Historum - History Forums  

Go Back   Historum - History Forums > World History Forum > American History
Register Forums Blogs Social Groups Mark Forums Read

American History American History Forum - United States, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America


Reply
 
LinkBack Thread Tools Display Modes
Old January 28th, 2018, 04:07 PM   #1

grey fox's Avatar
Scholar
 
Joined: Sep 2013
From: Chattanooga, TN
Posts: 629
Were overseers usually paid by commission or salary?


In the Antebellum South, the large plantations hired overseers to supervise the field hands. How were most overseers paid? I mean, were most overseers on large plantations paid on commission? Or did most overseers get paid a salary? Or would most overseers get paid by both commission and a salary? It seems to me that paying overseers by commission would result in the most production of cotton or tobacco or other crops since it would give the overseers a powerful, personal incentive to make sure that the slaves worked hard.

What is your source for your answer?
grey fox is offline  
Remove Ads
Old January 28th, 2018, 04:32 PM   #2
Scholar
 
Joined: Oct 2015
From: Virginia
Posts: 538

In "The Peculiar Institution", Kenneth M Stampp says that most overseers were employed on annual contracts and paid a salary ranging from $100-$1200 plus a house, an allowance of corn and pork, and a servant.
He goes on to say that most overseers were employed on plantations with more than 30 slaves, and that plantation owners were rarely satisfied with their performance. They often complained about them in letters, ledgers and periodicals, and rarely kept the same one for more than a year or two. A Mississippi planter said: "They are, as a class, a worthless set of vagabonds."

Last edited by Dentatus; January 28th, 2018 at 04:40 PM.
Dentatus is online now  
Old January 28th, 2018, 04:56 PM   #3
Historian
 
Joined: Aug 2016
From: Dispargum
Posts: 2,365

Paying an overseer by commission would also put the overseer at the mercy of the slaves. If the slaves worked hard, the overseer came out ahead, but if the slaves did the least amount of work necessary to avoid punishment the overseer lost money.

Salery is a guarantee. Commission only makes sense if the overseer is confident in his abilities to extract above-average work yields from the slaves. Since the slaves were not motivated to work hard, salery makes more sense for the overseer. Commission makes more sense for the plantation owner since, as Grey Fox says, it incentivises productivity. Assuming Dentatus is correct about most overseers drawing a salery it suggests the overseers were in a position of strength. They were able to extract a guaranteed income. If plantation owners universally disliked overseers it might be because plantation owners disliked being in the position of weakness.

There's also the unpredictablility of weather and other variables. If the harvest was thin because of bad weather or some other variable, commission would punish the overseer for factors beyond his control. Again, salery is more secure.
Chlodio is online now  
Old January 28th, 2018, 05:03 PM   #4

grey fox's Avatar
Scholar
 
Joined: Sep 2013
From: Chattanooga, TN
Posts: 629

Quote:
Originally Posted by Dentatus View Post
In "The Peculiar Institution", Kenneth M Stampp says that most overseers were employed on annual contracts and paid a salary ranging from $100-$1200 plus a house, an allowance of corn and pork, and a servant.
He goes on to say that most overseers were employed on plantations with more than 30 slaves, and that plantation owners were rarely satisfied with their performance. They often complained about them in letters, ledgers and periodicals, and rarely kept the same one for more than a year or two. A Mississippi planter said: "They are, as a class, a worthless set of vagabonds."
Very informative post, Dentatus. Did Kenneth Stampp mention anything about any overseers being paid by commission? Did Stampp ever mention why most slaveholders chose not to pay their overseers by commission?

My conscience would never allow me to be a slaveholder. However, if I believed that slavery was a positive good like most antebellum white southerners claimed, but I was otherwise the same as I am now, and if I was a slaveholder with a lot of slaves on a cotton plantation in the antebellum South, I would pay my overseers with a commission based on production during the planting/harvesting season. In such a situation, I might pay each of my overseers, say, two percent of what I sold the cotton for. I'm not saying that I would divide two percent of the revenue from the cotton among all my overseers. I'm saying that if I had three overseers, each individual overseer would get 2% of my cotton revenue, and 6% of my total cotton revenue would go to pay my overseers. I would give my overseers a limited amount of money in advances as the overseers needed it through the planting season. The money an overseer received from me in advances would be deducted from the overseers' commission pay once the cotton was sold.

If the slaveholders had paid their overseers by commission based on cotton revenue, maybe the overseers would have done a better job and the slaveholders might have been satisfied by their performance. I would probably lay off a lot of my overseers during the winter. However, if I kept any overseers during the winter, I would pay these overseers a flat salary during the winter.

Last edited by grey fox; January 28th, 2018 at 05:08 PM.
grey fox is offline  
Old January 28th, 2018, 05:17 PM   #5

grey fox's Avatar
Scholar
 
Joined: Sep 2013
From: Chattanooga, TN
Posts: 629

Quote:
Originally Posted by Chlodio View Post
Paying an overseer by commission would also put the overseer at the mercy of the slaves. If the slaves worked hard, the overseer came out ahead, but if the slaves did the least amount of work necessary to avoid punishment the overseer lost money.
Well, the overseer is supposed to help force the slaves to work. I mean, that's the main reason for the existence of the job. The overseers could and did use corporal punishments such as beatings/whippings to force the slave to work hard. For example, the overseers could set a minimum amount of cotton that a slave must pick in a day or the slave would be whipped. The amount of cotton that a given slave had to pick to not be whipped could be determined by the age and physical condition of the slave.

Quote:
Salery is a guarantee. Commission only makes sense if the overseer is confident in his abilities to extract above-average work yields from the slaves. Since the slaves were not motivated to work hard, salery makes more sense for the overseer. Commission makes more sense for the plantation owner since, as Grey Fox says, it incentivises productivity. Assuming Dentatus is correct about most overseers drawing a salery it suggests the overseers were in a position of strength. They were able to extract a guaranteed income. If plantation owners universally disliked overseers it might be because plantation owners disliked being in the position of weakness.

There's also the unpredictablility of weather and other variables. If the harvest was thin because of bad weather or some other variable, commission would punish the overseer for factors beyond his control. Again, salery is more secure.

You make some excellent points. If I was a large slaveholder on a big cotton plantation. I suppose I would pay the overseers a low flat rate salary to incentivize overseers to want to work for me ("if the crops fail due to bad weather, you will still get the salary money") , and then I would also pay the overseers a commission based on cotton production (in addition to the overseers' minimum salary) to incentivize the overseers to make the slaves work hard.

Last edited by grey fox; January 28th, 2018 at 05:23 PM.
grey fox is offline  
Old January 28th, 2018, 06:16 PM   #6
Historian
 
Joined: Aug 2016
From: Dispargum
Posts: 2,365

Quote:
Originally Posted by grey fox View Post
... If I was a large slaveholder on a big cotton plantation. I suppose I would pay the overseers a low flat rate salary to incentivize overseers to want to work for me ("if the crops fail due to bad weather, you will still get the salary money") , and then I would also pay the overseers a commission based on cotton production (in addition to the overseers' minimum salary) to incentivize the overseers to make the slaves work hard.
This assumes you could find an overseer willing to work under these conditions. I have no idea how many overseers there were at that time, but I suspect it was not a popular job. Few people enjoy having to beat someone, and I would be wary of anyone who did enjoy it. If there was a shortage of overseers, as I suspect, then it really put the overseers in a position to dictate the terms of employment. The plantation owners had to take whoever they could find and had to pay the salery expectations determined by the market, not by the planter. Still, the idea of incentivizing your managers is a good idea. I don't know why it wasn't done more often.
Chlodio is online now  
Old January 28th, 2018, 08:08 PM   #7
Scholar
 
Joined: Oct 2015
From: Virginia
Posts: 538

Quote:
Originally Posted by grey fox View Post
Very informative post, Dentatus. Did Kenneth Stampp mention anything about any overseers being paid by commission?
Stampp says on page 83:

"Some planters, unintentionally perhaps, gave overseers a special incentive for overworking slaves by making their compensation depend in part upon the amount they produced. Though this practice was repeatedly denounced in the ante-bellum period, many planters continued to follow it nevertheless. Cotton growers offered overseers bonuses of one to five dollars for each bale above a specified minimum, or a higher salary if they produced a fixed quota. A Louisiana planter hired an overseer on a straight commission basis of $2.75 per bale of cotton and 4 cents per bushel of corn. A South Carolina rice planter gave his overseer ten per cent of the net proceeds, and a Virginian offered his overseer "the seventh part of the good grain, tobacco, cotton and flax" that was harvested on his estate."

The obvious danger was that the planter might lose more due to the diminished value of his slaves through over-work than he gained by the large crop.

Last edited by Dentatus; January 28th, 2018 at 08:39 PM.
Dentatus is online now  
Old January 28th, 2018, 09:39 PM   #8

Ichon's Avatar
Historian
 
Joined: Mar 2013
From: .
Posts: 3,266

Quote:
Originally Posted by Dentatus View Post
Stampp says on page 83:

"Some planters, unintentionally perhaps, gave overseers a special incentive for overworking slaves by making their compensation depend in part upon the amount they produced. Though this practice was repeatedly denounced in the ante-bellum period, many planters continued to follow it nevertheless. Cotton growers offered overseers bonuses of one to five dollars for each bale above a specified minimum, or a higher salary if they produced a fixed quota. A Louisiana planter hired an overseer on a straight commission basis of $2.75 per bale of cotton and 4 cents per bushel of corn. A South Carolina rice planter gave his overseer ten per cent of the net proceeds, and a Virginian offered his overseer "the seventh part of the good grain, tobacco, cotton and flax" that was harvested on his estate."

The obvious danger was that the planter might lose more due to the diminished value of his slaves through over-work than he gained by the large crop.
Probably such a practice was denounced because of the conflicting incentives. A planter might decide short term profits were most desirable and worth the loss of value represented in overworking slaves but not only would increased production somewhat depress the overall price of cotton the increased demand for slaves due to overwork would raise the cost of slaves for all plantation owners thus doubly squeezing their profits.
Ichon is offline  
Old January 29th, 2018, 03:39 AM   #9

shivfan's Avatar
Historian
 
Joined: Dec 2011
From: Hertfordshire
Posts: 1,004

Overseers were paid a salary in the British Caribbean.

Here's a book written by one of them, Benjamin McMahon, of his years in Jamaica:

https://books.google.co.uk/books/abo...AJ&redir_esc=y
shivfan is offline  
Old January 29th, 2018, 06:45 AM   #10
Historian
 
Joined: Jul 2011
Posts: 5,115

Quote:
Originally Posted by Dentatus View Post
In "The Peculiar Institution", Kenneth M Stampp says that most overseers were employed on annual contracts and paid a salary ranging from $100-$1200 plus a house, an allowance of corn and pork, and a servant.
He goes on to say that most overseers were employed on plantations with more than 30 slaves, and that plantation owners were rarely satisfied with their performance. They often complained about them in letters, ledgers and periodicals, and rarely kept the same one for more than a year or two. A Mississippi planter said: "They are, as a class, a worthless set of vagabonds."

I doubt they were rarely employed for more than a year or two. You have someone move there and give them a house. Then you are going to change to authority figure over the slaves every year? Plus they usually had other responsibilities for the business affairs of the plantation. You wouldn't want to change the person responsible for this every year or two.
betgo is online now  
Reply

  Historum > World History Forum > American History

Tags
commission, overseers, paid, salary



Thread Tools
Display Modes


Similar Threads
Thread Thread Starter Forum Replies Last Post
Once and for all, the origin of the term 'salary'? SirOrmondeWinter Ancient History 16 April 23rd, 2016 11:10 AM
Teachers: Double Their Salary and Quantity coberst Philosophy, Political Science, and Sociology 34 August 15th, 2008 02:58 PM

Copyright © 2006-2013 Historum. All rights reserved.