The demand for slaves and the positive effect of this in the slaveholders’ profitability as well as the fact that both slaveholders and the slaves need one another to survive saw to it that the slavery market as economically viable, and would have continued to be so and the trade would be quite maintained if the Civil War did not stop it.
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The expansion of demographic nature during the period 1800 to 1860 was the rise of the Cotton Kingdom in the South. It is also the period which territorial expansion of the slave trade could be witnessed. 1 The Civil War had been tagged as the bloody and virtuous war that ended slavery and paved the path to freedom for the once shackled lives of the African-Americans in the antebellum south. 2 Is it war worth the fight since it freed the enslaved blacks from indefinite servitude as the white men properties and as high income for the slaveholders or is it a confrontation that is quite useless since the slavery market was in a decline and could mange the feat of diminishing itself? I argue for the former.
This paper of course is not about the profitability of slave trade, but it could not be discounted as factor in the equation of analyzing if slavery was economically viable by 1860. In my argument that trade slavery was economically viable, profitability is especially associated with the worldwide demand for such ‘positive’ good.
High profits and growth rates from slavery could be engendered under these circumstances: if there is fresh land, a steady supply of such cheap labor and if there is a high level of demand coming from the world market. 3 As long as the economy is buttressed by the export market and there are few opportunities to shift resources internally, those fortunate to have capital for land and slaves were are going to be generously rewarded. Great wealth can accrue to this ruling class, since the prevailing slave system is treated as a commercial structure.4
Among the three requirements that a state must have to generate high profits from slave trade, and make the market viable, the argument here is tending towards the idea of having a high level of demand on slaves. That is, interstate slave sales are necessary to sustain the economic viability of slavery. And, it would be pointed out that these sales are much visible in the antebellum south slave market, that’s why it’s viable and slavery would have continued if the Civil War was not fought between the two conflicting sides.
There is no reservation regarding the idea that if there would be sudden negative change or if interstate transactions of slave trade would cease suddenly, the prices of slaves in the South would drop, and ultimately the profits of the slaveholders would decrease as well. In this case, the slave market was rather ostensibly reliant on high western slave demand. 5 High demand of buyers outside of south means more land expansion, and land expansion is seen as one of those desirable elements in order to preserve the slave institution.
One of the main counterarguments to my proposal is from Engerman (2003), he proposed that that although slaves were priced and markets were conducted fundamentally on expected profitability, the high profitability of slave trade has substantial effects on the course of development of the economy cushioned by slave transactions. By studying the demographic data of slavery during that time, he was aware that slave trade was very successful but gleaned that from this the economy would miss out on opportunities to expand and be recognized for other forms of capital formation, like transportation and manufacturing. 6
To countenance my claim, it is important to know that urbanizing and delving into other forms of capitalization activities are not really alternatives to the slave market, instead they conjure up more opportunities and profits for the slave market, or in other words it supplement it.. The number of slaves increased to meet demands for labor in the new sectors like tobacco and iron industries. 7 Slavery market is an economically viable institution because the slaves could be transferred from one sector to another. 8
The slave trade was very active as well during these period because there was a shift in Southern attitudes toward the owning of slaves back in 1835. They have believed then that emancipation of slaves were quite possible and realized the slaves’ worth. And they were quite anti-slavery prior to 1835 because the owning of slaves were debated using natural and moral philosophies that often make the slave owners relatively guilty of what they are doing.
Then, during the middle of the 1830s, slavery was now equated in economic terms and looked at as a profitable venture.9 Not that the situation had turned for the better, but the southerners began looking at this as a necessity in their circumstances and with economic objectivity. They also realized that abolishing slavery would lead to unrest then and too much lost opportunities for the whole nation.
To further support this claim, several studies had also acknowledged that slavery was very much alive on this period because of its territorial expansion. Expansion was necessary for US to continue to be the leader in cotton production, because much needed soil in the Southeastern US was rapidly deteriorating. Once a land had been utilized for cotton, there is no way that it could be used again so the US had to look for other lands. As cotton was toiled by the slaves, they expand along with the land expansions. Such that, interregional trade of slaved propped up the slavery in the south. In this end, it is also added that worldwide demand for cotton was strong and would have continue to be so if the war had not occurred.10
Not only the demand for slaves quite strong at that time, the economically viability of the trade cannot be discounted because as much as slaveholders need the slaves for their profits, the slaves need the slaveholders and the institution as well. They have a reciprocal need of that type of relationship. Not that they are happy with their situation, but they do not entirely think their positions as the worst indeed.
To assuage the thinking that slaves are the poorest thing in the word, having no freedom and all, Rockman (2001) present his paper an analysis that in a liberal world, being free if one is not accepted in a society means nothing but more hardships and instability. As millions of acres of new land were cultivated, slave-toiled cotton generated vast amounts of fortune for the planters in Georgia and the states in south. With these slaves hard work, cotton speedily become of nation’s most valuable export crop. With the planters happy, the slaveholders were brimming quite so as well with all the profits it’s gaining from the sale of slaves that keep increasing by the minute. Being economically prosperous and politically powerful heightened their confidence. 11 Slaveholders in the South were considered the capitalists in an era where capitalism and the slavery market were simultaneously rising.12
On the other hand, the free labor ideology emerged in the early 19th century. Precisely because of contradicting ideologies, slavery is said to have a hand on this transformation. The wage system gained popularity and legitimacy because it seems completely different from the ‘evil’ processes of slavery, not considering that the wage system is somehow inefficient. The working men of the North make sure that they are distinguished from these slaves on the south that they look down upon, the concept of free labor or wage labor occupying their political character and philosophy. Wages may not be that equitable but it is the determining factor for being a ‘free’ laborer. Workers then who exchange their labor for wages are considered the catalyst of a progressive and desirable development away from slavery. 13
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It had been said to be the ideology why the war was fought and in perspective, why capitalism should not be allowed to continue and should rather be displaced by the democratic political culture. The slavery market was considered to be one of the purely capitalist structures and it should be demolished to give way to democracy. Or it capitalism and democracy should work hand in hand for a liberal society, that is a society void mainly of slavery.14 In this view, Rockman’s paper would have seem nonsense! After all, it made sense that slaves would rather want to be paid than work in servitude to a master that could even be abusive.
The thing is, he found out that despite this developing liberal ideology, what is not surmised here is that free labor is not for everybody and that not all is cracked up by the idea of being free, especially not by the standard of wage labor, and if the slave market is run by an age-old philosophy of one race being superior to the other. That is exactly what the Antebellum South slavery is about. One does not see white people being casted as slaves, but blacks are, the African-Americans. His paper presented that liberal capitalism did not bring equal opportunity for all the Americans. There are those who cannot claim the privileges of citizenship, and those who cannot taste the fruits of prosperity. These are predetermined to be enjoyed just by the whites.15
There are also statements that maintain that slavery is valuable because slaves are productive assets which are of value, and there are instances that the treatment they received even as slaves, in material aspects (take note) more favorable than what the wage workers are receiving. The slaveholders would have not wanted to discontinue holding on to such asset since the situation provides them with economic benefits, as well as to the consumer of the products the slaves had worked hard on. The slaves do not get anything aside from what the owners would want to give them. So, to just view this on an economic aspect, slavery was not an institution to be relinquished that easily.16
Also, slavery ties the capitalists and the blacks, though the slaves probably abhor their owners. Yet a paternalistic aspect in their relationship exists. Slaves are privileged to have their masters teach them some skills so they would not be that disadvantaged over their free labor peers. The slaves are even protected from white worker antagonism. The black slaves even not free have the potential to successful, backed up by his powerful and rich masters.17
Therefore, though civil war was fought for the cause of the slaves, being free does not necessarily give them the better lives, and they could actually be worse off. Slaveholders may be gaining profits from treating them as commercial goods, but slaves have a stability they know they’re a bit auspicious to have. This is supported by the fact that there is only limited number of fugitive states, suggesting that the institution prior to the war was not yet in the prospect of crumbling. There are of course rebellions here and there, undoubtedly to express their stance against some abusive ways of their masters, but there is not substantial amount of such activity to say that the slaves want to be freed. 18
And on the side of the slaveholders, there could be gleaned a confidence on the institution that they are working on, since slave prices were relatively high during 1860.19 If the Civil war was not raged, the slaveholders and the slaves would have probably maintained the status quo.
This could even be more so if the African-American knew for certain what their fates would be once they become free. When slavery ended, the slaves naturally turn into economic participants of the just championed free market. By this, it meant that they become a person whose income would be entirely dependent on their mental skills and physical abilities. As slaves, blacks could not have or was not given the chance to improve themselves through education. And then, since the whites, once-slave owners or not could not be that accepting of their lot, they suffer discrimination more personal when they become free men. For example, they were prevented from voting.20
But opposing views held slaves possibly could not have wanted to stay as slaves, where they are not treated properly, and there are accounts of abuse that were quite terrifying at worst. Defenders against this claim do admit the slaves are not quite treated as a normal person should probably be, and they may be mistreated at times, but who is there to say that slaves are the only ones suffering unfairly sometimes. Not that that is a justification.
Also, the blame of this maltreatment when they do occur should not be upon the whole system of slavery at all, but at the perpetrators or the slave owners. A slave may sometimes be physically harmed in one way or another, but he could suffer much more than that, adding his suffering of despair, misery and rejection in the hands of discriminating whites and the fact that they won’t lead a stable life.21 This is of course not to say slavery should be accepted morally. Holding another person by the neck is still quite wrong, but the paper sees to it that it shows the picture that the slaves knowing where they stand in the economy, would quite not want to separate from the ideologies and lives they are accustomed to.
Another justification why slave market would have been likely to stay indefinitely if the War had not interrupted the course of things is the fact that racism (again) is very much active in the processes of slavery. Theoretically, slavery of course was not equated with racial discrimination. But we have enough experiences to know that theory do not really come true in practices. Here, black African-Americans and their descendants could be seen the one as the enslaved and most white Americans are the slave owners. Racial discrimination is not the prevailing issue here. But, it is the belief and acceptance that blacks are the inferior race and should be the slaves that should be looked at.
This racial ideology was not likely to change, as evidenced by the fact that even when Civil war well over but the ideology prevailed. Therefore, if the conflict between the free laborers of the North and the slaveholders of the South had not culminated into the Civil War, there is little reason to see why the whites would suddenly want the blacks to be in their equal footing and not serving them, even let’s say the slaveholders are not earning anymore.22 The status quo would have been maintained.
Henceforth, this means that slave market would have continued indefinitely if the war had not altered things. Racial prejudice after all, does not really come with an explanation of its origin, but the ideology continues on an on.23 In that case, white would have so accustomed to thinking the blacks are inferior that if slavery was not abolished as it is, then no one would have really thought to do so. This could be pondered upon looking at the actions of the Southerners in the eve of the Civil War, where they are just plain willing to die, for the sake of preserving their Southern way of life, which apparently includes blacks serving them their every instructions, and profiting from the trade.24
Some studies had suggests that modernization would not have allowed slave labor to stay for the foreseeable future, especially if free labor is there as its alternative. Consequently, the bloody Civil War was uncalled for, since slavery would have died out on its own eventually.25
But, there are evidences suggesting the opposite which quite cannot be put aside. Slavery was very economically viable in the sense that it could reproduce itself or continues on, and never dies out just on its own. Modernization maybe would have not want both types of labor, slave or free to be side by side, with one always in conflict with the other, but there seems to be no solid claims that in a modern society, free labor would have been the prevailing notion. In fact, if it could be based on the factor of profitability, which any nation would be quite happy to have, slavery is more profitable. For instance, slave agriculture was technically more efficient than using free labor on agriculture, meaning more outputs can be produced by these slaves that these paid workers. Consumers of these crops even benefit more, since products are less expensive than those produced by the wage workers. 26 And no one could resist cheap labor. Capitalists, competing with others want low cost production and no doubt would be endeavored to lower labor costs as well. 27
The paper is saying that the civil war was a necessary event to put a stop to slavery. Slave trade would not have died out on its own. But, actually on both sides, it’s intriguing to ask why the Civil War has to occur. If the slave market would have diminished itself in exchange of the free labor system, then the Civil War really would be such a waste of effort, time and lives. But on the other hand, if slavery prior to the war was that viable, why abolish it in the form of the war? Why not just let it continue on, if it is seems a sound prospect? And if the United States was so racist during this period, why did they have to have an internal conflict to release these blacks from their bondage? This is truly puzzling.
Research believes that the existence of slave markets in nation where there are split labor markets results into displacements of higher priced labor. Displacement leads to lower standard of living. Having established that most capitalists wanted cheaper labor for this paper and that slavery provides exactly that, it is obvious that most of the capitalists would definitely choose the slave labor market than the free labor market. Therefore workers who operates by the free labor market and expects wages would be driven off his properties by price cutting or forced to acquiesce to cheaper labor. Of course, the latter would be affected and determined to stop such from continuing, but the capitalists or in the case here, the slave owners would not allow such to happen in order to protect their supply of cheap labor. Hence, a war could ensue. 28
This does not mean however that such intrinsic conflict signify that the slave market is bound for extinction, it is still well and true that slavery is very much economically viable and would have continue to be so if the Civil War had not intervened in the process, because if in the first place it is not that viable, the free labor market would not react the way it did and challenge the South for a war, which of course in the end, they have won. But if the slavery market in the 1860s was not viable, meaning it was not capable of continuing on and would quite fall out because of economic boundaries it has, then the North would have not bothered. As had been discussed earlier, the slaves are far from being useless. They may be uneducated formally, but they are taught things that work. They come cheap but they are far from unqualified, they know a wide variety of tasks, from wheat-growing to ship construction, depending on what their owners wanted them to do. They have to undergo training with their holders of course, but the cost is menial since it is calculated that a slave price is equal to what a capitalist would pay 3 to 8 years of free labor.29 Suffice to say, slavery is very much the cheaper source of labor and everyone wants that.
This paper does not condone the abuses these slaves received from their owners or justify the fact that they are treated inherently as goods and not people, only acknowledges the misfortune these slaves have. Through the combined analysis of various scholars, it just acknowledges the fact that slavery was a system which allowed southern capitalists to control the cheap labor force totally. Cheap labor is hard to resist making this institution really economic viable if the North was not against it. The significance of hard-fought Civil War resulting to thousands of deaths is strengthened by this claim because it was really necessary to stop the continuity of slavery.
- Genovese, Eugene D., et al., “The Slave Economies in Political Perspective,” The Journal of American History, 66:1 (1979)
- Rhoades, Daniel, “There were No Innocents: Slavery in the Old Northwest 1700-1860.” Eastern Michigan University, 4
- Genovese, 9
- Genovese, 22
- Passel, Peter, et al, “The Effects of Pre-Civil War Territorial Expansion on the Price of Slaves,” The Journal of Political Economy, 80:6 (1972)
- Engerman, Stanley L. , et al,“ Slavery,” Historical Statistics of the United States Millenial Edition, 2003,10
- Engerman, 11
- Dacus, Chad, “An Empirical Analysis of New Orleans Slave Auction: 1840-1860,” Rice University, Department of Economics, 2005,m3
- Grynaviski, Jeffrey D., et al, “ Did Southerners Favor Slavery? Inferences from an Analysis of Prices in New Orleans, 1805-1860,” Southern Political Science Association, 2003, 24
- Dacus, 4
- Rockman, Seth, “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” Early American Economy and Society Inaugural Conference, 2001, 3
- Rockman, 4
- Rockman, 17
- Rockman, 19
- Margo, Robert A,“ Ideology, Government, and the American Dilemma,” Vanderbilt University Working Paper 4 (2004)
- Bonacich, Edna, “Abolition, the Extension of Slavery, and the Position of Free Blacks: A Study of Split Labor Markets in the United States,” The American Journal of Sociology, 81:3 (1975).
- Engerman, 11
- Ibid 11
- Margo, 6
- Grynaviski, 4
- Margo, 3
- Margo, 10
- Margo, 15
- Margo, 11
- Margo, 12
- Bonacich, 607
- Bonacich, 607
- Bonacich, 613