuals whose stories we might highlight as part of the landscape of slavery and freedom. These stories demonstrate that enslaved people migrated by chance and by choice, creating pathways to freedom that might be worth mapping as part of our class project. For example, in 1798, Martha Hay hired out an enslaved cook named Perry to Captain Conner for a European voyage. On the return trip, Perry escaped to Martinique and was not recaptured (page 15). Others enslaved people migrated much more locally. Maria Cooper ran from her master in 1818 to hide with freed relatives in Baltimore (page 72).¬† Scipio Freeman was manumitted and lived in the Federal Hill neighborhood.

Adapted from  The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland by Stephanie Smith

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