The picture of slavery is largely borne out by James Oaks’s study of Southern slaveholders, The Ruling Race. He divides the slave Owners broadly into three categories. At one extreme were the small Elite of great planters who have commanded so much of the Limelight in both Southern mythology and Southern historiography. At The Other Extreme was the large number of owners of no more than five slaves. Members of this group commonly worked alongside their handful of slaves in the fields and shared with them the ups and downs of their lives, they’re generally precarious economic situations, and their frequent Moves In Search of a fresh start. Between these two contrasting classes of large Planters and small, struggling former what does substantial numbers of middle-class Masters, Oaks sees a very much the backbone of southern slave Society. Then we’re often ambitious, upwardly mobile men, constantly seeking to acquire more land and more slaves, and often combining their land ownership with pursuit of other business or professional interests, as shopkeepers, Artisans, doctors, teachers, and, most notably perhaps, as lawyers.
Four members of all three classes, slave ownership was an indication of status and a vehicle of upward Mobility. But they invested in slaves, and yet more slaves, chiefly for the labor, and it is appropriate that any more detailed consideration of the South’s peculiar institution should begin with the work slaves were required to undertake. Before all else, a slave life was one of toil.