Saturday, April 21, 2007

Was Slavery on the Way Out in 1860? III

Worldwide demand for cotton grew dramatically during the antebellum period, and particularly during the 1850s, increasing the price of slaves. Gavin Wright argues that, independent of the War, demand for cotton leveled off beginning in the 1860s. Had southern production not fallen dramatically during and after the War (production did not return to 1859 levels until about 1880), this would have led to lower cotton prices -- and a dramatic fall in the price of slaves as well.

Several conclusions follow, he argues. First, as noted in my immediately preceding post, he contends that the high price of slaves intensified slaveholder radicalism in defense of slavery. He therefore wonders whether, if secession and war had been avoided in 1860-61, the intensity of southern feelings might have ebbed as slave prices dropped, increasing the chances that war might have been avoided altogether.

Second, if there had been no war, and if slavery had survived into the 1870s and 1880s, the south nonetheless would have faced significant economic changes as southerners struggled to reallocate slave labor to other uses -- and potentially significant social disruption when white workers protested increasing competition with slaves.

Nonetheless, Professor Wright's best guess is that, without the war, slavery would have survived. War might have been unnecessary, but at a terrible cost:
As slave prices fell and receded in prominence, Southern vulnerability to rhetorical attacks might have diminished as well. If this analysis is correct, then the missed opportunities for delay and compromise during 1859-61 loom larger and larger historically. But as difficult as the proposition is for twentieth-century Americans to accept, it was slavery as well as the Union that would have been preserved for a long time. Slavery would have faced internal political and economic pressures in the South, but the notion that slavery would have faded away peacefully in the late nineteenth century has always been a wishful chapter in historical fiction, not part of a plausible counterfactual history.

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