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The Context of the Michael Shiner Diary

Slavery and  the Organizational Structure of the Washington Navy Yard 1820 -1865

Michael Shiner's diary depicts a world which while similar to ours in many surface aspects was vastly different. That our national past "is another country" is today readily accepted and has become something of a cliché, yet it must be stressed that for much of the first century and a half of the Washington Navy Yard's existence those who worked in its shops and offices lived in an environment that was often dramatically dissimilar to our present. Throughout much of the fifty-six years covered in Shiner's manuscript for the thousands of laborers and mechanics who toiled at the Washington Navy Yard, poverty and financial insecurity were not vague conditions. Slavery was a legal institution, and the majority of the adult population of Washington D.C. had only limited or no political rights. In the Diary we gain a window on the values and attitudes of his era. In the Diary, too we see reflected the conflict of beliefs and ideas by citizens of the District of Columbia, some whom advocated strict social hierarchy, racial subordination and deference to one's "betters," while mechanics and workers, white and black, free and enslaved, sought a more inclusive and just society.

The early Washington Navy Yard reflected the larger stratified society. At the very pinnacle of the Washington Navy Yard heirarchy was the Commandant (e.g., men like Commodores Thomas Tingey and Isaac Hull). Directly below the Commandant was another senior officer who acted much like a modern executive officer. This officer provided the workforce with day-to-day direction through implementing orders and insuring that the Commandant's wishes were carried out. During most of this period that officer was a senior First Lieutenant, although in some instances a naval Captain (e.g., John Cassin) performed similar duties.

From its rough beginnings in 1799, Washington Navy Yard civilians far outnumbered military members and for much of this period, there was only a small cadre of naval officers permanently assigned to the Yard at any one time. Some officers such as Marmaduke Dove (Sailing Master) or David Eaton (Boatswain) were assigned for long periods because they possessed special technical skills critical to the manufacture of early sailing vessels.

While the Washington Navy Yard Commandant in theory exercised almost unlimited authority over all matters related to naval officers, enlisted personnel, and the civilian workforce, in practice there were both institutional and customary checks on his decision making. At the top of heirarchy governing the civilian workforce were the yard clerks. Their jobs were primarily administrative in nature. A clerk such as Thomas Howard (Michael Shiner's master from 1828), who was the Chief Clerk, was near the very top of Washington Navy Yard civilian hierarchy and was paid a fixed or annual salary. As Chief Clerk, Thomas Howard had considerable responsibility in a position which bears little relation to our modern clerical employees. Thomas Howard was responsible for the Washington Navy Yard's official correspondence, the conduct and recording of the daily musters, and the review of all official outgoing correspondence. Most importantly Howard and other clerks often acted for the Commandant on budget, contracting, and administrative issues; here they exercised wide discretion within their particular domains. Thomas Howard's steady salary rather than per diem wage meant he enjoyed a modicum of financial security and access to a wider social sphere than the mechanics and laborers. The clerks could often afford to rent or own a house, keep horses, employ servants, and in some cases own slaves. The 1830 census for the District of Columbia reflects that Thomas Howard owned his home, supported a large family, and owned four other slaves in addition to Michael Shiner.

A further distinction between naval yard clerks such as Thomas Howard and the Washington Navy Yard mechanics and laborers was political. The early District of Columbia's municipal charter narrowly defined voters as white male property owners. This effectively excluded almost all white mechanics and laborers, all blacks and all women. This limited form of white male suffrage would continue until 1848, with black males remaining effectively excluded from the franchise until after the Civil War and women until the passage of 19th amendment in 1920.

The next tier in the civilian hierarchy (below the Chief Clerk) were the Master Mechanics. Each trade had a Master Mechanic. These individuals were recognized experts in their specialty and usually had many years of trade experience. Master Mechanics often supervised large numbers of employees. Men such as Benjamin King (Master Blacksmith) or Phillip Inch (Master Painter and Michael Shiner's day-to-day supervisor) controlled large numbers of employees. Within each Washington Navy Yard shop it was the Master Mechanic who gave overall work direction through the Quarterman and lead man to the tradesman. Most importantly Master Mechanics had the power to hire and dismiss mechanics and laborers.

Next in order of importance came the Quarterman (leader of several work crews) then the lead man (or crew leader). Next were the mechanics these were skilled tradesman who had successfully completed a five or six year trade apprenticeship in their field. Each trade had trainees or apprentices who were young workers in training. Each apprentice signed a binding legal agreement to return designated service in exchange for being taught his trade. Laborers were below the mechanics and were unskilled men who performed heavy but necessary work, such as digging, pile driving, and pulling or hauling of ships and ship parts.

From the nation's founding, slavery was an integral and legally recognized part of the new United States and slaves made up a significant but generally unacknowledged part of the Washington Navy Yard's antebellum workforce. At the Washington Navy Yard most African-Americans (free and enslaved) were confined to unpleasant less skilled work (e.g. caulking or working in the anchor shop). White mechanics and laborers frequently resented and feared their African-American co-workers and were especially apprehensive of those enslaved; many saw this population as a direct threat to their livelihood (Washington Navy Yard Blacksmith's petition of 1812).3 Michael Shiner's diary entries give us occasional glimpses of slavery's casual brutality, a brutality to which even the most trusted slaves (such as Commodore Thomas Tingey's young footman) could be subjected to when after his late arrival he was disciplined with a "starter" (see 1828, p. 27). The Diary starkly reveals the sudden and terrible events that could break a black family, as when Michael Shiner's wife Phillis and their three young children were abducted by slave dealers and placed in a notorious slave pen in Alexandria, VA. They were taken off the public streets; just a few blocks from the navy yard (p. 53 entry for 5 June 1833).

At the navy yard, white workers as well as free and enslaved African-Americans worked together for the most part in an uneasy tension. Shiner's entries capture this anxiety especially in the dramatic events of the 1830's where he describes his own precarious survival. In times of danger or political upheaval such as the 1835 "Snow Storm," and the election of 1857 when many of the District of Columbia's white workers resorted to violence and riot to intimidate enslaved and free African-Americans. (pp 57-75 and p. 156.) The constant danger blacks faced on the streets of Washington is reflected as he recounts his often perilous journeys to and from work.

Many of the Yard's early leaders, both military officers and senior civilians, were slaveholders and benefited directly from enslaved labor. Some such as the first and second Commandants, Thomas Tingey and Isaac Hull, used their slaves as household servants, while other of a more entrepreneurial disposition like Naval Constructor Josiah Fox, Master Blacksmith Benjamin King, and Chief Clerk Thomas Howard had their slaves leased directly to the Navy.

A report from Commandant Isaac Hull to the Board of Naval Commissioners gives some sense of how the issues of slavery were construed:

"I have understood from Captain Shubrick that when you were last in the Navy Yard you enquired of him whether Slaves belonging to Officers were employed at the Yard and at the same time informed him there was a positive order against employing Slaves belonging to Officers. I have caused a search to be made but can not find any such order either by circular or by letter receipted for this yard and I have found all the Slaves now in the yard and many others that I discharged since I took the Command here I took it for granted they were employed by Special Permission and that permission given because white men could not be found to work in the Anchor Shop. I now have the honor to forward a list of all the Slaves now employed in the Yard. Those belonging to the ordinary might be discharged and White Men or free Blacks taken to fill their places but I fear we could not find a set of men White or Black or men even Slaves belonging to poor people outside the yard to do the work the men now do in the Anchor Shops. The competent mechanics have long known them and I have no cause to complain on the contrary I consider them the hardest working men in the yard and as they understand their work they can do much more work in a day than new hands could and I should suppose it would require many weeks if not months to get a gang of hands for the Anchor Shop to do the work that is now done."4

In a previous report Hull had listed a total of 13 slaves employed at the Washington Navy Yard.5 Hull's list does not include Thomas Howard and Benjamin King who had leased their slaves to work at the Washington Navy Yard and allowed them a portion of their wages for their own personal use.

After his manumission, Shiner was able to exercise some autonomy and freedom in his personal life, though like other African Americans, the District's Black Codes, gave him only limited control over crucial aspects of his existence. Despite the District of Columbia's severe restrictions on freeman, the everyday racial prejudice and limited opportunities, the diary entries continued to reflect his profound religious faith, essential optimism and his hope for a more just future. Today his privately recorded thoughts and reflections are precious legacy that allows us a window through which we can catch glimpses of his world.


3. Significant racial tension was evident at the Washington Navy Yard from its beginning as the Navy Department attempted with limited success to manage a workforce consisting of white mechanics and laborers, free African Americans and significant numbers of slaves. See Dudley, page 524 and Sharp pages 16-17.

4. Commandant Isaac Hull's letter to the Naval Board of Commissioners, dated 5 April 1830, National Archives and Records Administration RG 45.

5. Commandant Isaac Hull's letter to the Board of Naval Commissioners, dated 8 May 1829, National Archives and Records Administration RG 45.

Published: Thu Feb 19 09:35:11 EST 2015