I am taking American History this year along with AP American Literature. I have noticed consistant and powerful connections between Frederick Douglass' autobiography in Literature class and the DBQ documents we are currently studying in History to answer the question:
To what extent were slaves able to wrest autonomy from their master on antibellum southern plantations? It has been very useful to draw inferences and evidece from both sources and bring the material from one class into the next.
One of the reoccuring subjects in both Frederick Douglass and the DBQ packet is the vigourous undertaking of slaveholders to manipulate their slaves, not only through direct and violent methods that played on fear and pain, but also on a more descreet level, trying to prevent slaves from forming their own identity while extending control even over the slaves' free time;These methods were being met with resistance from the slaves themselves, who were able to use equaly strong tactics to relitively manipulate their own work scheduals and holidays as they strove for autonomy from their masters.
The strongest example of that struggle between slaves trying to gain autonomy, and masters trying to prevent slaves from forming an identity (and thus remaining in control) can be found in "Community, Culture, and Conflict on an Antibellum Plantation", written by post-revisionist historian Drew Faust in 1980 (a document in our History DBQ packet). Faust used a southern plantation owner's diary to track the struggle between the slaves' autonomy and the master's control . The slaveholder, named James Henry Hammond keeps close records of the goings- on on his plantation. Faust sites:
"Hammond seemed not so much to master as to manipulate his slaves, offering a system not just of punishments, but of positive inducements ranging from picking contests to single out the most diligent hands, to occasional rituals of rewards for all, such as Christmas holidays; rations of sugar, tobacco and coffee, midsummer barbecues; or even pipes sent to all adult slaves from Europe when Hammond departed on his Grand Tour. The slaves were more than just passive recipients of these sporadic benefits; they in turn manipulated their master for those payments and privileges they had come to see as their due. Hammond complained that his bonds-men's demands led him against his will to countenance a slave force 'too well fed and otherwise well treated,' but he nevertheless could not entirely resist their claims. When after a particularly poor record of work by slaves in the fall of 1847, Hammond sought to shorten Christmas holiday, he ruefully recorded on December 26th that he had been 'persuaded out of my decision by the Negroes."
This is very similar to Douglass' recollections of holidays on plantations:
"The days between Christmas and New Years day are allowed as holidays; and, accordingly, we are not required to preform any labor, more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time was regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefor used or abused it nearly as we pleased...This time, however was spent in various ways. The staid, sober, thinking, and industrious ones of our number would employ themselves in making corn brooms, mats, horse-collars, and baskets; and another class of us would spend the time hunting opossums, hares, and coons. But by far the larger part engaged in such sports as playing ball, wrestling, running foot races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whiskey; and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to our masters. A slave who would work during the holidays was considered by our masters as scarcely deserving of them. He was regarded as one who rejected the favor of his master. It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk on Christmas; and he was regarded as lazy indeed, who who had not provided himself with means, during the year, to get whiskey enough to last him through Christmas...These holidays serve as conductors, or safety valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity. but for these, the slave would be forced up to the wildest desperation; and woe betide the slaveholder, the day he ventures to remove or hinder the operation of those conductors! I warn him that, in such an event, a spirit will go forth into their midst, more to be dreaded than the most appalling earthquake."
At the end of this passage, Douglass seems to be speaking direcly to Hammond, warning him what will happen if he was to take away the "generosities" of these holidays from his slaves. While both passages describe extemely similar circumstances, Faust's research into Hammond's journal shows that slaves could somewhat successfully gain autonomy over and manipulate their masters as far as the work schedule during holidays was concerned. Douglass on the other hand, gives light to the other side of the struggle between slave and master; that the holidays were used by the slaveholders in order to control the time spent by their slaves even during their free time as a way to disperse the rebellious attitude among slaves and to prevent independent thinking.