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- Bricks Without Straw - 3/87 -
a lack of education. He could read little and write less. In his later days he was appointed a Justice of the Peace, and was chosen one of the County Court, or "Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions," as it was technically called. These honors were so pleasant to him that he determined to give his only son a name which should commemorate this event. The boy was, therefore, christened after the opening words of his commission of the peace, and grew to manhood bearing the name Potestatem Dedimus [Footnote: Potestatem dedimus: "We give thee power, etc." The initial words of the clause conferring jurisdiction upon officers, in the old forms of judicial commissions. This name is fact, not fancy.] Smith. This son was educated with care--the shrewd father feeling his own need--but was early instilled with his father's greed for gain, and the necessity for unusual exertion if he would achieve equal position with the old families who were to be his rivals.
The young man proved a worthy disciple of his father. He married, it is true, without enhancing his fortune; but he secured what was worth almost as much for the promotion of his purposes as if he had doubled his belongings. Aware of the ill-effects of so recent a bar sinister in his armorial bearings, he sought in marriage Miss Bertha Bellamy, of Belleville, in the State of Virginia, who united in her azure veins at least a few drops of the blood of all the first families of that fine-bred aristocracy, from Pocahontas's days until her own. The _role_ of the gentleman had been too much for the male line of the Bellamys to sustain. Horses and hounds and cards and high living had gradually eaten down their once magnificent patrimony, until pride and good blood and poverty were the only dowry that the females could command. Miss Bertha, having already arrived at the age of discretion, found that to match this against the wealth of young Potestatem Dedimus Smith was as well as she could hope to do, and accepted him upon condition that the vulgar _Smith_ should be changed to some less democratic name.
The one paternal and two maternal ancestors had not made the very common surname peculiarly sacred to the young man, so the point was yielded; and by considerable persistency on the part of the young wife, "P. D. SMITH" was transformed without much trouble into "P. DESMIT," before the administrator had concluded the settlement of his father's estate.
The vigor with which the young man devoted himself to affairs and the remarkable success which soon began to attend his exertions diverted attention from the name, and before he had reached middle life he was known over almost half the State as "Colonel Desmit," "Old Desmit," or "Potem Desmit," according to the degree of familiarity or respect desired to be displayed. Hardly anybody remembered and none alluded to the fact that the millionaire of Horsford was only two removes from old Sal Smith of Nubbin Ridge. On the other hand the rumor that he was in some mysterious manner remotely akin to the Brutons was industriously circulated by the younger members of that high-bred house, and even "the Judge," who was of about the same age as Colonel Desmit, had been heard more than once to call him "Cousin." These things affected Colonel Desmit but little. He had set himself to improve his father's teachings and grow rich. He seemed to have the true Midas touch. He added acre to acre, slave to slave, business to business, until his possessions were scattered from the mountains to the sea, and especially extended on both sides the border line in the Piedmont region where he had been bred. It embraced every form of business known to the community of which he was a part, from the cattle ranges of the extreme west to the fisheries of the farthest east. He made his possessions a sort of self-supporting commonwealth in themselves. The cotton which he grew on his eastern farms was manufactured at his own factory, and distributed to his various plantations to be made into clothing for his slaves. Wheat and corn and meat, raised upon some of his plantations, supplied others devoted to non-edible staples. The tobacco grown on the Hyco and other plantations in that belt was manufactured at his own establishment, supplied his eastern laborers and those which wrought in the pine woods to the southward at the production of naval supplies. He had realized the dream of his own life and the aspiration of his father, the overseer, and had become one of the wealthiest men in the State. But he attended to all this himself. Every overseer knew that he was liable any day or night to receive a visit from the untiring owner of all this wealth, who would require an instant accounting for every bit of the property under his charge. Not only the presence and condition of every slave, mule, horse or other piece of stock must be accounted for, but the manner of its employment stated. He was an inflexible disciplinarian, who gave few orders, hated instructions, and only asked results. It was his custom to place an agent in charge of a business without directions, except to make it pay. His only care was to see that his property did not depreciate, and that the course adopted by the agent was one likely to produce good results. So long as this was the case he was satisfied. He never interfered, made no suggestions, found no fault. As soon as he became dissatisfied the agent was removed and another substituted. This was done without words or controversy, and it was a well-known rule that a man once discharged from such a trust could never enter his employ again. For an overseer to be dismissed by Colonel Desmit was to forfeit all chance for employment in that region, since it was looked upon as a certificate either of incapacity or untrustworthiness.
Colonel Desmit was especially careful in regard to his slaves. His father had early shown him that no branch of business was, or could be, half so profitable as the rearing of slaves for market.
"A healthy slave woman," the thrifty father had been accustomed to say, "will yield a thousand per cent upon her value, while she needs less care and involves less risk than any other species of property." The son, with a broader knowledge, had carried his father's instructions to more accurate and scientific results. He found that the segregation of large numbers of slaves upon a single plantation was not favorable either to the most rapid multiplication or economy of sustenance. He had carefully determined the fact that plantations of moderate extent, upon the high, well-watered uplands of the Piedmont belt, were the most advantageous locations that could be found for the rearing of slaves. Such plantations, largely worked by female slaves, could be made to return a small profit on the entire investment, without at all taking into account the increase of the human stock. This was, therefore, so much added profit. From careful study and observation he had deduced a specific formulary by which he measured the rate of gain. With a well-selected force, two thirds of which should be females, he calculated that with proper care such plantations could be made to pay, year by year, an interest of five per cent on the first cost, and, in addition, double the value of the working force every eight years. This conclusion he had arrived at from scientific study of the rates of mortality and increase, and in settling upon it he had cautiously left a large margin for contingencies. He was not accustomed to talk about his business, but when questioned as to his uniform success and remarkable prosperity, always attributed it to a system which he had inexorably followed, and which had never failed to return to him at least twenty per cent. per annum upon every dollar he had invested.
So confident was he in regard to the success of this plan that he became a large but systematic borrower of money at the legal rate of six per cent, taking care that his maturing liabilities should, at no time, exceed a certain proportion of his available estate. By this means his wealth increased with marvelous rapidity.
The success of his system depended, however, entirely upon the care bestowed upon his slaves. They were never neglected. Though he had so many that of hundreds of them he did not know even the faces, he gave the closest attention to their hygienic condition, especially that of the women, who were encouraged by every means to bear children. It was a sure passport to favor with the master and the overseer: tasks were lightened; more abundant food provided; greater liberty enjoyed; and on the birth of a child a present of some sort was certain to be given the mother.
The one book which Colonel Desmit never permitted anybody else to keep or see was the register of his slaves. He had invented for himself an elaborate system by which in a moment he could ascertain every element of the value of each of his more than a thousand slaves at the date of his last visitation or report. When an overseer was put in charge of a plantation he was given a list of the slaves assigned to it, by name and number, and was required to report every month the condition of each slave during the month previous, as to health and temper, and also the labor in which the same had been employed each day. It was only as to the condition of the slaves that the owner gave explicit directions to his head-men. "Mighty few people know how to take care of a nigger," he was wont to say; and as he made the race a study and looked to them for his profits, he was attentive to their condition.
Among the requirements of his system was one that each slave born upon his plantations should be named only by himself; and this was done only on personal inspection. Upon a visit to a plantation, therefore, one of his special duties always was to inspect, name, and register all slave children who had been born to his estate since his previous visitation.
It was in the summer of 1840 that a traveler drove into the grove in front of the house at Knapp-of-Reeds, in the middle of a June afternoon, and uttered the usual halloo. He was answered after a moment's delay by a colored woman, who came out from the kitchen and exclaimed,
It was evident at once that visitors were not frequent at Knapp-of-Reeds.
"Where's Mr. Ware?" asked the stranger.
"He's done gone out in de new-ground terbacker, long wid de han's," answered the woman.
"Where is the new-ground this year?" repeated the questioner. "Jes' down on the p'int 'twixt de branch an' de Hyco," she replied.
"Anybody you can send for him?"
"Wal, thar mout be some shaver dat's big enough to go, but Marse War's dat keerful ter please Marse Desmit dat he takes 'em all outen de field afore dey can well toddle," said the woman doubtfully.
"Well, come and take my horse," said he, as he began to descend from his gig, "and send for Mr. Ware to come up at once."
The woman came forward doubtfully and took the horse by the bit, while the traveler alighted. No sooner did he turn fully toward her than her face lighted up with a smile, and she said,
"Wal, dar, ef dat a'n't Marse Desmit hisself, I do believe! How d'ye do, Mahs'r?" and the woman dropped a courtesy.
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