6: When Cotton Became King

The rise of the 19th-century cotton economy brings about a powerful and frightening turn for the worse.

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Episode Notes

In Episode 6 of the History of American Slavery, hosts Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie explore the rise of the antebellum cotton economy in the early decades of the 19th century. They discuss how the growth of the cotton industry transformed the American system of slavery and the lives of enslaved people. And they discuss slavery’s relationship with the development of modern American capitalism.

They begin the episode by discussing the life of Charles Ball, who wrote about his experience working on a cotton plantation in his autobiography, Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball.

Our guests in Episode 6:

Edward Baptist, associate professor of history at Cornell University. Read an excerpt of Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Daina Ramey Berry, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
Read an essay by Berry about how enslaved persons understood their valuation as commodities.

Who was Charles Ball?

Charles Ball was born sometime in the 1780s, on a tobacco plantation in Calvert County, Maryland. When he was 4, the slave owner holding his family died, and Ball was sold away from his mother and siblings.

As a young man he spent two years working as a cook for the U.S. Navy. (His wages went to his owner.) In the Navy he came up with his first plan to escape, which was foiled when he was captured and sold to a slave trader.

Ball walked in a coffle with 51 other people from Maryland to South Carolina, where the trader sold him to a Georgia plantation owner. In Georgia he learned to pick cotton—a grueling experience he later recorded in detail in his autobiography.

When Ball’s owner died in 1809, he was left in the control of the owner’s sons and heirs. Their cruelty—combined with his desire to see his wife and children again—drove him to run away, and he pulled off an epic yearlong walk from Georgia to Maryland.

Reunited with his family in Maryland, Ball managed to live as a fugitive for 20 years—long enough to become well-established and even to own a farm near Baltimore.
His wife died in 1816, and he remarried, this time to a formerly enslaved woman. But in 1830, he was caught and sold back south into slavery. Ball ran away again, smuggling himself north on a ship, but by the time he got back to Maryland, his wife and children had been captured and sold—despite being legally free.

Ball moved to Pennsylvania in hopes of staying out of slave catchers’ hands. His autobiography, Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, which Ball dictated, was published in 1836. It was popular; it was republished six times before the Civil War.

Even living in Pennsylvania, Ball was constantly afraid that he’d be captured again. As he wrote in his autobiography: “[I am] fearful at this day to let my place of residence be known, lest, even yet, it may be supposed that as an article of property, I am of sufficient value to be worth pursuing in my old age.”

The time and place of his death are unknown.

Here are some of the links discussed in Episode 6:

• Watch Key and Peele’s entire take on slave auctions.
A detailed brochure from an 1855 slave auction.

About the Show

With the help of acclaimed historians and writers, Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie explore the history of American slavery and examine how the institution came to shape our country’s politics, economy, and culture.

Don’t miss Rebecca and Jamelle’s follow-up podcast, Reconstruction.

This series was made possible by Slate Plus members. To help Slate make more projects like this, become a member now.

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