Written by Salsabil Katalin Al-Rashed
As a Hungarian, slavery is not a major part of my country’s history, but as I learned more about the institution of slavery, I could not help but notice the similarities between it and the Hungarian feudalistic society. There are multiple parallels to be found between the two systems even without diving too deep, but I wanted to investigate them more and find the exact differences and similarities between the two. In this essay, I will only be looking at the history of slavery in the United States and feudalism in Hungary, as those are the topics I had prior knowledge of and are what that sparked the idea in my mind.
Slavery in the United States
Early years of the US
As the United States only became an actual country with the declaration of independence, I will only be looking at slavery after 1776. This is not to deny the fact that many atrocities happened in the colonies before the founding of the United States of America, for example in 1640, when they first made a clear distinction between Europeans and Africans in a court case involving slaves.
Slaves were treated as property and therefore got sold and bought like cattle. Due to this, at the constitutional convention in 1787, the question of whether to count them as humans, and if so, how they should do, it came up. After about a month of debating, the solution they agreed on was the Three-Fifths Compromise.
It meant that out of every five slaves only three were counted as citizens, when determining the number of seats a state would get in the House of Representatives. Since slaves were not allowed to vote, but they made up the majority of the population in the Southern states, whites in the South had more power than in the North.
After this, all Northern states abolished slavery on paper in 1805, although in multiple states there were slave owners up until the 1840s. Along with this, Congress banned the importation of slaves, however this did not stop people from smuggling them in. As the cotton industry grew stronger in the South, there was an “increased demand for slavery” further dividing the United States.
The Civil War
There is no denying the fact that the Civil War in the United States broke out over slavery. After Lincoln was elected president on the premise of slowing the spread of slavery, slave owners in the South started fearing that he might abolish the institution completely, and destroy the Southern economy, which primarily relied on slave labor. At first seven Southern states, then later an additional four after President Lincoln’s requests to join the fight against the original seven, unofficially split from the Union and established the Confederate states.
Not long after the war broke out, the Union figured out a way to claim the slaves they captured in the South, as contraband and free them. This caused many slaves to flee into Union territory to be freed after which, many of them joined the Union army as troops, forming whole black regiments.
Because the Southern economy relied heavily on slaves, Congress started pressuring Lincoln into officially freeing all slaves, as it would cause every slave that heard about the proclamation to flee from the Confederacy into the Union. This led Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, which officially freed every slave as soon as they arrived on Union soil.
Three years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the war came to an end when the Confederate states surrendered. Not long before the surrender, on June 19th Union soldiers freed the last slaves in Texas. Juneteenth is celebrated to this day, as the day when the last slaves freed in the United States. Although the Thirteenth Amendment did not go into effect until December of 1865, six months after the end of the war.
Even though slavery ended in 1865, there were still ways of obtaining slave labor. For example, in the form of convict leasing, which is still legal in a few states today. Convict leasing meant, that private contractors could lease convicts, for minimal pay, housing, and food, which meant cheaper work than hiring actual workers for many of these contractors. This system still mostly targeted African Americans. The other system that replaced slavery was sharecropping, where a landowner lent a piece of their land to a tenant for a share of the crops grown on it.
There was a slave-code in place as a kind of law for slavery. These laws allowed countless dehumanizing acts. For example, the status of a slave was passed down from mother to child, making it possible for slave owners to rape their slaves and ignore them if they got pregnant. This also led to an increased number of abortions as mothers did not want their children to have to live terrible lives, which only worsened the situation of slaves.
There were other laws in place, which allowed settlers to make any regulations to govern their slaves, allowing their masters to do anything to them, if they thought that they were acting out of line. These laws also considered everyone with any amount of African heritage African regardless of their slave status.
Slaves had very limited legal rights, which is to say none. Whenever they testified against white people their testimony would be dismissed. They could not own property, sign contracts, they were not allowed to retaliate against whites nor could they leave their owners’ premises without permission. Other than this, they did not have the basic right to assemble, own firearms, marry, learn to read, or to write/own “inflammatory literature.”
Along with their very limited rights, they received heavy punishments for the mildest crimes. These punisments included whipping, branding, imprisonment, and sometimes even death. Although death as a punishment was very rare as slaves were valuable assets and slave owners did not want to lose them.
They also were not able to revolt, because there was a hierarchy of slaves in place, which kept them divided. House slaves were on the top, they had it the best, then skilled artisans, then at the bottom were the field workers, of whom there were the most of. Even though they could not revolt, they could escape even before the Civil War thanks to the Underground Railroad. This railroad was a network of secret routes in the Northern states and Canada that helped thousands of slaves in escaping from their masters.
Serfs in Hungary
In the beginning
The situation of the serfs in Hungary differs from the situation of the slaves in the United States in countless ways. But in multiple others they were very similar, especially in the early days of the Hungarian empire.
Originally, in the Arpad-period, some of them were mere servants, while others had their own land and paid taxes. The workers paying taxes were called the serfs, or libers in Latin. The servants, usually prisoners of war, captured during expeditions, were treated just like slaves, or worse. As the population grew, so did the number of libers, but the amount of land did not, which lead to the worsening of libers’ situations.
In the 13th century, the meaning of serf got more derogatory, started meaning people working under squires, on the squires’ fields, in exchange for a small amount of land where they could live and grow their own crops. What liberty the serfs had was thanks to the hospeses, who were Western-European people, that moved to Hungary due to overpopulation. They had no obligations and were free to move. Hospeses had already gone through the struggle of getting more rights for serfs and brought that freedom with them.
In the beginning of the 14th century, there were no general regulations in place, so it was up to each squire to determine how much and in what way they wanted to tax the serfs living on their land. In 1351 King Lajos the 1st issued a law to regulate the taxing of serfs. This law contained the following:
- Every serf had to serve their squire per the size of their land
- They had to give one-tenth of their produce to the church (dézsma)
- They had to give one-tenth of their remaining produce to their squire (ninth)
- They had to pay a certain amount of money for being allowed to use the land (land-rent)
- They were also required to work a certain number of hours for free on the land of their squire (robots)
- They had to give their squire gifts for “special occasions,” such as family events
- Along with all of these, they also had to pay “gate taxes” to the state after every gate that a chariot carrying hay could fit through
- They had the right to move, but if they got into any legal trouble, their squire was their judge
Even though serfs had land, King Lajos’ inheritance law made life impossible for later generations. These laws allowed the passing down of status and land, but if a serf had more than one male child, their land got split into as many parts as they had male children. Through this, a small number of serfs managed to become rich, by buying the miniature lands of other, impoverished serfs.
Even though King Lajos’ laws specified many things, the amount of robot required from each serf was not determined. To correct this, and to be able to tax the serfs more to benefit the state, the autocratic leader Maria Theresa published the Squire’s decree in 1767. In it, she limited the required robot from a serf with a whole plot of land to 52 days if done with animals, or 104 days a year if done by hand.
The abolition of the feudalistic system was a common talking point in Hungary. Even some squires supported the abolitionist movement, like Earl Istvan Széchenyi, who wrote a book titled “Loan” where he called out the major flaws of the system. In the end, after years of fighting, the serfs were liberated in 1853 by the squire’s edict, in which the squires got compensated for losing their serfs. Though this was not satisfactory to either party, as many serfs were left without land, and the squires got much less compensation than expected.
There were countless attempted serf revolutions over the centuries, but none of them were truly successful, as the state and the people with military power never supported them. Besides this, the situation of the serfs differed from squire to squire, so there was rarely universal support among serfs for the revolutions. And because Hungary was often occupied by foreign forces, there were bigger threats to the freedom of serfs than the squires.
Thoughts and actual comparison
I started writing this essay, without any genuine proof of similarities between the two systems, and with not much prior knowledge about their histories. The more I investigated it, the more evidence I found of the similarities between the two. I will divide this ending segment into two parts, the differences, and similarities.
The biggest difference comes from the fact that one of the two systems existed for much longer, so it had time to become less restrictive. Serfs had many more rights than slaves and had more freedom by the 13th century. In general serfs were freer than slaves, they also did not have to endure as harsh punishments as them. And after laws were passed serfs could freely leave the property of their squire and move to a property with better circumstances, while slaves were stuck on their master’s property until their death.
Feudalism didn’t care about race, the serfs were not serfs because of the color of their skin, or the country their ancestors were from, they were serfs because in the past they weren’t aggressive and successful enough to get substantial amounts of land. While slavery in the United States was mostly about white supremacy, shipping people in from another continent, to work on their plantations, and treating them like cattle, because they were not European.
Furthermore, the countries are fundamentally different, as the United States was 13 colonies that, while owned by the British, were never actually occupied by another nation, while Hungary often was.
If we consider the fact that the origin of the serfs dates back to the early 10th century, and look at both systems from their beginnings, there are many similarities.
They both started, because there was a demand for cheap labor, and originally were people taken from their homeland to serve under someone from a different country. Their masters had control over their punishments, and when they would receive them. They relied on their masters’ generosity to have their basic needs met.
Both systems forced their workers to work for their master for free, by taking all their possessions away and punishing them if they did not. Their status was passed on from parent to child and was near impossible to escape, and even if they did, there was no guarantee that their life would change for the better.
Both the slaves and serfs had started revolutions against their oppressors and both groups failed because the higher powers were the ones with all the military power and influence.
And lastly, both systems ended around the same time. The serfs of Hungary were freed in 1853 and the slaves in the United States would follow only a mere twelve years later in 1865.
– Salsabil Katalin Al-Rashed
Horváth Andrea, Horváth Levente Attila – Történelem 6, A középkor és a kora újkor története