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.