The Man In The Middle


The slave driver had power. For favorites he might sneak extra rations or wink at minor indiscretions; for recalcitrants he might ruthlessly pursue every violation of the plantation code of conduct. But he wielded power only to a point, for when the driver’s regime became tyrannical or overly dependent on brute force, he ceased to serve his purpose for the master or the slaves. Planters wanted stability and profits, not discord. Slaves wanted peace in the quarters and a minimum of white intrusion into their lives. A factious slave population sabotaged farming arrangements, ran off, or dissembled in countless ways. To ensure his continued rule, the driver had to curry favor in both camps, black and white. His justice must remain evenhanded, and his discipline rooted in something more enduring than the lash—namely community approbation.

In exchange for the driver’s services, the planter compensated him with privileges, even offers of freedom. More immediately, planters tried to encourage the driver in a variety of small ways—with bits of praise, pats on the back, presents. They gave material rewards such as double rations, superior housing, and gifts for the driver’s family. Some masters allowed their drivers to marry women “off the plantation,” and a few drivers had more than one wife. Planters often set aside extra land for the driver’s personal use, and allowed him to draft other slaves to tend his garden and cotton patch. He was usually permitted to sell the produce of his own garden in town for cash. Drivers also went to town to purchase supplies for the master, to do errands, and to transact business for the slaves. They often received cash payments of ten to several hundred dollars a year as gifts, or even wages. During winter months some drivers hired themselves out to earn extra money, and others learned trades with which to build personal estates. Conspicuous consumption heightened the driver’s standing and gave sanction to his authority.

Who were these men, and how did they rise in the plantation hierarchy? A collective portrait of the slave driver drawn from slave narratives and planters’ accounts yields little support for the generalized charge that drivers were brutish and isolated from their fellow slaves. Although some were kinfolks of other privileged bondsmen, many came from more humble origins. Few slaves were bred to be drivers, and fewer still were purchased for that reason. Most important, no pronounced sense of caste developed in the South to set off drivers from the rest of the slave community.

The awkward attempts of some planters to put distance between slave elites and field hands, by means of special clothes and indulgences, fooled no one. Drivers, after all, took their meals in the quarters, married and raised their families there, worshiped there, and frolicked there. The location of the driver’s cabin at the head of the row, midway between the Big House and the quarters, placed the driver closest to the master symbolically, but his place remained in the quarters. Rather than suffer a driver with a puffed-up ego who had little rapport with the slaves, a master might even administer a whipping to him in front of the others. Lashings, demotions, and other humiliations provided ample reminders that the driver was more slave than free.

Drivers were generally in their late thirties or early forties when appointed, and they ususally held long tenures. Yet there were a few in their twenties and at least one in his teens. If the candidate was, as one planter wrote, “honest, industrious, not too talkative (which is a necessary qualification), a man of good sense, a good hand himself, and has been heretofore faithful in the discharge of whatever may have been committed to his care,” he would do nicely. Whatever the strictures on verbosity, planters chose articulate men capable of communicating the master’s wishes and values to the slaves with a minimum of distortion and at the same time able to relay accurately the messages and impulses of the slaves to the master. Thus one planter sent the driver along with a boatload of slaves divided from the rest by sale so that the driver could “jolly the negroes and give them confidence” and explain the master’s side.


In reading black and white accounts of bondage, one is struck by the repeated references to the master’s confidence in his black slave driver. He left his family alone with the driver, entrusted his comfort and well-being to his care, and gave the driver free rein in ordering the private affairs of his other slaves. One rice planter, R.F.W. Allston, a shrewd student of slave psychology, confirmed his driver in an impressive, formal ceremony of investiture blessed by a clergyman. William S. Pettigrew of North Carolina often reminded his drivers that their good “credit” depended on their faithful duty during his absence. This call for reciprocity worked in subtle ways to compel the driver to uphold the master’s interest. Former driver Archer Alexander described his entrapment. He justified his loyalty to his master, who once sold two of his children away from him, by explaining that the master “trusted me every way, and I couldn’t do no other than what was right.”