Response to “J.H. Hammond Instructs His Overseer”

The piece “J.H. Hammond Instructs His Overseer” is from 1840-1850 and reflects much of the mindset of the time. Throughout the piece, Hammond gives general instructions to be taken into consideration when running a plantation. His major concern seems to be achieving efficiency in terms of produce while keeping separate the rest of the property. Hammond points to the Overseer of the plantation to achieve such efficiency. Hammond’s piece is incredibly didactic in nature, and is presented in such a way to instruct. The piece includes instructions on the issue of favoritism and also instructs on such matters as allowances and rewards. Finally the piece ends with a list of offenses and their corresponding punishments. Though the document is intended to be informative and instructive, its syntax also reveals the prejudices and attitude of the time.

Hammond reveals through his language the mindset of the time. For example, when examining what it takes to have an efficient crop, he lists slaves in the same category as “land, mules, stock, fences, ditches, farming utensils, &c.” (page 212). To group human beings in the same category as “ditches” is to remove their human qualities. Through this language, Hammond dehumanizes the enslaved people.  He does this by equating them to objects essential to the prosperity of plantations yet lacking qualities of people. In addition, Hammond advises to give allowances of food on Mondays as opposed to Sundays, to avoid the slaves from “eating it in consequence of having nothing to do” (page 214). In this way, he undermines the intelligence of the slaves by suggesting they have no concept of rationing food. Yet although Hammond continually insults the humanity of the slaves, he also urges the Overseer not to act too rashly towards the slaves. He explicitly states that under no circumstances should an Overseer kick, strike, or hit a slave with the handle of his whip. Instead he specifies the offences worth punishment and their individual punishments. The fact that a plantation owner would have to specify when and how punishments can be used suggests that there were previous issues with Overseers. Perhaps Overseers become too enraged or too power hungry and often get carried away with punishments. This suggests violence is common from Overseers and there may be a lack of control in the matters of punishment because of that.

Hammond’s piece is important in showing the mindset of the time, yet it was also written in a peculiar way. The document is broken up into different sections, which include step-by-step processes that should be followed. This is somewhat similar to a process of analysis writing piece. Though these pieces are often written in a technical sense, Hammond’s views on plantation life are quite technical. Through speaking about the slaves as though they are not human, he is able to give instructions on keeping them in order, just as he would give instructions for the upkeep of land, mules, fences, or ditches.

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