Paternalism, Control, and Capitalism in Antebellum South Carolina

Enslavers in the antebellum South were obsessed with control. But the most important aspect of their experience as slaveholders that they sought to control were their slaves. In the antebellum era, enslavers adopted more rigorous practices to not only manage plantation expenditures, but most importantly to control productivity of their slaves. It was even more true as profits from cotton monoculture fluctuated due to financial insecurities caused by the Panic of 1837. In addition to monitoring the price a pound of cotton could fetch in local marketplaces, or the return on investment for a particular slave, some enslavers began applying the same techniques to controlling their slaves. This paper will consider the language that slaveholders in South Carolina used to justify both their supposed humane treatment of their slaves and the role of enslaved peoples’ economic activities in their plantation projects. It will argue that even though enslavers adopted the ideology of paternalism in their writings to justify the treatment of their slaves, these South Carolina planters, instead, used paternalism to reinforce their brutal treatment of enslaved people. It will consider how slaveholders such as planter politicians Whitemarsh Seabrook and James Henry Hammond defended not only their supposed humane treatment of their slaves, but also the role of enslaved peoples’ economic activities in the functioning of their plantation projects. Ultimately, this paper will interrogate enslavers’ ideas about mastery and control. It will consider how enslavers thought about how control reinforced their capitalist goals in antebellum South Carolina plantations.