Work of the Fellows: Monographs

Benevolence Among Slaveholders: Assisting the Poor in Charleston, 1670-1860

By Barbara L. Bellows (Trustee; NHC Fellow, 1985–86)

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993

From the publisher’s description:

Most studies of antebellum southern society have focused on the relationships between slaveholders and their chattels or, more recently, between the plantation elite and southern yeomen. Scant attention has been paid to the social complexity of antebellum southern Cities, a situation Barbara L. Bellows helps rectify in Benevolence Among Slaveholders, her study of public assistance programs for the poor in Charleston, South Carolina, and other southern cities, from 1670 to 1860. Free-rations programs, poorhouses, and orphanages, the major forms of public welfare in urban areas, assisted the luckless, ill, and idle, but members of the working classes were also forced to turn to them for help during seasonal unemployment and economic depressions. The value of Bellows' study is twofold: first, it offers increased knowledge of the lives of the white lower classes, including their work and wage patterns and family structures; second, it provides insight into the attitudes of the urban elite who distributed public alms and sat on the boards of various charities. The form of poor relief in the South closely resembled that in the North, and indeed overseers of the poor in the South often evaluated their own efforts by comparing them with those of northern cities. Bellows finds, however, that the motivation for public benevolence differed greatly between the two regions. Unlike northern humanitarianism, which grew from a philosophical liberalism that moved northerners to scrutinize and then attempt to reform their society, the benevolence of the southern elite derived from the same set of paternalistic assumptions about the hierarchical rather than democratic nature of society that directed theirtreatment of slaves. In particular, the southern urban elite imagined that public relief could serve to create a community of obligation that would bind the interests of lower-class whites to wealthy whites rather than to the free blacks who shared their poverty. For this reason, poor relief went mainly to whites, and the races were segregated in poorhouses, apprenticeship arrangements, and free-education programs. Benevolence Among Slaveholders is based on a wide range of primary sources, including the papers of urban leaders, minutes of public and private charities, records of municipal institutions, church records, and city newspapers. The result is a detailed picture of the world of the antebellum southern urban poor and of the mentality of the elites who assumed their supervision.

History / Antebellum Era / Charitable Giving / Poverty / Slaveholders / Social History /

Bellows, Barbara L. (Trustee; NHC Fellow, 1985–86). Benevolence Among Slaveholders: Assisting the Poor in Charleston, 1670-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.