Browsing "Antebellum Realities"

Colonial Fears of Slave Insurrection

The great fear of slave insurrection prompted severe restrictions on slave freedoms in the early 19th century South with the horrid example of Santo Domingo’s massacre of whites a stern lesson of what to expect. The extreme concern by Virginians and North Carolinians over the continued slave importations to the Southern colonies on British and New England ships fell on deaf ears in the mid-1700’s; Royal Governors were instructed to ignore colonial legislative efforts to restrict slave imports and forced to accept the British colonial labor system.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org

 

Colonial Fears of Slave Insurrection

“Although in 1808 North Carolina felt considerable alarm over the plot which was discovered in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, this State did not have another threat of conspiracy until 1821. Previous to this, however, runaway Negroes on various occasions had organized camps and defied the police. In 1811 a party of men searched Cabarrus Pocosin and found a camp occupied by three men and two women. It contained a “vast deal of plunder” and a great number of keys. In 1818 a group of whites went in search of runaways and killed one of them.

It was a group of runaways, at one time reported to be eighty in number, who caused the so-called insurrection of 1821. The Negroes had taken refuge in a swamp in Onslow County near a place called White Oaks on Trent River, and the whites feared an insurrection among the Negroes from Wilmington to Washington [North Carolina]. On August 7, two justices of the peace in Onslow County unlawfully called out two detachments of militia, 200 men who remained under arms twenty-six days.

In September Bladen and Carteret Counties also called out the militia. The panic among the whites in that section of the State was widespread. Many white families fled from their homes. William L. Hill, colonel of the Onslow militia, on several occasions stated that the ranks of the Negroes “were filled with the most daring runaways, who well armed and equipped had long defied civil authority, and in open day had ravaged farms, burnt houses, and had ravaged a number of females.” By the middle of September the band had been dispersed and the whites had returned to their everyday life.

In December, 1825, Tarboro was greatly excited “by the partial discovery of an insurrectionary plot among the “blacks” of Edgecombe [county] and, “if it is believed, some of the adjacent counties.” The plot was hatched, according to a petition which reached the Legislature, by “those preachers who under the semblance of religious worship instill into the minds of the blacks, the most diabolical opinions & prepare them for the perpetration of the most horrible crimes.”

The Negroes had been told that the National government had set them free in October and that they were being unjustly held in servitude. Christmas Eve was to have been the time for rebellion, but the plot was discovered, the militia called out, and the patrol strengthened.”

(Antebellum North Carolina, Guion Griffis Johnson, UNC Press, 1937, pp. 514-515)

 

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)