Elites in the antebellum South (book project)

How do elites preserve power in the face of threats from non-elites? I answer this question in the case of the antebellum US South; I identify the strategies elites used to repress enslaved Americans and to co-opt non-slaveholding whites. Using a combination of formal theory and novel historical data, I demonstrate how enslavers manipulated public institutions to secure their wealth when private means of repression and coercion were insufficient. The book project emerging from my dissertation speaks to longstanding questions of strategic racial alliance and autocratic stability.

Repression of enslaved Americans' protest: A model of escape in the antebellum South

How did Southern elites maintain a system that violently extracted labor out of unwilling participants? Resistance by enslaved Americans was common, and it threatened the wealth, power, and lives of elites. So, enslavers employed a litany of individual and collective strategies to reduce the threat of resistance. I study how the South repressed one particular type of resistance: escape. While existing work has considered various repressive strategies in isolation, I model two ways to discourage escape - ex ante positive incentives and ex post pursuit - and contextualize them within the broader repressive environment. Results indicate that higher rewards do not always decrease escape attempts, and that, under certain conditions, higher rewards are associated with more pursuit and the same amount of running. Furthermore, enslavers do not always expend more on pursuit when the exogenous likelihood of escape is higher. The model speaks to enslavers' demands for slave patrols, and it suggests when pursuit, particularly in the form of runaway slave ads, is an appropriate proxy for escape attempts.

[paper] [journal link] [online appendix]

Slave Patrols and School Funds: How elites secured non-slaveholding Whites' participation in the antebellum US South

How do elites secure power in multiracial settings? I address this question with an examination of the antebellum US South. Southern elites constructed a vast security apparatus to police enslaved persons, but its success required the participation of non-slaveholding Whites. I hypothesize that elites secured non-slaveholders’ compliance by offering policy concessions – specifically, public school funding – where elites most demanded policing. Using 1850 census data, I show that counties with larger enslaved populations received more government funding for public schools. I then introduce a novel dataset on North Carolina schools (1840-1860) and find that more densely enslaved counties not only received more funds from the state, but also raised more tax revenue for local schools. Further, densely enslaved counties raised more school taxes the closer they were to rivers and railroads which facilitated escape. I rule out electoral incentives and differential preferences for education as alternative explanations. Taken together, the findings suggest that elites responded to the threat of slave escape by funding schools for the benefit of non-slaveholding Whites.