Abstract: Felonious Transactions: Legal Culture and Business Practices of Slave Economies in South Carolina, 1787-1860

Justene G. Hill


Over the past three decades, historians of American slavery have explored how enslaved people in the antebellum slaveholding South engaged in their own economic activities.  We now know that enslaved people hired out their time for compensation, trafficked in goods that they cultivated in provision gardens, and raised livestock to sell.  We also know that enslaved people understood conceptions of property and fought in extralegal ways to keep what they believed they rightfully owned.  However, two questions still remain.  First, how did the slaves’ economy adapt to changes in the American and trans-Atlantic economy, particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century?  Second, what was the relationship between American economic growth, southern legal culture, and the slaves’ economy in the antebellum period?   

Felonious Transactions: Legal Culture and Business Practices of Slave Economies in South Carolina, 1787-1860 answers the aforementioned questions by analyzing how the slaves’ economy transformed and responded to an increasingly profit-driven slaveholding regime during a period of dramatic economic change, the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the Civil War.  It recovers the history of the slaves’ economy by interrogating the ways in which legal traditions and economic change influenced bondspeoples’ moneymaking strategies.  By focusing on South Carolina, the state arguably most dedicated to preserving slavery as an economic institution, this study connects the literatures on the antebellum plantation economy and legal culture in South Carolina by linking the slaves’ economy to the changing landscape of local regulation, state intervention, and commerce during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Felonious Transactions argues that the slaves’ economy persisted in South Carolina not simply because of enslaved peoples’ dedication to preserving their own networks of trade, but also because planters, merchants, and non-slaveholders increasingly profited from their economic interactions with slaves.  The experiences of enslaved people in local courts and marketplaces reveal that the slaves’ economy became more profit driven during the antebellum era.  Moreover, as enslaved people took advantage of customary rights to engage in trade, their dedication to their own economic pursuits ultimately supported South Carolina’s slaveholding regime until the outbreak of Civil War.