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American Negro Slavery
Economic Views of Slavery: A Survey of the Literature
by Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell

In barbaric society slavery is a normal means of conquering the isolation of workers and assembling them in more productive coördination. Where population is scant and money little used it is almost a necessity in the conduct of large undertakings, and therefore more or less essential for the advancement of civilization. It is a means of domesticating savage or barbarous men, analogous in kind and in consequence to the domestication of the beasts of the field.[1] It was even of advantage to some of the people enslaved, in that it saved them from extermination when defeated in war, and in that it gave them touch with more advanced communities than their own. But this was counterbalanced by the stimulus which the profits of slave catching gave to wars and raids with all their attendant injuries. Any benefit to the slave, indeed, was purely incidental. The reason for the institution's existence was the advantage which accrued to the masters. So positive and pronounced was this reckoned to be, that such highly enlightened people as the Greeks and Romans maintained it in the palmiest days of their supremacies.
[Footnote 1: This thought was expressed, perhaps for the first time, in T.R. Dew's essay on slavery (1832); it is elaborated in Gabriel Tarde, The Laws of Imitation (Parsons tr., New York, 1903), pp. 278, 279.]
Western Europe in primitive times was no exception. Slavery in a more or less fully typical form was widespread. When the migrations ended in the middle ages, however, the rise of feudalism gave the people a thorough territorial regimentation. The dearth of commerce whether in goods or in men led gradually to the conversion of the unfree laborers from slaves into serfs or villeins attached for generations to the lands on which they wrought. Finally, the people multiplied so greatly and the landless were so pressed for livelihood that at the beginning of modern times European society found the removal of bonds conducive to the common advantage. Serfs freed from their inherited obligations could now seek employment wherever they would, and landowners, now no longer lords, might employ whom they pleased. Bondmen gave place to hirelings and peasant proprietors, status gave place to contract, industrial society was enabled to make redistributions and readjustments at will, as it had never been before. In view of the prevailing traits and the density of the population a general return whether to slavery or serfdom was economically unthinkable. An intelligent Scotch philanthropist, Fletcher of Saltoun, it is true, proposed at the end of the seventeenth century that the indigent and their children be bound as slaves to selected masters as a means of relieving the terrible distresses of unemployment in his times;[2] but his project appears to have received no public sanction whatever. The fact that he published such a plan is more a curious antiquarian item than one of significance in the history of slavery. Not even the thin edge of a wedge could possibly be inserted which might open a way to restore what everyone was on virtually all counts glad to be free of.
[Footnote 2: W.E.H. Lecky, History of England in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1879), II, 43,44.]
When the American mining and plantation colonies were established, however, some phases of the most ancient labor problems recurred. Natural resources invited industry in large units, but wage labor was not to be had. The Spaniards found a temporary solution in impressing the tropical American aborigines, and the English in a recourse to indented white immigrants. But both soon resorted predominantly for plantation purposes to the importation of Africans, for whom the ancient institution of slavery was revived. Thus from purely economic considerations the sophisticated European colonists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries involved themselves and their descendants, with the connivance of their home governments, in the toils of a system which on the one hand had served their remote forbears with good effect, but which on the other hand civilized peoples had long and almost universally discarded as an incubus. In these colonial beginnings the negroes were to be had so cheaply and slavery seemed such a simple and advantageous device when applied to them, that no qualms as to the future were felt. At least no expressions of them appear in the records of thought extant for the first century and more of English colonial experience. And when apprehensions did arise they were concerned with the dangers of servile revolt, not with any deleterious effects to arise from the economic nature of slavery in time of peace.

Now, slavery and indented servitude are analogous to serfdom in that they may yield to the employers all the proceeds of industry beyond what is required for the sustenance of the laborers; but they have this difference, immense for American purposes, that they permit labor to be territorially shifted, while serfdom keeps it locally fixed. By choosing these facilitating forms of bondage instead of the one which would have attached the laborers to the soil, the founders of the colonial régime in industry doubtless thought they had avoided all economic handicaps in the premises. Their device, however, was calculated to meet the needs of a situation where the choice was between bond labor and no labor. As generations passed and workingmen multiplied in America, the system of indentures for white immigrants was automatically dissolved; but slavery for the bulk of the negroes persisted as an integral feature of economic life. Whether this was conducive or injurious to the prosperity of employers and to the community's welfare became at length a question to which students far and wide applied their faculties. Some of the participants in the discussion considered the problem as one in pure theory; others examined not only the abstract ratio of slave and free labor efficiency but included in their view the factor of negro racial traits and the prospects and probable consequences of abolition under existing circumstances. On the one point that an average slave might be expected to accomplish less in an hour's work than an average free laborer, agreement was unanimous; on virtually every other point the views published were so divergent as to leave the public more or less distracted. Adam Smith, whose work largely shaped the course of economic thought for a century following its publication in 1776, said of slave labor merely that its cost was excessive by reason of its lack of zest, frugality and inventiveness. The tropical climate of the sugar colonies, he conceded, might require the labor of negro slaves, but even there its productiveness would be enhanced by liberal policies promoting intelligence among the slaves and assimilating their condition to that of freemen.[3] To some of these points J.B. Say, the next economist to consider the matter, took exception. Common sense must tell us, said he, that a slave's maintenance must be less than that of a free workman, since the master will impose a more drastic frugality than a freeman will adopt unless a dearth of earnings requires it. The slave's work, furthermore, is more constant, for the master will not permit so much leisure and relaxation as the freeman customarily enjoys. Say agreed, however, that slavery, causing violence and brutality to usurp the place of intelligence, both hampered the progress of invention and enervated such free laborers as were in touch with the régime.[4]
[Footnote 3: Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, various editions, book I, chap. 8; book III, chap. 2; book IV, chaps. 7 and 9.]

[Footnote 4: J.B. Say, Traité d'Economie Politique (Paris, 1803), book I, chap. 28; in various later editions, book I, chap. 19.]
The translation of Say's book into English evoked a reply to his views on slavery by Adam Hodgson, an Englishman with anti-slavery bent who had made an American tour; but his essay, though fortified with long quotations, was too rambling and ill digested to influence those who were not already desirous of being convinced.[5] More substantial was an essay of 1827 by a Marylander, James Raymond, who cited the experiences of his own commonwealth to support his contentions that slavery hampered economy by preventing seasonal shiftings of labor, by requiring employers to support their operatives in lean years as well as fat, and by hindering the accumulation of wealth by the laborers. The system, said he, could yield profits to the masters only in specially fertile districts; and even there it kept down the growth of population and of land values.[6]
[Footnote 5: Adam Hodgson, A Letter to M. Jean-Baptiste Say, on the comparative expense of free and slave labour (Liverpool, 1823; New York, 1823).]

[Footnote 6: James Raymond, Prize Essay on the Comparative Economy of Free and Slave Labor in Agriculture (Frederick [Md.], 1827), reprinted in the African Repository, III, 97-110 (June, 1827).]
About the same time Dr. Thomas Cooper, president of South Carolina College, wrote: "Slave labour is undoubtedly the dearest kind of labour; it is all forced, and forced too from a class of human beings who have the least propensity to voluntary labour even when it is to benefit themselves alone." The cost of rearing a slave to the age of self support, he reckoned, including insurance, at forty dollars a year for fifteen years. The usual work of a slave field hand, he thought, was barely two-thirds of what a white laborer at usual wages would perform, and from his earnings about forty dollars a year must be deducted for his maintenance. When interest on the investment and a proportion of an overseer's wages were deducted in addition, he thought the prevalent rate, six to eight dollars a month and board valued at forty or fifty dollars a year, for free white farm hands in the Northern states gave a decisive advantage to those who hired laborers over those who owned them. "Nothing will justify slave labour in point of economy," he concluded, "but the nature of the soil and climate which incapacitates a white man from labouring in the summer time, as on the rich lands in Carolina and Georgia extending one hundred miles from the seaboard."[7]
[Footnote 7: Thomas Cooper, Lectures on the Elements of Political Economy, (Columbia [S.C.], 1826), pp. 94, 95.]
The economic vices of slavery as exemplified in Virginia were elaborated in an essay printed in 1832 attributed to Jesse Burton Harrison of that state. Slavery, said this essay, drives away free workmen by stigmatizing labor, for "nothing but the most abject necessity would lead a white man to hire himself to work in the fields under the overseer"; it causes exhaustion of the soil by reason of the negligence it promotes in the workmen and the stress which overseers are fain to put upon immediate returns; it discourages all forms of industry but plantation tillage, furthermore, for although it has not and perhaps cannot be proved that slaves may not be successfully employed in manufactures, the community has gone and tends still to go, on that assumption; it discourages mechanic skill, for the slaves never acquire more than the rudiments of artisanry, and the planters discourage white craftsmen by giving preference uniformly to their own laborers. Slave labor is dearer than free, because of its lack of incentive; the régime costs the community the services of the immigrants who would otherwise enter; and finally it promotes waste instead of frugality on the part of both masters and slaves. The only means by which Virginia could procure profit from slaves, it concluded, was that of raising them for sale to the lower South; but such profit could only be gained systematically at a complete sacrifice of honor.[8]
[Footnote 8: [Jesse Burton Harrison], Review of the Slave Question, extracted from the American Quarterly Review, Dec. 1832. By a Virginian (Richmond, 1833).]
Daniel R. Goodloe of North Carolina wrote in 1846 in a similar tone but with original arguments. Beginning with an exposition of the South's comparative backwardness in economic development, he showed a twofold working of the institution of slavery as the cause. For one thing it lessened the vigor of industry by degrading labor in the estimation of the poor and engendering pride in the rich; but far more important, it required employers to sink large amounts of capital in the purchase of laborers instead of permitting them to pay for work, as the wage system does, out of current proceeds. It thereby particularly hampered the growth of manufactures, for in such lines, as well as in commerce, "the fact that slavery absorbs the bulk of Southern capital must always present an obstacle to extensive operations." The holding of laborers as property, he continued, can contribute nothing to production, for the destruction of the property by the liberation of the slaves would not impair their laboring efficiency. Hence all the individual wealth which has assumed that shape has added nothing to the resources of the community. "Slavery merely serves to appropriate the wages of labor--it distributes wealth, but cannot create it." It involves expenditure in acquiring early population, then operates to prevent land improvements and the diversification of industry, restricting, indeed, even the range of agriculture. The monopoly which the South has enjoyed in the production of the staples has palliated the evils of slavery, but at the same time has expanded the system to the point of great injury to the public. Goodloe accordingly advocated the riddance of the institution, contending that both landowners and laborers would thereby benefit. The continued maintenance of the institution, on the other hand, would bring severe loss to the slaveholders, for within the coming decade the demand of the Southwest for slaves would be sated, he thought, and nothing but a great advancement of cotton prices and an unlimited supply of fertile land for its production could sustain slave prices. "It is evident that the Southern country approaches a period of great and sudden depreciation in the value of slave property."[9]
[Footnote 9: [D.R. Goodloe], Inquiry into the Causes which have retarded the Accumulation of Wealth and Increase of Population in the Southern States, in which the question of slavery is considered in a politico-economic point of view. By a Carolinian. (Washington, 1846.) See also a similar essay by the same author in the U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture's Report for 1865, pp. 102-135.]
The statistical theme of the South's backwardness was used by many other essayists in the period for indicting the slaveholding régime. With most of these, however, exemplified saliently by H.R. Helper, logic was to such extent replaced with vehemence as to transfer their writings from the proper purview of economics to that of sectional controversy.

On the other hand, Thomas R. Dew, whose cogent essay of 1832 marks the turn of the prevailing Southern sentiment toward a firm support of slavery, attributed the lack of prosperity in the South to the tariff policy of the United States, while he largely ignored the question of labor efficiency. His central theme was the imperative necessity of maintaining the enslavement of the negroes on hand until a sound plan was devised and made applicable for their peaceful and prosperous disposal elsewhere. Among Dew's disciples, William Harper of South Carolina admitted that slave labor was dear and unskillful, though he thought it essential for productive industry in the tropics and sub-tropics, and he considered coercion necessary for the negroes elsewhere in civilized society. James H. Hammond, likewise, agreed that "as a general rule ... free labor is cheaper than slave labor," but in addition to the factor of race he stressed the sparsity of population in the South as a contributing element in economically necessitating the maintenance of slavery.[10]
[Footnote 10: "Essay" (1832), Harper's "Memoir" (1838), and Hammond's "Letters to Clarkson" (1845) are collected in the Pro-Slavery Argument (Philadelphia, 1852).]
Most of the foregoing Southern writers were men of substantial position and systematic reasoning. N.A. Ware, on the other hand who in 1844 issued in the capacity of a Southern planter a slender volume of Notes on Political Economy was both obscure and irresponsible. Contending as his main theme that protective tariffs were of no injury to the plantation interests, he asserted that slave labor was incomparably cheaper than free, and attempted to prove it by ignoring the cost of capital and by reckoning the price of bacon at four cents a pound and corn at fifteen cents a bushel. Then, curiously, he delivered himself of the following: "When slavery shall have run itself out or yielded to the changes and ameliorations of the times, the owners and all dependent upon it will stand appalled and prostrate, as the sot whose liquor has been withheld, and nothing but the bad and worthless habit left to remind the country of its ruinous effects. The political economist, as well as all wise statesmen in this country, cannot think of any measure going to discharge slavery that would not be a worse state than its existence." His own remedy for the depression prevailing at the time when he wrote, was to divert a large proportion of the slaves from the glutted business of staple agriculture into manufacturing, for which he thought them well qualified.[11] Equally fantastic were the ideas of H.C. Carey of Pennsylvania who dealt here and there with slavery in the course of his three stout volumes on political economy. His lucubrations are negligible for the present survey.
[Footnote 11: [N.A. Ware] Notes on Political Economy as applicable to the United States. By a Southern Planter (New York, 1844), pp. 200-204.]
All these American writers except Goodloe accomplished little of substantial quality in the field of economic thought beyond adding details to the doctrines of Adam Smith and Say. John Stuart Mill in turn did little more than combine the philosophies of his predecessors. "It is a truism to assert," said he, "that labour extorted by fear of punishment is insufficient and unproductive"; yet some people can be driven by the lash to accomplish what no feasible payment would have induced them to undertake. In sparsely settled regions, furthermore, slavery may afford the otherwise unobtainable advantages of labour combination, and it has undoubtedly hastened industrial development in some American areas. Yet, since all processes carried on by slave labour are conducted in the rudest manner, virtually any employer may pay a considerably greater value in wages to free labour than the maintenance of his slaves has cost him and be a gainer by the change.[12]
[Footnote 12: John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy (London, 1848, and later editions), book II, chap. 5.]
Partly concurring and partly at variance with Mill's views were those which Edmund Ruffin of Virginia published in a well reasoned essay of 1857, The Political Economy of Slavery. "Slave labor in each individual case and for each small measure of time," he said, "is more slow and inefficient than the labor of a free man." On the other hand it is more continuous, for hirelings are disposed to work fewer hours per day and fewer days per year, except when wages are so low as to require constant exertion in the gaining of a bare livelihood. Furthermore, the consolidation of domestic establishments, which slavery promotes, permits not only an economy in the purchase of supplies but also a great saving by the specialization of labor in cooking, washing, nursing, and the care of children, thereby releasing a large proportion of the women from household routine and rendering them available for work in the field. An increasing density of population, however, would depress the returns of industry to the point where slaves would merely earn their keep, and free laborers would of necessity lengthen their hours. Finally a still greater glut of labor might come, and indeed had occurred in various countries of Europe, carrying wages so low that only the sturdiest free laborers could support themselves and all the weaker ones must enter a partial pauperism. At such a stage the employment of slaves could only be continued at a steady deficit, to relieve themselves from which the masters must resort to a general emancipation. In the South, however, there were special public reasons, lying in the racial traits of the slave population, which would make that recourse particularly deplorable; for the industrial collapse ensuing upon emancipation in the British West Indies on the one hand, and on the other the pillage and massacre which occurred in San Domingo and the disorder still prevailing there, were alternative examples of what might be apprehended from orderly or revolutionary abolition as the case might be. The Southern people, in short, might well congratulate themselves that no ending of their existing régime was within visible prospect.[13]
[Footnote 13: Edmund Ruffin, The Political Economy of Slavery ([Richmond, 1857]).]
About the same time a writer in DeBow's Review elaborated the theme that the comparative advantages of slavery and freedom depended wholly upon the attainments of the laboring population concerned. "Both are necessarily recurring types of social organization, and each suited to its peculiar phase of society." "When a nation or society is in a condition unfit for self-government, ... often the circumstance of contact with or subjection by more enlightened nations has been the means of transition to a higher development." "All that is now needed for the defence of United States negro slavery and its entire exoneration from reproach is a thorough investigation of fact; ... and political economy ... must ... pronounce our system ... no disease, but the normal and healthy condition of a society formed of such mixed material as ours." "The strong race and the weak, the civilized and the savage," the one by nature master, the other slave, "are here not only cast together, but have been born together, grown together, lived together, worked together, each in his separate sphere striving for the good of each.... These two races of men are mutually assistant to each other and are contributing in the largest possible degree consistent with their mutual powers to the good of each other and mankind." A general emancipation therefore could bring nothing but a detriment.[14]
[Footnote 14: DeBow's Review, XXI, 331-349, 443-467 (October and November, 1856).]
What proved to be the last work in the premises before the overthrow of slavery in the United States was The Slave Power, its Character, Career and Probable Designs, by J.E. Cairnes, professor of political economy in the University of Dublin and in Queen's College, Galway. It was published in 1862 and reissued with appendices in the following year. Cairnes at the outset scouted the factors of climate and negro racial traits. The sole economic advantage of slavery, said he, consists in its facilitation of control in large units; its defects lay in its causing reluctance, unskilfulness and lack of versatility. The reason for its prevalence in the South he found in the high fertility and the immense abundance of soil on the one hand, and on the other the intensiveness of staple cultivation. A single operative, said he, citing as authority Robert Russell's erroneous assertion, "might cultivate twenty acres in wheat or Indian corn, but could not manage more than two in tobacco or three in cotton; therefore the supervision of a considerable squad is economically feasible in these though it would not be so in the cereals." These conditions might once have made slave labor profitable, he conceded; but such possibility was now doubtless a thing of the distant past. The persistence of the system did not argue to the contrary, for it would by force of inertia persist as long as it continued to be self-supporting.

Turning to a different theme, Cairnes announced that slave labor, since it had never been and never could be employed with success in manufacturing or commercial pursuits, must find its whole use in agriculture; and even there it required large capital, at the same time that the unthrifty habits inculcated in the masters kept them from accumulating funds. The consequence was that slaveholding society must necessarily be and remain heavily in debt. The imperative confinement of slave labor to the most fertile soils, furthermore, prevented the community from utilizing any areas of inferior quality; for slaveholding society is so exclusive that it either expels free labor from its vicinity or deprives it of all industrial vigor. It is true that some five millions of whites in the South have no slaves; but these "are now said to exist in this manner in a condition little removed from savage life, eking out a wretched subsistence by hunting, by fishing, by hiring themselves for occasional jobs, by plunder." These "mean whites ... are the natural growth of the slave system; ... regular industry is only known to them as the vocation of slaves, and it is the one fate which above all others they desire to avoid."[15]
[Footnote 15: First American edition (New York, 1862), pp. 54, 78, 79.]
"The constitution of a slave society," he says again, "resolves itself into three classes, broadly distinguished from each other and connected by no common interest--the slaves on whom devolves all the regular industry, the slaveholders who reap all its fruits, and an idle and lawless rabble who live dispensed over vast plains in a condition little removed from absolute barbarism."[16] Nowhere can any factors be found which will promote any progress of civilization so long as slavery persists. The non-slaveholders will continue in "a life alternating between listless vagrancy and the excitement of marauding expeditions." "If civilization is to spring up among the negro race, it will scarcely be contended that this will happen while they are still slaves; and if the present ruling class are ever to rise above the existing type, it must be in some other capacity than as slaveholders."[17] Even as a "probationary discipline" to prepare a backward people for a higher form of civilized existence, slavery as it exists in America cannot be justified; for that effect is vitiated by reason of the domestic slave trade. "Considerations of economy, ... which under a natural system afford some security for humane treatment by identifying the master's interest with the slave's preservation, when once trading in slaves is practised become reasons for racking to the utmost the toil of the slave; for when his place can at once be supplied from foreign preserves the duration of his life becomes a matter of less moment than its productiveness while it lasts. It is accordingly a maxim of slave management in slave-importing countries, that the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost amount of exertion it is capable of putting forth."[18]
[Footnote 16: Ibid., p. 60.]

[Footnote 17: Ibid., p. 83.]

[Footnote 18: First American edition (New York, 1862), p. 73.]
The force of circumstances gave this book a prodigious and lasting vogue. Its confident and cogent style made skepticism difficult; the dearth of contrary data prevented impeachment on the one side of the Atlantic, and on the other side the whole Northern people would hardly criticise such a vindication of their cause in war by a writer from whose remoteness might be presumed fairness, and whose professional position might be taken as giving a stamp of thoroughness and accuracy. Yet the very conditions and method of the writer made his interpretations hazardous. An economist, using great caution, might possibly have drawn the whole bulk of his data from travelers' accounts, as Cairnes did, and still have reached fairly sound conclusions; but Cairnes gave preference not to the concrete observations of the travelers but to their generalizations, often biased or amateurish, and on them erected his own. Furthermore, he ignored such material as would conflict with his preconceptions. His conclusions, accordingly, are now true, now false, and while always vivid are seldom substantially illuminating. His picture of the Southern non-slaveholders, which, be it observed, he applied in his first edition to five millions or ten-elevenths of that whole white population, and which he restricted, under stress of contemporary criticism, only to four million souls in the second edition,[19] is merely the most extreme of his grotesqueries. The book was, in short, less an exposition than an exposure.
[Footnote 19: Ibid., second edition (London, 1863), appendix D.]
These criticisms of Cairnes will apply in varying lesser degrees to all of his predecessors in the field. Those who sought the truth merely were in general short of data; those who could get the facts in any fullness were too filled with partisan purpose. What was begun as a study was continued as a dispute, necessarily endless so long as the political issue remained active. Many data which would have been illuminating, such as plantation records and slave price quotations, were never systematically assembled; and the experience resulting from negro emancipation was then too slight for use in substantial generalizations. The economist M'Culloch, for example, concluded from the experience of San Domingo and Jamaica that cane sugar production could not be sustained without slavery;[20] but the industrial careers of Cuba, Porto Rico and Louisiana since his time have refuted him. He, like virtually all his contemporaries in economic thought, confused the several factors of slavery, race traits and the plantation system; the consequent liability to error was inevitable.
[Footnote 20: J.R. M'Culloch, Principles of Political Economy (fourth edition, Edinburgh, 1849), p. 439.]
Economists of later times have nearly all been too much absorbed in current problems to give attention to a discarded institution. Most of them have ignored the subject of slavery altogether, and the concern of the rest with it has been merely incidental. Nicholson, for example, alludes to it as[21] "one of the earliest and one of the most enduring forms of poverty," and again as "the original and universal form of bankruptcy." Smart deals with it only as concerns the care of workingmen's children: "The one good thing in slavery was the interest of the master in the future of his workers. The children of the slaves were the master's property. They were always at least a valuable asset.... But there is no such continuity in the relation between the employer [of free labor] and his human cattle. The best-intentioned employer cannot be expected to be much concerned about the efficient upkeep of the workman's child when the child is free to go where he likes.... The child's future is bound up with the father's wage. The wage may be enough, even when low, to support the father's efficiency, but it is not necessarily enough to keep up the efficiency of the young laborer on which the future depends."[22] Loria deals more extensively with slavery as affected by the valuation of labor,[23] and Gibson[24] examines elaborately the nature of hypothetically absolute slavery in analyzing the earnings of labor. The contributions of both Loria and Gibson will be used below. The economic bearings of the institution in history still await satisfactory analysis.
[Footnote 21: J.S. Nicholson, Principles of Political Economy (New York, 1898), I, 221, 391.]

[Footnote 22: William Smart, The Distribution of Income (London, 1899), pp. 296, 297.]

[Footnote 23: Achille Loria, La Costitutione Economica Odierna (Turin, 1899), chap. 6, part 2.]

[Footnote 24: Arthur H. Gibson, Human Economics (London, 1909).]


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