Institutionalizing the Slave Power at the Local Level
Wealthy Virginians of the eighteenth century wielded incredible social capital. Indeed, so entangled was mastery in the fabric of wealthy Virginians’ social status that it can be difficult to parse out specifically what sort of power it held apart from wealth and reputation. This chapter presents quantitative evidence indirectly supporting the proposition that holding slaves (and holding more slaves) bestowed additional social status on Virginians, separate from other sources of status. It uses a sample of York County, Virginia, probate inventories drawn from between 1700 and 1800 to show that court-appointed estate appraisers returned inventories that were longer, more thorough, and more descriptive for decedents who owned an unexpectedly large number of slaves, after accounting for the decedent’s gender, urban/rural location, apparent inflation-adjusted wealth, the percentage of wealth the decedents held as slaves, and the year the inventory was reported to the court. The data suggest that owning slaves granted wealthy whites of eighteenth-century Virginia a type of social capital that transcended the wealth that the mastery of black bodies indicated. The commodification of people of color provided benefits to whites that rippled beyond their bank accounts.