This week’s edition of the Tennessee Baptist reprints a list of “Rules for a Good Overseer.” Slave overseers (generally white) are men who are employed by slave owners to manage plantation slave labor for maximum profit. Relatively few Baptists of the South in 1861 own plantations or own enough slaves to merit an overseer. Likewise, most southern whites are too poor to own slaves (or choose not to own slaves). However, slave owners represent the bulk of southern politicians and power brokers, and work hard to convince the general white public that slavery is beneficial to poor whites as well, who may one day rise to be slaveholders, and who will – regardless of financial status – always be superior to the black race. For the most part, poor whites are as racist as their rich counterparts, but (not surprisingly) harbor economic resentment toward large slaveholders, a small class of Confederate citizens (1-2%) who own the vast bulk of southern wealth.
J. R. Graves, editor of the Tennessee Baptist and one of the most influential Baptists of the South (best known for his Landmark views on Baptist history and ecclesiology), is among a minority of influential southern whites who are not wholly supportive of African slavery (at least in public). While not advocating for the immediate eradication of slavery, Graves is a supporter of gradual emancipation. Perhaps his printing of “Rules for a Good Overseer” is his way of suggesting that slaves should be treated relatively well by their owners.
The following rules by one of the best Overseers of Talbot Co. Ga., have been handed us for publication. They may serve as useful hints to others:
1. On going to bed at night, think of what is to be done on the morrow.
2. Rise early and see the negroes off to their work. If any are sick, see that they have proper medical attendance.
3. Attend to the feeding of the cattle and horses, and do not idle about doing nothing.
4. When the negroes are at work, consider it an important duty to overlook them frequently, and see how they get along. Never permit them to do any work wrong. Have it right, if it takes them the whole day.
5. See that the negroes have their meals regularly, and that they keep themselves clean. Make it a business to go in their houses once a week, at least, and have them swept and their bedclothes aired.
6. Keep the fences in good order, the stables clean; and have good stalls for the cattle.
7. Keep the houses and wagons in good order; and whenever they need repairing, have them attended to immediately.
8. Recollect that time does not belong to the overseer, but to the employer, and that the neglect of his business is so much taken from him unjustly.