Slavery in the United States/Introduction


In giving a place in the Cabinet of Freedom to the ensuing narrative, it is deemed proper to accompany it with some remarks. The reader will be desirous to know how far it is entitled to his belief, and the editors of the Cabinet are equally desirous that he should not be misled. They have been furnished with the following certificate:

“Lewistown, Pa., July 18th, 1836.

“We, the undersigned, certify that we have read the book called ‘Charles Ball’—that we know the black man whose narra ive is given in this book, and have heard him relate the principal matters contained in the book concerning himself, long before the book was published.

David W. Holings.
W. P. Elliott.”[1]

This certificate establishes the fact, that the subject of the narrative is not a fictitious personage. Mr. Fisher, (the author) intimates in his preface, what is, indeed, sufficiently obvious from the felicity of his style, that the language of the book is not that of the unlettered slave, whose adventures he records. A similar intimation might with equal propriety have been given, in reference to the various profound and interesting reflections interspersed throughout the work. The author states, in a private communication, that many of the anecdotes in the book illustrative of southern society, were not obtained from Ball, but from other and creditable sources; he avers, however, that all the facts which relate personally to the fugitive, were received from his own lips. How far this personal narrative is true is a question which each reader must, of course, decide for himself.

It is possible, and not improbable, that vanity may have induced the hero to exaggerate his exploits, and that ignorance and forgetfulness may in some instances, have rendered his tale discordant. The hardships he encountered in his various attempts to escape from bondage, are indeed extreme, but are not for that reason incredible since it is difficult to estimate the amount of human suffering that can be voluntarily endured for an adequate object. The account of his voyage from Savannah to Philadelphia, strange as it is, derives strong confirmation from the following still more extraordinary account taken from a New-York journal.

"The captain of a vessel from North Carolina, called on the police for advisement respecting a slave he had unconsciously brought away in his vessel, under the following curious circumstances. Three or four days after he had got to sea, he began to be haunted every hour with tones of distress, seemingly proceeding from a human voice in the very lowest part of the vessel. A particular scrutinywas finally instituted, and it was concluded, that the creature, whatever and whoever it might be, must be confined down in the run, under the cabin floor, and on boring a hole with an auger, and demanding 'Who's there?' a feeble voice responded, 'Poor negro, massa!' It was clear enough then, that some run-away negro had hid himself there, before they sailed, trusting to Providence for his ultimate escape. Having discovered him, however, it was impossible to give him relief, for the captain had stowed even the cabin so completely full with cotton as but just to leave room for a small table for himself and the mate to eat on, and as for unloading at sea, that was pretty much out of the question. Accordingly there he had to lie, stretched at full length, for a tedious interval of thirteen days, till the vessel arrived in port and unloaded, receiving his food and drink through the auger hole.

"The fellow’s story is, now he is released, that being determined to get away from slavery, he supplied himself with eggs, and biscuit, and some jugs of water, which latter he was just on the point of depositing in his lurking place, when he discovered the captain at a distance coming on board, and had to hurry down as fast as possible and leave them. That he lived on nothing but his eggs and biscuit till discovered by the captain; not even getting a drop of water, except what he had the good fortune to catch in his hand one day, when a vessel of water in the cabin was upset during a squall, and some of it ran down through the cracks of the floor over him."—Commercial Advertiser, 1822.

With regard to the pictures given in this work of the internal Slave-trade, and of the economy of a cotton plantation, it may be observed, that they are perfectly consistent, not only with the various other representations which have from time to time been made by unimpeachable witnesses, but also with the irresponsible despotism which is vested by law and custom in southern masters. That despotism within the confines of a plantation, is more absolute and irresistible than any that was ever wielded by a Roman emperor. The power of the latter, when no longer supportable, was terminated by revolt or personal violence, and often with impunity. But to the despotism of the master, there is scarcely any conceivable limit, and from its cruelty there is no refuge. His plantation is his empire, his labourers are his subjects, and revolt and violence, instead of abridging his power, are followed by inevitable and horrible punishment. The laws of the land do not, indeed, authorize the master to take life, but they do not forbid him to wear it out by excessive toil.

Public opinion sometimes exercises a more controlling influence than law, and it may perhaps be supposed, that it throws its shield before the helpless slave. But it should be recollected, that public opinion at the south is the opinion of the masters themselves, and that they are individually amenable to it, chiefly in regard to their intercourse with each other as citizens, and not in regard to the authority they exercise over their "property." In his negro quarters, or his cotton field, the planter is withdrawn from the gaze of his neighbours who have neither the right, nor the disposition, to scrutinize his conduct. He is there an unquestioned despot, and his vassals have no press to proclaim their wrongs, no tribunal to petition for a redress of grievances, and are prohibited from entering a Court of Justice as suitors, or even as witnesses against any individual whose complexion is not coloured like their own. Hence it follows, that the master is virtually the arbiter of life and death. All history and all our knowledge of human nature unite in bearing testimony to the hardening and corrupting influence of irresponsible power on its possessor. Some, indeed, are shielded against this influence by natural benevolence, or religious principle; and it is creditable to Ball's candour, that he mentions instances of kindness on the part of the masters; but such instances must necessarily, from the very constitution of our nature, be exceptions to the general rule. The cruelty and detestable injustice of the slave-code in all ages, and in all countries, conclusively establishes the general effect of slavery in paralyzing the moral sense.

Some readers may be disposed to doubt Ball's veracity on account of the atrocious cruelties he relates. Such a doubt evinces a very imperfect acquaintance with southern feelings and manners. The cruelties recorded in the narrative, were practised by a few individuals, but if assembled multitudes in the slave-states can publicly unite in perpetrating still greater atrocities, then surely the story told by Ball is not incredible.

The following deeds of horror recounted by the public journals, render tame and insignificant the acts of cruelty detailed in the work before us.

"Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

"Horrid occurrence.—Some time during the last week, one of those outrageous transactions, and we really think disgraceful to the character of civilized man, took place near the north-east boundary line of Perry, adjoining Bibb and Autauga counties. The circumstances, we are informed by a gentleman from that county, are—that a Mr. McNeilly having lost some clothing, or other property of no great value, the slave of a neighbouring planter was charged with the theft. McNeilly, in company with his brother, found the negro driving his master's wagon—they seized him, and either did, or were about to chastise him, when the negro stabbed McNeilly so that he died in an hour afterwards. The negro was taken before a justice of the peace, who, after serious deliberation, waived his authority, perhaps through fear, as the crowd of persons from the above counties had collected to the number of seventy or eighty men, near Mr. People's (the justice) house. He acted as president of the mob, and put the vote, when it was decided he should be immediately executed by being burnt to death. The sable culprit was led to a tree and tied to it, and a large quantity of pine knots collected and placed round him, and the fatal torch applied to the pile, even against the remonstrances of several gentlemen who were present, and the miserable being was, in a short time, burnt to ashes.

"This is the second negro who has been thus put to death without judge or jury in that county."

On the 28th of April, 1836, a negro was burnt alive at St. Louis, by a numerous mob. The Alton Telegraph gives the following particulars.

"All was silent as death, while the executioners were piling wood around the victim. He said not a word, probably feeling that the flames had seized upon him. He then uttered an awful howl, attempting to sing and pray, then hung his head and suffered in silence, excepting in the following instance:—After the flames had surrounded their prey, and when his clothes were in a blaze all over him, his eyes burnt out of his head, and his mouth seemingly parched to a cinder, some one in the crowd, more compassionate than the rest, proposed to put an end to his misery by shooting him, when it was replied, 'that would be of no use since he was already out of pain.' 'No, no,' said the wretch, 'I am not,—I am suffering as much as ever—shoot me, shoot me!' 'No, no, said one of the fiends who was standing about the sacrifice they were roasting, 'he shall not be shot, I would sooner slacken the fire, if that would increase his misery!' and the man who said this, was, we understand, an officer of justice!"

"We understand," says the New Orleans Post of June 7th, 1836, "that a negro man was lately condemned by the mob, to be burned over a slow fire, which was put into execution at Grand Gulf, for murdering a black woman and her master, Mr. Green, a respectable citizen of that place, who attempted to save her from the clutches of this monster."

"We have been informed," says the Arkansas Gazette of the 29th October, 1836, "that the slave William, who murdered his master (Huskey) some weeks since, and several negroes, was taken by a party, a few days since, from the Sheriff of Hot Spring, and burned alive! yes, tied up to the limb of a tree, a fire built under him, and consumed in slow and lingering torture!"

It has been already observed, that the master is virtually the arbiter of life and death. How far the state of public opinion at the south confirms or contradicts this assertion, may be seen from the annexed report of a suit brought to recover the value of a murdered slave. If he who takes the life of another's slave is permitted to go at large without molestation, after making compensation for the property destroyed, who shall presume to punish the owner for doing what he will with his own?

From the Nashville (Tennessee) Banner, June, 1834.

"Interesting trial.—During the session of the circuit-court for Davison county, which adjourned a few days since, a case was tried of more than usual interest to the public. It was that of Meeks against Philips, for the value of a slave who had been killed by Philips, whilst in the employment of Meeks as his overseer. The following abstract of the evidence was furnished us by a disinterested member of the bar, who was not engaged as counsel on either side of the cause.

"'It appeared in evidence that the negro had disobeyed Philips' orders, in going away one night without his permission, for which, in accordance with his duty, he undertook to chastise him. The boy proved somewhat refractory, and probably offered resistance, though there was no direct evidence of the fact. From Philips' admissions, which must be taken for, as well as against him, it seems he had a scuffle with the boy, during which, the boy inflicted a blow upon him, which produced great pain. Philips, with assistance, finally subdued him. While endeavouring to swing him to the limb of a tree, he resisted by pulling back; whereupon Philips, who is a large and strong man, gave him several blows upon his head with the butt of a loaded horsewhip. Having tied him to the limb the rope gave way, and the boy fell to the ground, when Philips gave him several violent kicks in the side, and again swung him to the tree. He then called for a cow-hide, which was accordingly brought, and the chastisement was commenced anew. The suffering wretch implored for mercy in vain. Philips would whip him awhile, and then rest only to renew his strokes and wreak his vengeance, for he repeatedly avowed his intention of whipping him to death!—saying, he had as good a negro to put in his room, or remunerate his master for the loss of him. The sufferer, writhing under the stinging tortures of the lash, continued to implore for mercy, while those who were present interposed, and pleaded, too, in his behalf; but there was no relenting arm, until life was nearly extinct, and feeling had taken its departure. He was cut loose bleeding and weak, overcome with extreme exhaustion and debility, and died in a few minutes after.' The jury, of course, found for the plaintiff."

  1. Mr. Elliott is a justice of the peace, and editor of the Lewistown Gazette. Mr. Holings is a lawyer, and formerly a member of the Pennsylvania Legislature.