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The Man In The Middle

July 2024
15min read


Wise planters of the ante-bellum South never relaxed their search for talent among their slaves. The ambitious, intelligent, and proficient were winnowed out and recruited for positions of trust and responsibility. These privileged bondsmen—artisans, house servants, foremen—served as intermediaries between the master and the slave community; they exercised considerable power; they learned vital skills of survival in a complex, often hostile world. Knowing, as they did, the master’s needs and vulnerabilities, they were the most dangerous of slaves; but they were also the most necessary.

None of these men in the middle has been more misunderstood than the slave driver, policeman of the fields and the quarters. To enforce discipline and guarantee performance in the fields, planters enlisted slave foremen or drivers. On large plantations they worked as assistants to the white overseers; on smaller units they served immediately under the master. Generally, they were of an imposing physical presence capable of commanding respect from the other slaves. Ex-slaves described the drivers as, for example, “a great, big cullud man,” “a large tall, black man,” “a burly fellow … severe in the extreme.” Armed with a whip and outfitted in high leather boots and greatcoat, all emblematic of plantation authority, the driver exuded an aura of power.

The English traveler, Basil Hall, thought the driver had power more symbolic than real. The slaves knew better. With hardly repressed anger, ex-slave Adelaine Marshall condemned the black foremen at the Brevard plantation in Texas for “all de time whippin’ and stroppin’ de niggers to make dem work harder.” Many other former slaves echoed this theme of driver brutality; accounts of mutilations, lacerations, burnings, and whippings fill the pages of the slave narratives. But physical coercion alone never moved slaves to industry. The drivers, therefore, were selected as men able to bargain, bribe, cajole, flatter, and only as a last resort, to flog the slaves to perform their tasks and refrain from acts destructive of order in the quarters.

Masters often conferred with their black slave drivers on matters of farming, or on social arrangements in the quarters, and often deferred to their advice. As the driver matured and became more knowledgeable, his relationship with his master became one of mutual regard, in sharp contrast to the master’s less settled and more transient relationship with white overseers.

White overseers as well were frequently governed by the driver’s counsel, although the relationship between these two species of foreman was sometimes strained. The overseer’s insistence on steady work from the slaves, and the driver’s interest in protecting his people from white abuses, placed the driver in the agonizing dilemma of torn loyalties and interest. In this conflict the driver often appealed to the master and won his support. A chorus of complaint from white Southern overseers alleged that planters trusted the black driver more than the overseer. The charge seems to have been justified. John Hartwell Cocke of Virginia regarded his driver as his “humble friend,” but held overseers at arm’s length. The astute agricultural reformer and planter, James H. Hammond, unabashedly acknowledged that he disregarded his overseer’s testimony in many instances and instead heeded his driver, whom Hammond considered a “confidential servant” especially enjoined to guard against “any excesses or omissions of the overseer.” Planters dismissed overseers as an expendable breed, and, indeed, overseers rarely lasted more than two or three seasons with any single master. The driver, however, stayed on indefinitely as the master’s man, and some masters came to depend on him to an extraordinary degree.


Through the driver, the planter sought to inculcate the “proper” standards of work and behavior in his slaves. A few carefully enumerated the driver’s duties, leaving him little discretion; but for most, formal rules were unknown, and broad policy areas were left to the driver’s judgment. Although an overseer reviewed his work on large farms, the driver made many of the day-to-day decisions on farming as well as meting out rewards and punishments. By blowing on a bugle or horn, he woke up the slaves each morning. He determined the work pace; he directed the marling, plowing, terracing, planting, hoeing, picking, and innumerable other farming operations; he encouraged the slaves in their religious instruction and sometimes led devotions; he mediated family disputes. His duties varied from disciplinarian to family counselor or hygienist. The quick-witted driver who amputated the finger of a woman slave who had been bitten by a rattlesnake saved her life. More than this, he took over the function of the master as protector by making slaves instinctively look to him for aid in times of crisis. So, too, did the driver who held the keys to the plantation stores and parceled out the weekly rations to the slaves. Whatever changes might occur in white management, the basic daily functions of the plantation routine continued unbroken under the driver.

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.”


Ambiguities of the driver’s relationship with the master and the slaves are best illustrated in the one area he could not readily conceal from the overseer or the master—work. All masters demanded frequent performance reports from their drivers. Masters knew the slaves’ minimal capacities, and they could corroborate the driver’s testimony with private inspections of the field and with their own crop tallies after harvest. Aware of these facts, slaves conceded the driver’s need to keep them moving, and forgave occasional excesses of zeal.

In assigning tasks or setting the work pace, the driver could push the slaves relentlessly to impress the master, apply the slaves’ time to his private purposes, or manipulate the system to reward favorites and punish enemies. Those members of the driver’s family who toiled in the fields usually drew light chores; as a rule they also escaped the lash. So did lovers. A slave woman who spurned a driver’s advances, however, might find herself isolated in a remote section of the field, and thus vulnerable to the driver’s amorous assaults, or assigned impossible tasks so that the vengeful driver could punish her under the guise of sound labor management.

In the face of driver abuses, however, no slave was wholly defenseless. If the driver unduly imposed on him, he might run to the master or overseer for relief. Enlightened planters advised against punishing a slave beyond the limits of reasonable service, because hard treatment brought forth scant improvement and much dissatisfaction. Drivers usually marked out tasks for each slave according to ability, and remained on the ground until everyone finished. Even the cruel driver had little personal interest in overmeasuring tasks, since unfinished work kept him in the fields. Moreover, unrealistic work demands might prompt a general flight to the swamps, sabotage, or worse.

As the lead man in the gang labor system, a thoughtful driver would set a steady pace—singing, shouting, cracking his whip, or working at the head of the gang. In this way the slaves could do their work in a manner that would both satisfy the master and reduce the driver’s need to whip or embarrass the weaker, slower slaves. Slave accounts tell of men like Moses Bell, a driver on a wheat farm in Virginia, who helped one woman “cause she wasn’t very strong”; or like the driver who countermanded his master’s orders and sent a nursing mother back to her cabin because she was “too sick to work.” Like any champion of the weak, the driver acquired stature in the eyes of the oppressed. Young slaves appreciated drivers like July Gist, who eased their transition to fieldwork and taught them how to avoid punishment. Gist stressed careful husbandry and never rushed the young slaves as they adapted to the rigors of plowing, hoeing, and picking from sunup to sundown.

Unwritten rules governed the driver’s conduct. He must not whip with malice or without cause, for example. The driver who exceeded his authority and surpassed whites in viciousness produced bitterness and recalcitrance. Jane Johnson of South Carolina considered the driver “de devil settin’ cross-legged for de rest of us on de plantation,” and she could not believe that her master intended “for dat nigger to treat us like he did. He took ‘vantage of his [the master] bein’ ‘way and talk soft when he come again.” Slaves reserved special enmity for such drivers. After witnessing a driver lash his mother and aunt, Henry Cheatem swore “to kill dat nigger iffen it was de las’ thing I eber done.” Mary Reynolds despised Solomon for his savage whippings, and even more because he disrupted the slaves’ “frolickin’ ” and religious meetings in the quarters. In her old age she consoled herself with the assurance that the driver was “burnin’ in hell today, and it pleasures me to know it.”

If masters or informal community pressures did not check abusive drivers, the slaves resorted to more direct remedies. For example, a host of Florida slaves plotted a mass escape from the driver Prince’s blows. When discovered, several of the conspirators preferred incarceration to further subservience to Prince. Some slaves refused to be whipped or to have their families mistreated in any manner, and a driver who challenged them risked violent resistance. According to an Alabama driver who tried to correct an alleged shirker, the slave “flong down his cradle and made a oath and said that he had as live [lief] die as to live and he then tried to take the whip out of my hand.” The slaves could return cruelty with cruelty. One group of Louisiana slaves murdered a driver by placing crushed glass in his food, and another killed their driver and cut him into small pieces to conceal the crime.

Many slaves, however, recognized that the driver whipped out of duty rather than desire. Moses Grandy, for example, refused to condemn harsh drivers because he understood that they must whip with “sufficient severity” to retain their posts and keep the lash off their own backs. Slaves would grant the driver that much provided that he showed no taste for it and did not whip when he was not obligated to do so. Many drivers deluded their masters by putting on grand exhibitions of zeal in the white men’s presence. Some developed the art, as driver Solomon Northup described it, of “throwing the lash within a hair’s breadth of the back, the ear, the nose, without, however, touching either of them.” When his master was out of sight, ”Öle” Gabe of Virginia whipped a post instead of the slaves while the ostensible victims howled for the master’s benefit. He once cracked the post so loudly that his master yelled for him to desist lest he kill the slave, who then bolted screaming from the barn with berry juice streaming down his back. This so horrified the master that he threatened Gabe with a thrashing equal to the one he gave the slave.

The successful driver did not tattle on his people and he kept the white folks out of the slaves’ private lives as much as possible. In the letters written by literate drivers to their masters, the drivers remained remarkably reticent on life in the quarters: the masters knew little about what went on there from sundown to sunup because the drivers, their principal agents, did not tell them. To be sure, severe fighting among the slaves and egregious crimes were impossible to conceal. By and large, however, the drivers successfully contained the breakdowns of plantation authority, and received sufficient cooperation from the slaves so that they would not be called upon to explain and to punish.

The conscientious driver widened his circle of friends by doing favors, overlooking faults, never breaking a promise, avoiding confrontations whenever possible, and working through the informal group structure to resolve disputes and problems. If clashes occurred—and they were inevitable in the elemental world of the plantation—the driver gave his opponents an opportunity to save face rather than shaming them. Sometimes he fattened the slaves’ larder by pilfering for them from the plantation smokehouse, or arranged passes for them, ostensibly to attend religious meetings or to do chores, but in fact to visit relatives and friends on other plantations. In the quarters he left the correction of a wayward child to the child’s parents, respected the slaves’ religious leaders, mediated marital squabbles, and protected the weak from thieves and bullies. Slaves applauded the driver who broke up a boisterous, quarrelsome couple by placing them in separate cabins, thus restoring quiet to the quarters and saving the couple from sale at the hands of an irritated master. In brief, the driver acted the way any responsible community leader would act to keep his community intact and safe. He earned the slaves’ trust. Ex-slave Billy Stammper summed up the feelings of many slaves toward the driver: “Cullud folks don’ min’ bein’ bossed by er cullud man if he’s smart an’ good to em,” which is to say, if he was smart enough to be good to them.

More than any other event, the Civil War tested the driver’s loyalty and expanded his opportunities for self-aggrandizement and to help .his people. With the menfolk away during the war, the Southern white lady and the black slave drivers assumed control of the plantations. Frustrated in their efforts to engage white overseers, masters ignored the laws and left their plantations in the hands of house servants, older privileged bondsmen, or drivers of long service-men they could trust not to ravage their land or their women during their absence. In their diaries and later in their histories, planters congratulated themselves that they had not misplaced their trust. However romanticized, the stories of faithful retainers hiding the family silver and shielding the planter’s family and homestead from Yankee depredations are legion.

But planters who wanted universal, unfeigned loyalty from their drivers asked for too much. In the midst of unraveling planter hegemony, slave foremen looked to their own interest. Some, like Edmund Ruffin’s “faithful and intelligent” Jem Sykes, simply absconded. Some went alone; others inspired a general stampede. If they remained on the plantations, they sometimes took part in raids on the master’s cellar and storehouse. In the absence of a strong white power the slaves neglected the upkeep of the farm and equipment and idled away their days as much as possible. Apparently, drivers could not or would not push their people under such circumstances. The worst excesses occurred in the sugar parishes of Louisiana, where drivers had commanded unusually harsh regimes. The Union advance in 1863 excited many slaves to flee the plantations, but not before they murdered some of their overseers and masters. One Rapides Parish planter wrote that the presence of Federal troops “turned the negroes crazy … and everything like subordination and restraint was at an end.” The slaves slaughtered livestock and plundered furiously. In this, the drivers “everywhere have proved the worst negroes,” perhaps in a bid to retain their leadership through exaggerated displays of violence.

Most drivers, however, remained calm. Conservative men by temperament, they were not about to launch a premature, perhaps suicidal, revolution. On the Chesnut plantation, for example, the drivers early expressed enthusiasm for the Confederate side, thus satisfying their master of their loyalty. In 1864, however, they declined an offer to fight for the Confederacy in exchange for freedom because, as Mrs. Chesnut sagely observed, “they are pretty sure of having it anyway.”

Many masters found their drivers “much changed” by emancipation. An embittered Mary Jones of Georgia wrote of the metamorphosis of the driver Cato who headed up a black delegation demanding land: “Cato has been to me a most insolent, indolent, and dishonest man; I have not a shadow of confidence in him, and will not wish to retain him on the place.” The Edmonstons of South Carolina found that with freedom their Henry, for fifteen years the master’s “right hand man,” dropped his “affection and cheerful simplicity” and became “grasping” in his “exorbitant demands” for land. Where they remained as foremen over hired gangs of freedmen, they ingratiated themselves with their charges by easing up on work requirements and stealing for the hands. Much of their authority disappeared with emancipation. When Mrs. R.F.W. Allston visited the plantation of her brother-in-law in April, 1865, she confronted a sullen and insolent group of former slaves who had recently completed their plunder of the plantation provision houses. Mrs. Allston called for Jacob, the head man and sole manager of the estate during the war, and ordered him to give the keys to her. A “huge man” then stepped forward to warn Jacob that if he complied, “blood’ll flow.” Mrs. Allston departed without the keys.

The paternalistic order of the past was rapidly disrupted by impersonal economic forces in the prostrate postwar South. Planters attempted to lock their former slaves into long-term labor contracts, and looked to the drivers to hold the people on the farms. But neither drivers nor slaves would stay under such conditions. Some owners, short of capital, divided their holdings into tenant parcels and installed a black family on each, sharing the crops of each parcel with the tenant after the harvest. There was, however, no room in this arrangement for the driver.

But with the possible exception of the former slave artisans, the former driver was the most qualified freedman to survive on his own. Indeed, for devotees of Horatio Alger, some former drivers provided inspiring, if somewhat scaleddown, models of success. The story of Limus, a former driver on the sea islands of South Carolina, is a case in point. A “black Yankee” in habits and values, the fifty-year-old freedman started with his one-half acre plot and a beatendown horse, and raised vegetables and poultry for the Hilton Head market nearby. He also hunted and fished to supplement his income and his family’s diet. With two wives and two families to support, he could hardly afford to relax. He worked fourteen acres of cotton on abandoned land to the three to six acres of his fellow freedmen. He also purchased a large boat on which he transported passengers and produce to Hilton Head. His prior marketing experience as a driver stood him in good stead as he negotiated contracts with whites and blacks alike, and he established himself as the principal supplier for the Union troops stationed in the area. By practicing ruthless underconsumption and efficient management, he saved almost five hundred dollars in his first year of freedom, money which he plowed back into his enterprises.

Some drivers had received gifts of cash and land during slavery from which they could build their estates in freedom; they were able to exploit old relationships for credit; they had learned marketing skills and how to deal with whites in a cash economy, so that they were not so easily cheated or overawed by whites after the war; they understood every level of farm management and practice; and with the artisans they were the slaves most likely to have imbibed the Protestant work ethic of self-denial and persevering labor. If alert and lucky, they could turn the limited opportunities of freedom to their pecuniary gain, provided they did not alienate their benefactors. Recognizing this continued dependence on white aid, one driver warned his fellow freedmen to ignore carpetbagger blandishments, for the “outsiders” would “start a graveyard” if they persuaded blacks to “sass” whites. Even in freedom the former driver straddled two worlds.

The experience of the slave driver should remind us that slavery affected each slave differently—that to fathom the complexités and subtleties of the peculiar institution and those trapped within it, we must take into account each slave’s occupational role, his place in the slave and plantation hierarchy, his manner of interaction with the white and black communities, his self-image, to name the most obvious factors. Slave drivers have not fared well in our histories of American Negro slavery. The prevailing neo-abolitionist historiography has limned a portrait of the driver as an unscrupulous, brutal, even sadistic betrayer of his race. He was nothing of the sort. While the driver’s behavior was sometimes extreme, it strikingly exemplified the ambiguities and paradoxes of the slave system. Drivers did not brood in self-pity or guilt over their miserable condition and the heavy demands made on them from above and below. They took their world for granted and made the best out of a bad situation. They had to do so. Both white and black depended on the man in the middle.

Portions of this article appeared in his recent book, “Dear Master”: Letters of a Slave Family , published by Cornell University Press.


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