When an American uses the expression, "It can't happen here," he is probably referring to the replacement of republican government by some form of tyranny. We smile at his naivete. But the expression can be interpreted in other ways. It can refer to the belief that slavery, once commonplace in this country, has been eradicated, and can never happen again. This belief, also touchingly naive, is refuted by a study of the history of the Thomas Heft plantation, which was, in the early 19th century, the most prosperous and influential plantation in the country. When this writer stumbled across the facts about this remarkable institution, he marveled that it had not been trumpeted by civil rights leaders as an example of enlightened race relationships. A close examination of those facts, however, reveals why Heft has been relegated to obscurity. His plantation shows not only how it could happen here, but did.
It began like all the other cotton plantations. Thomas Heft inherited it from his father, and it was not remarkable. Tom Heft, however, was remarkable indeed. He noticed, for instance, that when he hired a new overseer who was stricter and harsher than his predecessor, that the output of cotton fell instead of rising. He noted that when quotas were set for the slaves, they met those quotas, but never overproduced by so much as a percentage point, as though they had some sort of built-in calculator which told them when they had produced just enough to satisfy the demands upon them. So Heft decided to do something hitherto unheard of among plantation owners: he decided to pay his workers.
Of course, there was little point in offering the workers money for their labors if there was nothing for them to buy. But the Heft place was well watered, and the clay banks of the streams made a pretty good pottery, which the slaves used for the manufacture of their own utensils. Also, some of the ground was used for raising other crops, which went to the big house; but if production could be increased, the slaves could enjoy this produce as well.
Heft did not pay the slaves in gold or silver. Rather, he bought a press and turned out notes nicely engraved, bearing his likeness and the words T.HEFT NOTE. The notes cost him a few cents to print, but the slaves were so delighted to be paid for their services, that production increased more than enough to cover the cost. Heft had the slaves build a shop on the grounds, which sold the goods produced on the plantation; and payment could be made only in T.HEFT notes. The harder the slaves worked, the more they were paid, and the more they could buy. Of course, what they were buying with their hard work was nothing more than the products which that labor produced, but this didn't seem to bother them, if they noted it at all. Production of cotton at the Heft plantation took a significant leap; in a few years Heft was the wealthiest plantation owner in the state.
An odd thing happened. Whereas slaves sought escape from other plantations, they sought to escape to Heft's. In this way, there were always enough slaves to work in the fields. He was gentle with his slaves (he called them co-workers, not slaves) and living conditions were good. All the workers were encouraged to learn some trade, so that the variety of goods available for purchase was great, and the enticement to earn more money equally great. They could buy, if they produced enough cotton to afford it, materials to improve their housing, and enrich their diets. Some of them saved to buy a loom, and began to produce cloth in various patterns which was much coveted, not only on the Heft plantation, but adjoining ones as well. Slaves from those adjoining plantations could buy these goods also, if they had any T.HEFT notes, which they could obtain by bartering. There was a brisk trade between neighboring slaves, and the Heft workers.
Goods from the Heft place became so desirable, in fact, that there was a steady demand for T.HEFT notes, which led Heft to make another discovery which added to his wealth and his reputation. He decided to make his notes available to anyone who wanted them, not just his workers, but only as a loan. He would accept, in repayment of the loan, only the borrowed T.HEFT notes, plus interest, of course. What could be fairer than that? Because people could always get desirable goods at the Heft stores (there were several now, all built by the workers) for these notes, they were borrowed readily. The rate of interest was low. After all, they cost Heft nothing, for the workers now ran the printing plant, and were paid with the notes they printed. Suppliers of paper and ink were also paid with the T.HEFT notes, and were glad to get them. This wide acceptance surprised Heft until he realized that people believed that in exchanging his notes, which cost him nothing, for the production of others, they were redeeming them. That gave Thomas Heft his brightest idea of all.
Until now, the Heft fortune had been made in cotton, with some small but steadily increasing returns from the lending of his notes. The device of paying the workers with T.HEFT notes had been nothing more than a plan to increase production; but it had worked in excess of his most optimistic hopes. Now Heft gathered his best and most capable workers around him and made a startling announcement. "My dear co-workers," he said, "I have grown rich and content raising cotton. Now I wish to retire, but I would like for the good work of the Heft plantation to continue. For that reason, I am proposing to sell the plantation, lock, stock and barrel (except for my home and its grounds, of course) to you." It was an electrifying announcement. Once slaves, now prospective owners! "Master Heft," the workers replied, "How can we buy this plantation? We have saved some of our money (they meant the T.HEFT notes, of course) but not enough to buy this plantation. We'll never be able to save enough for that."
Heft explained that he would loan them the T.HEFT notes necessary for the transaction. They would agree upon a fair price. They could repay him from the profits of the plantation. If they wished, they could hire him to manage the place, since he had a lot of experience in that line of work. Regardless, if they wanted the place, he would lend them the notes to buy it. And buy it they did.
As a result of this transaction, Heft was owed a large number of his notes. More, in fact, than existed, since he loaned enough for the principal, but not the interest. As the workers diligently repaid him month by month, the supply of Heft notes in circulation steadily decreased, and their relative scarcity made them more valuable. More and more people desired to use these appreciating notes, and when they did, the amount owed to Thomas Heft increased, of course, since he was their only source. By this time, T.HEFT notes were widespread throughout the state, and Heft had incurred the good will of important people with his generous loans of the valuable notes.
Legislators became concerned (at Heft's suggestion) that others might also issue notes which might not be as "good" as the T.HEFT notes, and Heft himself offered them a solution to this problem. Since his notes were known to be of value, and well regulated and controlled by virtue of his obvious integrity (he put it much more modestly) it would be a good idea to declare his notes a sole "legal tender," which would accomplish two things: it would keep a flood of dubious notes from confusing and/or defrauding a gullible public, and, by guaranteeing their acceptance, it would reduce the chance that anyone holding T.HEFT notes would be stuck with them. The legislators, many of whom owed their election to Heft support, were quick to agree.
Heft encouraged his workers, now the owners of the Heft plantation, to open banks throughout the area, using the T.HEFT notes which he would loan them at a discount. This would enable them to profit as well from the T.HEFT notes. If, in addition, it confirmed them in the use of these note, so much the better.
Before he died, they erected a statue of Thomas Heft on his old plantation. The inscription read, "Thomas Heft, inventor of the T.HEFT note, and destroyer of slavery." The reports of the event say that Heft himself was laughing uncontrollably during the reading of this inscription, but this was attributed to his age, and the encroachment of senility
Dr. Paul Hein
2 November 1998
Also by Dr. Hein
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