Commentary from the Bookshelves—The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of the Nation by Daina Ramey Berry

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Mark Harnitchek…

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh puts, front and center, the tension between the internal value of enslaved human souls and their external monetary value as the property of their owners. From birth to death, and often beyond, author Daina Ramey Berry argues that enslaved people understood their innate value as people and their market value as property. On the numerical side, Berry’s economic history draws on the sales and appraisal records of over 64,000 slaves. Juxtaposed against the brutal reality of the economic exchange of people, the author overlays the intellectual history of the enslaved thoughts, feelings and reactions to their treatment as a commodity that could be bought and sold like a farm animal.     

Berry’s book is organized around the cruel economic reality of treating people as property.  So, as enslaved peoples’ usefulness grew with age and maturity, so grew their economic value to the southern slave society.   In a series of sobering chapters, Berry parses the lives of enslaved people into their value at preconception, as children, as adolescents, as adults, and as the elderly.   At the start of each chapter, Berry calculated, in 1860 dollars, the appraised value and sale value of enslaved men, women and children at each stage in their lives.  The reader learns that a six-year-old was worth more than a toddler, men were worth more than women for field work; skilled men and women commanded more than field hands; and, the enslaved of both sexes hit their peak value between the ages of 23 and 39.  After age 40, values often decreased by as much as 30-40%.  At some plantations, the elderly had no value at all.   Seeing that in a plantation ledger was a sobering realization – a human being judged to have no value.  

The author’s analysis illustrates the cold calculus of slavery’s business proposition – maximizing the value of the enslaved to make the plantation as profitable as possible.   So, while niceties like keeping families together or young children with their mothers were desirable, those considerations were often secondary to optimizing the utility of the enslaved.   Therefore, attributes like age, health, and the ability to reproduce were the primary variables in the market value calculation of enslaved men and women over their lifetimes.  So important was their economic worth that owners often insured their enslaved against incapacitation or death. 

Set against their market value, Berry supports her argument by adding the spirit or soul value of the human beings who were enslaved.   Unlike the external value which was driven by market forces, the author contends the enslaved had a self-actualized, soul value in terms of their “humanity, dignity, decency and freedom.”  Here, Berry relies heavily on well-regarded scholarly narratives about the enslaved and oral histories of former slaves done by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.  The absolute cruelty of selling humans is on full display as children are forever separated from their mothers and families are torn apart, all in pursuit of maximizing the plantation owner’s value proposition.   In one particularly poignant passage, Berry describes how a 5-year-old child, Little Joe, was sold without his mother’s knowledge so the plantation owner could buy hogs to feed his family that winter.  Little Joe’s mother is then beaten repeatedly for openly grieving the loss of her son.  Berry adds further power to these narratives by repeatedly asking the reader to pause and think about what the enslaved must have thought about the prospect of perpetual separation from loved ones, what they thought about a savage beating from their enslaver or what they thought about a physical violation by an owner.   

In describing the final indignity of slavery, Berry describes the ultimate value ascribed to the enslaved – ghost value.  This was the value assigned to cadavers which were stolen from graves and sold to medical schools for dissection.   While this ghoulish custom was against the law, it was brazenly practiced by Georgia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania medical schools with the full knowledge, and often participation, of the school’s professors and their students.  In a final bit of irony, the former slaves who led this effort — i.e., did the actual grave robbing – were held in high regard and celebrated by the medical schools who employed them.

The Price for Their Pound of Flesh is a powerful book that puts human context and tangible meaning around what has become a rather threadbare historical fact that slaves were treated as property.  The author’s guidance to reflect on “what did the enslaved think” is a commanding reminder to 21st century Americans to think about what happened to 4 million of our fellow citizens only 150 years ago. 

Mark Harnitchek retired from the military after 38 years of service and recently retired again from the aerospace industry.  He is currently a full-time Civil War history buff and just completed his MA in American History at George Mason University.  

5 Responses to Commentary from the Bookshelves—The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of the Nation by Daina Ramey Berry

  1. Looks like an informative read. I would argue we don’t think much differently about ourselves today even without an institution such as slavery. Corporations get rid of older workers routinely in re-organizations. Lots of industries have mandatory retirement at certain ages. Terry Bradshaw has no value as an NFL quarterback today.

    Mary Chestnut has an interesting diary entry early in her wartime diary about a woman being auctioned off at a public auction. The woman, from Chestnut’s vantage point, clearly understood the importance of being sold for the most amount of money and she sold herself on the auction block so bidders would keep bidding and raise her price.

    1. thanks for your comment — interesting analogy about modern slavery that lots of people make … when Frederick Douglass was on his speaking tour in Ireland in 1845-46, he said he felt “accosted” with the idea that many Irish believed that they too lived as “slaves” — that their oppression and poverty was equivalent to slavery in the American south.

      Douglass, in turn, pushed back hard in public forums stating that: “… slavery was not what took away any one right or property in man: it took man himself (and) dooms him a degraded thing, ranks him with the bridled horse and muzzled ox, makes him a chattel personal, a marketable commodity … i am with Douglass on this one … it’s just not the same thing.

      1. Yeah, I’m not really making a comparison about slavery, but more so about capitalism or our very humanity. I’m not making the Irish worker argument Douglass is arguing against. Someone in China who helps makes shoes for Nike, I would argue, is not a slave, but at some point, through age or injury their value as a worker will find its way to the number zero, and Nike will stop employing them at that point if not sooner, which compares to your point about “the elderly (slaves) had no value at all”. It is what it is. American slavery was an institution within American capitalism. American slavery is gone, but capitalism (human beings engaging in commerce) is alive and well. I should have been more clear in the point I was trying to make.

        Love Frederick Douglass! I’m reading through David Blight’s recent biography of Douglass. Great stuff.

  2. This topic is something I’ve been wanting to evaluate for a while. It’s definitely going on my wish list! Thank you for a thorough evaluation of the book, Mark!

    1. thanks Sheritta … the section on grave robbing is especially interesting … the “body snatcher” at the Medical College of Virginia (now Virginia Commonwealth University), an ex-slave named Chris Baker, was listed in school’s 1900 census as the “Anatomical Man” … when he died in 1919, one of the professors wrote a poem in his honor.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: