What Was Life Like Under Slavery?
Under southern law, slaves were considered chattel property. Like a domestic animal, they could be bought, sold, leased, and physically punished. Slaves were prohibited from owning property, testifying against whites in court, or traveling without a pass. Their marriages lacked legal sanction. During the nineteenth century, in response to abolitionist attacks on slavery, southern legislatures enacted laws setting set down minimal standards for housing, food, and clothing -- but these statutes were largely unenforced.
Prior to the Civil War, abolitionists charged that slaves were overworked, poorly clad, inadequately housed, and cruelly punished; that slavery was a highly profitable investment; and that far from being content, slaves longed for freedom. Apologists for slavery, in turn, accused abolitionists of exaggerating slavery's evils, asserting that slaves were rarely whipped, that marriages were seldom broken by sale, and that most slaves were able to maintain stable family lives. They maintained that paternalism and public opinion protected slaves from cruelty; that slave insurrections were rare because most slaves were contented with bondage; that slavery was an economic burden that planters bore out of a sense of responsibility; and that slaves enjoyed a higher standard of living, a better diet, superior housing, and a greater life expectancy than many free urban workers in the North and in Europe.
Recent historical research has largely confirmed the abolitionist indictment of slavery. We now know that slaves suffered extremely high mortality. Half of all slave infants died during their first year of life, twice the rate of white babies. And while the death rate declined for those who survived their first year, it remained twice the white rate through age 14. As a result of this high infant and childhood death rate, the average life expectancy of a slave at birth was just 21 or 22 years, compared to 40 to 43 years for antebellum whites. Compared to whites, relatively few slaves lived into old age. Between 1830 and 1860, only 10 percent of U.S. slaves were over 50 years old.
A major contributor to the high infant and child death rate was chronic undernourishment. Slaveowners showed surprisingly little concern for slave mothers' health or diet during pregnancy, providing pregnant women with no extra rations and employing them in intensive field work even in the last week before they gave birth. Not surprisingly, slave mothers suffered high rates of spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and deaths shortly after birth. Half of all slave infants weighed less than 5.5 pounds at birth, or what we would today consider to be severely underweight.
Infants and children were badly malnourished. Most infants were weaned early, within three or four months of birth, and then fed gruel or porridge made of cornmeal. Around the age of three, they began to eat vegetables soups, potatoes, molasses, grits, hominy, and cornbread. This diet lacked protein, thiamine, niacin, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D, and as a result, slave children often suffered from night blindness, abdominal swellings, swollen muscles, bowed legs, skin lesions, and convulsions. These apparently stemmed from beriberi, pellagra, tetany, rickets, and kwashiorkor, diseases that are caused by protein and nutritional deficiencies.
Squalid living conditions aggravated health problems. Chickens, dogs, and pigs lived next to the slave quarters, and in consequence animal feces contaminated the area. Lacking privies, slaves had to urinate and defecate in the cover of nearby bushes. Such squalor contributed to high rates of diarrhea, dysentery, whooping cough, respiratory diseases, hepatitis, typhoid fever and intestinal worms.
Deprived of an adequate diet, slave children were very small by modern standards. Their average height at age three was shorter than 99 percent of twentieth-century American three-year-olds. At age 17, slave men were shorter than 96 percent of present-day 17-year-old men and slave women were shorter than 80 percent of contemporary women.