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“The Happiest Laboring Class in the World”: Two Virginia Slaveholders Debate Methods of Slave Management, 1837.

These two pieces appeared in the Farmer’s Register, a periodical of practical information for farmers, in 1837. Yet they go far beyond the simply practical to convey a great deal about the culture of slavery in the antebellum south—perhaps more than the authors intended. Two unnamed Virginia slaveholders debated the advantages and disadvantages of employing overseers; opined about the best types of food, housing, and clothing for slaves; and weighed the relative benefits of kindness and severity in their treatment of slaves. They also speculated about the characters of the enslaved African Americans they compelled to work for them. While these slaveholders confidently related their methods of control over their enslaved work force, their own words told quite another story about slaves' resistance through trickery and theft. And their insistence that slavery was a humane and necessary system was belied by their own descriptions of slaves who were ill, exhausted, and undernourished. Such innate contradictions weakened and ultimately damaged the institution of southern slavery.

"Management of Slaves, &c."

Charlotte County.

It might be inferred, from the manner in which many masters (who have been raised, too, in the midst of a slave population,) treat their slaves, that they were as ignorant of the character, feelings, and sympathies of the negro, as they are of those of a Hottentot or Laplander. The most common error is underrating the capacity of the slave. I have spent much time with this population, in the capacity of a master, and managed them without the intervention of overseers; and must confess that my opinion of their sagacity is greatly raised by this intercourse. I have found them apt to learn, very tractable, and remarkable for patience and evenness of temper. They are very grateful for good treatment, if proper discipline and authority is kept up over them. They soon ascertain the character of those in authority over them, their peculiarities of temperament and disposition, and frequently, under the cloak of great stupidity, make dupes of the master and overseer. The most general defect in the character of the negro is hypocrisy; and this hypocrisy frequently makes him pretend to more ignorance than he possesses; and if his master treats him as a fool, he will be sure to act the fool’s part. This is a very convenient trait, as it frequently serves as an apology for awkwardness and neglect of duty. The most important part of management of slaves, is always to keep them under proper subjection. They must obey at all times, and under all circumstances, cheerfully and with alacrity. It greatly impairs the happiness of a negro, to be allowed to cultivate an insubordinate temper. Unconditional submission is the only footing upon which slavery should be placed. It is precisely similar to the attitude of a minor to his parent, or a soldier to his general. But, it is not intended by this remark to justify harsh and reproachful language on all occasions, from the master. His authority should be exercised in a firm, but mild manner....I never saw any degree of courtesy shown to a negro, (that was kept under good subjection,) but was returned with usury [with interest]. Cuffee is hard to outdo in politeness.

The most important subject to attend to in the management of negroes, is to give them a sufficiency of food. I have heard many comparisons made between negro slavery and the operative classes of old countries, to prove that too much meat was given them. But it is no argument to a humane master, to starve and half clothe his slaves, because the poor Irish are naked, and get meat only once a week. I am clearly of opinion that a half starved hireling in Russia, Germany or Great Britain, exhibits to his employer the most degrading attitude that one portion of the species ever stood towards the other, and I do not believe that any lesson can be learned from them, either beneficial to the Virginia slave or his master. But I think it probable that the poverty of the diet of the German and Irish labourer, is much alleviated by a great variety of succulent vegetables; such as the potatoe, beet, turnip, &c., and mostly by the common use of milk and butter. But corn meal bread, with little or no meat, and no vegetable diet, is extremely hard fare. I believe that there are extremely few masters who starve their slaves to actual suffering; in fact, I am unacquainted with any such. But, I have no doubt that the slow motion, and thin expression of countenance, of many slaves, are owing to a want of a sufficiency of nourishing food. the great susceptibility of many families of negroes to scrofula, is to be attributed to hard and scanty living. There is, however, a great change for the better, in the article of diet to negroes, within the last ten or fifteen years....

A negro slave is so constituted that he is dependent in a great measure for happiness on his food. And nothing has a greater tendency to inspire cheerfulness and industry, then to look forward to the prospect of a good meal. It must, too, be a source of pleasing [reflection] to the master, to afford the additional happiness which such luxuries never fail to yield. I am very certain, from an attentive observation to this subject, that a negro deprived of meat diet, is not able to endure the labor that those can perform who are liberally supplied with it; and that the master who gives his field hands half a pound of meat per day, and two quarts of meal, (or something short of this when an allowance of vegetables is made,) is better compensated by slave labor, than those who give the ordinary quantity. Their food should be cooked for them twice a day, and carried out to the field. It is a general custom in this part of the state, to have their food cooked but once a day, and to require each negro to cook for himself at night, and carry with him his food for the morning’s meal in the field; but his love of indulgence, or fatigue, frequently induces him to fall to sleep as soon as he reaches his cabin, and if he is unfortunate enough not to wake at midnight and cook his morning’s meal, (which indeed is a frequent habit with them,) he is compelled to fast until his dinner hour the next day.

The next most important matter to be attended to, is the slaves' lodging....[H]ewed log cabins with white oak sills, 16 feet by 18, make very comfortable houses. The roof should be framed. The old fashioned cabins, with log roofs, and slabs not nailed, but merely confined by logs, almost invariably leak, and keep the cabin floor always wet; which, I have no doubt is one origin of the catarrhal affections which terminate in what is called “negro consumption.” But these cabins are going fast out of use. It is highly important that dirt-floors should be raised a foot higher than the surrounding surface of the earth, and well rammed, to keep them dry. The hewed log cabins with hewed sills, will out last three sets of cabin roofed houses.

“Management of Slaves, &c.,” The Farmers' Register: A Monthly Publication Devoted to the Improvement of the Practice, and Support of the Interests of Agriculture 5 (May 1, 1837): 32–33.

To the Editor of the Farmers' Register. Remarks on Overseers, and the Proper Treatment of Slaves. Fredericksburg, August 5th, 1837.

Some of the contributors to your periodical are advocating a system of farming, so far as it refers to our slaves, without the aid of overseers—substituting a scheme of pecuniary rewards according to merit, and withholding them for want of it. On small farms, when the owner is an active energetic man, he may manage his concerns well enough without aid; but on farms of 800 acres, or more, I think he will find a difficult task to manage his negroes unless assisted by an overseer.

When Negroes are accustomed to an overseer, and you dispense with services of one, they must be exposed to a great deal of temptation, far more than they can resist. And education has not taught them the difference between right and wrong; at any rate, their ideas on the subject must be confused. What they learn of the moral code, is gathered from observation, and the example of others, their superiors. How can any person, who, has no overseer, be all at hours with his negroes, when he is delivering his grain for example. Let him turn his back, and a cunning fellow will help himself to a bushel of corn or wheat, and he will never be informed upon by his fellow laborers, though ever so honest; for an informer, in their eyes, is held in greater detestation than the most notorious thief.

I admit that many overseers are vain, weak tyrants, “dressed in a little brief authority,” but probably a larger proportion of farmers of Virginia are indifferent cultivators of the soil. I regard an overseer as an indispensable agent, whose first qualities should be honesty and firmness, united with forbearance and good temper. Sobriety is a a sine qua non. A written agreement should be drawn up between the employer and the employed, to be signed by both, setting forth the terms, and mentioning the most important requisitions, which will occur to every one. An overseer’s wages should always be paid in money; for if you give him a part of the crops, your land will be worked to death, and never have a dozen loads of manure spread upon it. In addition to this, your views and his will frequently come into collision.

Your overseer should be treated with marked respect; for if you treat him contemptuously or familiarly, your authority and his are injured. He should not be allowed to strike a negro with his fist or a stick, nor ever to punish with severity; for it is not the severity, but certainty of punishment that wins implicit obedience.

The subject before me turns my thoughts to the food, houses, and clothing of the negro. The master sho[u]ld ever bear in mind, that he is the guardian and protector of his slaves, who if well treated and used, are the happiest laboring class in the world.....

Liberally and plentifully fed, warmly clad and housed, your negroes work harder and more willingly, will be more healthy, and their moral character be improved, for they will not be urged by a hungry longing for meat, to steal their masters' hogs, sheep, and poultry, or to make predatory excursions upon his neighbors. Your negroes will breed much faster when well clothed, fed and housed; which fact, offers an inducement to those slave owners, whose hearts do not overflow with feelings of humanity.

The character of the negro is much underrated. It is like the plastic clay, which, may be moulded into agreeable or disagreeable figures, according to the skill of the moulder. The man who storms at, and curses his negroes, and who tells them they are a parcel of infernal rascals, not to be trusted, will surely make them just what he calls them; and so far from loving such a master, they will hate him. Now, if you be not suspicious, and induce them to think, by slight trusts, that they are not unworthy of some confidence, you will make them honest, useful, and affectionate creatures....H.H,

Source: “Remarks on Overseers, and the Proper Treatment of Slaves,” The Farmers’ Register: A Monthly Publication Devoted to the Improvement of the Practice, and Support of the Interests of Agriculture 5 (September 1837): 301–302.