I participated in a Liberty Fund colloquium on Zoom Friday and Saturday on the topic “Slavery and the New History of Capitalism.” It went very well.

One of the most interesting readings was by Charles Ball, an escaped slave. Ball’s book, published in 1837, was titled Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball. In it, he describes his experience as a young man who was moved from Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1805 to the cotton fields in South Carolina. One of the big issues in Cornell University history professor Edward E. Baptist’s work is whether the quotas of Ball and others were continuously raised by a ratcheting up of torture. Baptist claims that it was and, to back his point, quotes from Ball’s autobiography, but the striking thing about the 4-page excerpt from Ball’s autobiography is that Baptist left out passages that showed that his (Baptist’s) claim was untrue.

But I found something else striking: despite the fact that Ball was a slave, he took pride in his work. After detailing the fact that he picked “only” 38 pounds his first day on the job while two young men about his own age had picked 58 and 59 pounds, respectively, Ball writes:

I hung down my head. and felt very much ashamed of myself when I found that my cotton was so far behind that of many, even of the women, who has heretofore regarded me as the strongest and most powerful men of the whole gang.

He continues:

I had exerted myself today, to the utmost of my power; and as the picking of cotton seemed so very simple a business, I felt apprehensive that I should never be able to improve myself, so far as to becoming even a second rate hand. In this posture of affairs, I looked forward to something still more painful than the loss of character which I must sustain, both with my fellows and my master; for I knew that the lash of the overseer would soon become familiar with my back, if I did not perform as much work as any of the other young men.

He goes on to say that the overseer told him that he had good hands and would “make a good picker.” Sure enough, his productivity improved to 46 pounds the second day, and 52 pounds the third day. The next week he and the others were told that if they picked more than 50 pounds in a day, they would be paid a penny for every extra pound.

Here’s what I found interesting: not the incremental incentives but my own reaction to Ball. One of the other participants said that Ball was kind of pathetic, like a child or a puppy dog, for feeling shame at not being productive enough the first day.

I responded that I thought of the situation completely differently. I thought Ball was a man I would have liked. Here he was being enslaved but he didn’t let that take away his humanity. He still had pride in his work.

Then I told the following true story. In 1968, when I was at the University of Winnipeg, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s buddy and Secretary of State (which isn’t like the position that has the same label in the United States) Gerard Pelletier had told a meeting of newspaper editors in Montreal that he was thinking of pushing for a draft in Canada. Canada has an even stronger tradition of a volunteer military than the United States has. I was 18 at the time and I wrote an angry letter to the Winnipeg Free Press, which was published in full.

I read with astonishment the article in the Free Press, October 29, entitled Non-Military Draft Plan Under Study. The only objection to the idea made by State Secretary Gerard Pelletier was that it would be difficult to put into practice. Considerations of justice do not appear to have entered his mind.

It is indicative of the temper of our times that when people propose government intervention, they do not say, “Is it right?” but only “Can we get away with it?”

In the same article Mr. Pelletier is quoted as saying that the young would like to “play their part in creating a more just society.” I am one of those young people. Because I want a just society I am taking my stand. I refuse to be coerced into serving a year for the government. Government intervention has never led to a just society and never will. (November 9, 1968.)

A week later I was thinking about the last part of my letter. I then realized who I was and said to myself, “You wouldn’t refuse. You would prefer compulsory work for the government to jail. You always make the best of a bad situation. You would probably resist for a few hours at most and then would try to figure out what you could learn from whatever job the Canadian government assigned you to during this period of short-term slavery.” That’s why Ball’s first paragraph quoted above resonated with me. He made the best of a bad situation and didn’t let the fact that he was a slave  take away his humanity or his pride in his work.

This morning I woke up with a further thought. I remembered a 1957 movie titled Bridge on the River Kwai. SPOILERS AHEAD. Colonel Saito, the sadistic commandant of a Japanese POW camp in Burma, insists that the mainly British prisoners, including officers, build a bridge over the River Kwai. This, by the way, violated the Geneva Conventions. Work is not going well and there’s a lot of sabotage. But then Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness, takes over and persuades the men to take pride in their work and build a first-class bridge.

When I watched the movie, I was torn between wanting Nicholson to fail and wanting him to succeed. But the point is that he and many of his men took pride in their work. And this was a more difficult dilemma than Charles Ball had. To the extent they succeeded in building the bridge, it would help the Japanese war effort. But to the extent Charles Ball succeeded, he would help buyers of cotton.

By the way, I read a few years ago that some of the people who were actually prisoners in that prison camp were furious at the movie. They felt pride in sabotaging. Here’s Wikipedia:

Ernest Gordon, a survivor of the railway construction and POW camps described in the novel/film, stated in a 1962 book, Through the Valley of the Kwai: “In Pierre Boulle’s book The Bridge over the River Kwai and the film which was based on it, the impression was given that British officers not only took part in building the bridge willingly, but finished in record time to demonstrate to the enemy their superior efficiency. This was an entertaining story. But I am writing a factual account, and in justice to these men—living and dead—who worked on that bridge, I must make it clear that we never did so willingly. We worked at bayonet point and under bamboo lash, taking any risk to sabotage the operation whenever the opportunity arose.”[26]

I get that too. One could take pride in the work or take pride in the sabotage.