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Chapter 16: Hurricane and Brierfield, 1837-45.

Joseph E. Davis.-treatment of slaves.-life at Hurricane and Brierfield.

During the eight years after this period Mr. Davis rarely left home, and never willingly. Sometimes a year would elapse without his leaving his plantation.

Intercourse with his brother Joseph was well calculated to improve and enlarge the mind of the younger brother. Joseph Davis was a man of great versatility of mind, a student of governmental law, and took an intense interest in the movements of the great political parties of the day. He gave an independent assent to the course of the one which suited his view of right. He, like his brother Jefferson, could not comprehend any one differing from him in political policy after hearing the reasons on which his opinion was based, and was prone to suspect insincerity on the part of the dissenter. But, unless offered a rudeness he was habitually mild, though keenly, yet good-humoredly, satirical, pointing his arguments usually with some [172] homely anecdotes which generally turned the laugh on his opponent.

He had quite a collection of standard works, upon the formative period of our government, among which “The Constitution,” “The Federalist,” “Elliott's debates,” etc., filled a conspicuous place. These were read and almost committed to memory. The Resolutions of ‘98 and ‘99, were always quoted when the argument became hot, and no one questioned the authority cited. Once a witty man, fagged out by the weight of authority pressed upon him, objected to having every thing he said controverted by “offensive books.” The brothers considered the Constitution a sacred compact, by which a number of sovereigns agreed to hold their possessions in common under strict limitations; and that, as in any other partnership or business agreement, it was not to be tampered with or evaded without the sacrifice of honor and good faith.

The brothers occupied their evenings with conversations on grave subjects, and during the day they found abundant occupation attending to their plantations. Jefferson was an unusually observant and successful planter, and gave great care to the details of cultivating cotton. This unremitting attention to his affairs bore much fruit, and his cattle and [173] crops had yielded him what used, in our young days, to be considered a moderately large fortune. Mr. J. E. Davis and his family generally went North for the summer, and then Mr. Davis was in charge of both places, and the only companions he had during their absence were the men employed about the gin and negro houses. They were an endless source of amusement to him, though he had an unaffected sympathy with them in their sorrows.

He had a lank, yellow-haired old millwright, who with his young son was working upon his cotton-gin. Mr. Davis found him an original person, and talked very often with the pair. Mr. P. had seen Mr. Davis from time to time very much absorbed in Adam Smith's “Wealth of Nations,” and one day requested the loan of it, which was granted. He sat mystified but silent, turning the leaves in a dazed way, while his long legs, clothed in white linsey trousers, were wound around each other. His son, Henry, a young fac-simile of his father, entered and inquired what he was reading. On being told he asked, “Father, do you think that is as interesting as ‘ Charlot-t-e Temple,’ or ‘Lou-i-i-sy, the Lovely Orphing? ’ ” An allusion to this anecdote would always provoke Mr. Davis to a smile.

This same good old man was once greatly [174] distressed because his wife had cancer and he could not send her to a specialist in Louisville. After going over with him anxiously the pros and cons of the case, Mr. Davis gave him $500, and told him, “Save your wife, and the knowledge that you have done so will satisfy your debt to me.”

When he looked after his own plantation there was no need of force with any of his laborers; they did their best for him, and the good feeling and exchanges of kindness were mutual.

Both the brothers abhorred centralization, and believed that a republic could be permanent and successful only when the widest community independence was secured.

A maxim of Joseph E. Davis was, “The less people are governed, the more submissive they will be to control.” This idea he carried out with his family and with his slaves. He instituted trial by jury of their peers, and taught them the legal form of holding it. His only share in the jurisdiction was the pardoning power. When his slave could do better for himself than by daily labor he was at liberty to do so, giving either in money or other equivalent the worth of the ordinary field service. One of his slaves kept a variety shop, and on many occasions the family bought of him at his own prices. He shipped, [175] and indeed sometimes purchased, the fruit crops of the Davis families, and also of other people in “The bend;” and, in one instance, credited one of us with $2,000 on his account. The bills were presented by him with promptitude and paid, as were those of others on an independent footing, without delay. He many times borrowed from his master, but was equally as exact in his dealings with his creditors. His sons, Thornton and Isaiah, first learned to work, and then were carefully taught by their father to read, write, and cipher, and now Ben Montgomery's sons are both responsible men of property; one is in business in Vicksburg, and the other is a thriving farmer in the West.

A letter from Isaiah is given in another part of this memoir.

After the war the Montgomery family purchased our two plantations, “The Hurricane” and “The Brierfield,” and the preference was given to them over a Northern man, well endorsed, who offered $300,000 for the property. When on one occasion the negroes could not pay their note when it fell due-the amount of the note was $25,000-Mr. Joseph E. Davis tore it up and told them to go on and pay the rest of the debt.

Corporal punishment was not permitted on “The Brierfield,” and was never inflicted except [176] upon conviction of the culprit by a jury of his peers. The sentence was, even then, more often remitted than carried out. There was an absurd case occurred which showed the fallibility of the jury. A fine hog had been killed, and it was traced to a negro's house, who was a great glutton. Several of the witnesses swore to a number of accessories to the theft. At last the first man asked a private interview with his master, and in a confidential tone said: “The fact of the matter is, master, they are all tellin‘ lies; I had nobody at all, sir, to hope (help) me; I killed the shote myself, and eat pretty near the whole of it, and dat's why I was so sick last week.” Mr. Davis's sense of humor saved the thief, and he went off to his quarters with only a caution; but the jury were much scandalized at master's breaking up “dat Cote, for, ‘fore God, we'd a cotch de whole tuckin‘ of em if he had let we alone.”

The James Pemberton of whom Mr. Davis spoke in the first chapter of his “Autobiography,” took charge of Brierfield, and managed the negroes according to his master's and his own views. They were devoted friends, and always observed the utmost ceremony and politeness in their intercourse, and at parting a cigar was always presented by Mr. Davis to him. James never sat down [177] without being asked, and his master always invited him to be seated, and sometimes fetched him a chair. James was a dignified quiet man, of fine manly appearance, very silent, but what he said was always to the point. His death, which occurred from pneumonia in 850, during our absence, was a sore grief to us, and his place was never filled.

Once, when something quite disastrous had happened on the place, Mr. Davis asked, “How do you think it happened, James?” James responded, “I rather think from my neglect.” Inquiry was made of Mr. Davis why he called him James. He said, “It is disrespect to give a nickname.” From this fine appreciation of the rights of others he would not permit the names of the negroes on the plantation list of “hands” to be abbreviated, and insisted that the negroes should be called what they chose.

His patience under personal inconvenience was remarkable. He called it “toughing it out.” Once, when he was keeping house before his marriage, he took a little mulatto woman to cook for him, because she insisted on coming. The breakfast was forgotten, and he drank milk; but when six o'clock passed and no dinner was ready, he mildly told her, “Do not trouble yourself; just give over trying to-night and catch up for [178] breakfast.” The little woman, some years afterward, when telling me of it, had tears in her eyes, and said, “Master did me mighty mean that time; he orter cussed me, but it was mean to make fun of me.”

His sense of humor was keen; he was a close observer of everything. Every shade of feeling that crossed the minds of those about him was noticed, and he could not bear anyone to be inimical to him. Nothing could be more winning than his efforts to conciliate even his servants when he thought they were annoyed with him, and he had his reward, for to a man they loved him, and were willing to bear any little impatience on his part cheerfully. He had one remarkable and invariable custom. No matter who told him anything about his negroes, he said, “I will ask him to give me his account of it.” The servant was always heard in his own defence. Mr. Davis said, “How can I know whether he was misunderstood, or meant well and awkwardly expressed himself.”

Whenever he went to the quarters the twelve or fifteen little toddlers that could walk would run from the plantation nursery calling out “Howdye, massa,” and stretch out their short arms for a handshake sometimes, in imminent danger of the horse treading upon them. [179]

The corn-crib was never locked, and from this the negroes fed their chickens and sold them to us at the market price; shelled as much as would do them for a week, and ground their own and the supply of meal for the white family on Saturday afternoon. Around their houses they each had a few peach-trees, their chicken-houses, and near by, a “sweet potato patch,” for their exclusive use.

At the death of one of the negroes his or her family had a regular tariff, which was enforced after the manner of Mr. Calhoun's sliding-scale of duties. A large quantity of flour, several pounds of sugar, the same quantity of coffee, a ham, a “shote,” and half a dozen or a dozen bottles of claret constituted the supper on which they felt they could be wakeful and watch the corpse; for a baby it was less; for a bride more, with a wedding-dress added thereto, and these requests were never denied them. The cerements were always furnished by us in case of a death. In case of illness, if chicken-soup was needed we bought the chicken from the family of the sufferer, and the money for it was always demanded.

Mr. Davis had one old man who was a “driver” in General Washington's time.1 [180] He could neither read nor write, but Uncle Rob's memory was entirely accurate and always ready to answer his summons, and his word was unimpeachable. He was eloquent in prayer, faithful in all things, and fit to be, as he was, a shepherd of his people. He and his old wife had comfortable quarters; he had a quiet horse, and used to ride over Brierfield every day, and at the end of a nine months session of Congress he could, with the utmost accuracy, tell the course of events on the place during our absence.

As I look now upon the change in the personnel of some of the free negroes, their often declared hostility and armed neutrality toward the whites, I revert with regret to the days when “love was law” with them; when we nursed their children and they ours, and there was entire mutual confidence.

1 A driver on a plantation means a trusty person who superintends the laborers. In the period of Mr. Davis's imprisonment his care for the comfort of this old man oppressed him dreadfully, as will be seen by the extracts from his letters published in another part of this volume.

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