The Corvée Put Citizens To Work on the Roads
Under the corvée system, North Carolina constructed and maintained roads by requiring citizens who lived along the route to turn out for work.
A tax paid with sweat
The corvée is a system under which a government creates and maintains public works – such as roads – through mandated physical labor by its citizens. The policy dates back to the Roman Empire, the word “corvée” deriving from a Latin phrase for “works collected.” This system for accomplishing public works projects is essentially a tax paid by the citizenry through physical labor rather than with money. In its simplest form, when a road is to be created or repaired, citizens who live along that route are assigned to undertake the work.
Historically, the corvée has been most utilized in times when currency was scarce, a condition certainly true in the American colonies before and immediately after the Revolution.
We your humble petitioners...
In the colonial era, under British law, North Carolina’s authorities realized that they were not able to determine – much less fulfill – road needs in the expanding colony. Therefore, in 1715 they enacted “An Act Concerning Roads and Ferries” which delegated to local courts the responsibility for road creation and maintenance.
Throughout the 18th century, citizens could petition their local Court of Pleas to create a new road or to effect repairs on an existing road.
This 1795 petition to the Court of Pleas in Randolph County proposed a new road:
We your humble petitioners… that you may grant an order for the laying out and clearing a Public road leading from the Court House of said County to cross Deep River at Joseph Closs’s Mill from thence to Guilford County line in a direct course two cross Haw River at the High Rock Ford; for you humble petitioners do think a road laid out as a aforesaid would be of public service…
And this court declaration of 1796 is a response to a citizen petition to repair a section of road in Chatham County:
The Grand Jurors present and say that they find the piece of road from Bear Creek to Coxe’s old road, part of the road leading from this place to Terry’s Ford on Deep River out of repair… also present as out of repair part of the road leading from this place to the High Rock Ford, one under the care of James Davis be recommend to be appointed John Crutchfield – we also present as out of repair the piece of road from Dr. Pyles to Lindley’s Store as far as the County line we recommend John McPhearson…
The recommendations in the above court document are for an Overseer to supervise the stipulated road repairs.
The Overseer, willing or not
The 1715 “Act Concerning Roads and Ferries” established that for any specific road work, the local court would appoint an Overseer (“surveyor”) to assemble a crew and supervise the work. The law decreed:
… that the precinct courts shall annually appoint surveyors of the high ways or roads who are by this Act obliged to summon all male Tythables within their division… to work on such roads and bridges… some time in the months of April and September yearly to clear all the roads and make clear and repair all bridges…
The overseer would call into service local free white men over the age of 16 and enslaved males over the age of 12. The original age cap for white men was 60 years, subsequently lowered to 50. Sometimes the overseer selected his own crew, but often laborers were assigned by the court for the simple reason that they lived along that section of road. As is so often the case, there were loopholes for people of means. A citizen tapped for work on the corvée could send three substitutes in his place, originally “three slaves,” but later “three sufficient hands.”
The role of overseer was not a coveted position. Overseers served without pay, and they were away from their farm duties for the length of the work. (The same was true for their laborers.) A court-appointed Overseer who declined the position could be fined 20 pounds sterling. If they accepted, but did insufficient work, the court could levy fines against the Overseer and his crew, and the court could call the whole crew back to do further work.
This 1788 warrant called for the arrest of an Overseer who didn’t live up to the court’s expectations:
To the sheriff of Caswell County… commanded to take the body of Daniel Evans as heretofore (if to be found in your Bailiwick) and him safely kept so that you have him before some of the justices of our county Court of Pleas… to answer… concerning the appointment as Overseer the road herein fail…
American legislation that replaced English law after the Revolution at least gave prospective Overseers some relief in that they could only be called to serve for one year in three.
A simple system with basic flaws
The corvée made sense in theory. Those who lived along the roadway, and who principally benefited from it, should bear the responsibility for road construction and repair.
But in reality, the system had the seeds of failure built in. Overseers were not selected for their engineering skill; most had none. And although work was supposed to be done in April and September – deemed by the courts to be good times to work on the roads – it was often performed whenever the Overseer and crew could best be away from their farms, not necessarily during advantageous conditions for pick and shovel work. Farmers who used local roads to get to market had little incentive to work on routes used by through-travelers. Indeed, the system discouraged the addition of new roads, because a second road in an area doubled the work load for local citizens tapped by the corvée. In a nutshell, work on the roads under the corvée was often unskilled, sporadit, desultory, and of poor quality.
As currency became more common, the corvée died out in America, although it saw a brief resurgence in the south after the Civil War, when money was scarce again for a time. In 1913, Alabama became the last state to abandon the system.
It would be 1921 before state government in North Carolina would take back control of the construction and repair of roads from the individual counties. That policy change was heavily influenced by a grass roots campaign by the Good Roads Association.
The allure of free labor on the roads lived on in North Carolina and elsewhere in the form of convict labor. Cynics have said that for many years the rate of incarceration in our state fluctuated with the need for road work.
Asheville’s Loche Craig, 1913 – 1917 Governor of North Carolina, and a strong advocate for good roads, declared “Good Roads Days” on which citizens were encouraged to turn out voluntarily and work on the roads. Governor Craig himself picked up a shovel and pitched in.
For information on early North Carolina roads and much more – including photocopies of early documents – I recommend Stewart E. Dunaway’s book Historical Overview of Road, Bridge, Ferry and Mills in North Carolina.