John mcdonogh.jpgThe eccentric John McDonogh was born in Baltimore in 1779. He was the son of a succesful merchant. On a business trip to New Orleans he decided to stay there. By this midtwenties he already built up a small fortune. His land holdings would eventually surround all of New Orleans. He also got a huge strip of land along the Mississippi river. He got the land in the wake of the Louisiana purchase, when Napoleon sold a huge land area to the young United States to pay for his wars in Europe.

In his younger years he seems to have been a bon vivant who liked to live it up. You could say he lived like an early version of the Great Gatsby. Eventually he turned into almost the exact opposite. Possibly because he got turned down by several women, he turned into something of a recluse. He went to live on an unfinished mansion along the Mississipi, never returned to New Orleans, unless strictly for business, and put in in 18 hour work days. His work ethic was phenomenal.

All this is already quite out of the ordinary, but neighbours started noticing something peculiar about his slaves as well. They worked without white overseers, worked very dilligently although they were left alone, and they showed great skill. One day they also saw two of his slaves leave for Africa, for Liberia. They had new suits of close, letters of recommendation and had all kinds of tools with them. Had he freed them? It turned out they had bought their own freedom.

How was this possible?

Well, McDonogh was deeply religious. When he started noticing that his slaves worked harder on their own time -Sunday, or ‘the Lord’s day- than during the week, he tried to stop them from violating the Sabbath, a day of rest and devotion to God and prayer, by giving them Saturday afternoon off. Then he offered to pay them if they did work for him on Saturday afternoons. He wouldn’t give them any actual money, but the would keep track of what they earned in a book. Every six months he would call each slave to him to tell them about their progress. If they had earned their own worth, he would set them free. The process probably took something like 15 years. His slaves were paid for overtime, not just on Saturday afternoon. Already before he came up with this his slaves were well-clothed and fed and allowed to keep their own garden plots, but with this new system they had even more respect and affection for their master. This vision of their future freedom filled them with energy.

As John McDonogh explains in his own words: ‘Without hope, a certain something in the future to look forward to and aspire to, man would be nothing. Deprive him of the aspiring faculty of the soul, and he would grovel in the dust as a brute’.

He also never sold a slave, though he sometimes bought slaves.

At the same time he didn’t think blacks and whites could live together, so he was all for their relocation to Africa. He didn’t see his system as any kind of generosity, he had become a real miser, a true skinflint, but as a fair system.

His experiment allowed eighty slaves to purchase their own freedom. It seems to contain a certain implied critique of the system of slavery. When he died he left most of his estate to estalbish free schools for the poor. At his funeral the attending whites were stone-faced, but the blacks present cried.

McDonogh recommended his experiment to other slave owners and to Congress, but nobody adopted it. It may have been a peaceful way out of slavery. The debate concerning slavery would eventually lead to the bloodiest war in American history, the American war over whether or not to extend slavery into the western territories (probably its most correct name), commonly known as the American Civil War. The latest estimates put the death toll of this internecine strife at about 800,000…

(Source: A South divided, portraits of dissent in the Confederacy, by David C. Downing)

John McDonogh’s Rules for My Guidance in Life

  • Remember always that labor is one of the conditions of our existence.
  • Time is gold; throw not one minute away, but place each one into account.
  • Do unto all men as you would be done by.
  • Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
  • Never bid another do what you can do yourself.
  • Never covet what is not your own.
  • Never think any matter so trivial as not to deserve notice.
  • Never give out that which does not first come in.
  • Never spend but to produce.
  • Let the greatest order regulate the transactions of your life.
  • Study in your course of life to do the greatest possible amount of good.
  • Deprive yourself of nothing necessary to your comfort, but live in honorable simplicity and frugality.