Owner? Yes. Enslaver? Certainly

The words we use matter. This post by Professor Martha Jones gets into what words we use to label those who “owned” enslaved people. She writes, “A follower recently pointed out that our Hard Histories website uses the term ‘owner’ when referring to Johns Hopkins. As was the case some months back when we looked at the use of ‘slave’ versus ‘enslaved person,’ this gave us the chance to examine how the term ‘owner’ has its own history, one that differed in everyday use, in law, and in scholarship. Today, ‘owner’ soon may be overtaken by the term enslaver when referring to those who enslaved people in early America. Hard Histories at Hopkins launched in 2020 when Johns Hopkins University announced that the US Census recorded enslaved people in the household of its founder and namesake Johns Hopkins. In 1850, the population census recorded one enslaved person, a male between 10 and 24 years. There, Mr. Hopkins was named as head of a household, with unnamed others, including one enslaved person, as its members. In 1850, the census slave schedule recorded four enslaved people, all men ranging in age from 18 to 45. The census forms changed after 1840 such that Mr. Hopkins’ name was recorded as head of a household and also, on a separate form, in a column marked ‘Name of Slave Owner,’ which listed four men by age, color, and sex, though not by name.”

From the post

Professor Jones continues, “For 1850 census administrators, Mr. Hopkins was a slave owner. A closer look puts use of the designation owner in context. ‘The person in whose family, or on whose plantation, the slave is found to be employed, is to be considered the owner.’ These instructions guided census Marshals and Assistant Marshals in their listing of slave owners. Of course, owner had an ordinary meaning in 1850, as it does today. But it was also a term of art. To be designated a slave ‘owner’ on the 1850 US Census was akin to being deemed a person with dominion over the enslaved people in a household. In 1850, this broad definition of the term owner was consistent with law. In the 1829 case of State v. MannNorth Carolina Supreme Court Justice Thomas Ruffin ruled that the power of those who rented enslaved people was equivalent to those who held them as property by deed. John Mann rented an enslaved woman, Lydia, and later shot her in the back when she tried to escape from his home. Lydia survived, and Ruffin explained that Mann was not guilty of battery because his authority even as someone who rented Lydia was unlimited, infamously declaring, ‘The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.’ Mann, though he merely rented Lydia, committed no crime when he shot her. When it came to dominion over a household’s enslaved people, Ruffin thereby erased distinctions between those who held deeds of ownership and those who rented, borrowed, or otherwise kept enslaved people in their households. Today, many scholars of slavery avoid the term ‘owner’ altogether, this in an effort to distinguish their thinking from that of men like Thomas Ruffin. The term owner carries along with it vestiges of Ruffin’s view of slaveholders’ power as absolute, so much so that it is perhaps better to avoid it altogether. This is especially true for researchers whose findings evidence how enslaved people, despite pronouncements of men like Ruffin, resisted, negotiated and otherwise exercised power in their dealings with slaveholders. Many nineteenth century lawmakers imagined and even desired that slaveholders’ power be absolute, and imposed that view in their courtrooms. Still, the record of lived experience demonstrates how enslaved people seized power when they could, as they could. And in doing often compromised Ruffin’s vision.”

According to Professor Jones, “The term ‘enslaver’ is today an increasingly preferred term for men such as Mr. Hopkins, John Mann and even Justice Ruffin, who also enslaved people. The word enslaver, scholars suggest, better conveys how those who held persons as property actively did so by will, by volition, out of self-interest, and for gain. Dr. Daina Ramey Berry and Dr. P. Gabrielle Foreman crowdsourced a primer, ‘Writing About ‘Slavery’? This Might Help,’ that shares recommended terminology. For example, they explain: ‘The term ‘master’ transmits the aspirations and values of the enslaving class without naming the practices they engaged [in.]’ The same can be said of the term owner. … By the terms of the 1850 census, Mr. Hopkins was an ‘owner’ of enslaved people. While that word reveals a great deal about the authority Mr. Hopkins held over those enslaved in his household, it does not acknowledge how those whom census enumerators dubbed ‘slaves’ may have exercised their own power in everyday dealings with him.


  1. […] Student of the American Civil War: Owner? Yes. Enslaver? Certainly […]

  2. […] Student of the American Civil War: Owner? Yes. Enslaver? Certainly […]

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