An interpretation of the personal, professional, and public personas of an antebellum figure
Though overseers played crucial roles in managing and perpetuating the plantation culture of the American South, they remain shadowy figures on an otherwise widely studied landscape. In Crafting the Overseer's Image, William E. Wiethoff illumines the rhetoric surrounding a class of workers whom historians often have relegated to the periphery. Comparing conventional notions about these supervisory figures with slave narratives, planters' correspondence, enacted statutes, and case law, Wiethoff maps the distance between historical reality and perception in public memory.
In this wide-ranging yet detailed analysis, Wiethoff canvasses the period from 1650 through 1865 across a southern expanse that stretches to include the Upper and Deep South as well as jurisdictions west of the Mississippi. Overseers left scant written evidence about their lives and times, but Wiethoff unearths characterizations constructed by friends and enemies, neighbors and strangers. He also mines the legal record to gauge the impact of legislative and case law rhetoric on public memory.
Wiethoff explores three dimensions of the overseers image—personal, professional, and public. Looking initially at the personal, he finds the overseer frequently characterized as a brutal taskmaster, a vicious scoundrel, or a rival of the slaves. From a professional vantage, the overseer's image ranges from that of a subordinate denigrated by the planter because of his close association with slaves to that of a colleague or trusted consultant. Finally Wiethoff explores the public image of the overseer, which generally validated his service to the larger white population. The overseer is portrayed publicly as a white man's spy, a sort of warden on the plantation, a patroller in the surrounding neighborhood, and a warrior who served in colonial and state militias as needed.
The first book-length study of the overseer in four decades, Wiethoff's study bridges historical, legal, and rhetorical scholarship to present a provocative investigation into the multifaceted roles of this oft-forgotten figure in plantation society.
William E. Wiethoff earned his Ph.D. in speech at the University of Michigan and his J.D. at Indiana University. An attorney in Bloomington, Indiana, he is the author of The Insolent Slave.
"A profound study of power and social hierarchy, Crafting the Overseer's Image is a worthy sequel to The Insolent Slave and continues William Wiethoff's brilliant study of the etiquette of race relations in the antebellum south. Wiethoff views the overseer as the ultimate middleman—degraded and reviled by planters, ridiculed and hated by slaves. Socially and spiritually isolated, the overseer was unable to control his public image. Wiethoff discovers him through reports, diaries, testimony, letters, statutes and an incredibly rich array of archival sources drawn together from two hundred years of occupational history in a region stretching from Maryland to Texas. Every student of southern communication and culture and every student of power must have this book."—Andrew A. King, professor of rhetoric and public address, Louisiana State University