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Date: June 2000
From: Civil War History(Vol. 46, Issue 2)
Publisher: Kent State University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,836 words

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IN MARCH 1858 the grand jury for Duval County, Florida, indicted Samuel N. Williams of Jacksonville for allowing his slaves to hire their own time, a violation of an 1856 state law. The jurors ended their spring term with a presentment promising more indictments if the evil of slave self-hire did not cease. The next month, the circuit court having made its way farther south, the Putnam County grand jury indicted William D. Moseley of Palatka for breaking the 1856 law. These cases surely caused a stir. Williams came from the ranks of prosperous urban masters with his four slaves. Moseley had been the first governor of the state of Florida and in 1858, with more than one hundred slaves, was the greatest slaveowner in northeast Florida. In the towns along the St. Johns River, a campaign had begun that put masters on trial.(1)

Self-hire by slaves was an illegal but common practice in antebellum Southern cities, whereby slaveowners permitted bondsmen and women to find their own employment, remitting weekly or monthly sums to their masters. Many Southerners condemned the practice for the troubling latitude that it allowed slaves in the management of their own movements and money. However, as Richard C. Wade shows in Slavery in the Cities, self-hire had custom and usage on its side. This form of slave labor provided for the flexible allocation of workers required by an urban economy without a resort to free labor. It was both convenient and profitable to urban masters.(2)

States prohibited self-hire by slaves early on, but the statutes accomplished little. The major cities in several states secured exemptions from the self-hire laws. In cities not exempt, the laws gathered dust. The needs of the cities and the prerogatives of masters reigned as the dominant considerations, and public opinion never sufficiently coalesced to enforce the self-hire codes.(3) Laws were "poorly enforced"; prosecutions were "curiosities."(4) The dead-letter statutes perfectly suited the paternalistic slave regime. As Eugene D. Genovese explains, laws forbade masters from permitting their slaves various liberties but "local authorities, generally subservient to the slaveowners, usually looked the other way." Legislation to curb permissiveness existed at the forbearance of the slaveowners, to be applied only in disquieting moments of slave unrest. The slave regime deferred to "the master's prerogatives and depended on his discretion."(5)

The sectional crisis of the 1850s heightened public opposition to customs that left slaves unsupervised, and led to new laws that infringed on planter discretion. State legislators sought to rationalize and secure the slave regime by interposing the law more than ever before into the master-slave relationship, especially in restricting permissive practices such as self-hire by slaves.(6) The fate of this challenge to the traditional rights of masters must be discovered at the local level, where public opinion, community action, and the circuit courts effectively decided the issue. No one, however, has looked closely at the effort to suppress self-hire in any community in the late antebellum period. The indictments in Jacksonville and Palatka provide the opportunity for such a case study. In northeast Florida's towns, how decisive of a challenge did the opponents of self-hire mount to the prerogatives of masters?

The river cities of northeast Florida grew and prospered when the Second Seminole War concluded in 1842, opening the upper St. Johns-Oklawaha region to rapid settlement. Jacksonville and Palatka were small towns compared to Savannah or Charleston but were significant urban centers of the Old South in their own fight. The population of Jacksonville, the site of the best river port on the St. Johns, rose from 450 in 1842 to more than 2,100 in 1860. In these years Palatka, located at the farthest point upriver that ocean-going vessels could travel, changed from an abandoned military supply depot to a municipality with more than six hundred inhabitants. On the coast, however, St. Augustine, long northeast Florida's only city of importance, went into a decline. The vessels of the nineteenth century could not enter its harbor, and Picolata, fifty miles inland on the St. Johns River, became St. Augustine's port of entry, with goods and passengers transported overland back to the "Ancient City." St. Augustine's population stagnated at under two thousand and its residents often shifted their ambitions, capital, and slaves to Jacksonville and Palatka.

The lumber trade generated the urban growth in northeast Florida. Some cotton and sugar plantations existed on the St. Johns and sent their crops down the river to market; some plantations on the eastern edge of the middle Florida plantation belt transported their cotton by wagon to the river system. But the forests of northeast Florida and the demand for lumber in the North and the Caribbean shaped the region's economy. In the 1850s the rafts, barges, and small steamboats plying the St. Johns and its Oklawaha tributary primarily carried timber on their downriver journeys, heading for the steam-powered sawmills of Palatka and Jacksonville. Sawmill smokestacks dominated the cities skylines. "We doubt if there is a more thriving or flourishing small town in the whole South than this," bragged the Jacksonville Florida Republican in 1853, crediting the lumber trade. The Jacksonville Florida News carried the same boast: "We must not omit to say something of Steam-Mills; for they, after all, are the main source of our advancement and prosperity. The St. Johns is now the largest lumber market in the Southern States."(7)

In the forests, rivers, and mills of northeast Florida, slave labor predominated. Jacksonville's population in 1860 was 42 percent slave and Palatka's 52 percent, very high percentages among the cities of the Old South. Bondsmen worked as loggers, turpentiners, pilots, stevedores, carpenters, masons, and mill hands. Here as in other urban-industrial settings of the Old South, the slave laborer was usually hired. Lumbermen hired gangs of slaves and headed into the forests. The demand for slave labor drove up the cost of hire. In 1852 the newspapers reported that the wages for able-bodied slaves had nearly doubled in recent years, owing to the requirements of the numerous lumber mills on the St. Johns, which employed up to twenty-five slaves.(8) Dangerous steamboat work drove slave wages upward by offering the highest pay of all.

Estates were an important source of hired slaves in northeast Florida as elsewhere in the Old South. Joseph Finegan of Jacksonville, executor of the estate of his wife's first husband, sent slaves to work on the steamboat Welaka but took them off in 1852. By not taking the high wages paid on the dangerous steamboats and employing the slaves in his own new sawmill instead, he came under criticism for his handling of the estate, only to feel vindicated when the steamboat Magnolia exploded in 1852 killing great numbers of hired slave hands.(9) Many of the slaves of the Henry R. Sadler estate went to work in 1856 at the Woodstock Mills, in another County. Double payment of taxes was the result. The executor recorded the slaves and paid taxes on them in Duval County and the sawmill owner did the same in Nassau. The latter subsequently petitioned the state comptroller to allow his 1856 payments to count for 1857.(10)

The returns from having slaves for hire attracted masters well before their affairs were in the hands of executors. Professionals and merchants in northeast Florida invested their income in bondsmen to rent. St. Augustine lawyer Orloff M. Dorman wrote home from Chicago in 1859 about his slave Charles, "I wish you would send him to some one either at Palatka or Jacksonville + hire him out. He is a very first class mill hand having been in a mill several years."(11) One could even become a slave rentier, as did ex-governor Moseley. Moseley sold his plantations in middle Florida in 1851 but kept his slave force and moved to the boom town of Palatka. He did not buy a plantation on the St. Johns. His new pursuit was bondsmen for hire, supplying the lucrative rental market for slaves.(12) His huge force represented 40 percent of all the slaves in the town, 10 percent of all in the county. The urban-industrial setting provided ample opportunity for the employment of Moseley's workers. Ira H. Van Ness, for example, hired Moseley slaves in 1855 to cut live oaks, and James Burt hired a labor force from Moseley in 1858 to help lay out the town of Rolleston, just upriver from Palatka.(13)

Masters who hired out their slaves in northeast Florida commonly went a step further and allowed some slaves to hire their own time, creating a flexible workforce for the towns and relieving themselves of the demands of slave management. Before the economic boom of the 1840s, St. Augustine masters rented slaves to the military at Fort Marion and, between army contracts, allowed bondsmen to hire their own time.(14) In the 1840s and 1850s self-hire by slaves expanded along with the region's economy. Self-hire was "the almost universal usage among Slave owners" noted a grand jury in 1845; it was "the common practice of owners, agents, and others" noted another in 1852.(15)

Slaves who hired their own time did not always act the way their owners had in mind. The wharves welcomed self-hire slaves, who sometimes seized opportunities to stow away on northern-bound vessels and escape. A Jacksonville slave who belonged to merchant Thomas O. Holmes hired himself and worked as a stevedore before stowing away on the Boston schooner Matilda in 1855. The state official stationed at the bar of the St. Johns who searched and fumigated vessels with sulfur to uncover stowaways wrote to the governor of this distressing escape. The fault, he said, lay with the crew who abetted the crime and the master who allowed self-hire. "It appears that this negro hired his own time and was suffered to go and com[e] at his leasure" and was able "with the assent of the mate and crew [to] fix a place below that would avade my most diligent serch and whare the fumigation would not reach him."(16) At the Jacksonville sawmill of Fairbanks and Company, several slaves including Jacob, a self-hire, ran off in 1860. All soon returned to the mill except Jacob, who eventually sent word from St. Augustine that he wanted to hire back and would arrive by the next boat. "So I trust this will last a while," the mill owner wrote to his brother.(17) Self-hire by this slave may have caused legal problems for his master two years earlier. In November 1858 the grand jury indicted William D. Moseley (for the second time) on the charge of permitting self-hire. One of the slaves in question was named Jacob.

Beginning with the basic slave code enacted by the territorial legislature in 1828, the laws in antebellum Florida rarely restricted masters in the latitude they might allow their slaves. Neither in 1828 nor subsequently did Florida law forbid masters from teaching their slaves to read and write, even after David Walker's Appeal triggered such prohibitions elsewhere in the Old South. The 1828 code banned free blacks from possessing firearms, but did not prohibit masters from letting their slaves have guns. The possession of firearms by slaves loomed as a serious oversight in the wake of the Nat Turner Rebellion, and the 1833 Patrol Act forbade it and gave patrols the right to search for guns in slave quarters. However, punishment for slaves' possession of firearms was confined to the slaves only: the law did not hold accountable masters who were party to such a transgression. When Florida law did tell masters what they could not allow their slaves to do, urban masters received exemptions. Section 18 of the 1828 act prevented masters from giving slaves permission to trade goods on their own account ("trade as free" in legal shorthand), but the law did not apply to St. Augustine and Pensacola, Florida's only two towns of importance in 1828.(18)

Section 19 of the 1828 act addressed self-hire by slaves in terms accommodating to masters. The law levied a fifty-dollar fine on persons who allowed slaves to hire their own time, but contained significant loopholes. Not wanting to impinge on slaveowners' prerogatives, the law did not apply to masters who permitted their own slaves to self-hire, but only to trustees, guardians, executors, and administrators who did so with slaves in their care. Section 19 may have been enacted not so much to curb self-hire per se but solely to make these parties shoulder their responsibilities and through careful slave management get the highest returns for the widows and orphans they served. Moreover, the law again exempted St. Augustine and Pensacola. Finally, enforcement of the self-hire law was not entrusted to the solicitors for the circuit courts but left to private persons who were authorized to sue violators, keeping half the fine for themselves.(19)

In the 1840s and 1850s momentum built to restrain masters in the freedoms they allowed their slaves. The corals of northeast Florida tried to do something about slave possession of firearms. That the patrol law did not punish masters who let their slaves have guns apparently came as a surprise to some law enforcement officials. In November 1851 the circuit court in St. Johns County attempted to charge the planter Joseph M. Hernandez with permitting his slaves to use firearms, only to have to enter the case as not a true bill because no law held masters accountable for this. Two years later the Orange County circuit court indicted the planter, Thomas Starke, because his slaves had guns; however, on a motion by the defendant's attorney, no doubt citing the lack of an applicable law, the court quashed the indictment.(20)

The issue of slaves bearing arms to hunt in the countryside never sufficiently aroused the public to crack down on planters; instead, the opposition to permissive planters focused primarily on the widespread and troubling practice of self-hire in the cities. General presentments made by northeast Florida grand juries at the close of their terms increasingly sounded the alarm about self-hire. In June 1844 the grand jury in St. Johns County condemned this practice by slaves on the grounds it "is of necessity followed by a relaxation of discipline and in them a forgetfulness of duty." The practice furnished slaves with money and afforded them "the means of debauchery," leading to "the ultimate ruin of the slave, if not to more disastrous consequences to the Community." The grand jury not only bemoaned the consequences of self-hire by slaves, but also addressed the pivotal question of whether the slave regime would continue to uphold the principle of autonomy for masters in the management of their human property. The grand jury appreciated the importance of this central issue:

   It is ... contended by not a few that in as much as negroes here are mostly
   property there exists as a general role no right to Legislate for their
   government, that it should be left to the undisturbed discretion of the
   owner. At the same time that we freely admit the property condition of the
   Slave we by no means yield a full assent to the correctness of the
   proposition that the owner is entitled to the exercise of an entire
   independence in regard to the management of this property, because the
   public weal greatly depends upon the propriety of manner in which it is
   governed, and it is therefore the undoubted privilege of the public to
   supervise and even dictate in the matter, so far as the same may be
   necessary to the general safety.(21)

Self-hire became an especially intense issue when linked to the presence of northern vessels with presumably abolitionist crews and the "abduction" (escape) of bondsmen. After a slave, probably allowed to self-hire, escaped as a stowaway in May 1852, Duval County witnessed a great public rally against the joint evils of self-hire and abduction. Gathered at the courthouse and chaired by Henry D. Holland, a prominent physician, the crowd heard "remarks of an eloquent, stirring and pointed nature" from several notable citizens, including John P. Sanderson, the solicitor for the Eastern Circuit. The meeting adopted a resolution, proposed by Reverend Isaac Swart of the Episcopal Church, that "the practice of allowing negroes to hire their own time is prejudicial to the welfare of this community, as well as detrimental to the best interest of the slave." A resolution against abductors followed, and with the crowd's assent the chair appointed a committee of five to inquire into the laws and report back on what legal changes would be necessary to suppress the objectionable practices.

The adjourned meeting reconvened four days later on a Saturday evening to receive the committee's report. Sanderson, the chair of committee, told the crowd that the laws against enticing or abetting runaways were sufficient but hard to enforce because crew members, steeped in "reckless fanaticism" on the subject of slavery, would not give evidence against perpetrators. To obviate this difficulty, the committee recommended that the state legislature make the finding of a stowaway presumptive proof of the guilt of an entire crew.

Turning to the question of self-hire, the committee prefaced its recommendations with a lengthy condemnation of the practice. Given the command of their own time, slaves could easily arrange a stowaway escape. But the likelihood of escape did not arouse as much feeling as the distasteful subject of the supposed effect of self-hire on slave personality. "Allowed to go at large, free from the proper and immediate care and restraint of master or overseer, the slave, indulged in a larger freedom than he has been accustomed to enjoy, is peculiarly liable to form bad associations and contract idle and vicious habits. Such has been and ever will be, in nine cases out of ten, the result of such indulgence." Such slaves, having become "idle and dissolute," turn to crime when the time arrives to pay their wages to their indulgent masters. Needless to say, the committee found the laws on self-hire very inadequate. They could not understand why section 19 of the 1828 law applied to trustees, guardians, executors, and administrators but not owners. The committee proposed that the city of Jacksonville immediately enact its own ordinance against self-hire, and that its citizens petition the General Assembly to amend section 19.

Sanderson's committee firmly stated that masters' prerogatives could no longer remain the paramount concern. "The time has been," said the committee, "when the master might and could indulge his slave in the exercise and enjoyment of greater liberty without danger to himself, or fear of his slave being corrupted, deceived, and mislead by the influence of those fanatics who too frequently come amongst us." Northern interference with slavery, the committee argued, now made controls necessary on the traditional options of slaveowners. Because of the aggression of fanatics: "not only the master, but the State, is forced to a much greater strictness in guarding this species of property, by the adoption of more stringent laws, and curtailing many of the privileges the slave has heretofore, with safety, been allowed."(22)

The Duval County circuit court held session soon after these public meetings, and in a general presentment added its voice to the call for curbs on masters. "We present most earnestly, as a great grievance" the common practice of owners permitting slaves to hire their own time, "especially in this county." The presentment requested that the state legislature enact "a special law on the subject."(23)

Opposition to self-hire was not primarily confined to aggrieved white laborers but extended across class lines. The men who attended the rally and who served on the grand jury represented a cross-section of local society. With the exception of one carpenter, the thirteen men named in the newspapers who played key roles in the rally were all professional or commercial men, many with extensive slaveholdings. The issue of self-hire mobilized those whose livelihood was adversely affected, but even more so concerned townsfolk from all levels of society who believed the state should restrain permissive masters.(24)

The opponents of self-hire by slaves won the state and local laws they wanted. As a direct result of the 1852 rally, the town Council quickly passed a municipal law prohibiting self-hire in Jacksonville, punishing not only trustees and other custodians but also owners with fines up to twenty dollars and imprisonment up to five days. The law marked a watershed on the issue of the prerogatives of masters.(25) Responding to pressure from northeast Florida and elsewhere in the state, the General Assembly enacted new legislation against self-hire by slaves. In 1855 the representative from St. Johns County, the wealthy planter Rhydon G. Mays, introduced a bill ending St. Augustine's exemption under section 19. The bill passed both the state House and then the Senate unanimously.(26) The next year the General Assembly took direct aim at the prerogatives of masters, closing the loopholes left in 1828. "An Act to Prevent Slaves from Hiring Their Own Time" stated that it was not lawful for "any master, owner, or person having charge or control of any slave" to permit the slave to hire his or her own time. Masters who did so would be prosecuted by the state solicitor. The punishment was a ten-to-fifty-dollar fine. The bill met negligible opposition.(27)

The goal of suppressing self-hire by slaves had strong public support in northeast Florida, much broader than simply the criticisms of editorial writers or the complaints of white wage earners. But enacting legislation is one thing. It was now up to the circuit courts to enforce the law.

Even with strong public support against self-hire, enforcement proved difficult. Officials faced numerous obstacles in the making and proving cases against masters who broke the law. The slaves could not testify, and the persons who hired the slaves, complicit in breaking the law, were not anxious to do so. The stature of the masters could intimidate other parties who had knowledge of the crime. In middle Florida, the difficulty in gathering proof completely frustrated the grand jurors of Leon County, who were trying to stop self-hire in the state capital, Tallahassee. They were well aware of numerous violations of the law. "But with more than ordinary exertions, during a protracted session, we have been unable to find sufficient proof to bring any particular party before the Courts."(28)

The burden to build criminal cases rested with the justices of the peace. In addition to their other duties, these county officials investigated the crimes that would ultimately be adjudicated by the circuit courts. Acting upon a complaint or their own initiative, justices subpoenaed witnesses, recorded testimony, and built cases to be turned over to the circuit court solicitors. Of the work he did, Duval County Justice of the Peace Oscar Hart said in 1860, "To examinations upon criminal charges, I have invariably given long, patient, + careful attention, + have reason to believe that it has been productive of benefit in the community."(29)

In Putnam County, Justice of the Peace John D. Osteen built six self-hire cases that led to grand jury indictments, beginning with that of ex-Governor Moseley in the spring term 1858. (The other justice for the Palatka district, Tippo S. Haughton, was among the men charged with the offense.) Drawing upon public antipathy towards self-hire and the power of the subpoena, Osteen mobilized a large number of prosecution witnesses. Cases files exist for five of the six trials. For each, the JP provided three or four prosecution witnesses. Altogether sixteen different men served as witnesses in the five cases.(30) The witnesses' testimony is not extant, but their occupations, such as carpenter, raftsman, timber overseer, and merchant, suggest that they were men who either employed the self-hiring slaves or were approached to do so.

Not only did Osteen act diligently to enforce the self-hire law but so too did James B. Dawkins, the solicitor for the Eastern Circuit who prosecuted the cases. Circuit court terms occurred twice each year, fall and spring. The court convened for a week or two in each county of the circuit. For the solicitor, the judge, and the coterie of attorneys who traveled the circuit, each term involved about three months' work. When the court came to town, the solicitor reviewed the cases handed to him by the justices of the peace, taking those he favored before the grand jury. If the jury indicted, he prosecuted, with the trials usually held the following term. Dawkins, a Palatka resident, was ready to enforce the self-hire law. When one Putnam County case ended in an innocent verdict because the slave technically belonged to the defendant's in-law, Dawkins went right to the grand jury for indictment of the in-law and brought out a backup case against the original defendant.

Not all the officers of the court involved in the Putnam County cases stood ready to enforce the self-hire law. The efforts of Osteen and Dawkins faced an obstacle in the person of the circuit court judge, Benjamin A. Putnam. With the power to rule on motions and to instruct the jury, a circuit court judge greatly influenced the outcome of a case. Putnam, a St. Augustine lawyer and distinguished public servant for whom Putnam County was named, had twenty slaves and a history of permitting them to hire their own time.(31) On the bench, Putnam, like many judges in the Old South, was reluctant to intervene in the affairs between masters and their slaves. For the spring term 1858, however, Putnam was not on the bench of the Eastern Circuit. Because of some conflict of interest in a pending civil case, the judges of the Eastern and Southern circuits switched for the term, bringing Thomas F. King to the eastern bench.

Judge Putnam revealed his views on the prerogatives of masters in a Putnam County case that served as a prelude to the self-hire cases. Before those prosecutions began in spring 1858, Osteen, Dawkins, and the Putnam County grand jury had already put Moseley on trial for violation of section 18 of the 1828 code, which prohibited masters from allowing their slaves the freedom to trade goods ("trade as free"). Indicted in April 1857 for granting this freedom to a slave, Moseley was convicted in a case that lasted until November 1858. Judges Putnam and King did little to help the prosecution. Putnam's instructions to the trial jury (reissued when King was on the bench) constituted a long list of points serving to protect the defendant. To convict, Putnam instructed, the prosecution had to prove the slave belonged to the defendant; that the slave acted with the master's full knowledge; that the slave was not trading on the master's behalf; that the slave was engaged in "general trading," meaning a few acts of trading were insufficient and must amount to "a series of times;" and finally that the slave had to keep a building for trade, like a storekeeper. These conditions went far beyond what the statute specified or even implied, and set extraordinary requirements for restraining the will of a master. In Spring 1858 the jury convicted Moseley nonetheless. Sensing the bench was a friend, Moseley's lawyer immediately petitioned for a new trial, which King granted on the grounds that the verdict was contrary to the evidence. When the case was re-tried, however, a jury found Moseley guilty once again, fining him twenty-five dollars and costs.(32)

While this case worked its way through the court, in April 1858 the grand jury indicted Moseley for allowing his slave Richard to hire his own time. The case went to trial on November 15, the day before Moseley's retrial and conviction for allowing a slave to trade as free. In the trial for self-hire Moseley was found not guilty because Richard belonged to Moseley's son-in-law Dr. Nathaniel H. Moragne.(33) To Dawkins this setback was minor: the campaign to enforce the self-hire law expanded. On the 16th the grand jury indicted Moragne with regards to the slave Richard. Moseley's attorney, William A. Forward, who argued the point about Richard's true ownership, became a state's witness against Moragne. At the same time the court also indicted Moseley's other son-in-law, Tippo S. Haughton (who was Osteen's fellow Justice of the Peace), and Maurice Sanchez, a Palatka butcher. The next day saw a new self-hire charge against Moseley and one against Benjamin A. Putnam--the presiding judge!(34)

Prosecution of all the defendants derailed in 1859 after unusual circumstances forced Dawkins to leave office. In 1858, Dawkins had moved from Palatka to Gainesville. In early 1859, to relieve the pressure in Florida's courts, the state legislature created the Suwannee Circuit, largely comprised of counties drawn from the increasingly populous Eastern Circuit. The new circuit included Alachua County, Dawkins' home. Dawkins continued to serve as Eastern Circuit solicitor for spring 1859, then submitted his resignation.(35) At the spring term in Putnam County he entered a nol prosequi in the case against Putnam (it is not clear why) and continued the remaining self-hire cases. Once Dawkins resigned, Putnam appointed Jacksonville's Lewis I. Fleming to act as solicitor until elections were held in October, when Fleming was the successful candidate to complete the term. Fleming, the son of wealthy planter Lewis Fleming, with ten slaves of his own, came from a family known for being permissive masters. At the ensuing fall term of the circuit court either Fleming or Putnam "quashed" the remaining self-hire indictments, halting the movement to prosecute the masters who permitted self-hire in Palatka.(36)

As it had in Palatka, the campaign to enforce the 1856 law against self-hire proved short-lived in Jacksonville, but for a different reason. In Palatka, the opposition of the judge and the new solicitor appears to have been decisive in shielding permissive masters from the law. In Jacksonville, public opinion, which had once demanded the suppression of self-hire, changed course by late 1858, resulting in an exemption for the city from the law.

The effort to suppress self-hire in Jacksonville was still going strong in early 1858. In its spring term the Duval County grand jury indicted Samuel N. Williams for permitting self-hire by slaves. It was a moment of either true contrition or utter humiliation for Williams, who was the foreman of that grand jury. Beyond the indictment of Williams, however, we cannot fully know all that transpired in the Duval County circuit court because of the destruction of records in the 1901 Jacksonville fire. Knowledge of the Williams indictment comes from a voucher submitted by the county clerk to officials in Tallahassee.(37) It is probable that the court indicted many more Jacksonville masters.

The Duval County grand jury closed the spring session with a general presentment threatening to stamp out self-hire. Along with the usual denunciations of the practice, the presentment contained a hint of exhausted patience. "There is a growing evil in our immediate community, and one which has too long been passed over and unnoticed--that is the practice of allowing negroes to hire their own time." As a result of being indulged in this way, slaves have become "indolent, insolent, dissolute, and refractory, corrupting themselves and corrupting the servants of others." The fifteen jurors asked owners to reflect on the "natural tendency" of self-hire, and reminded them that the law now forbade it. The presentment concluded ominously, "We repeat, therefore, that we trust all good citizens will consider this grievance and in future place servants under the direct surveillance and authority of their owners or agents. Then we shall see less crime, less disorder and disturbance, more industry, more quiet and order." The intent of the document was clear: before proceeding to more indictments, the grand jurors served final warning to indulgent Jacksonville masters to cease the practice of allowing slaves to hire their own time.(38)

This presentment represented the high point of the movement to suppress self-hire in Jacksonville. Then public opinion suddenly shifted to its defense. Jacksonville now sought exemption from the 1856 law. Unfortunately, a scarcity of primary sources for 1858-59 cloaks this development. Supporters of self-hire no doubt spoke out for the fights of masters and the needs of the city. Moreover, by 1858 they could make a telling case that self-hire by slaves at the wharves and mills was preferable to the alternative: free labor.

At this moment Jacksonville was getting a first-hand look at large-scale free labor. Work on the Florida Atlantic and Gulf Central Railroad began in 1856, drawing Irish laborers to nearby construction sites. Public opinion saw nothing good about the Irish. They were viewed as lazy, riotous, and hostile to the institution of slavery.(39) The spectacle of Irish wage labor may have given a sense of urgency to the cause of safeguarding self-hire. Self-hired slaves once seemed incompatible with a well-ordered slave regime; no doubt they now seemed preferable to an influx of the even more threatening Irish workers.

The Know Nothing party carried the issue of self-hire in Jacksonville to the state legislature. The Know Nothings dominated Jacksonville politics from 1855 to 1859, and Duval County's Know Nothing senator had voted for the 1856 self-hire law.(40) But Nativism and support for self-hire fit naturally together: better to have self-hire slaves than foreign-born workers providing the mobile labor the urban economy demanded. With self-hire as an issue, Jacksonville Know Nothing candidates scored impressive victories in October 1858 for seats in the General Assembly, while the party elsewhere in Florida experienced rapid decline.(41)

Elected to the Florida House in the local Know Nothing sweep, Frederick C. Barrett promptly moved to legally restore self-hire to Jacksonville.(42) In 1852, Barrett had served as recording secretary at the rally to denounce self-hire, but now, reflecting the city's shift in opinion on the issue, was prepared to call for its continuation. When the House convened in November Barrett introduced a new charter of incorporation for Jacksonville, which would elevate Jacksonville from a town to a city, annex the village of La Villa, and legalize self-hire subject to city regulations. The House gave Jacksonville what it requested, minus the annexation scheme. The state was not, however, ready to concede any more ground to permissive masters. It then rejected another bill, supported by Barrett, that would have legalized self-hire in all incorporated cities and towns.(43)

Under the new charter, Jacksonville municipal authorities quickly replaced the city's 1852 ban on self-hire with a new ordinance that required masters to procure badges for slaves to whom they gave the opportunity to self-hire. The graduated annual fees ranged from $3.50 for a female slave up to $10.50 for a slave mechanic. Violation brought a $20 fine or five days in jail for the master, and thirty-nine lashes for the slave. Self-hire by slaves was once again legal in Jacksonville.(44)

The effort to suppress self-hire in Jacksonville and Palatka met with defeat. The effort had gained considerable local momentum by the mid-1850s and looked to enforce the 1856 law, but the advocates of self-hire, aided by the departure of Dawkins from the judicial circuit and by the specter of Irish free labor, blunted the movement to interpose the state into masters' affairs.

Jacksonville and Palatka were not alone in the state either in making an effort to enforce the 1856 self-hire law or in failing to accomplish it. In Tallahassee, as previously noted, officials tried their best to bring indictments and to their dismay found cases too difficult to build. In 1859, just as enforcement curtailed along the St. Johns, the Escambia County grand jury returned twenty-two indictments of Pensacola masters. This western Florida town had a dynamic economy underwritten by military contracts, with slaves the predominant form of labor.(45) As in eastern Florida, the campaign in Escambia County against masters who permitted self-hire by slaves netted many of the elite. In prosecuting Judith T. Caldwell, for example, the grand jury charged a prominent military widow with forty-six slaves. Unlike the cases in Palatka that embraced a wide array of witnesses, the Pensacola indictments typically rested on the testimony of a small number, with the same persons appearing in case after case. In 1860 the first cases to go to trial ended in verdicts of not guilty, and the solicitor for the Western Circuit entered nol prosequi for the remainder. Angry at masters who continued to violate the law, the grand jury threatened them in a presentment in November 1860, pronouncing self-hire "opposed to the constitution of slavery." No new indictments followed, however, at the next session in spring 1861. The Civil War came early to Pensacola. Masters fled the town, taking their slaves to the interior. The court itself soon ceased to meet.(46)

In December 1864, in the last session of the state legislature before the Old South came to an end, Florida enacted a final law on the subject of self-hire by slaves. The lawmakers addressed this matter at once, before they turned to the care of wounded soldiers, clothing for soldiers, and the welfare of soldiers' families. The 1864 self-hire act addressed the problem that stymied enforcement all along: how to get conclusive evidence. The legislature ordered sheriffs to vigorously investigate self-hire, arrest masters, and testify against them. What the state hoped to accomplish was rather questionable, as the circuit courts still operated in only a few counties. The slave regime in Florida slid under the waters amid ongoing efforts to bring permissive masters to trial.(47)

In Florida, the challenge to the prerogatives of masters did not succeed at the local level. Additional local studies may find efforts to restrain permissive masters similar to, and perhaps even more successful than, those in Florida. Scattered evidence exists of masters around the South being charged with self-hire violations in the circuit courts.(48) How the reform effort to curtail slaveholders' discretion in the management of their slaves played out in the communities and courts across the South awaits further investigation.

(1) George Stone voucher, Duval County 1858, Warrant #546, Criminal Prosecution Vouchers, RG 350, ser. 565, box 1, folder 8, Florida State Archives (hereafter FSA); Jacksonville Florida Weekly Republican, March 24, 1858; Minutes of the Circuit Court 1850-1859, 383, Putnam County Courthouse, Palatka. On the distribution of urban slaveholdings see Robert C. Reinders, "Slavery in New Orleans in the Decade before the Civil War," in Plantation, Town, and County: Essays on the Local History of American Slave Society, ed. Elinor Miller and Eugene D. Genovese (Urbana.: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 369. Unless otherwise noted, the sizes of individual slaveholdings in this essay are taken from the 1860 census schedules.

(2) Ulrich B. Phillips, "The Slave Labor Problem in the Charleston District," Political Science Quarterly, 22 (Sept. 1907): 423; Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 52.

(3) Wilmington and Fayetteville received exemptions in the 1785 North Carolina law; Savannah, Sunbury, and Augusta in the 1803 Georgia law. On the lack of enforcement, see Phillips, "Slave Labor Problem," 423; Wade, Slavery in the Cities, 50-51. Edna C. McKenzie, "Self-Hire among Slaves, 1820-1860: Institutional Variation or Aberration?" (PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1973), argues that the persistence of the practice resulted not so much from urban necessity or the convenience to masters but from slave initiative.

(4) Quotes from Charles S. Sydnor, Slavery in Mississippi (1933; rpt., Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966), 180; Frederick Bancroft, Slave Trading in the Old South (1931; rpt., New York: Frederick Unger, 1959), 162. For additional assertions that the laws went unenforced, see Howell Meadoes Henry, The Police Control of the Slave in South Carolina (Emory, Va.: privately published, 1914), 100; Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1918), 411; Ralph B. Flanders, Plantation Slavery in Georgia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933), 202; Orville W. Taylor, Negro Slavery in Arkansas (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1958), 60; McKenzie, "Self-Hire among Slaves," 64; Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (New York: Pantheon, 1974), 392; Claudia D. Goldin, Urban Slavery in the American South: A Quantitative History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 39; Loren Schweninger, "Slave Independence and Enterprise in South Carolina, 1780-1865," South Carolina Historical Magazine 93 (April 1992): 113.

(5) Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 40-41. Besides permitting self-hire, masters also violated laws that prohibited slave literacy and slave possession of guns. See Janet D. Cornelius, "When I Can Read My Title Clear": Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 32-35; David K. Wiggins, "Leisure Time on the Southern Plantation: The Slaves' Respite from Constant Toil, 1810-1860," in Sport in America: New Historical Perspectives, ed. Donald Spivey (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985), 33-4; Stuart A. Marks, Southern Hunting in Black and White (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), 28.

(6) Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "Modernizing Southern Slavery: The Proslavery Argument Reinterpreted," Religion, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, ed. J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 31.

(7) Jacksonville Florida Republican, June 23, 1853; Jacksonville Florida News, Jan. 8, 1853. For economic activity along the St. Johns and Oklawaha rivers see Richard A. Martin, "River and Forest: Jacksonville's Antebellum Lumber Industry," Northeast Florida History I (1992): 19-33, and Robert C. Tindall, "Boyd and Munroe: Antebellum Lumbermen on the St. Johns River," Northeast Florida History 3 (1996): 1-15.

(8) U.S. Government, Population of the United States in 1860 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1864), 54; Receipts from Pedro Benet to Robert T. Boyd, Nov. 22, 1853, Aug. 8, 1854, and Aug. 21, 1857, Robert T. Boyd Papers, Special Collections, University of Florida Library; John Francis Tenney, Slavery, Secession, and Success: Memoirs of a Florida Pioneer (San Antonio: Southern Literary Institute, 1937), 11; St. Augustine The Ancient City, July 3, 1852.

(9) Finegan to Peter B. Canova, Nov. 15, 1852 and Jan. 27, 1853, Case Files of the St. Johns County Circuit Court, box 105, folder 33, St. Augustine Historical Society (hereafter SAHS). The estate was that of William Travers. For more on the explosion of the Magnolia and the deaths of its passengers and slave crew, see the Jacksonville Florida Republican, Jan. 12, 1852.

(10) E. R. Alberti to T. W. Brevard, May 28, 1857, Correspondence of the State Comptroller, RG 350, set. 554, box 30, folder 2, FSA, Another example is the estate of planter Abraham Dupont, whose death in the 1850s released a large number of slaves to the rental market. An accounting of the slaves in an 1860 case against the executor indicates that all the adult males aged 20-40 years had become mill hands. Case Files of the St. Johns County Circuit Court, box 127, folder 13, SAHS.

(11) Orloff M. Dorman to George Burt, Sept. 9, 1859, box 5, file 16, Burt Papers, SAHS.

(12) For the sale of Moseley's three middle Florida plantations see Indenture, Dec. 8, 1851, Deed Record Book F, 506; and Indenture, Dec. 28, 1853, Deed Record Book G, 273-74, Jefferson County Courthouse, Monticello. For a brief time Moseley apparently did intend to operate a plantation on the St. Johns, his son preceding ahead to Putnam County and buying one, but Moseley soon resold it. Indentures, Jan. 20, Oct. 1, 1854, Jan. 1, 1855, Deed Record Book A, 183-84, 264-65,734-35, Putnam County Courthouse.

(13) Indenture, Sept. 23, 1855, Deed Record Book A, 411-12, Putnam County Courthouse; "Statement of Cash Expenditures in Improvements on Rolleston Tract," July 31 , 1858, box 4, file 12, Burt Papers, SAHS.

(14) "B. A. Putnam in a/c with August and Abraham, Slaves for Wages," Putnam Letterbook and Account Book, Calhoun-Putnam Papers, SAHS. The accounts run from 1839 to 1844 and reveal something of the economics of self-hire in the years before the economic takeoff of northeast Florida. In 1842 Putnam hired out August several times for sums ranging from $10 to $16 per month. Some months he hired out August and Abraham together for $34. August hired his own time from July through late October, apparently owing Putnam $1.25 per week, but falling short of that amount on occasion. Altogether he submitted $18.92 to his master over the four-month period, less than $5 per month. Richard C. Wade has shown that masters in cities with a dynamic economy could profit more from self-hire than from hire. Wade, Slavery in the Cities, 53.

(15) Clarence E. Carter, ed., Territorial Papers of the United States, vol. 26: Territory of Florida 1839-1845 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives, 1962), 916; Jacksonville Florida News, June 5, 1852.

(16) John Y. Shekell to Governor and General Assembly of Florida, Nov. 28, 1855, James E. Broome Administrative Correspondence, RG 101, ser. 777, box 3, folder 4, FSA.

(17) Samuel Fairbanks to George R. Fairbanks, Aug. 1, 1860, folder 13, Fairbanks Papers, Special Collections, Robert Manning Strozier Library, Florida State University. The letter does not reveal whether the other slaves also hired their own time.

(18) The laws can be found in John P. Duval, Compilation of the Public Acts of The Legislative Council of the Territory of Florida, Passed Prior to 1840 (Tallahassee: Samuel Sibley, 1839), 65, 218, 219.

(19) Duval, Compilation, 219-20.

(20) Circuit Court Minutes A, 121, St. Johns County Courthouse, St. Augustine; Circuit Court Minute Book A, 69, 78, Orange County Courthouse, Orlando. Another example is that of Elijah Padget, whose indictment in Duval County for allowing slaves to have firearms was quashed in 1856. George Stone voucher, Duval County 1856, Warrant #295, Criminal Prosecution Vouchers, RG 350, ser. 565, box 1, folder 8, FSA.

(21) Carter, Territorial Papers, 26:915-18.

(22) Jacksonville Florida News, May 22, 29, and June 5, 1852; Jacksonville Florida Republican, June 3, 1852.

(23) Jacksonville Florida Republican, June 3, 1852; Jacksonville Florida News, June 5, 1852

(24) Schweninger, "Slave Independence and Enterprise," 116, reaches the same conclusion for South Carolina. The thirteen men and their slaveholdings, taken here from the 1850 census, were James McRobert Baker, attorney, no slaves; Joseph A. Barbee, carpenter, 2 slaves; Frederick C. Barrett, notary, unknown number of slaves, as he does not appear in the 1850 or the 1860 census; Samuel Buffington, hotelkeeper, 17 slaves; Stephen D. Fernandez, merchant, 15 slaves; Joseph Finegan, merchant, 14 slaves; Henry D. Holland, physician, 11 slaves; Felix Livingston, attorney, 5 slaves; McQueen McIntosh, attorney, no slaves (but would own 63 slaves by 1860); Benjamin M. Pearson, attorney, no slaves; John P. Sanderson, attorney, 29 slaves; Isaac Swart, minister, 4 slaves; Henry T. Titus, merchant, unknown number of slaves, as he does not appear in the 1850 or 1860 census. Titus' career as a filibuster is treated in Antonio Rafael de la Cora, "Colonel Henry Theodore Titus: A Florida Filibuster in Cuba, Kansas, and Nicaragua," (paper, Florida Conference of Historians, Jacksonville, Mar. 1997).

(25) Jacksonville Florida News, June 12, 1852.

(26) Journal of the Proceedings of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of Florida, at an Adjourned Session (Tallahassee: Office of the Floridian and Journal, 1855), 61-63; Journal of the Proceedings of the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of Florida at an Adjourned Session (Tallahassee: Office of the Florida Sentinel, 1855), 70-71; The Acts and Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of Florida Passed at an Adjourned Session (Tallahassee: Office of the Floridian and Journal, 1855), 30.

(27) Journal of the Proceedings of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of Florida, at its Eighth Session (Tallahassee: Office of the Floridian and Journal, 1856), 206; Journal of the Proceedings of the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of Florida, Eighth Session (Tallahassee: Office of the Florida Sentinel, 1856), 59, 71-72, 86, 91-92; The Acts and Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of Florida, Passed at its Eighth Session (Tallahassee: Office of the Floridian and Journal, 1857), 24-25.

(28) Grand Jury presentment, Oct. 20, 1859, Leon County Circuit Court Minute Book #6, 233, FSA.

(29) Oscar Hart to T.W. Brevard, Feb. 2, 1860, Correspondence of the State Comptroller, RG 350, ser. 554, box 30, folder 6, FSA. For an excellent study of antebellum justices of the peace, see Robert M. Ireland, The County Courts in Antebellum Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972). My thanks to James M. "Mike" Denham of Florida Southern University for guidance on the subject of JPs.

(30) See the case files cited in notes 33 and 34 below.

(31) Joe Knetsch, "A Statesman on the Land: The Multifaceted Career of Benjamin Alexander Putnam," El Escribano 34 (1997): 98-1 29. A critic of Putnam's slave management said, "those St. Aug[ustin]e people are afraid of their Negroes + will not insist on their doing anything they are opposed to -- + Major Putnam being the first to yield." Susan Fatio L'Engle to Edward M. L'Engle, Jan. 29, 1857, Edward M. L'Engle Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library.

(32) Minutes of the Circuit Court 1850-1859, 329, 344, 364, 370, 395, Putnam County Courthouse; State of Florida vs. William D. Moseley, Case Files of the Putnam County Circuit Court, box 3, folder 1, Putnam County Archives Center, Palatka. The documents in question used "vs." rather than the now customary "v".

(33) Minutes of the Circuit Court 1850-1859, 383, Putnam County Courthouse; State of Florida vs. William D. Moseley, Case Files of the Putnam County Circuit Court, box 3, folder 2, Putnam County Archives Center.

(34) Minutes of the Circuit Court 1850-1859, 395, 398, Putnam County Courthouse; State of Florida vs. Nathaniel H. Moragne, State of Florida vs. Maurice Sanchez, State of Florida vs. William D. Moseley, and State of Florida vs. Benjamin A. Putnam, Case Files of the Putnam County Circuit Court, box 3, folder 2, Putnam County Archives Center. The case file has not survived for the prosecution of Haughton.

(35) James B. Dawkins to T. W. Brevard, Mar. 24, 1858, Correspondence of the State Comptroller, RG 350, ser. 554, box 30, folder 3, FSA; James M. Denham, "A Rogue's Paradise": Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Florida, 1821-1861 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 36; Fernandina Florida News, Apr. 21, 1859.

(36) Margaret Seton Fleming Biddle, Hibernia: The Unreturning Tide (New York, Vantage Press, 1974), 38, 42-43; Minutes of the Circuit Court 1850-1859, 421, 428, Putnam County Courthouse.

(37) See note 1. Sheriffs, justices of the peace, clerks, and other county officials submitted vouchers to the state comptroller for recompense of their costs in criminal investigations. These documents provide useful information on the making of criminal cases that complements the proceedings recorded in the circuit court minute books. They are located in the Florida State Archives, organized by county, year, and the number of the warrant issued in repayment. However, these records are incomplete.

(38) Jacksonville Florida Weekly Republican, Mar. 24, 1858.

(39) For negative views of the Irish laboring on the railroad see Susan Fatio L'Engle to Edward M. L'Engle, Jan. 29, 1857, Edward M. L'Engle Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library.

(40) The senator was planter Edward Hopkins. The representative from Jacksonville in 1856, Know Nothing Samuel Buffington, was not heard on the self-hire bill. A Jacksonville hotel proprietor, he took a leave of absence from the legislature a week before the vote.

(41) No newspapers survive from the 1858 election in Jacksonville. I assume self-hire was a campaign issue based on the actions of the city's Know Nothing representative in the next session of the legislature. For the decline of the Know Nothing party on the state level see Arthur W. Thompson, "Political Nativism in Florida, 1848-1860: A Phase of Anti-Secessionism," Journal of Southern History, 15 (Feb. 1949): 39-65.

(42) Duval County sent Know Nothing Abel S. Baldwin, a Jacksonville physician, to the state senate, but a contested election kept him from being seated until after legislature enacted the self-hire exemption for Jacksonville.

(43) Journal of the Proceedings of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of Florida, at its Ninth Session (Tallahassee: Office of the Floridian and Sentinel, 1858), 56, 144, 149, 157, 185, 241-42, 251, 255, 262 (on the Jacksonville charter), 195, 228, 236, 247, 255, 261 (on the unsuccessful self-hire bill); Acts and Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of Florida, Passed at its Ninth Session (Tallahassee: Office of the Floridian and Journal, 1859), 116-17. (44) Jacksonville Standard, May 5, 1859.

(45) Ernest F. Dibble, Antebellum Pensacola and the Military Presence (Pensacola: Pensacola Bicentennial Series, 1974).

(46) Minutes of the Circuit Court Book C, 108-12, 170-77, 263, Escambia County Courthouse, Pensacola, Florida. Like Moseley, Caldwell was indicted several times. The court prosecuted seventeen different Pensacola masters altogether. Other notable defendants included Francisco Moreno, the acknowledged leader of Pensacola and the father-in-law of United States Senator Stephen A. Mallory, and John J. Scott, Episcopal minister.

(47) Putnam County's representative, Peter Munroe, voted for the act; Jacksonville's James A. Peden voted against it. Journal of the Proceedings of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of Florida, at its Thirteenth Session (Tallahassee: Office of the Floridian and Sentinel, 1864), 86, 94-5; Journal of the Proceedings of the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of Florida at the Thirteenth Session (Tallahassee: Office of the Florida Sentinel, 1864), 40, 46, 49; Acts and Resolutions Adopted by the General Assembly of Florida, at its Thirteenth Session (Tallahassee: Office of the Floridian and Journal, 1865), 13.

(48) Self-hire cases located in circuit court minute books are mentioned in Henry, Police Control of the Slave in South Carolina, 100; Harrison Anthony Trexler, Slavery in Missouri 1804-1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1914), 35-36; Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 339. For cases appearing in proceedings on appeal see Helen T. Catterall (ed.), Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, 5 volumes (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1926-1937), 1:319, 380-81; 2:48, 63; 5:291,300.

Craig Buettinger, professor of history at Jacksonville University, is currently researching slavery in northeast Florida in the late antebellum years.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A63583831