The Eighteenth-Century Origins of Antebellum Prejudices Against Overseers
INTRODUCTION For two important reasons, absenteeism was the foundation of nineteenth-century ideas about overseers. Firstly, the demands of managing distant plantations required slaveholders to promote an understanding of the plantation that drew on current ideas about political economy to advocate balance and order on the plantation. Secondly, devolving the responsibility for violent punishment to overseers permitted planters, the so-called “paternalists,” to believe that they had their captives’ best interests at heart. Some even convinced themselves that they loved the men and women whom they held in slavery, and that this emotion was reciprocated. But such self-delusion became possible only when absenteeism and the oversight system enabled “paternalists” to avoid the violent reality of racial slavery. The paper considers each of these dynamics in turn, before assessing broader eighteenth-century criticisms of overseers, the echoes of which were heard up to the Civil War.
Creighton University School of Law