Was Slavery On the Way Out?

Every student of the war eventually comes up against the theology that slavery was on the way out in 1860 and would soon have disappeared on its own.  I call it “theology” for a reason.  There is nothing substantial behind it, only pure faith and belief.

The claim that slavery was dying out is a popular misconception.  Slavery was healthy and was incredibly profitable.

In the years between 1850 and 1860, in the thirteen slaveholding states (excluding Missouri and Delaware), the total cash value of farms rose from $1,035,544,075 to $2,288,179,125; the average cash value of farms rose from $2,035.75 to $3,438.71; the number of slaveholders grew from 326,054 to 358,728; and the average number of slaves per slaveholders rose from 9.54 to 10.69.  [Thomas P. Govan, “Was Plantation Slavery Profitable?”  Journal of Southern History, Vol VIII, No. 4, Nov., 1942, p. 518]  Does that sound unprofitable?  Does it sound as if slavery was dying out?

In perhaps the classic study of the economics of slavery, Alfred Conrad and John Meyer concluded, “Slavery was profitable to the whole South, the continuing demand for labor in the Cotton Belt insuring returns to the breeding operation on the less productive land in the seaboard and border states.  The breeding returns were necessary, however, to make the plantation operations on the poorer lands as profitable as alternative contemporary economic activities in the United States. . . . Continued expansion of slave territory was both possible and, to some extent, necessary.  The maintenance of profits in the Old South depended upon the expansion, extensive or intensive, of slave agriculture into the Southwest. [Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer, “The Economics of Slavery in the Ante Bellum South,” The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. LXVI, No. 2, April, 1958, p. 121]

“On both large and small estates, none but the most hopelessly inefficient masters failed to profit from the ownership of slaves.”  [Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution:  Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, p. 414]

You can also see the Dec. 1967 issue of the Journal of Economic History [Vol XXVII, No. 4] for a panel discussion held at the 27th Annual Meeting of the Economic History Association on Slavery and Economic Growth.  The panelists included Alfred H. Conrad (City University of New York), Douglas Dowd (Cornell University), Stanley Engerman (University of Rochester), Charles Kelso (Harvard University), John R. Meyer (Harvard University), Harry N. Scheiber (Dartmouth College), and Richard Sutch (M.I.T.).

Sutch has calculated the value of slaves appreciated at a rate of about 7.56% annually [p. 520].  Conrad quotes Douglas North, another economic historian, as saying, “there is no possibility that slavery was economically not viable.”  [p. 523]  Conrad and Meyer say, “Although profitability cannot be offered as a sufficient guarantee of the continuity of southern slavery, the converse argument that slavery must have destroyed itself can no longer rest upon allegations of unprofitability or upon assumptions about the impossibility of maintaining and allocating a slave labor force.  To the extent, moreover, that profitability is a necessary condition for the continuation of a private business institution in a free-enterprise society, slavery was not untenable in the ante-bellum American South.”  [p. 527] Dowd says, “For the American South, it surely was good business sense that led planters to emphasize cotton cultivation, slaveholding, and slave breeding.”  [p. 532]  Dowd further says, “Of course slavery was profitable.” [p. 536]  and “If one looks at the history of the American South, one finds that it was a very prosperous region relative to the rest of the world in the pre-Civil War period, and that it was at that time reasonably prosperous relative to the rest of the United States.”  [p. 552]

Robert Fogel, of the University of Chicago, said, “It turns out the relative profitability of slavery [had there not been a Civil War and emancipation] between 1860 and 1890 would have increased.  Whether we like it or not, the demand for American cotton continued to grow down to the early 1920s more rapidly than the South was able to respond and supply.  It is quite wrong to say the price of cotton fell.  The real price of cotton rose over time.  It is clear, then, that cotton over this period faced a booming market.”  [p. 553]

Engerman said, “The white population [of the South] probably had a per capita income which exceeded that of the North and the West averaged together; even if you include the Negro population, per capita income in the South was reasonably high in comparison to the West.”  [p. 558]

You can also see Time on the Cross:  The Economics of American Negro Slavery by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, which concludes that slavery was “a commercially vigorous and highly efficient mode of agricultural production, and the slave plantations formed the leading sector in the rapidly developing regional economy of the antebellum South.”  [Paul A. David, “Slavery:  The Progressive Institution?  A Review of Time on the Cross, The Journal of Economic History, Vol XXXIV, No. 3, Sep 1974, p. 739]

“The large slave plantations were about 34 percent more efficient than free southern farms.  This advantage was not due to some special way in which land or machinery was used, but to the special quality of plantation labor.  It is true that large plantations used more land and equipment (by value) per worker than small plantations.  However, this feature was taken into account in computing the efficiency indexes.  In other words, even after one adjusts for the fact that on large plantations slaves generally worked on better land than free southern farmers and had more equipment, large plantations were still some 34 percent more efficient than free farms.”  [Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross:  The Economics of American Negro Slavery, pp. 209-210]

Even on plantations where the vast majority of slaves were used as field hands, over 25% were used in skilled and semiskilled jobs.  According to Fogel and Engerman, 7.0% of slaves on plantations actually held managerial positions. 11.9% were skilled craftsmen such as blacksmiths, carpenters, and coopers, and another 7.4% were used in semiskilled positions such as teamsters, coachmen, gardeners, stewards, and house servants.  20% of women slaves were used as house servants, seamstresses, and nurses.  [Robert M. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross:  The Economics of American Negro Slavery, pp. 38-39]

Slavery was doing well enough that the price of slaves was increasing each year.

See  Gavin Wright, “The Political Economy of the Cotton South,” in Gavin Wright, Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century, 1978, W. W. Norton & Co.  It’s reprinted as a chapter of Michael Perman’s The Coming of the American Civil War, Third Edition, titled “The Economics of Cotton, Slavery, and the Civil War.”

Wright refers to an analysis by Yasuhichi Yauba and Richard Sutch in which “in each year the price of slaves is determined by the interaction of a demand curve with an inelastic supply curve, because, after the closing of the African slave trade, the aggregate slave labor supply could not be increased in response to higher prices, except over time.  The observed slave price was in fact well above the long-run cost of rearing new slaves, and the difference between the two accrued as a capitalized rent to the owner of the slave at the time of birth.  Slave prices rose steadily over time, to levels far above the rearing cost, and indeed were never higher than on the eve of the Civil War.

“The point is not just that the real proof of profitability is the high slave prices themselves, but that the rising profitability is embodied in the higher prices.  In the abstract, there is little point in sharply differentiating between the slaveholders’ interest in annual earnings on his crops and in the value of his slave property, because slave prices will reflect the expected stream of future earnings from the use of slave labor. . . . The fact is that virtually every slaveholder who was careful enough to keep his slaves alive made at least a normal profit during the 1850s from capital gains alone.”  [Wright in Perman, pp. 160-161]  According to Wright, “the essence of the profitability of slavery was the financial value of slave property.”  [Ibid., p. 162]

Not only was it profitable, it was also a status symbol to be a slave owner.

“No other profession gave a Southerner such dignity and importance as the cultivation of the soil with slave labor.  The ownership of slaves, affirmed Cairnes, had become ‘a fashionable taste, a social passion’; it had become a symbol of success like ‘the possession of a horse among the Arabs:  it brings the owner into connexion [sic] with the privileged class; it forms the presumption that he has attained a certain social position.’  Slaves, therefore, were ‘coveted with an eagerness far beyond what the intrinsic utility of their services would explain.’  Cairnes concluded that it would be futile to propose compensated emancipation, for this would be asking slaveholders to renounce their power and prestige ‘for a sum of money which, if well invested, might perhaps enable them and their descendants to vegetate in peaceful obscurity.’ ”  [Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, pp. 385-386]

As to the idea that it cost more to own slaves than it cost to pay free labor, that’s another misconception.

“The average wage of a free laborer exceeded considerably the investment and maintenance costs of a slave. . . . masters exploited women and children more fully than did the employers of free labor. . .. the average bondsman worked longer hours and was subjected to a more rigid discipline.”  [Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution, p. 400]

Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation:  The Abolition of Slavery in the North, pp. 52-53 shows that slavery was also profitable when it existed in the North.  It became less essential over time due to the increased availability of free labor.

As Fogel and Engerman show, slave labor is more efficient than free labor, so the pure economic motivation would be to retain slavery.  But in fact, as Zilversmit shows, it was moral concerns over slavery that led to its abolition in the North.

“Those who maintain that slavery was unprofitable or less profitable than white labor base their arguments on the mental incapacity or ignorance of Negroes and their inability to do the skilled work required in a diversified economy. It is clear, however, that northern Negroes received the requisite training and eventually became highly skilled in a great number of divers trades. Although it is true that newly imported Negroes suffered in their first northern winter, once they became acclimated, they could tolerate the rigors of a northern climate.”  [Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation:  The Abolition of Slavery in the North, p. 52]

The Spirit of the Revolution spread through the North and into the South. Slavery was dispensable in the North because with few large plantations it was not as deeply entrenched.  The number of slaves never got to really significant enough levels for the institution to become as important as it was in the south.  Virginia debated the emancipation of slaves as well, but unfortunately slavery was too entrenched to make statewide emancipation possible.

Using slaves was cheaper than using free labor.

“Slaves were hired by the day or the month, but most copiously by the year, the employer providing shelter, food, clothing and medical service in addition to paying the stipulated wage.  If the slave were invalided or ran away the wage was not abated; but if he died the liability ceased.  Annual contracts ran not for three hundred and sixty-five days but for fifty-one weeks, from New Year’s to Christmas; for every hireling went home for his traditional holiday.  In fact, an employer was lucky if he recovered control before a week in January had elapsed.  Wage rates varied with the fluctuations of prosperity.  In the lower South full hands commonly brought somewhat less than a hundred dollars a year in 1800, and about two hundred in 1860; but in Virginia the scale was about one third less at either period.”  [Ulrich B. Phillips, Life & Labor in the Old South, p. 181.

On the next page, Phillips writes that the “money wages for slaves, it is true, might continue to range lower than those of whites, and the cost of their board and lodging was less.”

Phillips quotes F. L. Olmsted as saying that in New York farm hands were hired at $10/month plus room and board (immigrants brought in less) while in eastern Virginia, able-bodied slaves brought in $120 plus board, etc.  Conrad and Meyer tell us the average slave cost the average slave owner $20-$21 a year to keep alive–that’s food, medical, etc.  That’s less than it would cost to support a white laborer and his family.

Also:  “Most free Negroes, like most Southerners, lived in the countryside and earned their living working the land.  Throughout the rural South, free Negroes worked as farmhands and casual laborers.”  Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters:  The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, p. 218]

“Whites felt comfortable employing free Negroes at jobs nominally designated for slaves.  It assured them that freedom did not significantly alter the black’s status and seemed to guarantee that free Negroes would not challenge their rule.  Not surprisingly, whites treated free Negro and slave workers much the same.  Some white employers boasted that their ‘free colored workers hire themselves annually upon the same terms and conditions as slaves and are subject to the same discipline.'”[Ibid., p. 228]

Sometimes those who believe in the theology that slavery was dying out will claim that free labor was cheaper because during the time after harvesting the cotton, a free laborer could be laid off and a slave couldn’t.

“The higher rate of the utilization of labor capacity [of slaves] was partly due to what was, by the usual standards of farmers, an extraordinary intensity of labor.  Far from being ‘ordinary peasants’ unused to ‘pre-industrial rhythms of work,’ black plantation agriculturalists labored under a regimen that was more like a modern assembly line than was true of the routine in many of the factories of the antebellum era.  It was often easier for factory workers to regulate the pace of machines to their accustomed rhythm than for slaves to regulate the pace set by drivers.”  [Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross:  The Economics of American Negro Slavery, p. 208]

Since slave labor approached full utilization of labor capacity far more than free labor, slaves were able to accomplish far more than free labor in the same period of time.

“Whether on a one-horse farm or a hundred-hand plantation, the essentials in cotton growing were the same.  In an average year a given force of laborers could plant and cultivate about twice as much cotton as it could pick.  The acreage to be seeded in the staple was accordingly fixed by a calculation of the harvesting capacity, and enough more land was put into other crops to fill out the spare time of the hands in spring and summer.  To this effect it was customary to plant in corn, which required less than half as much work, an acreage at least equal to sweet potatoes, peanuts, cow peas and small grain. … At the Christmas holiday when the old year’s harvest was nearly or quite completed, well managed plantations had their preliminaries for the new crop already in progress.  The winter months were devoted to burning canebrakes, clearing underbrush and rolling logs in the new grounds, splitting rails and mending fences, cleaning ditches, spreading manure, knocking down the old cotton and corn stalks, and breaking the soil of the fields to be planted.  Some planters broke the fields completely each year and then laid off new rows.”  [Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery, pp. 207-208]

Looks as though the owners didn’t let the slaves lay around all that much after all, unlike what they could do with free labor.

And slaves could perform more labor than just agricultural labor.

“Many masters had long felt justified in turning capable Negroes into carpenters, masons, cobblers, and weavers.  A few both advocated and practiced the use of slaves as factory workers.  The experiments tried in different places, they said, were highly successful and promised much for the future.  At the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, for instance, Anderson both owned and hired slaves, taught them all the skills, and when his white mechanics struck, used slaves almost exclusively.  The tobacco factories of Virginia and North Carolina had used slave labor from the beginning.  There was no reason, said its advocates, why such efforts might not be extended.” [Avery O. Craven, The Growth of Southern Nationalism, 1848-1861, p. 249]

Some of the slavery dying out theology acolytes will point to the high debt carried by southern planters.

“The adversities that at some time or other overtook most slaveholders, the anxieties to which their business operations subjected them, and the bankruptcy that was the ultimate reward of more than a few, have produced an uncommon lot of myths about the economic consequences of slavery for both the slaveholder and the South as a whole.  One of the most durable of these myths is that the system unavoidably reduced masters to the desperate expedients of carrying a heavy burden of mortgage indebtedness and of living upon credit secured by the next crop.  Actually, the property of most slaveholders was not mortgaged; and when they were troubled with debt, slavery was not necessarily the cause.  Many of the debt-burdened planters gave evidence not of the unprofitability of slavery but of managerial inefficiency or of a tendency to disregard the middle-class virtue of thrift and live beyond their means. . . . Other slaveholders went into debt to begin or to enlarge their agricultural operations.  So long as their investments were sound, there was nothing reckless about launching an enterprise or expanding it on borrowed capital.  Indeed, many of them deliberately remained in debt because their returns from borrowed capital far exceeded the interest charges.  But the planter often was unable to resist the temptation to overextend himself, especially in the thriving regions of the Southwest.”  [Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, pp. 390-392]

Some of the slavery dying acolytes will claim that industrialization and mechanization of agriculture would soon lead to the death of slavery.  This is more wishful thinking.  In actual fact, the mechanization of agriculture came about in order to replace labor that moved off the farms to more profitable jobs, not to displace agricultural labor.

The historians who believe that mechanization pushed labor out of agriculture were mostly influenced by Richard Day’s “The Economics of Technological Change and the Demise of the Sharecropper.”  “It appears, however, that Day grossly overestimated the contribution of the mechanization of cotton harvesting to the reduction in employment.  According to his model 100 percent of the cotton in the Delta was harvested by machine in 1957, while in fact only 17 percent of the cotton was harvested mechanically in Mississippi during that year.  The 100 percent level was not attained until 1975.” [Willis Peterson and Yoav Kislev, “The Cotton Harvester in Retrospect:  Labor Displacement or Replacement?”  Journal of Economic History, Vol. XLVI, No. 1 (March 1986), p. 201]

“A careful reading of the record suggests, however, that at least in the case of cotton harvesting, farmers were not so eager to reduce their dependence on labor.  As Pederson and Rapier report in 1954:
‘There is still considerable hesitancy in the matter of using machines.  The mechanical picker can operate well only when the ground is dry, when weeds and grass are under control, when cotton is defoliated, and when fields are long and regular enough.  The planter is torn between conflicting objectives and irreconcilable operating alternatives.  Time and again planters have remarked, ‘If the kind of labor we had twenty years ago were available today they could keep all their machinery.’
‘The increasing scarcity of labor in the area has raised the labor cost from a dollar a day less than fifteen years ago to four dollars and more.  True the latter is an inflated dollar amount compared to the former but the rate of inflation is not 400 percent.  Even at this higher rate the planter frequently finds himself unable to obtain labor enough to perform the essential operations during the peak work period.’

“During World War II and the years immediately following, one of the major problems faced by farmers was the increasing scarcity of labor and the large increase in wage rates relative to prewar years.  Cotton farmers were particularly affected because traditionally cotton had been a labor-intensive crop.  As an illustration of the concern of farmers with obtaining adequate labor at harvest and of their reluctance to use machines, it is reported that during the 1950 harvest season in the coastal plain of South Carolina between 75 and 100 plantation operators purchased new mechanical harvesters at about $8,000 per machine but let them stand idle in their sheds while they harvested their cotton using hired labor.  The plantation operators considered the interest and depreciation expense on the machines as an insurance premium against not being able to obtain labor. … In addition to the higher cost of machines over labor in the South during the early 1950s, cotton producers preferred labor over machine harvest because the cotton was cleaner and therefore fetched a higher price in the market.  Also, if the producers did not hire labor to harvest they were less likely to obtain labor for weeding and thinning earlier in the season because their employees would seek jobs that allowed them to work more weeks per year.”  [Ibid., pp. 206-208]

As the labor grew more scarce, the supply vis-à-vis demand shrunk, causing the price of labor, i.e., wages, to increase.  It was that increase in labor that made the mechanical harvester become economically feasible.

“Before 1957 custom rates for machine picking in Mississippi exceeded piece rates for hand picking. … Only after that did custom rates fall below piece rates, with the latter starting to increase slightly.  Before that time it would have been irrational for farmers to use machines extensively to harvest cotton because labor was cheaper.”  [Ibid., p. 201]

Note that in 1949 only 6% of the cotton in the US was harvested mechanically.  In 1954 it had grown to 22% and in 1959 it was 43%.  It didn’t reach 78% until 1964.  [Ibid., p. 206]

Tractors didn’t replace people, they replaced mules and horses.  Slaves would remain cheaper than free labor, and thus cheaper than mechanical harvesters for a long, long time.

The data show slavery was not on the way out, but in reality was stronger than ever on the eve of the Civil War.  It was not about to die out naturally anytime soon, and absent a war it’s not unreasonable to see slavery existing not only well into the 20th Century, but also possibly into the 21st Century.


  1. A nice analysis to which should be added that the white South feared freeing their slaves. Many slaveholders were convinced emancipation would result in a bloody race war similar to what occurred in Haiti in the 1790s. That is why John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry galvanized the South in 1859. That is why the states of the Lower South seceded after Abraham Lincoln’s election in the winter of 1860-61. They feared Lincoln, by halting the spread of slavery in the territories, would put slavery on the road to extinction and bring on the race war they so great feared. Of course, they did not imagine that secession itself would set in motion the chain of events leading to emancipation.

    1. Thanks, Don. Yes, while I focused on the economic aspects to counter arguments that the institution of slavery was economically moribound and on its way out, there was also a very powerful social aspect of racial control. What to do with African-Americans who were freed vexed not only slaveowners but also many antislavery people like Abraham Lincoln, which explains his embrace of colonization.

  2. I believe you have presented a “self defeating” argument in your, “Was Slavery On the Way Out” question. Also most of your sources have been discredited long ago.

    Fogel and Engerman’s “Time on the Cross” not only rewrote the history of antebellum slavery, it ushered in a completely new methodology of economic history: the cliometric revolution. Notable among the first cliometric works to appear are Conrad and Meyer (1958) and Fogel (1960). Fogel and Engerman were a major methodological assault on traditional history by cliometricians.

    The economic interpretations of the slave economies of the New World, as well as those social interpretations which adopt the neoclassical economic model but leave the economics out, assume everything they must prove.

    Relying on the assumptions of others proves nothing. You say, “Slavery was doing well enough that the price of slaves was increasing each year.” Also, if the increase in [free] labor made the mechanical harvester become economically feasible,” then it is entirely reasonable to postulate that the increased costs of slaves made the mechanical harvester become economically feasible.

    If the price of slaves are forever increasing as you say, soon the simple economic reality becomes plainly evident that the free market labor combined with mechanization would eliminate slavery rather quickly.

    There were other forces in the South that forced slavery’s longevity past it prime, and they were not slavery profits. Slavery was on the way out for much the same reason slavery died in the North!

    1. Thank you for your comment. I’m using not only older sources, such as Ulrich Phillips, but also Fogel and Engerman, Conrad and Meyer, Kenneth Stampp, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright. Some of Phillips’ writings on the abilities of African-Americans have been discredited, for example, but I’ve seen nothing thus far that discredits any of the conclusions presented above. Looking at the sources I’ve used, I see not assumptions but data-based conclusions. It was the scarcity of labor that increased its cost so dramatically that it made the mechanical harvester feasible. You are assuming that the price of using slaves would increase to that level, which is not what I was saying at all. You assert slavery was on the way out, but I see nothing in your comment that backs up that claim. It seems you would have us rely on your assumption.

    2. By the way, I would appreciate it if in the future when you lift whole phrases from the works of others you provide the appropriate attribution. I’m sure Dr. Thornton, whose article from the Review of Austrian Economics you quoted without attribution in your comment, would appreciate it as well. I have no problem if you would like to quote others as long as it is set off with quotation marks and cited or paraphrased and cited. I do have a problem when it is done without the appropriate attribution, because that is plagiarism. I choose to believe it was done this time by accident with no intent to plagiarize. I ask for more care in the future.

      To give proper attribution, the second and third paragraphs of Terry’s comments come from Mark Thornton, “Slavery, Profitability, and the Market Process,” The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1994), p. 21.

  3. I have some questions, not to debate but to ask

    1. Which are … ?

  4. How much did the fear of slave uprisings play into the equation of slavery’s future.

    1. While there was fear of slave uprisings, that fear does not appear to have affected slave ownership. Instead, draconian measures were applied to suppress any rebellions whenever there was thought to be a rebellion being planned or whenever a rebellion happened. Suspected conspirators were tortured and interrogated, and in many cases burned alive. Winthrop Jordan’s Tumult and Silence at Second Creek is a good example of how slave revolts were dealt with.

      1. Iv’e always wondered as time passed and if slavery had not ended as it did, if slave uprisings would have increased in the latter part of the 19th century? It has always seemed that humans come to a point of being oppressed that they are willing to face death rather to continue their fate of being oppressed. Just as we see the start of the labor uprisings in the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s by workers. Looking at Homestead PA and the steel workers and as late as Blair Mt West Va as examples. (And I fully understand slaves were far more oppressed)

        1. We’ll never know. There were slave uprisings prior to and during the Civil War, but they were dealt with severely with terrorism applied in an attempt to discourage anyone else from considering it; however, the uprisings were limited and far separated. After 200 years of slavery it’s difficult to imagine they would become more widespread.

  5. I agree industrialization and mechanization of agriculture would not have lead to the death of slavery anytime soon. Most labor saving advancements in agriculture far as cotton was concerned didn’t come about until the 1900’s ,most not until the 2nd half of the 20th century.

  6. Most schemes to promote immigration to the South failed because lower skilled immigrants were simply more expensive than slaves. The only types of low-skilled work in which immigrants were preferred was that which carried a high risk of death or dismemberment to the worker. In these cases, the possible loss of slave “capital” outweighed the higher wages demanded by immigrants.

  7. To give proper attribution, the second and third paragraphs of Terry’s comments come from Mark Thornton, “Slavery, Profitability, and the Market Process,” The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1994), p. 21.

    Thank you for that correction.

    The entire study of economics is built upon assumptions. To often assumptions run three deep and include previous assumptions from different authors. Interestingly the study of economics is in direct conflict with law. In law we are told to NEVER assume. Assumptions are merely someone’s opinion laced with tons of personal bias and prejudice.

    That is the honest and pure definition of cliometric economic theories of which you quote extensively, and your entire argument is based. Some of the first cliometric works to appear are Fogel’s “Time on the Cross, and Conrad and Meyer.

    Thornton also found and I agree and find most fascinating that your man John Cairnes, when speaking of American slavery, “Cairnes (1862, p. 170) suggested that the Union merely invade and eliminate slavery west of the Mississippi and leave slavery in the remaining states to strangle itself. ” The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1994), p. 42, n.76.

    Awe, those confounded assumptions do have strange bedfellows. Who do we believe, and do we allow our personal prejudice and bias to control?

    John Cairnes’, “The Slave Power,” can be found online at:

    1. Thank you for your follow-up comment. It seems to me you’re making the assumption that all assumptions are the same. 🙂

      The fundamental assumption underpinning all economics, if I remember correctly from my Econ classes way back when, is that people act rationally in their own self-interest. Now, we will find one-offs here and there who intentionally act contrary to their own perceived self-interest, and we will find folks who are acting from false information in what they think is their own self-interest but is actually not, but if we aggregate entire populations, that assumption is borne out by empirical data, otherwise the field of economics would have collapsed long ago. So there are assumptions and then there are assumptions. I assume the laws of physics hold in South America the same as they hold in North America. Do I need to go to South America to test that assumption or is that a reasonable assumption to make?

      Also, Cairnes is not “my man.”

      Thornton’s basic thesis (p. 22), that profitability of slavery is used as a justification for the Civil War because slavery would not be abandoned otherwise is itself fundamentally flawed and is in fact a strawman argument, since that was not the argument made for the Union’s participation in the war, nor is it an argument made by historians today.

      Thornton has other problems, too. Most glaringly, he makes simple assertions as if they were true without providing the supporting data. He also contradicts himself. For example, on page 29 he asserts, “Little remains of the profitability thesis except that investment in slaves might have earned a ‘normal rate of return.'” Yet previously, on page 24, he tells us, “The empirical literature questioning and confirming the view that slavery was profitable continues to grow.” Which is it? If it continues to grow, how can little remain of it?

      1. There is no such thing as empirical evidence when based upon “assumptions.” That’s the stuff dreams are made of. That’s the reason individuals, families, banks, corporations, city governments, county governments, states and entire countries go bankrupt. That’s the fiddle in Nero’s downfall as Rome burned.

        You said, “but if we aggregate entire populations, that assumption is borne out by empirical data, otherwise the field of economics would have collapsed long ago.” How do we aggregate the entire population of 1860? Can’t be done without “assumptions.”

        Do you not see the collapsed field of economics? The entire economic model, in practice in the world today, is completely bankrupt. Look at Europe, specifically Greece, Spain, and France. Then come closer to home in Orange County and Stockton, California, and the entire state of California, and Detroit, Michigan, and Jefferson County, Alabama to name a few.

        Civil War students, truth seekers and those who hold themselves out to be perfect, should be interested in evidence beyond a reasonable doubt especially when so much rides on the outcome. As you said earlier, “We’ll never know.” We’re looking in all the wrong places.

        1. Yes, there is empirical data. That is data that is observed in the real world and is not based on assumptions. You are conflating two things that are unrelated. The empirical data confirms the correctness of the assumptions.

          If economics has collapsed, then that is news to the rest of the world.

          If all you want is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, then you need to get yourself interested in some other field, because we don’t have the amount of historical evidence that will satisfy you.

  8. Hello. I thought this article would be of interest given my earlier comment: http://hnn.us/articles/thomas-jeffersons-nightmare

    1. Thanks, Don. Also, the letters and speeches of the secession commissioners are filled with references to Haiti and the spectre of a race war. The best example is Stephen Hale’s letter to Beriah Magoffin, Governor of Kentucky.

  9. William · · Reply

    Engerman said, “The white population [of the South] probably had a per capita income which exceeded that of the North and the West averaged together; even if you include the Negro population, per capita income in the South was reasonably high in comparison to the West.” [p. 558]

    What was The white population [of the South] per capita income versus that of the North only ?
    I know a lot of times to pad statics other unnecessary items ( The West ) are throw in. I also noticed he said probably, which means he don’t know but in his opinion.



    1. Time on the Cross gives the Per Capita Income by Region for 1840 and 1860 in 1860 dollars on page 248:

      National Average: 1840: $96 1860: $128
      North: 1840: $109 1860: $141
      South: 1840: $74 1860: $103

      These are total figures, including all races, both free and slave. Since slaves have such a low per capita income and they consisted of 40% of the population in the 11 states that would join the confederacy, if we could look solely at the white population of the south, it probably did exceed the North’s per capita income. I don’t have data on the west at this time.

  10. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    Thornton has made a number of errors in his work as he strives to advance the Austrian School of Economics at all times. The statistics do not support Thornton. I’m surprised DiLorenzo wasn’t quoted either. As for Fogel and Engermann being discredited, they’re only considered to be so by the neo-confederates.
    Mark Thornton is part of the Ludwig Von Mises Institute along with DiLorenzo and Lew Rockwell. The connection to the League of the South is very strong and their writings are often extremely biased and ignore stats which conflict with their desired goals. It’s basically another version to advance the idea that the South was justified in secession through economic means and that just was not so. The numbers fail to support Thornton and DiLorenzo.

    1. Thanks, Jimmy. I agree Thornton has major problems. Fogel and Engerman have been criticized for their conclusions regarding the treatment of slaves, and Fogel has written a defense of their conclusions called The Slavery Debates. Their conclusions regarding slavery’s profitability have not, to my knowledge, been successfully rebutted.

  11. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    This article by Thomas Weiss goes a long way to explaining the criticism that Fogel and Engeman did encounter. They definitely made some errors, but like you said, it was more to do with treatment of slavery. That was almost certainly due to the small sample size in that aspect. Fogel himself changed some of his opinions on that later. They made several key points and the chief one was that slavery was extremely profitable. That conclusion has been supported extensively over the years. Rebuttals of that conclusion have fallen far short of disproving it and often are extremely polemical like those from the Von Mises crew or Kennedy fantasy writers.
    In addition, Fogel and Engerman’s work inspired a great deal of research which both supported and disproved their work on the treatment of slaves which in itself is inspiring for doing so. I’ll let Weiss do the talking because all I will be doing is repeating what he so adequately summed up in his article. http://eh.net/node/2749

    1. Thanks, Jimmy. If I recall correctly, one of the criticisms of their conclusions on slave treatment was even if they were absolutely correct on few beatings for slaves, a slave on a plantation at least witnessed a beating several times a year, and it possibly might have even been almost a daily occurrence that at least one slave was beaten on a plantation.

  12. Steve Evans · · Reply

    While I do not argue the economic validity of your article I must point out that it is one-sided in that it makes no reference to changes in societal and moral views of slavery. Can you honestly argue that even given the economic accuracy of your data that slavery would exist today had the South gained its independence. Based on the world-wide view of the immorality of slavery in 1860 it would have been difficult for the South to sustain itself economically and diplomatically for long without having to address the issue. Slavery was on its way out, not for economic reasons, but for moral reasons. It may have taken a few generations but it would eventually happen. Does anyone honestly believe that slavery would still exist in the South today had they won the war? I think not..

    1. Look in your local Wal-Mart and see how many goods were made in China.

      These folks were willing to have their sons die in battle in order to save the institution of slavery. Today we revere the Founding Generation that went through the Revolution so much that if there was consensus that the Founders didn’t want it to happen, a policy change today would be defeated. How would it have been for an independent confederacy based on slavery that had been won through blood and sacrifice?

      Yes, there is a very good chance slavery would still exist today.

      1. Or do a little research on the modern day textile industry in Bangladesh 🙂

  13. Another question I have wondered about, if secession didn’t happen and slavery had not ended as it did,what type of financial situation would the planter class have been in during the later 1800’s as compared to the industrial,mining and RR moguls ? How much of the financial pie would the planter class have ended up with in the later 19th century. And would that have affected their political power?

    1. We’ll never know.

      1. Even without their slavery wealth that ended 1865, they were still able to hold on to Jim Crow and Jim Crow type laws until the 1960’s.

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