The Work Ethic of the Plain Folk: Labor and Religion in the Old South

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FACED WITH THE PROSPECT OF IMMINENT DEPARTURE TO SERVE IN THE Confederate army, North Carolina farmer John Fletcher Flintoff instructed his family on life and faith in his diary entry of March 10, 1864: "I desire that you live on the premises I leave you and work the land to make your support--Rember my Father was a poor man--He was not able to leave his children anything to start upon the journey of life but I leave you 217 acres of land, 7 negroes, 3 good horses, 6 head of cattle 15 hogs and wagons, house & kitchen well furnished, plantation tools, etc.--a years supply of everything--I exhort you to be industrious, kind, persevering, thoughtful, economical, love and serve God and good to each other." (1) Fortunately, the forty-year-old Flintoff saw only local service, survived the war, and lived into the new century, all the while living as he preached, by hard work and through love of family and God. As the postwar years passed, his estate grew, revealing, he believed, God's favor in his ability to work for his children and their families and help them through their "journey of life."

Flintoff knew hard, manual labor as a young farmhand, as a struggling farm owner, and even as an elderly patriarch content with his fields, barns, and work stock. In reflections in his diary, especially on the anniversary of his birth, he recalled his early struggles in North Carolina and Mississippi, when he worked for wages or managed relatives' farms and plantations. Fondly did he hope that laboring for others would not be the lot of his children. As a poor boy, faith sustained him. He later urged his children to be religious and join the church when young, as he did by becoming a Methodist at age ten. Believing that education bolstered faith and opened opportunities, he attended Centenary College in Jackson, Mississippi, for two years. Back in North Carolina in 1850, he married Mary Pleasant of Caswell County and began to acquire slaves and livestock. Four years later at age thirty-one, having toiled long and hard, saved, purchased slaves, and borrowed heavily, he bought a farm and house of his own. Working beside his slaves, he performed all of the tasks necessary on a small piedmont farm: he raised corn, wheat, and oats; grew fodder for his animals; primed, topped, wormed, and harvested substantial tobacco crops; hewed logs and built houses, barns, wagons, and outbuildings; hauled logs and tobacco; and in winter made shoes for the family. And he prospered. "I want to try to make money to pay my debts. I work hard to do this with my heart raised up to God to his blessing," he recorded in 1856. Postwar labor adjustments proved difficult; in his view free blacks would not work honestly or steadily for wages, while whites faced the rigors of excessive work from dawn to dark. He resented idleness, even when found in his dearly beloved wife, whom he feared lived too much the life of a lady. In 1890 Flintoff boasted of a good year's work for his age and in 1891 recorded that "I am at work now in the field with the hoe 9 to 10 hours per day and am very thankful I am as well as I am and humbly trust in God for the future." (2)

Flintoff's life, steeped in faith and focused on hard, manual labor of the sort performed by slaves, reflected not one iota of the dictum that southerners derogated manual labor because it was, in the common idiom of the day, "nigger work." Flintoff was not a planter, and he was not rich; neither was he representative of the southern rural masses since his achievements in accumulating slaves and property and passing his wealth to his children were substantial. His work ethic, however, was shared by the masses of rural plain folk from whom he had emerged--those who worked with their hands and performed field labor even though some of them also benefited from ownership of a small number of slaves. Flintoff knew hard work and believed it honorable. On the one hand, his work was not menial labor. That was drudgery performed for another or directed by another, for which the worker received minimal benefit and profited but little in the long run--work typically performed by slaves. …