Sunday, October 15, 2006

Was Slavery on the Way Out in 1860?

In arguments about the causes of the Civil War, I sometimes see assertions that the north needlessly provoked the south into seceding because slavery was “on the way out” anyway when the War started. The suggestion is that, even without the Civil War, southerners would have done away with slavery within a reasonably short time after the 1861.

The evidence suggests otherwise. Among other things:


Slavery remained a viable economic institution as of 1861. The number of slaves had increased dramatically between 1800 and 1860, from roughly one million to roughly four million. The price of slaves was at an all-time high, indicating that slaves remained valuable and desired possessions.

Nor is it true that slavery was confined to agriculture, and that slavery would die as the (allegedly) outmoded plantation system receded. Even assuming that the plantation system was failing – and there is little or no evidence to support that assertion either – there is substantial evidence that southerners were ready, willing and able to employ slaves in non-agricultural settings. In his book The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, the historian Kenneth Stampp points out that since the 1830s southerners had been employing slaves, with success, in iron works, tobacco factories, cordage factories, cotton mills, railroad construction and the like. By way of example, the famed Tredeger Iron Works in Richmond successfully converted from free to slave labor during the 1840s.

Indeed, the evidence indicates that a shortage of slaves was a factor retarding the development of industry in the old south. For example, in his book Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry 1800-1860, Lacy K. Ford provides a detailed review of socioeconomic trends in the pre-War South Carolina Upcountry. As he explains, during the 1850's, railroads came to the Upcountry. Railroads and rising cotton prices significantly altered agricultural and business patterns in the Upcountry. Cotton production rose and production of staple crops and meat declined. Businesses such as dry-goods stores expanded; for the first time, banks and cotton brokers opened local offices. The value of both real property and personal property -- including slaves -- soared.

One thing that did not occur between 1850 and 1860 was significant expansion of manufacturing. As of the late 1840s, there were in the Upcountry two basic sorts of what we would call manufacturing (as opposed to small craft industries such as shoemaking or furnituremaking or local operations such as grain milling): the production of cotton textiles and iron production.

While there were certainly other factors at work, Professor Ford identifies a shortage of labor -- including slave labor -- as a central factor in the failure of manufacturing to expand. For example, discussing the iron foundries he concludes:
"All three companies relied heavily on slave labor, often hiring slaves from nearby planters on a part-time basis, and used whites only as supervisors or in a few skilled positions. Thus both the rising cost of hiring slaves and the growing opportunity costs of holding slaves out of agricultural labor hurt the iron companies tremendously."

As to the textile industry:

"The value of cotton goods manufactured in South Carolina declined by almost 40 percent during the same decade [1850-60]. Much of the decline was the result of the closing of a number of textile mills in the lower and middle districts of the state. These black-belt mills used mostly slave labor, and with slave values skyrocketing and agricultural profits high, the use of slaves in cotton mills became prohibitively expensive."

In short, Professor Ford's detailed analysis strongly supports the conclusion that slavery was a viable and indeed thriving institution immediately before the War. In times of high cotton prices, the demand for slaves for agricultural work was so high that it sent slave prices soaring. Moreover, South Carolinian whites had already demonstrated that they were ready to employ slaves in unskilled and/or semiskilled manufacturing work. There is every reason to believe that, if the price of cotton were to drop again, enterprising South Carolinians were ready, indeed eager, to absorb excess slave labor that became available in manufacturing work.

Thus there is every reason to believe that slavery was not tied to the health of the plantation-agricultural system and might survive and thrive even if the South turned increasingly to manufacturing. There is also strong reason to doubt the assumption that slavery was geographically limited to the South and to expect that it might be transplantable to territories opened to slavery by Dred Scott.

The Wolf by the Ears

The south seems to have been terrified of its slaves and caught in a dilemma (going back at least to Thomas Jefferson) that it had been unable to solve since 1776: how to free slaves without being swamped (in its view) by hordes of free blacks. Thus, even assuming that southerners concluded that slavery was no longer desirable (for whatever reason), they had never devised a feasible way to free slaves.

The south was no nearer to resolving this issue in 1860 than it was in 1800. To the contrary, the passage of time only made the problem more intractable. The number of slaves increased dramatically during the period. Although some continued to hope that colonization would provide an answer, that solution had never been realistic and was utter fantasy in 1860.

Complicating this further was the fact that it was illegal, or at least forbidden by custom, even to discuss the issue of freeing the slaves throughout most of the South. Even assuming that some southerners entertained the idea that such a drastic step was desirable or necessary – and there is no evidence that they did – they could not even raise it.

Geographical Movement

In making these points, I do not mean to exclude the possibility that slavery might have shifted geographically. In The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776 – 1854, William Freehling makes the point that historically northern states had abolished slavery prospectively when slave ownership fell below a percentage of 15% or 10%. Thus it is conceivable that one or more border states where slave ownership was slowly declining (not because large numbers of slaves were being freed, but rather because they were being sold into the deep south) – Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri – might have within, say, twenty years, abolished slavery prospectively.

But (again taking history as a guide), this would not have decreased the total number of slaves, but simply moved them. Either they would have been sold “down the river”, where they were desperately needed (Professor Stampp cites the complaint of Austin, Texas newspaper in 1858-59 “that Texas needed at least six million more Negroes”, Peculiar Institution p. 274), and/or they would have been sold into the territories opened to slavery by the Dred Scott decision. Deep South states with increased numbers of slaves would then have become even more resistant (if that’s possible) to the idea of freeing them.

So, When?

Without the War, when would slavery have been abolished in the United States?

The Constitution may be amended by ratification by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. Let us assume that in the years after 1860 all of the border states except Virginia (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri) eventually provided for emancipation on a prospective basis, and that no additional slave states were admitted. That would reduce the number of slave states to eleven (which happen to be the eleven states that seceded in 1860-61).

Assuming all slave states would vote against a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery, and all non-slave states would vote for such an amendment, ratification could not occur until the Union contained at least 44 states, 33 free and 11 slave. The 44th state – Wyoming – was admitted to the Union in 1890.

This scenario is extremely optimistic, but it suggests that 1890 is the earliest conceivable date by which slavery might have been abolished. More likely, abolition would have taken at least another decade or two.

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