Abstract: Public Hands: Internal Improvement and State Slavery in the Antebellum South

Aaron R. Hall


Following recent scholarship on the interrelations of American slavery and capitalism in the domain of private economic activity, this paper directs attention towards the constitutive role of active government in making a commercial antebellum South. It discusses how southern polities pursued infrastructural development, connecting planters to markets, through the recruitment and instrumentalization of enslaved people. Focusing on Louisiana, my paper recovers the history of state-owned slaves – “public hands” purchased and exploited for the white commonweal. These slaves were deployed as skilled and semi-skilled labor over the course of several decades, forming the manpower around which a governmental organ developed to provide transport networks underpinning agricultural export and commercial exchange. Elaborate managerial and bureaucratic processes accompanied this institutionalized state slavery, as officials sought larger “forces” to enable orderly commodity flows and territorial integration. Engineering expertise and distributional politics clashed, while the slaves, treated as a scarce “public good,” struggled against the environmental lethality of their state service. In closing, my paper widens its lens to situate state slavery within the broader history of the antebellum South’s state-led and state-aided transportation and communication enterprises. It argues that the overt practice of government slavery offers a vantage from which to reconsider many antebellum southern improvement policies as techniques to manage, employ and invest in slave labor for the common good of white citizens and constituents.