When the slave trade was at its peak in America were there any notable owners who treated their slave with far more dignity and respect than was typical at the time?

For example someone who would give their slaves proper breaks, hearty food, adequate rest, and generally treated them like human beings?

I understand that being a slave takes away your liberty, and working for free can give your dignity a hit, but were there any owners who stood out?

I understand that a lot of their conditions were determined by their role, so for this example i am asking about the ones forced to work in agriculture and other manual labour jobs.

  • 1
    Almost by definition, there have would been slaves that were better treated than the average, and owners more "humane" than the average. Additionally, there was a clear distinction between domestic slaves and agricultural ones, so someone owing only domestic slaves most likely treated them better than a plantation owner. Could you be more specific in what are you searching for?
    – SJuan76
    Oct 6 '15 at 16:51
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    @SJuan76 I was about to make the same point, but I noticed that in fairness OP said "much better" than average. I do think the question is poorly defined and probably has too many examples depending on interpretation, though.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 6 '15 at 16:54
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    The answer is prima facia "yes". Unless there was some regime to introduce uniformity, someone will treat their slaves better. (although if you exclude trades, you're undercutting the question). The more interesting question might be "What factors affected treatment of slaves?" I believe that the number of slaves owned was a major factor -small farmers with a single slave living in the same house shared the hardship. I believe slaves practicing skilled labor were treated better. But I lack the scholarship to back up these impressions.
    – MCW
    Oct 6 '15 at 17:06
  • Terry makes a huge number of assumptions about how the average slave was treated. It seems like his opinion is largely coming from modern media rather than historical sources. Slaves were highly prized economic assets and were usually treated as such. Oct 6 '15 at 17:06
  • @StuartAllan - There is a canonical source that demonstrates that, but I cannot recall the title. That source would go a long way towards answering the question.
    – MCW
    Oct 6 '15 at 17:08

You would do well to get a copy of the autobiography of Fredric Douglass: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Its a short read, and worst case should be available in any decent library.

Prior to his escape, Douglass served under several different masters in various places in the South, so it works as a bit of a survey.

Of course people vary by personality (which you will see in the book), but in general conditions were considered worse the further into The South you got. This is how we got the term for being seriously screwed over: sold down the river (referring to the southerly-flowing Mississippi river system). The narrative bears this out as well.

The Deep South may have earned this reputation due to the larger more corporate plantations there, due to the greater acceptance of the morality of slavery in those areas, or even due to the hot weather making people more cranky. But it definitely had a worse reputation.

  • 1
    This source is known for being rather biased. It is a good starting point but hardly without a rather strong agenda. Oct 6 '15 at 17:11
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    @StuartAllan - Good luck finding an "unbiased" first-hand account of American slavery.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 6 '15 at 17:12
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    Online version - gutenberg.org/ebooks/23
    – TheHonRose
    Mar 3 '18 at 22:18

Supposedly George Washington treated his personal man-servant William Lee with respect. As a house slave, he was given responsibilities and privileges that field laborers were not. He served Washington before and throughout the Revolutionary War and was often at his side ready to provide whatever was requested. Washington's patrician dignity was famous and his sense of noblesse oblige compelled him to treat his personal slaves with respect.

William Lee was granted freedom in George Washington's will along with a pension of thirty dollars a year and the right to live at Mount Vernon, which he did until the end of his life.


And what was "average"? The treatment of slaves varied wildly in time and space, depending on function, market conditions, etc. etc.
Someone's personal servant would be treated better than some random farmhand, whether free or slave for example.
And over time imports became rarer, thus prices higher, leading to more benefits in treating them better so they'd live longer.
Ditto with slaves more than minimally trained/skilled at their jobs. They were valuable commodities, just as senior staff are valuable now and paid better than interns.
It's simple economics, if they die before earning more than the cost of purchase and upkeep you've run a loss on your purchase. So you want to treat them well enough that they stay alive and can work a decent job, but not so well that they eat up all the money they earn you. Again, the same as companies and how they treat their staff now, especially in industries where there are far more people looking for jobs than open positions (and thus quitting your job is risky and companies can get away with offering poor conditions because there's always someone willing to accept them over social security or unemployment money).

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