The Extent of Slave Ownership in the United States in 1860

I’ve touched on this before in other posts. See here, here, here, and here.

In an effort to minimize the importance of slavery, modern neoconfederates will focus on the percentage of slave owners in the United States and say that because it was very low, the confederates could not have been fighting to preserve slavery. They’re not the only ones. “For generations historians have been almost unanimous in emphasizing that black slaves were owned by a surprisingly small minority of whites. Allan Nevins states in his distinguished history of the Civil War era that ‘from the terms used in the angry discussion of slavery, it might have been supposed that almost the whole Southern population had a direct interest in it. Actually, of the 6,184,477 white folk in the slave States, only 347,525 were listed by the census of 1850 as owners, and even this number gave an exaggerated impression of the facts.’ Adding members of slave owning families and other involved individuals, Nevins increases the figure, but retains the emphasis, concluding that the number of whites directly involved in slavery probably ‘did not exceed 2,000,000. If so, not one-third of the population of the South and border States had any direct interest in slavery as a form of property. This is a fact of great important [sic] when we attempt to estimate the effect of slaveholding upon the culture and outlook of the Southern people.” [Otto H. Olsen, “Historians and the Extent of Slave Ownership in the Southern United States,” Civil War History, Vol. XVIII, No., 2, June, 1972, p. 101]

Let’s take a closer look at that claim. The above quoted work by Nevins focused on the 1850 Census. I will focus on the 1860 Census, which is on the eve of the Civil War. According to the 1860 Census, there were 393,975 slave owners in the United States out of a total population of 31,183,582, or 1.26% of the population. Of course, that’s for the entire United States. In 1860, of the 33 states in the Union, 15 were slave states and 18 were free states. Let’s take a look at the slave states only.

In 1860, the 393,975 slave owners in the slave states were out of a population of 12,240,293, or 3.22% of the population of the 15 slave states were slave owners. But we have to remember that only free people owned slaves, and that total population of the slave states included enslaved people themselves, so we have to adjust our numbers to reflect only free people. Therefore, the 393,975 slave owners was out of a free population of 8,289,782, or 4.75% of the free population of the slave states being slave owners.

As Professor Olsen tells us in the article quoted above, “historians often include all of the slave states in their statistical presentations. If one is interested in the deterministic impact of slavery, however, it would appear more appropriate to consider only the Confederate states.” [Ibid., p. 111] The eleven states of the confederacy had 316,632 slave owners out of a free population of 5,582,222, meaning 5.67% of the free population of the confederacy were slave owners.

That, however, does not tell us the extent of slave ownership. To better understand the extent of slavery’s impact, we need to realize a slave owner was the one person in a family who legally owned slaves. That person was usually the patriarch. There would be a spouse and sons and daughters who directly benefited from the family’s slave ownership and who stood to inherit enslaved people. If we look at the Census of 1860 we see that 30.8% of the free families in the confederacy owned slaves. As Professor Olsen tells us, “Thus, every third white person in those states had a direct commitment to slavery and, barring occasional dissidents, had cause to be a supporter and propagandist for that system. this appears to be an amazingly large, rather than small, base of support for any economic order, and the figures are more impressive when we consider the seven states of the lower South in the precise order of their secession from the Union: South Carolina with 48.7 per cent of the white families owning slaves; Mississippi with 48 per cent; Florida with 36 per cent; Alabama with 35.1 per cent; Georgia with 38 per cent; Louisiana with 32.2 per cent; and Texas with 28.5 per cent. Even more pertinent is the fact that the significance of these percentages has been distorted because of an eagerness to view slaveholding as something that could be equated with, say, voting percentages, or the possession of horses or cows, or the popularity of styles of dress. But while 31 per cent may not appear large as a voting or even isolated ownership statistic, it is enormous if, as suggested by [Frederick Jackson] Turner and [Eugene] Genovese, slavery is viewed as the economic foundation of an entire social system and the distribution of slaves is compared to analogous factors in a free society.” [Ibid., p. 111]

Here’s what North and South Magazine came up with, in order of secession: South Carolina, 46%; Mississippi, 49%; Florida, 34%; Alabama, 35%; Georgia, 37%; Louisiana, 29%; Texas, 28%; Virginia, 26%; Arkansas, 20%; North Carolina, 28%; Tennessee, 25%. For slave states that did not secede, in alphabetical order, Delaware, 3%; Kentucky, 23%; Maryland, 12%; and Missouri, 13%. [Albert A. Nofi, “Slaveholding and Secession,” North and South Magazine, Vol. 9, No. 5, October, 2006, p. 9] We learn in this article, “Taken together, in the states of the ‘Lower South’ (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas–those that seceded between December 20, 1860 and February 1, 1861), an average of 36.7 percent of the white families owned slaves. In the ‘Middle South’ (Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee–those that seceded in the spring of 1861, following Fort Sumter), the proportion was around 25.3 percent.” [Ibid.] As to the slave states that did not secede, “In the Border States (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri–the slave states that did not secede), the percentage of slaveowning families was 15.9 percent.” [Ibid., p. 10]

The analogous factors Professor Olsen came up with are investor and employer. “A comparison with the recent past seems particularly appropriate to testing those conceptions, and dates have been selected arbitrarily to coincide with convenient statistical information. Two criteria that seem unusually appropriate for testing are those of investor and employer, with comparisons made between the percentage of slaveholders in 1860 and the percentage of investors and employers in modern free labor society. In the first instance, taking for the year 1949 the very modest estimate of $5,000 as an investment comparable to the investment in one slave in 1860, we discover that in 1949 only 2 per cent of the spending units (families) in the United States held stock worth $5,000 or more. If one is concerned with estimating the extent of a direct personal interest in the profits of a particular labor system it would then seem appropriate to compare this figure of 2 per cent with the 31 per cent of the white families in the Confederacy who owned slaves. We are excluding, of course, the entire southern black population and the entire question of general welfare, but what we are interested in is the comparative extent to which southern whites directly invested in slavery. In this respect the proportion of whites who invested in and profited from slavery far exceeds the proportion of the total population investing in our own free labor system. When we compare the opportunity afforded white citizens of the slave South to achieve an employer status with the same opportunity afforded citizens in the twentieth century United States the results are similar. Thus, in 1940, the total number of employers in the nation was less than 10 per cent of the number of households. For a proper comparison with slaveholding this figure should be reduced, since it includes duplication as well as all business, agricultural, and professional employers. But even the figure of 10 per cent hardly equals the 31 per cent of white families holding slaves in the Confederate South who may be classed as employers. Again, there appears to be less need to wonder at southern white support for slavery than most historians have assumed.” [Olsen, op. cit., pp. 112-113]

So as we see, 30+ percent of the families owning slaves is actually a very sizable portion, much more so than one would think based on the number itself. “The significance or influence of the large slaveholding minority of the antebellum South was additionally enhanced by a wide variety of factors that usually and mistakenly have been identified only with the planter elite. for example. slave owners were, on the whole, the more successful and influential members of the white population, and in addition their interests were championed by many nonslaveholders who were directly or indirectly involved with the benefits of the slave economy. The geographical concentration of slavery also increased its political power in key regions within the various states while that power was sometimes further strengthened by slave or property representation at the state level. What is being suggested is that while particular advantages did exist for the slaveholding minority within the South, these advantages were being exploited by a remarkably large proportion of the total white population; and the large size of this minority was crucial to the strength of racism, slavery, and the Confederacy.” [Ibid. p. 114]

In considering the extent of slavery’s influence in a state, we should also take into account the percentage of that slave’s population that was enslaved.

Let’s add that data to the percentage of slaveowning families in these states:

As we can see, the extent of slavery’s influence is massive. If you’re a white person in South Carolina, for example, who wants to maintain white supremacy, how can you do so when over 57% of your population is enslaved? Also, the southern editor James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow, editor of DeBow’s Review, a highly influential publication, discussed the influence of slavery in southern society here:

“Assuming the published returns, however, to be correct, it will appear that one half of the population of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, excluding the cities, are slaveholders, and that one third of the population of the entire South are similarly circumstanced. The average number of slaves is nine to each slaveholding family, and one half of the whole number of such holders are in possession of less than five slaves. It will thus appear that the slaveholders of the South, so far from constituting, numerically, an insignificant portion of its people, as has been malignantly alleged, make up an aggregate greater in relative proportion than the holders of any other species of property whatever, in any part of the world; and that of no other property can it be said, with equal truthfulness, that it is an interest of the whole community. While every other family in the States I have specially referred to are slaveholders, but one family in every three and a half families in Maine, New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, are holders of agricultural land; and in European states the proportion is almost indefinitely less. The proportion which the slaveholders of the South bear to the entire population is greater than that of the owners of land or houses, agricultural stock, State, bank, or other corporation securities anywhere else. No political economist will deny this. Nor is that all. Even in the States which are among the largest slaveholding, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, the land proprietors outnumber nearly two to one, in relative proportion, the owners of the same property in Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut; and if the average number of slaves held by each family throughout the South be but nine, and if one half of the whole number of slaveholders own under five slaves, it will be seen how preposterous is the allegation of our enemies, that the slaveholding class is an organized wealthy aristocracy. The poor men of the South are the holders of one to five slaves, and it would be equally consistent with truth and justice to say that they represent, in reality, its slaveholding interest. The fact being conceded, that there is a very large class of persons in the slaveholding States who have no direct ownership in slaves, it may be well asked, upon what principle a greater antagonism can be presumed between them and their fellow-citizens, than exists among the larger class of non-landholders in the free States and the landed interests there? If a conflict of interest exists in one instance, it does in the other; and if patriotism and public spirit are to be measured upon so low a standard, the social fabric at the North is in far greater danger of dissolution than it is here.”

In that same document, DeBow also discusses why nonslaveholders should support the interests of slaveholders. For those who suggest someone who didn’t own slaves would not be willing to fight for slavery, DeBow would be enlightening reading.

In his conclusion, Professor Olsen tells us, “The fact is that the enslavement of black people did provide extensive economic opportunities for whites, and viewed from its own racist context, slavery appears a good bit less oligarchical in several significant economic respects than twentieth century free labor capitalism. The ownership of slaves was spread among a remarkably broad proportion of the white population, and the extent of this white investment was central to southern white unity before, during, and after the Civil War.” [Olsen, op. cit., p. 116]


  1. Jason Perez · · Reply

    Wow Al, first Anthony johnson now this? Your really hitting em where it hurts.

  2. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    You know the neo-confederates will ignore this long article of yours, Al. You used facts and figures from primary sources. That’s anathema to them. Anything from the past that proves them wrong is ignored, covered up, and obfuscated so that their beliefs are presented in the best possible light. The fact that the neo-confederates are lying is just a temporary thing for them as they strive to return to the past that never happened.

    1. Many will, Jimmy, but there are some who are just uneducated on the facts and willing to learn.

  3. Jonathan · · Reply

    The CT has an op-ed piece that you should (or maybe shouldn’t) read. If for nothing else the comments ( ). Just prepare yourself, you’ll be entering a fact-free zone…

    How some people can bend themselves in knots to avoid historical facts is beyond me.
    Keep it up Al!

    1. Thanks. Anytime neoconfederates start commenting, we can count on fake history showing up.

  4. Like Mr. Perez said, you are 2-for-2. Thanks for the Olson citation—that looks like a useful article.

    1. Jim, it was also reprinted in a 2004 issue.

  5. Hmm, your asking readers to acept that the number of individual slave owners, 6% of so of the CS States, in reality was 30% or so, because you have divided individual slave owners, by family units, of 5 to 6 individuals, in the state to find a % of slave owning families. this requires every individual who owns a slave not to be in the same family unit, but exist as family unit of 1, a slave owner.

    By doing that, you make it impossible for a family to have more than one member who owns a slave. It creates a new sub set that is not to be found in the census, the idea that every individual slave owner is a family unit for the purposes of counting slave ownership.

    What you need to show is how many family units the individual slave owners are present in, not treat them as a family unitn of 1 slave owner.

    1. No. Completely wrong.

      No one is saying the number of slave owners was over 30%. The number of people with a direct interest in slavery due to a household connection with it was over 30%.

      There was only one slave owner in a household, and that was the head of the household. The Census returns show this. There may have been some statistically insignificant cases where more than one slave owner lived in a household, but those instances were so rare they can be discounted.

      What this statistic does is begin to show how entrenched slavery was in southern society. Those who count only the slave owner present a phony view of slavery. It assumes that a slave owner’s sons, who stood to inherit slaves on their parent’s death, the same way Robert E. Lee inherited slaves on his mother’s death, had no interest in perpetuating slavery. One can easily see how absurd that is.

  6. Thanks for this. Another way I see it is that saying the Civil War wasn’t about slavery because only a few southerners owned slaves (and therefore not part of the slave economy) is like saying only shareholders are involved in capitalism.

  7. Matt Mills · · Reply

    Great and enlightening article, thank you for putting it together. I have a curiosity that I can’t seem to find… I’m wondering what the distribution of slave ownership was in slave states — as in, X% had large plantations with 20+ slaves, X% had 10-19 slaves, X% 5-9, etc. Does anybody have this information?

    1. That information is available in the 1860 US Census.

  8. I cited you on the Wikipedia talk page for Slavery during the American Civil War: Thank you.

  9. […] Mackey is an educator, a retired U. S. Air Force officer and a former human resources manager with a global company.  He has become an expert on the U.S. Civil War and writes a blog called “Student of the American Civil War.”   […]

  10. Do you think you could compute the % of the total population that were in free white slave-holding families? So there are basically three mutually exclusive categories with the same denominator: 1) slaves, 2) slaveholders (directly or indirectly via family), and 3) non-slaveholders.

    1. To do that one would have to go through the raw Census data line-by-line tallying the number of people in each household.

    2. chancery · · Reply

      The computation would require a fair amount of nuanced analysis to be useful, because your third category of “non-slaveholders” includes many people who (together with their families) had a significant economic stake in the continuation of the South’s slave system. A sizable number –albeit one that is apparently difficult to measure precisely– of “non-slaveholders,” rented enslaved persons by the year, the month, or by the day. Southern bankers financed slave mortgages and other secured transactions; lawyers received fees for drawing up the papers for the transactions; barge-owners were paid for transporting enslaved persons; the list goes on and on.

      1. I agree, but this post concentrated only on slave ownership. It doesn’t include those who rented slaves, it doesn’t include those who had been slave owners and had temporarily for whatever reason no longer owned slaves at the time of the Census, it doesn’t include those who would acquire slaves after the Census, it doesn’t include those whose livelihoods depended on their support of the slave system such as slave patrols and the like in addition to what you identified, and it doesn’t include those who wished to gain slaves at some future point.

  11. chancery · · Reply

    Al, I’ve been puzzling over one sentence in this extremely useful post: “If you’re a white person in South Carolina, for example, who wants to maintain white supremacy, how can you do so when over 57% of your population is enslaved?” Is it possible that a phrase was dropped during editing. Or maybe I’m just being dense, in which case I’d appreciate it if you would paraphrase or elaborate on the point you’re making here.

    1. It’s a rhetorical question. If you were a white person in South Carolina in 1860 and you wished to maintain white supremacy, how can you do it if the 57% of the population were suddenly freed? The obvious answer, whether you were a slave owner or not, is to keep them enslaved.

      1. chancery · · Reply

        Thanks, that clarifies it.

  12. chancery · · Reply

    Sorry, the hierarchical formatting didn’t work the way I expected, so I should clarify that my comment was not addressed to you but was a reply to Kevin’s suggestion that it would be useful to compute a figure for “non-slave owning” families that was “mutually exclusive” of slave-owning families. My point was only (and I know that you’re very familiar with these issues) that it would take a great deal of qualification and analysis before one could with any confidence identify a group of southern whites who did not have an economic stake in the slave system. And then of course there’s the mudsill and other arguments for non-economic stakes . . .

    1. No problem. We’re in agreement.

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