Slavery, the peculiar institution, existed but a few decades ago as perhaps the most divisive issue ever to befall the United States. Upon approaching the topic of slavery, it is commonplace to view the relationship between slaves and masters as one of ultimate power favoring the slaveholder. However, firsthand accounts of slaves seen in primary sources from the period shed new light on the master/slave relationship. Though slaves were bound to their master's demands by law, the importance of their labor allowed them a small degree of agency. Small negotiations between master and slave were critical interactions that helped define both slavery and slave's reactions to it. Numerous counts of these negotiations can be found in documents like The Narrative of Frederick Douglass. Though these micro-negotiations could keep slave morale up, they incited an equal amount of resistance within slaves, and must be fully understood to comprehend their implications.
The master/slave relationship from the perspective of a southern plantation owner was one filled with downright cruel, and often underhanded methods designed to serve his purpose. Being that it was a slave's lawful duty to be bound to labor, it was the master's duty to keep the slave working efficiently by whatever means available. A common negotiation tactic employed by slave masters was to reward good work with an improved (but still pitiful) work environment. This unspoken negotiation was witnessed by Frederick Douglass and his recollection of "The Great House Farm" . According to Douglass working on said farm was "...evidence of great confidence reposed in them by their overseers, and it was on this account... that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth careful living for"1. By offering their best effort at service, slaves were given the opportunity to better their situation and be "out of the field from under the driver's lash"1. It was this small slice of agency that kept...