Overseer and Driver
OVERSEER AND DRIVER
OVERSEER AND DRIVER. If the slaveholders were to be believed, their overseers were a low-bred class of scoundrels whose management of the southern slaves swung erratically from violent abuse to lackadaisical incompetence. The truth was more complicated. Overseers were the middlemen of the antebellum South's plantation hierarchy. As such they occupied an impossible position. The masters expected them to produce profitable crops while maintaining a contented workforce of slaves—slaves who had little reason to work hard to improve the efficiency of the plantation. It would have required a prodigy to balance these competing pressures to the complete satisfaction of both the master and the slaves. Few overseers were prodigies.
No one knows for sure how many overseers there were in 1860, but the best estimates are that the number of overseers was roughly equal to the number of plantations with thirty or more slaves. These men were a varied lot. Some were the sons of planters who served their fathers as overseers, learning the art of plantation management before striking out on their own. Others, perhaps the largest number, were semiprofessional managers hoping one day to set up their own agricultural operations. And still others lived up to the worst reputation of their class: violent men, often drunkards, unable to hold steady jobs, who moved repeatedly from plantation to plantation. But the average overseer rarely lasted in any master's service for more than a few years. The best moved on to other things. The worst were fired. And even the merely competent rarely satisfied an employer for long. A bad
crop year, sickly slaves, or the untenable contradictions of the job itself ensured that few overseers lasted long on any one plantation.
Drivers were another story. They were slaves appointed by masters to positions of authority on the plantation. Where masters were resident, black drivers often replaced overseers. On larger plantations, especially in the Lower South, black drivers worked under the supervision of white overseers. The drivers' jobs were manifold, but they were expected above all to maintain discipline in the fields and order in the quarters.
Like overseers, drivers were subjected to competing pressures that demanded both technical skill and a strong measure of self-confidence. But the pressures on drivers were different in important ways. Drivers were a part of the slave community, but they were especially favored by the master. To maintain the goodwill of the master without losing the respect of one's fellow slaves was no small achievement. Yet the evidence suggests that the drivers often succeeded where the overseers failed. They were chosen for their intelligence and abilities; they often understood how to manage a plantation more effectively than the overseers. Accordingly, drivers often held their positions for decades. The masters came to rely on the drivers for their competence; the slaves came to expect the drivers to moderate some of the harshness of the regime.
Scarborough, William Kauffman. The Overseer: Plantation Management in the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966.
Van Deburg, William L. The Slave Drivers: Black Agricultural Labor Supervisors in the Antebellum South. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.