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Unearthing Secret America

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Changing Landscapes: Slave Housing at Monticello 4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Changes Across the Region

Were these changes in room size unique to Monticello or were they typical of the region as a whole? Current evidence - measurement of 45 slave houses occupied from the beginning of the 18th century to the Civil War - suggests that similar architectural changes were occurring across the Chesapeake at about this time. If the safe-deposit box hypothesis is correct, then we should also see a sharp decline in the frequency of sub-floor pits throughout the Chesapeake at the end of the century, just as we do on Mulberry Row. The data from our regional sample reveals that multiple sub-floor pits do indeed disappear in the last quarter of the 18th century. So the housing revolution on Mulberry Row was not unique.

Toward an Explanation
Photo Image of Sub-Floor Pit
Rectangular patches of darker soil indicate the presence of a filled in sub-floor pit.

All this new construction came at a cost to Chesapeake slaveholders like Jefferson. Any explanation for this trend must identify the payoff to slave owners for incurring this cost, and since the change in housing standards was an improvement from the perspective of enslaved people, we also need to consider factors that might have increased slaves' leverage in negotiating for marginal improvements in their lives.

The explanation I propose assumes that coercion and physical violence - both threatened and real - ultimately lie behind all slave labor systems. But it also recognizes that in some historical circumstances positive rewards may be important too. The mix of punishment vs. reward incentives should in theory be one that yields the greatest labor output and hence profit for the slave owner. But this in turn depends on the extent to which the slaves' tasks affords them opportunities to force owners to include more positive rewards. From this perspective, the shift to kin-based housing at Monticello must be the outcome of two sets of strategies: one pursued by enslaved individuals aiming for kin-based living arrangements, and one pursued by Jefferson who evidently thinks there is a payoff to acceding to their wishes.
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4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |


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