Eric V. Snow



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Overseers have a well-deserved reputation for brutality.452 Generally overseers in the South were emotional, uneducated men possessing a violence-prone frontier mentality, often deficient in the "people skills" required to manage slaves successfully. Since keeping slaves in line was a continual struggle, and the use of raw force and punishment was frequently necessary because they had little incentive to work, these realities soon hardened most overseers who were not harsh to begin with. As the case Olmsted witnessed, in which one overseer unemotionally inflicted a brutal beating on a shirking slave (cited above, p. 232), the very nature of the system, with its minimal incentives for the slaves to work outside of avoiding physical punishment, made banal cruelty necessary for its continued functioning.
The overseer on a large plantation could be corrupted by his position of nearly unlimited power, especially if the master was not physical present. One antebellum South Carolina newspaper suggested that: "[Overseers] who combine the most intelligence, industry, and character, are allured into the service of those who place all power in their hands, and are ultimately spoiled."453 Even such a man as Barrow, who never hesitated to apply the whip when he felt it necessary, complained about the brutality of his own overseer, as well as their general class, from a slaveholders' viewpoint:
More Whiping to do this Fall than all together in three years owing to my D mean Overseer--never will have another unless I should be compelled to leave . . . I hope the time will come When every Overseer in the country will be compelled to addopt some other mode of making a living--they are a perfect nuisance cause dissatisfaction among the negros--being more possessed of more brutal feelings--I make better crops than those Who Employ them.454
As a result, he stopped hiring overseers, and relied on black drivers for the immediate supervision of his slaves. As will be seen below (pp. 341-42), the slaves could exploit the weaknesses and tensions in the master-overseer relationship for their own ends of evading work.
The Task Versus Gang Systems: Different Approaches to Work Discipline
Choosing between the task and gang systems was another fundamental management decision for a farm or plantation. While the gang system was much more widespread, as the task system was largely limited to lowland Georgia and South Carolina, still a number of slaveholders experimented or found compromises between the two systems. Both should be discussed because of the trade-offs between the two from the viewpoint of the slaveholders and the bondsmen. The task system consisted of giving individual slaves a particular set quota of work in the field, and when they were done, they had the rest of the day off to do largely as they pleased. The gang system consisted of supervising slaves in a group while they worked, driving them through the field to do particular jobs, with no particular limit on the length of the work day other than the rising and setting of the sun. The task system benefited the stronger slaves who could be done earlier in the day, but the full onus of individual responsibility fell on them for any careless or shoddy work done in order to finish early or for any other reason. The gang system tended to benefit the weaker hands, since the number of hours they would have worked at a particular task would have been the same under either system. It allowed slaves as a group to evade responsibility for bad work, because an overseer or master found it harder to discover which individual slave(s) did bad work. As Young noted: "Whereas slaves toiling in gangs could surreptitiously work at less than full speed, the task laborer was accountable if the assigned work was not completed by the end of the day." The enslaved blacks generally appeared to enjoy work in groups over individual labor in isolation, which may have given a them a preference for the gang system, excepting for its intrinsic disadvantage of suffering under much more surveillance and intense regulation from the white overseer, master, or driver. The principal advantage of the task system from the master's viewpoint was that it reduced the amount of immediate supervision required from drivers, overseers, himself, etc. Freedman Mose Jordan recalled for Armstrong this advantage from the slave's view:
'When you git dat done, you can go fishin'!' Massa say. An' dat was de bes' way ter wu'k. De overseer lay off de task. Dis many rows fo' de boys an' gal, dat many fo' de big bucks an' women' folks. 'Git dat done, an' you kin quit,' he say. Den de folks wu'ked ter git it don. Dat better'n whippin' em!
The driver or overseer would set the task at the beginning of the day, and then periodically check during the day to see whether the tasks assigned were completed, and how well the work had been done.455
The Infrapolitics of Task (Quota) Setting
The task system made for continual struggles between the slaves and their owners over the size of the tasks imposed. The masters tried to "up" the tasks set, while the slaves leaned on custom--suddenly transmuted into a "right"--to keep the tasks the same size. Olmsted noted that: "In nearly all ordinary work, custom has settled the extent of the task, and it is difficult to increase it." In this situation, despite all the legalisms about the will of the master being absolute and the slave having to always obey and make himself a mere extension of his owner's will, a degree of "negotiation" occurred between the two sides. The masters who raised the daily task by too much risked "a general stampede to the 'swamp'--a danger the slave can always hold before his master's cupidity." The slaves could employ what amounted to a strike against their owners. This was a rare case of the slaves collectively organizing to resist their owners without using violence. The task system was so entrenched in this area--"Eastern Georgia and South Carolina"--that any master who denied this "proscriptive right" would "suffer in his reputation" and "experience much annoyance from the obstinate 'rascality' of his negroes." The infrapolitics--"day-to-day resistance"--of the task system involved battles over quota setting which are quite similar to those between management and labor in modern industry, especially in the mid-twentieth century socialist economies of Eastern Europe. When masters see slaves getting done at noon, one o'clock, two o'clock, long before sundown, they would want to "up" the norms imposed. Harry Porter, a one-time field hand, recalled that if his fellow bondsmen on his plantation "got through early or half an hour before sundown . . . [their master] would give them more the next day." Sometimes lowland masters imposed day work, and attempted to keep the slaves working steadily all day long. But this backfired, with the slaves often doing less work than they would have under the task system.456 The task system had the great advantage of attempting to harness the slaves' self-interest (and their sense of task-orientation in their work) on behalf of their master, since the sooner they finished, the sooner they could work on their own plots of land and raise food for themselves or crops to sell.

Consider this good example of a struggle between slaves and "management" over the size of the tasks imposed. One group of pregnant slave women pleaded to Kemble to ask the master to lower the size of tasks required of them. She really did not want to do this, especially when they said he had refused their request already, but she weakened before their emotional cries for relief.457 The slaves here exploited potential differences in the white elite that ruled over them--in this case, pitting the mistress against the master--a issue returned to below (pp. 268-69). Because the slaveowners had at their disposal the ability to inflict overwhelming physical force on their workers, an option not available to modern-day management, by using threats they could raise the quotas set for their bondsmen. One planter in Virginia, after firing his incompetent overseer, found that slaves were only expected to chop a cord of firewood a day, which he found ridiculously low. He told one slave to cut two, who replied that was too hard, that he "Nebber heard o' nobody's cuttin' more'n a cord o'wood in a day, roun' hear. No nigger couldn' do it." This master replied: "Well, old man, you have two cords of wood cut to-night, or to-morrow morning you will have two hundred lashes--that's all there is about it. So, look sharp!" From that point on, he got two cords of wood from each slave given that job, although his neighbors still got only one. He also made each slave maul two hundred rails a day, when his neighbors were stuck with one hundred per day. While down in lowland South Carolina or Georgia, Olmsted found the slaves around there were assigned only to do one cord of wood per day, and a hundred rails mauled, which indicates they had successfully hoodwinked "management" generally.458 On paper, the slaves seem legally helpless against the force their owners could bring to bear to compel work from them. But the generally low quotas of work prevailing in many cases demonstrate masters and overseers did not use all the force possible at their disposal. Since the Southern white work ethic (in terms of time-oriented punctual consistency) was not especially strong, the slaves through continual foot-dragging successfully tricked their owners into accepting a level of work performance half or less than that free labor was expected to accomplish.


The Gang System's Advantages
The gang system had the advantage that when the greater level of supervision involved--not to mention violence applied--was done intelligently, the slaves accomplished more than under the task system. The overseer and master had a number of tricks to speed up work without direct use of the lash. Barrow found by organizing a race he could get his slaves to pick more:
hands all running a race--"picking Cotten"--Hands avreaged higher to day than I ever had them to do. 191 1/2 by dinner [noon] . . . never had or heard of such picking as my hands picked yesterday Clean Cotten in the morning--usual Cotten in the evening--averaged 364 1/2. highest 622. lowest 225--42 pickers. 15311 lbs.

Another tactic was to try to have the slaves sing songs with a fast pace that sped up work, that fit the task at hand, or at least made the day's work go by more pleasantly. Thinking more strategically, they also tried to prohibit sadder, depressing songs since they might make them less happy in their condition of lifelong bondage.459 Illustrating how the task system could allow widespread malingering when the quotas were set too low by custom, consider freedman Mose Jordan's memory of the cotton picker's task (quota) for his plantation for one day: 150 pounds. This case confirms the planter who told Olmsted that the average slave did an amount of work only half or less than that of free labor, when considering what Barrow was able to get out of his slaves, at least on unusually good days. One time, on September 10, 1842, his sixty-nine pickers, which included eleven children, averaged 305 pounds, one gathering 520, setting a kind of record, Barrow thought. Many of the first-year pickers, presumably children, were able to pick 120-145 pounds that day.460 A quota of 150 pounds, being obviously lower than what a full day's labor by an experienced, healthy, and persistent adult could perform, demonstrated that the slaves on Jordan's plantation successfully kept the tasks set at a fairly low level, perhaps benefiting from unusually paternalistic or incompetent management. The gang system had the advantage (from the master's viewpoint) of being able to drive the slaves while working, which on good days made them more productive than the task system, for when slaves cultivated crops on their own time after finishing their daily task, this did not directly help the master financially.


When choosing between the task and gang systems, the white slaveholders faced a fundamental trade-off. The task system, by allowing slaves to grow their own crops in the extra time they had left over after their daily tasks were done, gave the slaves more freedom for trading and increased involvement in the economy, but it reduced the costs of supervision and force being applied while raising crops. The gang system allowed slaveowners to greatly narrow the slaves' cultivating and trading activities, significantly restricting the illicit liquor/stolen goods trade slaves carried on with neighboring poor whites. It also reduced the amount of free time they had to lounge about and maybe get into trouble. But this system cost more in requiring continual surveillance and applying violent force to keep them working. Notoriously, "when an overlooker's back is turned, the most of them [slaves] will slight their work or be idle altogether."461 Masters and mistresses also controlled the slaves more because they were almost exclusively dependent on the standard rations doled out to them, of both food and clothing, instead of having the ability to buy or raise their own. Another trade-off was that to increase individual responsibility tended to reduce group responsibility, and vice versa. The task system increased individual responsibility, but at the cost of allowing slaves as a group to have serious though surreptitious influence on the size of the work quotas imposed on them, through a process of implicit "negotiation." The gang system decreased individual responsibility, for it was harder to know who had done a given bit of shoddy work, but increased the ability of the master to control the group as a whole, potentially rebounding to his benefit when done intelligently without an excessive use of violence.
The Patrol/Pass System
The pass/patroller system was another important part of the slaveholders' means of control over their slaves. Nominally all slaves not on their owner's (or renter's) property had to have a pass giving them permission to be elsewhere, especially in rural areas. Any white person, including those not knowing them personally, could ask them to produce a pass. During certain hours, especially at night, any slave could be punished by patrollers if he was up and around off his master's property. The patrollers were normally poor whites who were hired (or effectively conscripted slaveholders) to roam about checking whether slaves were obeying the pass and curfew restrictions. Those without valid passes could be whipped on the spot. While this system tended to only be slackly observed when white fears of slave rebellion were low or in areas with few slaves, patrollers were the main force in rural areas with police powers that dealt with slaves.
The slave patrols deservedly picked up a reputation for inflicting brutal punishments. They were often composed of poor whites seeking to prove their superiority over blacks whose living conditions (or ability to read) were little different from their own. Freedwoman Manda Walker of South Carolina described how one patrol beat her father. His pass had expired because the creek between his master's place and his wife's had overflown, making it difficult to cross on a mule. After commenting, "The time done out, nigger," the patrol proceeded to brutally whip him in front of his wife and children until his wife's master told them to stop. This burst of legalism shows the patrol was merely seeking an excuse to whip a black man, since nature did present a legitimate obstacle against this man getting home on time. Jacobs said the office of constable where she lived was considered a degradation to any white wealthy enough to buy a slave, but one poor white was happy to have it because: "The office enabled its possessor to exercise authority. If he found any slave out after nine o'clock, he could whip him as much as he liked; and that was a privilege to be coveted." While Jacobs likely exaggerated concerning how much the constable was allowed to whip legally, the law was often ignored in Alabama, as former slave Philip Younger described:

In Alabama, the patrols go out in companies at about dark, and ride nearly all night. If they meet a colored man without a pass, it is thirty-nine lashes; but they don't stop for the law, and if they tie a man up, he is very well off if he gets only two hundred. If there is a party assembled at the quarters, they rush in half drunk, and thrash round with their sticks, perhaps before they look at a pass,--all must be whipped unless they rush out.


He also described one patrol which whipped a free black woman married to a barber since "she was in a little better standing than the patrol was." These stories illustrate the patrols' general brutality, which was surely motivated in part by the desire of the poor whites to confirm their superiority over what they would call "uppity niggers," for sometimes people will affirm all the more strongly their differences from some despised group of "others" when those differences are all the more minimal.462
The requirement for slaves to have passes when off-plantation was an essential control device for slaveholders. By regulating their movements, it reduced the risk of slaves gathering to plot revolts and also made it easier to spot and catch runaways. After receiving a request from one slave to visit a family member on another plantation who had just been sold off, Kemble commented:
There seems generally a great objection to the visit of slaves from neighboring plantations, and, I have no doubt, not without sufficient reason. The more I see of this frightful and perilous social system, the more I feel that those who live in the midst of it must make their whole existence one constant precaution against danger of some sort or other.
But how strictly masters adhered to these regulations varied wildly, depending on their whims and the whites' state of concern over slave rebellion. Some masters were not only strict in granting passes, but also tried to keep their slaves on their plantation or farm as much as possible, such as Barrow:
I never give a negro a Pass to go from home without he first states particularly where he wishes to go, and assigns a cause for his desiring to be absent. if he offers a good reason, I never refuse, but otherwise, I never grant him a Pass, and feel satisfied that no practice is more prejudicial to the community, and to the negros themselves, than that of giving them general Pass'es.
He opposed letting slaves go wherever they want after finishing work, as obviously at least some masters he knew did, because if they routinely stayed on their own plantation, getting used to the friends and family they had there, pure habit would reduce the burdens imposed by restricting their movements. This plan evidently did not work for the master of Jenny Proctor of Alabama, who appears to have been as strict as Barrow:
The only way any slaves on our farm ever goes anywhere was when the boss sends him to carry some news to another plantation or when we slips off way in the night. Sometimes after all the work was done a bunch would have it made up to slip out down to the creek and dance. We sure have fun when we do that, most times on Saturday night.463
Barrow's wish to create a "closed system" where the slaves could be content by a forcibly imposed habit ignores the human mind's ability to imagine other possibilities, such as from the freedom of movement of slaves on neighboring plantations, watching the whites come and go themselves, or resentment and "negative psychology" encouraging rule violations.
The Slaveowners Who Liberally Granted Passes or Dispensed with Them Altogether
Some masters were very loose in granting passes, or even dispensed with them altogether. Freedman Calvin Hays of Mississippi had a master, a prominent judge and slaveowner, who told his bondsmen this:
'Yo' don' need no pass! If dey [the patrollers] lay de han' on ye, tell 'em who yo' is, an' lemme know if dey whip ye!' So you'd be goin' 'long, jus' tendin' yo' business, drivin' er wagon inter town er to de cotton press, an' pattyroller ride up. 'Who you, nigger' he say. 'One de Mays' people!' you say. 'Go on, den!'464
The more trusted slaves who personally attended on the master's family might also gain an exception from the pass system, or be given very general passes. Cato needed no pass, unlike his fellow slaves on an Alabama plantation, being the houseboy and nephew of the master: "I had a cap with a sign on it: 'Don't bother this nigger, or there will be hell to pay.'" Alfred Robinson, the body servant of one Colonel Reed of Kentucky, being instantly recognizable locally, needed no pass: "'I'se Alfred, de Cunnel's valet!' I'd tell de folks. Dat got me by widout er pass." One patrol complained to a slaveowner about the very general pass he gave a slave who nursed him when he was sick: "'Why, dis pass would let dat nigger go to Europe!'" Steering a more middle ground, South Carolina rice planter C.J. Weston required every slave who left to have tickets for passes, but granted them liberally, in a manner Barrow would have sharply objected to: "No one is to be absent from the place without a ticket, which is always to be given to such as ask it, and have behaved well."465 While theoretically very strict controls existed on the slaves' movements, even the masters were not always terribly keen on enforcing them strictly, let alone what the slaves themselves could get away with without their owners' permission.
How the Divisions among the White Slaveholders Benefited the Enslaved
Divisions among slaveholders, their families, overseers, and neighbors often combined to restrain--or, sometimes, accentuate--how harshly the bondsmen were treated. In a number of cases, the slaves took advantage of the whites' discord, pitting one white person with authority against another, often benefiting from the resulting clash. Concern over what their neighbors thought helped restrain how harsh masters and mistresses were against their slaves--a classic argument of pro-slavery polemics that, nevertheless, was rooted in some reality. Jacobs was thankful that she lived in a small town, because having neighbors close by restrained Mr. Flint, her owner:
Bad as are the laws and customs in a slaveholding community, the doctor, as a professional man, deemed it prudent to keep up some outward show of decency. . . . The application of the lash [which her master had avoided inflicting on her] might have led to remarks that would have exposed him in the eyes of his children and grandchildren. How often did I rejoice that I lived in a town where all the inhabitants knew each other. If I had been on a remote plantation, or lost among the multitude of a crowded city, I should not be a living woman at this day.
However, neighborhood gossip could also work the other way. It imposed not just a floor on harsh treatment, but a ceiling on good treatment. As Philip Younger, a slave in Alabama for over half his life, described:
Once in a while a man is kind, as kindness is out there, and then he is hated by all the other masters. They say, "his niggers spoil our niggers." These servants are not allowed on the other plantations at all,--if caught there, they will put as much on them as they can bear.
Some slaves in Georgia violated the law by selling corn, cotton, and other crops without their owners' permission. This practice was frowned upon not just because stolen crops might be sold, as Mohr stated, but "because it caused 'dissatisfaction' among slaves who were not allowed such liberties." Genovese noted one planter who said it was futile to enforce discipline on your plantation when a neighboring planter does not, because, as another explained, the bondsmen easily spot the differences and become displeased. When the masters did not maintain a common front and equalize how they treated their human chattels, the slaves' murmurings and complaints due to comparing differences between different local "administrations" made controlling them harder. But since the slaveowners had a common self-interest against their slaves' demands, their community standards of treatment were not going to be especially high. Olmsted wondered whether the striving ruffian individualists he encountered on one steamboat in the South would have their passions "much restrained by the fear of losing the respect of their neighbours." Because the master's will over his own slave was legally paramount, the neighbors' complaints about the cruelty of some master or mistress in their midst was mostly limited to the force of moral suasion. After Christopher Nichols, once a slave in Virginia, had been horribly whipped for trying to run away, all the whites who saw him the next day working in the mill "said it was a shame to use anybody in that way."466 He did not count on these criticisms to restrain his master in the future, so he soon ran away again, this time successfully. Despite these caveats, much as a child will complain to his parents that the kid next door was allowed to do such-and-so, so why cannot he, the slaves, being similarly powerless, could make similar comparisons, and by complaining at least sometimes get better treatment from their owners.
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