In 1805, one of enslaved peoples’ greatest fears came true for a man named Charles Ball. His enslaver sold the thirty-year-old to a slave trader bound for the Carolinas and Georgia, far from his family in Maryland. Ball was funneled into the domestic slave trade during a period of dramatic economic growth in America. The introduction of the cotton gin and the rapid expansion that came with the Louisiana Purchase transformed the landscape of slavery in the American South. It also upended the lives of thousands of enslaved people like Ball.
In 1837, Ball published an autobiography entitled Slavery in the United States. He recounts that in Maryland, enslaved people took on wage work, mainly at night and on Sundays. His is a firsthand view of the economic contours of what historians now call “the slaves’ economy.” As Ball wrote, “If they chose to fish, they had the privilege of selling whatever they caught.” They might even catch enough fish or oysters to buy “coffee, sugar, and other luxuries for their wives, besides keeping themselves and their families in Sunday clothes.”
…enslaved people spent their free time making money merely to survive.
When Ball reached South Carolina, he noticed that enslaved people there invested their time and energy into earning money, much like they did in Maryland. But the sheer ubiquity of enslaved laborers dedicating their free time to wage labor stunned him. Enslaved people in nineteenth-century South Carolina carved out time whenever they could to complete extra work for pay, often earning wages from the very people who owned them. At other times, they traded with local white merchants and poor whites. Ball even observed that “when the slaves go out to work for wages on Sundays, their employers never flog them. …The practice of working on Sunday is so universal amongst the slaves on the cotton plantations, that the immorality is never spoken of.”
But as Ball observed the enslaved economy in South Carolina, he concluded that it was not a positive good, but something devastating. Instead of working to buy luxuries or “Sunday clothes”—or to alleviate the psychological burdens of slavery through earning wages for themselves—enslaved people spent their free time making money merely to survive. They were dedicated to wage work to shield themselves, as much as possible, from the violence and brutality of slavery in South Carolina, one of the most proslavery states in the nation. Even though earning money and buying goods may have temporarily eased the burden of their enslavement, money was not freedom.
Capitalists within South Carolina society used the slaves’ economy to reap the financial benefits of their investments in slavery and enslaved labor.
Enslavers understood this. Early in South Carolina’s history, they accepted and even encouraged enslaved laborers’ involvement in trade and wage labor. Enslavers used enslaved peoples’ dedication to their own economic pursuits to their advantage, as slavery defined the colonial South Carolina economy. After the Revolutionary War, the cotton boom transformed the state. Enslavers, slave traders, and investors in industries that relied on enslaved labor wanted to increase their profits. Capitalists within South Carolina society used the slaves’ economy to reap the financial benefits of their investments in slavery and enslaved labor.
Enslavers increasingly encouraged enslaved women and men to engage in their own wage-earning pursuits, recognizing that enslaved laborers with money did not threaten the foundations of slavery. In fact, enslavers came to believe that the slaves’ economy could help protect their investments. Consider the experiences of former bondsman Henry Ryan, once an enslaved boy in the 1850s. He worked on Judge Pickens Butler’s Edgefield District plantation, and enslaved people like him tended their “patches of ground” whenever they had some free time. According to Ryan, “Judge Butler used to give us a little money, too, before freedom came, for our work.” With the money, he would purchase clothing “and things we had to have.” But his earnings were limited. As a young boy of five or six years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, he could only earn enough from Butler to buy necessities, not enough to buy his own liberation. Enslaved people like Ryan had access to consumer goods and items that they needed to live, but for them, economic rights did not translate into legal rights or freedom.
Enslaved people like Ryan had access to consumer goods and items that they needed to live, but for them, economic rights did not translate into legal rights or freedom.
Even today, the idea that Americans can liberate themselves through hard work, guided by free market principles, pervades American life. But the experiences of enslaved people make clear that the relationship between one’s embrace of capitalist enterprise and one’s freedom is fraught. This was especially true for enslaved people, and it continues to be true long after the end of legal slavery in America
Justene Hill Edwards is an assistant professor in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. You can save 20 percent on her new book Unfree Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina and any of our featured OAH titles when you use coupon code OAH and checkout now through June 1, 2021.