Enlightened Southern Labor Management

While the older brother of Jefferson Davis, Joseph E. Davis, was conducting enlightened labor management techniques in Mississippi, New England factory and mill owners worked young women, and children under ten, hard sixteen-hour workdays in dimly lit sweat-shops. Their meager pay was usually insufficient to cover living expenses and left nothing health care—Africans in the South enjoyed cradle to grave medical care and security.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org


Enlightened Southern Labor Management

“ . . . Joseph Davis demonstrated the enlightened methods of slave management that he had developed from modifications of the ideas of Robert Owen, Frances Wright, and other reformers of an earlier era. In the words of a family member, “[The cabinets] were well built, with plastered walls and large fireplaces, two large rooms and two shed rooms behind them.” Each had its own henhouse from which the slaves could sell surplus chickens and eggs and a small garden patch for their own use.

Davis was determined to make his [plantation] enterprise a model of labor management as well. As one of nine Mississippians who owned more than 300 slaves in 1860, Davis was faced with a major administrative task [and had learned] that people worked best when treated well and given incentives rather than when driven by fear of punishment.

He established a court, eventually held every Sunday in a small building called the Hall of Justice, where a slave jury heard complaints of slave misconduct and the testimony the accused in his own defense. No slave was punished except upon conviction by this jury of peers. Sitting as a judge, Davis seldom intervened except to ameliorate the severity of some of the sentences.

Davis insisted that the overseers, too, must bring their complaints before the court, and they could not punish a slave without [their] permission. In addition to self-government, Davis provided more direct incentives for his laborers. Convinced that every human being should be allowed to develop to his full potential, the master encouraged his slaves to acquire skills in areas that interested them.

He provided opportunities for training in current trades and crafts. Moreover, skilled workers were allowed to enjoy the benefits of their more valuable labor; Davis ruled that all slaves might keep anything they earned beyond the value of their labor as field hands.

Davis was sensitive to the needs of his workers and regularly rewarded them for unusual achievements, in addition to providing gifts for a birth or wedding, or in consolation for a death. He expected them to work hard for their own benefit as well as his, and he was quick to commend and encourage those who performed well.

Davis’s benevolent management methods seemed amply vindicated by the example of his most able slave, Benjamin Montgomery, who seized the opportunities Davis provided and became an invaluable assistant as well as confidant and companion to his master. Born in Virginia in 1819, the brilliant Montgomery learned to read and write along with his young master.

With access to the large (plantation] library, Ben improved his literary skills and was soon copying letters and legal briefs as the office clerk. He learned to survey land to plan the construction of levees essential for flood protection on Davis Bend. He drew architectural plans and participated in the construction of several buildings, including the elaborate garden cottage.

(Joseph E. Davis, Pioneer Patriarch, Janet Sharp Hermann, University Press of Mississippi, 1990, pp. 53-58)

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