The History of American Slavery

Picking Cotton Under the Pushing System

By the 19th century, systematic violence had become an economic necessity on America’s cotton frontier.

“The Cotton Planter and His Pickers,” West Point, Mississippi, 1908.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

This article supplements Episode 6 of The History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion for a different kind of summer school. To learn more and to enroll, visit

Excerpted from The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist. Published by Basic Books.

The kind of slavery that Charles Ball, an enslaved man from Maryland sold to a cotton plantation in Congaree, South Carolina, encountered and that was emerging on the frontiers of the early–19th-century South was inherently new.

For centuries slavery in the New World had expanded by a process of extension: adding new slaves, clearing new fields from the next sugar island. The southwestern frontier was expanding—in part—via a similar strategy, though on an unprecedented geographic scale: It was not an island, but a subcontinent’s rich interior stripped from its inhabitants. And not mere battalions, but whole armies of slaves were being moved to new soil. By 1820, whites had already transported more than 200,000 enslaved people to the South’s new frontiers in the years since 1790.

What made this forced migration truly different was that it led to continuous increases in productivity per person. The two ways out of the Malthusian trap were either to incorporate more “ghost acres”—land outside of industrializing core regions like Britain or, soon, the northeastern United States—or to create systematic increases in efficiency of production. The first slavery had not yielded continuous improvements in labor productivity. On the 19th-century cotton frontier, however, enslavers extracted more production from each enslaved person every year.

The source of this ever-rising productivity wasn’t a machine like the ones that were crucial to the textile mills. In fact, you could say that the business end of the new cotton technology was a whip.

On Ball’s first day of picking, he and an army of 170 enslaved men, women, and children trudged past uncounted rows, through a mile of clods drying from the hoe. Beyond a grove of trees, the rising sun showed that a vast field opened beyond. On its edge the overseer stopped them. He announced 11 men as “captains” for the day, and from his slate named 15 laborers to follow each. Ball was to go with Simon. Marching his troop to a section of planted furrows, Simon posted his soldiers: one adult or two children to the head of each row. As Ball lined up by the first waist-high cotton plant of his row, he was about to learn a new way of working, one meant to occupy most of the waking moments remaining to him on Earth. He saw Simon take a row, lift his hoe, and begin to work rapidly down the side of his furrow. Everyone else began to do the same, in a great hurry. Ball could see that each of them had to chop all the weeds in their row without damaging the cotton plants. But then the man in the next row warned him that no one was allowed to fall behind the captain. Ball put his head down and kept his hoe moving, trying to keep up with Simon’s furious pace.1

As Ball bent over the plants in the gloam of near-dawn, wetting his shirt with cotton-leaf dew, he found that picking required sharp eyes, speedy hands, and good coordination. Slip up and the hand clutched a leaf, or fingers pricked on the hard points of the drying “square” at the base of the boll. Grab too much, and a mess of fiber and stem sprung loose in one’s hand. Grab too little and the fingers twisted only a few strands.

Finally reaching the end of his first row, Ball emptied his sack into his own large basket. Suddenly he realized that women and even children were already far down the neighboring rows. As the pickers bent in ever-more hurried motion, their hands were blurs. Not just their right hands, in the fastest cases, but their left as well. But when Ball tried to set both hands to work, his arms flailed like disconnected parts. His fingers lumbered. For the first time since he was a boy, he felt out of control of his body. Muscular strength could not solve this task.2

Cotton-picking had little to do with physical strength. It broke down distinctions of size and sex. Women were sometimes the fastest pickers in a cotton slave labor camp. Young migrants could learn picking more quickly than their elders. In fact, Ball heard that “a man who has arrived at the age of twenty-five before he sees a cotton field will never, in the language of the overseers, become a crack picker.”3

The best-known innovation in the history of cotton production, as every high school history student knows, is the cotton gin. It allowed enslavers to clean as much cotton for market as they could grow and harvest. As far as most historians have been concerned, the gin is where the study of innovation in the production of cotton ends—at least until the invention of the mechanical cotton picker in the 1930s, which ended the sharecropping regime.

But here is the question historians should have asked: Once enslavers had the cotton gin, how, then, did enslavers produce (or have produced, by other hands) as much as the gin could clean? For once the gin shattered the processing bottleneck, other limits on production and expansion were cast into new relief.

Given a finite number of captives in their own control, entrepreneurs created a complex of labor control practices that enslaved people called “the pushing system.” This system increased the number of acres each captive was supposed to cultivate. As of 1805, enslavers like Hampton figured that each “hand” could tend and keep free of weeds 5 acres of cotton per year. Half a century later, that rule of thumb had increased to 10 acres “to the hand.” In the first minute of labor Charles Ball had encountered one of the pushing system’s tactics, in which overseers usually chose captains like Simon to “carry the fore row” and set the pace.4

We do not know who invented the widely shared “pushing system”: a system that extracted more work by using oppressively direct supervision combined with torture ratcheted up to far higher levels than Ball had experienced before. But it was already present when Ball got to Congaree in 1805. Innovation in violence was the foundation of the pushing system. Enslaved migrants in the field quickly learned what happened if they lagged or resisted.

Under the whip, people could not speak in sentences or think coherently. They “danced,” trembled, babbled, lost control of their bodies. Talking to the rest of the white world, enslavers downplayed the damage inflicted by the overseer’s whip. Sure, it might etch deep gashes in the skin of its victim, make them “tremble” or “dance,” as enslavers said, but it did not disable them. Whites were open with those whom they beat about the whip’s purpose. Its point was the way it asserted dominance so “educationally” that the enslaved would abandon hope of successful resistance to the pushing system’s demands. In the context of the pushing system, the whip was as important to making cotton grow as sunshine and rain.

As early as 1800, enslavers deploying the pushing system could make their captives raise more acres of cotton than they could harvest between the time the bolls opened and the time one had to begin planting again. Picking was now the bottleneck: the part of the cotton production process that took the most labor, and the part that determined how much money enslavers would make. And as Ball was discovering, picking was difficult, and picking fast was very difficult.

What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphemisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck.  

Twenty years after Ball’s first day of picking, Israel Campbell went through his own first season at a Mississippi slave labor camp. Try as he might, Campbell could pick no more than 90 pounds between first light and full dark. But the planter, “Belfer,” had told the young man that his daily minimum was 100  pounds—and that on this day he would “have as many lashes as there were pounds short” in the “draft of cotton” recorded beside the name “Israel” on the Irish-born overseer’s slate. (A “draft” was a check that paid off a debt, in the commercial lingo of the time.) On the hard-packed earth of Belfer’s cotton yard, between the rough-hewn timbers of the gin stand and the packing screw that squashed cleaned cotton into bales, a kind of accounting took place. It used slate and chalk, balance beam, and one more tool as well. And as Campbell brought his cotton up in the growing darkness, he knew that his weight left him with a negative balance. “Well, Israel, is that you?” Belfer said, bullwhip in hand. “I will settle with you now.”5

We can find this system of accounting, experienced by Campbell and Ball, reported again and again by people who were moved to the southwestern cotton fields. Southern whites themselves sometimes admitted that enslavers used the vocabulary of credit and debit accounting to frame weighing and whipping—like this Natchez doctor, who in 1835 described the end of a picking day: “The overseer meets all hands at the scales, with the lamp, scales, and whip. Each basket is carefully weighed, and the nett weight of cotton set down upon the slate, opposite the name of the picker. … [O]ccasionally the countenance of an idler may be seen to fall”: “So many pounds short, cries the overseer, and takes up his whip, exclaiming, ‘Step this way, you damn lazy scoundrel,’ or ‘Short pounds, you bitch.’ ”6

These new techniques that extracted ever greater cotton efficiency radically changed the experience of enslaved people like Charles Ball and the 1 million who followed him into the cotton fields. But they also transformed the world beyond the fields. The amount of cotton the South grew increased almost every single year from 1800, when enslaved African Americans made 1.4 million pounds of cotton, to 1860, when they harvested almost 2 billion pounds. Eighty percent of all the cotton grown in the United States was exported across the Atlantic, almost all of it to Britain. Cotton was the most important raw material of the Industrial Revolution that created our modern world economy. By 1820, the ability of enslaved people in southwestern frontier fields to produce more cotton of a higher quality for less drove most other producing regions out of the world market. Enslaved African Americans were the world’s most efficient producers of cotton.

Charles Ball’s first-day total on his slate became the new minimum on his personal account. He understood that if he failed on the next day to pick at least his minimum, 38 pounds, “it would go hard with me. … I knew that the lash of the overseer would become familiar with my back.”

Excerpted with permission from The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E BaptistAvailable from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2014.

1. Charles Ball, Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball … (New York, 1837), 117–119; William Grimes, Life of William Grimes, Written by Himself (New York, 1825), 25.

2. Ball, Slavery in the United States, 184–187; Solomon Northup,  Twelve Years a Slave (Auburn,  NY, 1853), 134–143; Anderson,  Life and Narrative, 19.

3. Ball, Slavery in the United States, 217; cf. J. Ker to I. Baker, November 19, 1820, Ker Papers, SHC; J. S. Haywood to Dear Sister, May 3, 1839, Fol. 156, HAY; A. K. Barlow to J. J. Phillips, April 23, 1849, Ivan Battle Papers, SHC; James Harriss to Th. Harriss, September 14, 1845, 1843–1847 Fol., Thomas Harriss Papers, Duke; Jn. Knight to Wm. Beall, February 7, 1844, April 14, 1844, Box 2, John Knight Papers, Duke; R. B. Beverley to Robert Beverley, September 3, 1833, Beverley Papers, Mss. 1B4678a, VHS; Mary Ker to Isaac Baker, November 19, 1820, Ker Papers, SHC.

4. William Anderson, Life and Narrative of William Anderson … (Chicago, 1857), 19; Thomas Spalding, Farmers’ Register, November 1834, 353–363; The Narrative of Amos Dresser and Two Letters from Tallahassee, Relating to the Treatment of Slaves (New York, 1836); Steven F. Miller, “Plantation Labor Organization and Slave Life on the Cotton Frontier: The Alabama-Mississippi Black Belt, 1815–1840,” in Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan, eds., Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the Americas (Charlottesville, VA, 1993), 155–169. On connections with military systems, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York, 1977), 135–169. Two works that appeared as this book went to press and have much to say about enslaved migrants and labor in the cotton fields include: Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams (Cambridge, MA, 2013); Damian Alan Par- gas, “In the Fields of a ‘Strange Land’: Enslaved Newcomers and the Adjustment to Cotton Cultivation in the Antebellum South,” Slavery and Abolition 34, no. 4 (2013): 562–578.

5. Israel Campbell, An Autobiography, Bound and Free (Philadelphia, 1861), 33–35.

6. John Brown, Slave Life in Georgia (London, 1855), 128–132; Anderson,  Life and Narrative, 19 –20; Henry  Watson,  Narrative of Henry Watson: A Fugitive Slave (Boston, 1848), 19 –20; ST; Works Progress Administration interviews from the 1930s, e.g., GSMD, 199; Gus Askew, AS, 6.1 (AL), 15; Rufus Dirt, AS, 6.1 (AL), 117; Sarah Wells, AS, 11.1 (AR), 89; Sarah Ashley, S2 2.1 (TX), 87; Jesse Barnes, S2, 2.1 (TX), 175. Also J. Monett, Appendix C, J. W. Ingraham, The South-West, by a Yankee (New York, 1836), 2:285–286.