Thompson had an interesting theory on the reason why slaves did not respond well to over the top punishments; he believed that a slave’s productivity would decrease due to their energy going towards resisting. The people who were forced into slavery understood that by responding to being whipped or beaten with working harder, their over-seers would assume it was alright to do so because the slave’s work quality would improve. Many over-seers would give unjust or extreme punishments for things like not bringing enough firewood, even if it was as much as they could lift, or beating a slave for being only a couple minutes past curfew.
However, many slave owners learned that by constantly beating their slaves, they would get the opposite of their desired result. Slaves beaten for no reason often became rebellious, and wouldn’t follow the master’s orders. But, just by giving them some freedoms and not delivering unexplained beatings, slaves would become more compliant. When living under better conditions such as these, slaves were happier and more productive; by treating them with a bit of humanity, a benevolent master would make a slave feel less like livestock and more like part of the team. That feeling made the goal of pleasing the master and making life better and more prosperous on the land they worked on seem reasonable to the slaves.
Unfortunately, not all slaves were able to get owners like this. Many owners were in fact so brutal, that slaves would have rather killed their master and be hung than keep being their slave. In these cases, normally the owner was incredibly vicious, beating or whipping the slave in excess; even if the whipping was within the technical legal limit of thirty-nine lashes, many slaves still became fed up with it and would fight back. There were numerous cases of frustrated slaves, punching, kicking, or choking their masters, even to the point of their master passing out for days. After a case such as this happened, the slave was normally sent to the outer-most field to work in solitude. But even after being sent to the outer-most field of the property alone, none of the slaves tried to escape. It was believed that the reason was that they were left alone with just their work, and that made them happy.
While Thompson never directly discussed how he thought a slave should be disciplined, it was very clear that he did not believe physically abusing the slaves were necessary, much less productive. While he didn’t condemn the use of physical discipline, he did make the distinction that an overzealous over-seer can do more harm than good. In his autobiography, Thompson don’t always make his positions on every form of sanctions against slaves clear, but his message against the use of brutal, inhumane whippings is indisputable. In the pre-Civil War South, Thompson seems to make the case that slaves responded better to positive reinforcement than to physical punishment.