Masters of Violence: The Plantation Overseers of Eighteenth-Century Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia by Tristan Stubbs
In the spring of 1705, South Carolina planter John Wright sued William Reynolds in Charles Town. Wright, whose main economic activity was trading with Indigenous peoples for skins and captives, was more often than not ranging across southeastern North America. As a result he was often absent from his Goose Creek plantation, and, accordingly, he had hired Reynolds for £25 to oversee its enslaved “Negroes” and “Indians.” Reynolds’s charge had been to force twelve enslaved people to plant three acres of rice to feed Wright’s cattle, but instead Reynolds had them grow something else—illegible in the source—and produced “tarr.” For disobeying him, Wright sued Reynolds for £50 and won.1
As with the case of Wright, planters in the colonial world often could not run their operations themselves. The result was their increasing reliance on a middle management class of overseers such as Reynolds, the subject of Tristan Stubbs’s Masters of Violence. In many ways, overseers have been a missing link in historians’ understanding of the violent coercion at the heart of plantation commodity production. They have typically been depicted as a cog in the machine, with little further scholarly attention paid to these wage (and/or crop share) workers, especially before the nineteenth century. This study proves we need more work on these plantation managers.
Stubbs traces shifting ideas about hired overseers at the intersection of the planter ideology he dubs “patriarchism” (4) and class. He defines “patriarchism” as the ideology brought from Britain that insisted that households could only remain orderly by maintaining established hierarchies. Planters had little problem conceptualizing enslaved people within this framework as dependents of the independent (male) head of the household. Overseers did not fit patriarchist framing, however, because they were subordinate but only partially dependent upon the planter and could seek work elsewhere.
To reconcile the dissonance of planters’ dependence on violence toward enslaved people and their developing ideals of “enlightened patriarchal sentiment” (4), planters gradually distanced themselves from the coercive measures enacted by overseers. Though overseers had been seen as instruments of planter authority in the early eighteenth century, Stubbs argues that by the end of the period of colonial settlement planters came to view themselves [End Page 170] as benevolent patriarchs and their overseers as brutal and inept managers whose need to resort to violence against enslaved people was a sign of their incompetence. Overseers, that is, became the agents and symbols of plantation violence in a way that insulated planters’ ideological posturing as not only patriarchist but also “enlightened.” For Stubbs, this conceptual change set the stage for nineteenth-century planter “paternalism” (8). Much of this shift in how planters understood their patriarchist domains, Stubbs argues, reflected their increasing absenteeism over the course of the eighteenth century and their collective ability to put forth overseers as scapegoats for the violence of chattel slavery on plantations.
The bulk of the monograph aims to “reconstruct as full a picture as possible of the eighteenth-century overseer” (7) in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. The first five chapters trace overseers in what Stubbs calls the “patriarchal era” (10): the entire eighteenth century before the disruptions of the American Revolution. In these chapters, overseers’ place on the plantation—situated between planters’ profit motive and their conception of a patriarchal household—is where Stubbs locates the origin of “anti-overseer sentiment” (10).
The first chapter lays the book’s foundation by delineating the structures of the plantation Southeast in the eighteenth century. Rising rates of planter absenteeism, which an increasing number of planters chose as they became more prosperous in the 1700s, created a need for more (white) management on the ground to coerce production from enslaved peoples and the land. In the early part of the eighteenth century, overseeing served as a stepping stone for colonists seeking to accumulate enough capital to invest in their own land and enslaved laborers. But as good plantation land became scarcer, opportunities for social advancement became rarer, and this type of wage labor became more permanent for the men who undertook it.
As the overseer became an entrenched social position, a different social dynamic emerged. Stubbs argues that planters began conceiving of these employees as “another effective way for slave owners to demonstrate their mastery” (35), often demanding that potential overseers be morally upstanding and even married. At the same time, overseer contracts were kept short, giving planters an escape if they preferred to hire someone else. But the contracts could be terminated by either party, giving overseers leverage to seek work elsewhere. And overseers operated in a “competitive market” (37), making them less dependent than their employers would have desired. Some planters provided food and housing for their overseers, which, according to Stubbs, made the work more attractive to poor whites. But the provision of room and board simultaneously offered evidence to planters that these workers were not capable of being independent.
Because overseers were situated between planters and their enslaved people—between capital and labor—they served as a site of contestation concerning the broader hierarchy of the plantation and society. Overseers [End Page 171] were intended to be conduits from the planters to the enslaved, but enslaved people could sometimes turn the plantation hierarchy to their advantage by bypassing their overseers and complaining directly to their owners about their treatment. Conversely, planters learned that they could blame their overseers for the violent treatment of enslaved people as well as production issues on the plantation. Between these two positions, overseers found some room to maneuver for their own benefit. But their importance to the plantation gave planters a reason to legislate limits to overseers’ avenues for social climbing. Because overseers were considered essential to maintaining planters’ social structures, along with the enslaved, they were the only men “excluded” from “play[ing] a role in the Virginian militia” (108). And not being allowed to serve in the militia further added to planter conceptions of overseers’ lack of independence by the years leading up to the American Revolution.
In Stubbs’s argument, the American Revolution provided an important pivot in the development of “planter prejudice” (10) toward their hired violent employees. During the revolution, “overseers were conferred more responsibility . . . than in any previous period” (126) because so many planters were busy with the war effort. One major factor strengthening planter ideas of overseer incompetence was the perceived “failings of those overseers who struggled to prevent slave rebellion” (127) during the war. From the perspective of planters, the social crisis of the American Revolution (including threats of rebellious enslaved people and abolition) bore out their increasing fears of the incompetence of overseers, while the ideology of “enlightened patriarchism” allowed them to view plantation violence toward enslaved people as a failure of the overseer class. At the same time, revolutionary-era ideas of republicanism also worked against overseers because their perceived dependence on wages and their general lack of landownership failed to conform to the ideal of the yeoman farmer. The shifting ideas planters had about overseers thus were the building blocks for nineteenth-century planter paternalism—the ideology wherein enslaved people were conceived of as being part of the benevolent planter’s family and continued enslavement was understood to be in the best interest of the enslaved, whom planters considered akin to children.
By focusing on planter-constructed conceptions of class over the course of the eighteenth century, Stubbs makes a compelling argument that in the colonial-era plantation world built upon the labor of enslaved people, the social place of overseers became essential to the shifting ideology of the planter class. But by concentrating on both the perspective of planters who came to blame overseers for plantation violence and the resulting “stereotypes” (5), one could perhaps read Stubbs’s argument as suggesting that overseers were not generally as violent as they came to be known. This possibly is problematic because overseers unquestionably doled out incredible amounts of physical (and psychological) violence to enslaved people and did [End Page 172] so for the ultimate benefit of planters. The fact that planters criticized overseers “for misusing violence” (104) does little to hide the bloody, terrifying reality of plantation life for enslaved people.
To construct this cultural and intellectual history, Stubbs understandably relies on examples drawn from across time and space, but at numerous points he generalizes in ways that belie the variety of arrangements made between plantation owners and their hired management, to the point where readers may find the argument embedded in his chronology difficult to follow. There is also a slippage in the use of the term overseers and other terms such as managers. It was not unusual for sons of planters to work as hired managers on other plantations, but Stubbs’s analysis offers no answer as to why elite young men would be willing to take on work seen as degraded by their own class. Similarly, many lowly (“incompetent,” ) overseers were literate enough and possessed the acumen to be trusted with bookkeeping. Stubbs occasionally points out contextual differences—an excellent section examines how women who inherited plantations conceived of the proper type of men to hire—but he often conflates enormous differences between, for example, absentee overseers in the Lowcountry and men overseeing gang labor in Virginia.
Stubbs relies in large part on the evidence of planters who produced voluminous writings—such as Landon Carter, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Laurens—along with newspaper advertisements. But there is almost no attempt to understand overseers outside of the sources left by their planter bosses, and Stubbs did not consult records such as those produced in the court case between Wright and Reynolds described above. Stubbs’s arguments would have been considerably strengthened had he sought out non-planter sources where overseer perspectives could have been gleaned or had he read planter sources against the grain. Moreover, his argument that there is “little evidence of comparable general prejudices existing early on in the 1700s” (5) may be a function of the sources he consulted; most of the planter papers he relies on date from after 1750, and the newspapers in Virginia and South Carolina began in the 1730s, while Georgia had none until the 1760s.
My last critique derives from Stubbs’s omission of discussions of race. Over the course of the eighteenth century, racial ideologies of Euro-American colonists hardened and the term Negro became conflated with slave. How did patriarchism and planter-conceived class divisions work alongside the parallel hardening of racial ideology? Masters of Violence nevertheless works as a reframing and a conversation starter about overseers in the colonial era on mainland North America. Stubbs has pointed out with much success that scholars need to produce more on the middle management of colonial plantations if we are to better understand the ideological underpinnings of slavery in early America. [End Page 173]
1. John Wright v. William Reynolds, Mar. 13, 1704/5, Judgment Roll, 1705–1707, box 1C No. 693, Court of Common Pleas Judgment Rolls, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, S.C.