Abstract: To Repress This Evil: White Workingmen, Slave Competition, and the Law In Antebellum South Carolina

Justene G. Hill


This paper explores how slave hiring contributed to rising tensions between planter elites and white workingmen in antebellum South Carolina. White workingmen—a group comprising blacksmiths, coopers, and mechanics—feared that enslaved blacks, particularly those trained in skilled occupations, would usurp their employment opportunities. To remedy the economic challenges posed by enslaved skilled laborers—and slaveholders who accepted and at times encouraged slaves' self-hire—white workingmen petitioned South Carolina's General Assembly with increasing frequency during the antebellum period. In such petitions, they communicated their frustration with ineffective laws that failed to regulate economic competition posed by skilled enslaved laborers, prosecute employers who hired black slaves over white workingmen, and fine slaveholders who consented to such slave activity. This paper considers white workingmen's concerns about slave competition in the labor marketplace. The paper also explores the ways in which white workingmen's legislative appeals exacerbated class tensions between themselves and the planter elite in antebellum South Carolina.