Critical Summary of Seth Rockman

One might say that Baltimore was a northern city in a southern state.  That was certainly one of the main themes running through Seth Rockman’s book Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore.  As Baltimore industrialized, and the harbor grew the economy and landscape of the city transformed.  The age old tradition of Maryland’s agrarian slavery transformed along with the city.  Free blacks outnumbered slaves, the labor performed by the slave minority changed to meet the new requirements of the city, and the purpose of slavery in Baltimore changed altogether.

Baltimore had a unique culture of race and labor through the first half of the 19th century.  In the late 18th century Maryland went through a major shift in its agricultural economy.  Many planters converted their land from tobacco production to food grain production.  The new crops required less man power to plant and harvest.  Baltimore’s convenient location made it a huge port for exporting Pennsylvania and Maryland grain to Europe.  The decreased demand for slave labor in the countryside, and the increased demand for labor to support the economic boom in Baltimore, caused many slaves and former slaves to move into Baltimore for work.

A unique feature of the Baltimore economy was the diversity of the work force that supported its economy.  The city’s black population was predominantly free, but there was still a sizable enslaved population.  The city was also one of the largest ports for European immigration in the United States.  The labor force consisted of a combination of these groups.  Slave owners often rented their slaves out as laborers to provide a trickle of income.  The income from rented slaves could be an opportunity for the middle class (i.e. doctors and lawyers) to achieve gentility (58).  In this rental system of slavery, the owner might rarely see their slaves, and therefore would have to trust their managers (who had little motivation to do so) to see to their enslavement

It was complicated maintaining slavery in an environment of urban labor.  Baltimore’s proximity to Pennsylvania, its large free black population, and the separation between slave and owner in the urban economy all made freedom accessible to the enslaved population.  Baltimore itself could be a destination of freedom.  Slaves from the countryside could escape to Baltimore and slip into obscurity within the densely populated free black community in Baltimore.  Many fugitive slave ads reported slaves as “going at large” or “living as free”, working and living freely in Baltimore, hiding at the margins of society (58).

The changing form of slavery in Baltimore required new devices of control.  Delayed Manumission became one of those devices.  To encourage largely independent slave laborers not to run away, owners would promise guarantee freedom after a set time of service.  Many enslaved people would choose to work towards freedom rather than flee.  The manumitted slaves children, however, would not be freed.  Freeing children and family members was one of the greatest financial hardships on the free black community.

The changing form of urban labor  based slavery in Baltimore made less economic sense as time went on.  The primary value of slaves in Baltimore, and the rest of Maryland, was their value in the deep south.  Rockman states “slaves were valuable in Baltimore because they were valuable elsewhere” (235).  Slaves were valuable because they could be turned into immediate cash by selling them to plantations in the deep south.  Slavery would not be profitable within Maryland in isolation.

Seth Rockman offers a detailed profile of Baltimore labor, and offers a partial view of Maryland’s role in the American system of Slavery.  What is particularly fascinating is how slavery transformed alongside Baltimore’s economic development.  The meaning and structure of slavery was different in different places, but each unique form of slavery affected the institution of slavery around it.  Rockman hints at, but never explicitly outlines, a regional or national network of communities of free and enslaved people in America.

Rockman, Seth. Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

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