Even today, roughly 150 years since its demise as a legal institution, American slavery remains a focus of controversy, albeit of a rather different character than that which preceded its extinction. In the mid-1800s Southern planters passionately defended the morality of their “peculiar institution” against equally impassioned denunciations by (mostly Northern) abolitionists. Planters insisted that the system of slave labor was good and right not only for themselves and their communities but also for the slaves. The abolitionists, however, long ago won the day both on the field of battle and on the field of public discourse, and few if any will take up the challenge of a moral defense of slavery today. That particular controversy, which for so long troubled the American conscience, is over.

The controversies that swirl around slavery today are of a more historical and technical nature. Why did the slave system of labor, for example, embed itself so deeply in the American South while gradually disappearing in virtually every other New World colony? Was American slavery comparatively humane, at least relative to other New World systems of slavery? Did American slaves live in materially worse conditions than free industrial workers in the North? Did slaves benefit substantially from the value that they produced? Was the American slave-labor system inefficient in comparison with “free” agricultural labor? Was American slavery moribund by the eve of the Civil War, or was it dynamic and expanding? In short, setting aside the issue of its morality, was slavery at least economically rational?

Much of the controversy that has surrounded these questions—and the consequent impulse to reexamine the evidence relating to them—was instigated by the publication of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery in 1974. In this groundbreaking text, the authors attacked the two contending approaches that had dominated scholarship on American slavery up to that period. The first approach was exemplified by the well-known American historian Ulrich B. Phillips, particularly in his classic American Negro Slavery (1918). Phillips’s study focused almost exclusively on white slaveowners and their organization and management of the slave system of labor. Regarding the slaves themselves, he infamously remarked that whites helped the slaves to become as good as they were. Phillips’s approach can be summarized as a view of slavery through the owners’ eyes, and his work falls into a category that is sometimes called the literature of slave domination. No doubt this approach was not merely ideologically satisfactory from the perspective of white Southerners but also convenient from the perspective of historians, as slaveowners left a much wider array of artifacts and records from which a picture of a time and place could be reconstructed than did illiterate slaves with few possessions. Working from such material does seem likely, however, to produce a very one-sided account of the American experience of slavery.

The alternate approach to which Fogel and Engerman equally responded was, in a sense, the mirror opposite of the first approach. It could be called the literature of slave victimization, and it is probably best represented in Stanley M. Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959). Instead of seeing slavery through the owners’ eyes, this approach attempted to reconstruct something of the slaves’ own experience of slavery. Elkins noted that, in contrast to Brazil and the Caribbean Islands, the American South experienced no large and sustained slave revolts, and he tried to explain this absence by arguing that the American slave-labor system in the South, especially the Deep South, was, from the slave’s perspective, harsher than the comparable systems in the Caribbean and in South America. Elkins argued that Southern slavery was similar to Nazi concentration camps in the sense of constituting a “total experience” that utterly isolated the individual slave, cutting off all meaningful social relations except with the paternal figure of the owner as “the good father.” The individual slave was thus rendered psychologically defenseless and then systematically transformed into what Elkins termed a “Sambo”—a docile and childlike creature who identified with the very master who was the source of his emasculation. In a way, Elkins’s topic and the enormous literature that it spawned re-created the same picture of “the slave as the object of the Master’s will” that lay at the heart of Phillips’s topic but now revealed from a different perspective.

Fogel and Engerman responded to the literatures of domination and victimization by stressing two main themes. On the one hand, their analysis emphasized the resilience of African Americans trapped within the slave system and the spaces of autonomy and distinctive culture they were able to carve out and preserve for themselves within the system. On the other hand, they argued that slavery itself was not based simply on irrational or archaic domination or victimization but rather on an economically rational and highly effective system of (exploitative) production. They employed new econometric techniques to engineer a careful reassessment of the extensive raw statistical data on slavery, and they argued that their analysis revealed that, contrary to received wisdom, the American slave was not lazy but worked as hard as the white laborer. Although critics of slavery argued that the system was inefficient, the authors found that slave agriculture was actually 35 percent more efficient than free agriculture. Moreover, the purchase of a slave was a highly rational investment, just the same as an investment in a manufacturing company. Further, the authors noted, slavery continued as an economically viable and even expanding system up to the Civil War. Finally and perhaps most problematically, Fogel and Engerman argued that the costs of owning a slave amounted to 90 percent of the profit derived from his or her labor.

Many historians and economists have disputed Fogel and Engerman’s analysis and conclusions, but some have come to their defense, and Fogel and Engerman themselves have, in the intervening years, published several topics of essays and evidence supporting their initial claims. The result has been a large and diverse literature. What this literature reveals broadly, without retracing the specific lines of argument, is that although there is a good deal of general evidence supporting most of Fogel and Engerman’s analysis, especially their more strictly economic conclusions, there are also enormous regional and historical disparities underlying the American experience of slavery, which are masked by an aggregate quantitative focus. Statistical analysis needs to be balanced with historical, regional, and microlevel examination if it is to be illuminating. Although microlevel analyses of individual plantations are somewhat beyond the parameters of this short interpretive essay, a brief historical overview sensitive to regional divergences and the evolution of slavery over time should help to contextualize Fogel and Engerman’s findings.

Historical Overview

American slavery was a system of labor based on ownership of persons rather than on consent and contract. It applied almost exclusively to blacks (mainly Africans or people of African extraction). It ended formally in 1865 with the Northern victory in the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The more difficult and controversial question is when slavery effectively began as a general system of labor in the British colonies that would eventually become the United States. Slavery was, of course, permitted virtually everywhere in the colonies during most of the seventeenth century, and it was formally legal throughout the colonies by 1750 (when Georgia overturned its short-lived antislavery statutes of 1733). But until the Anglo-Dutch War (1664-1667), the slave trade was dominated by the Portuguese and the Dutch, and there was little commerce with the American colonies. Records show that one Dutch captain sold 20 slaves in Virginia in 1619, but this transaction seems to have been rather exceptional. Although the historical records are unclear about the numbers of black slaves in the early colonies, the scholarly consensus is that although they were not unknown, they were a rarity. In general, the colonists showed a marked preference for importing indentured servants from Europe to fill their growing demands for labor. African slaves were considered too expensive, too difficult to acclimatize and train, and too time-consuming to supervise in comparison with European servants. The American colonists did experiment with using native Indians as slaves (for example, the government of South Carolina in 1708 estimated the colony had 1,400 Indian slaves in a total population of 12,580), but they were frustrated by cultural barriers (the men frequently refused to perform agricultural tasks they regarded as women’s work), the proximity of escape, and the vulnerability of natives to European diseases. The initial experiment with slavery was a failure.

In the latter part of the seventeenth century, however, the economic incentives concerning the importation of labor began to change. This shift in incentives had three main causes. First, there was an enormous increase in the demand for labor. In the Virginia colony, for example, the highly labor-intensive tobacco agriculture took off economically while at the same time the overall population of the colony and of those attempting tobacco cultivation tripled in the years from 1750 to 1800. The demand for labor correspondingly increased. Second, political stabilization and economic growth in Europe and particularly the United Kingdom led to a sharp reduction in the availability of indentured servants as well as a sharp rise in the cost of importing them. Third, the successful English war against the Dutch and the consequent British takeover of the Dutch slave trade led to a sharp reduction in the price and an increase in the availability of African slaves to American colonists. Historian Russel Menard, for example, has calculated that the comparative price of African slaves to indentured servants fell between 1674 and 1791 from a ratio of 2.88 to 1 to 1.83 to 1. When the permanence of slave labor (and the slaves’ progeny) is factored into these comparative costs, it is easy to see why the colonists began to rationally opt for slave labor over the importation of indentured servants.

The result of this combination of a new structure of incentives and the new accessibility of the African slaves was the development of a triangular system of trade. Ships would typically depart from ports such as Liverpool and Boston loaded with weapons, manufactured goods, and rum and sail for the coast of northwest Africa, where they would trade these goods with coastal forts, sometimes called factories, and local tribes in exchange for slaves. The ships would then sail for the New World laden with a human cargo that would later be sold in South America (most notoriously in Brazil), in the Caribbean Islands (for instance, Saint Domingue [later Haiti], Jamaica, Cuba, or Bermuda), or in the American colonies. Historian Philip Curtin estimated in 1969 that, despite the expiration of between 5 and 20 percent of the human cargo (mainly in the infamous “middle passage” portion of the journey), around 9.5 million Africans were transported as slaves to the New World. Current estimates range as high as 11 million. Around 85 percent of the slaves transported to the New World were sold in Brazil and many more in the Caribbean Islands (Jamaica, for example, is estimated to have imported 750,000 slaves to work on its sugar plantations). Before the banning of the slave trade by Congress in 1808, the American colonies (and later the United States) probably imported somewhere between 600,000 and 650,000 slaves, about 6 percent of the New World total.

It is estimated that by 1680, the American colonies, though still overwhelmingly white, contained around 7,000 African slaves. By 1790, however, the population of African slaves in the colonies had increased almost a hundred times, to close to 700,000. By 1810 the number had risen to 1.1 million, and by 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the population stood at almost 4 million. The rapidly rising number of slaves in the United States begs an important question, which, in turn, illuminates one of the highly distinctive characteristics of American slavery. If only around 650,000 slaves were imported into the States and if the trade was ended in 1808, what accounts for the fast and continuing growth of the slave population? The answer is simply that, unlike virtually every other slave society in the New World (except Bermuda), the American slave population grew naturally through reproduction, and it grew very rapidly—by four times between 1810 and 1860 alone. The remarkable character of this feature of American slavery can be illustrated by briefly comparing the demographics of slavery in America and in Jamaica. Of the 750,000 slaves imported into Jamaica, only 311,000 remained at the time of emancipation in 1834, whereas the smaller population imported into America had already grown well into the millions.

A number of factors have been cited to explain the remarkable fertility of the American slave population, four of which have received the most attention. First, the food self-sufficiency of the American mainland is thought to have allowed slaveowners to provide their slaves with a larger, healthier, and more consistent diet than was practicable for most other New World slave populations. After all, the owners had an important vested interest in the health and strength of their slaves. Second, the absence of tropical diseases has been frequently identified as an important contributor to the high growth rate of the slave population. Third, the fact that slaves in America were largely involved in the cultivation of tobacco, rice, and later cotton rather than sugar (with the exception of a few large plantations in Louisiana) is thought to help explain a comparatively lower mortality rate, which contributed to the rate of overall population growth. Sugar cultivation typically exposed workers to grim and harsh conditions and an exhausting pace of labor, which raised mortality rates and permitted little time for raising families. Finally, it is often pointed out that there was a self-reenforcing quality to the natural growth of a slave population. In short, although the initially imported populations tended to be, for obvious reasons, disproportionately male, reproduction over generations tended to rapidly balance out the gender gap, encouraging further population growth.

Of course, slaveowners also had a vested interest in the numerical increase of their slaves for the simple reason that it augmented their property and personal worth and the amount of labor under their control. It has correspondingly sometimes been argued that owners deliberately bred their slaves (or bred with their slaves) as a sort of investment. Although there can be no doubt that many slaveowners often took advantage of their female property and that at least some of them encouraged shorter lactation periods (often only a year), which encouraged more rapidly renewed fertility, there is little evidence that these behaviors were carried out systematically in a manner that would explain the pervasive phenomenon of natural population growth. Moreover, many of the same behaviors were recorded in other slave societies, in which the population shrank precipitously.

At any rate, regardless of the precise explanation (and it is likely, in fact, some combination of all the factors mentioned here), the phenomenon of rapid natural population growth is a distinctive and unambiguously established feature of American slavery, which tends broadly to support Fogel and Engerman’s thesis that American slaves enjoyed a significantly better material condition than slaves elsewhere in the New World. Two further important and distinctive features of American slavery may be noted at this point. First, most owners tended to run or at least to personally oversee their own business affairs (as compared to the phenomenon of absentee ownership that characterized the bulk of New World slavery). Second, African slaves were always dispersed in America among a large white population. Even in the South, slaves never accounted for much more than a third of the total population, whereas in much of the Caribbean, they ended up outnumbering whites by ratios as high as 10 to 1. Still, although these statistical generalities are useful in establishing a framework for exploring American slavery, they also conceal a great deal of the very real diversity that developed on the ground. To understand that diversity, it is essential to distinguish the growth of different regional concentrations of slave labor organized around the cultivation of different crops.

As Table 1 illustrates, the slave population was by no means evenly spread through the colonies, and indeed, following the War of Independence, African American slavery quickly became a wholly Southern phenomenon. In 1790 the Northern states contained just over 40,000 slaves (mainly concentrated in New York State and Rhode Island) out of a broader population of 697,897, accounting in total for just under 6 percent of the American slave population as a whole. By 1860, however, slavery had been effectively eliminated in the North, whereas the total slave population, now entirely in the South, continued to rise to close to 4 million.

Table 1 Slave population and distribution, 1790 and I860




United States


697,897 (17.8%)*

3,953,760 (12.6%)


40,370 (2.1%)

64t (0.0%)

Regional share




657,527 (33.5%)

3,953,696 (32.1%)

Regional share



Upper South

521,169 (32.0%)

1,530,229 (22.1%)

Regional share



Deep South

136,358 (41.1%)

2,423,467 (44.8%)

Regional share



Upper South by state




8,887 (15.0%)

1,798 (1.6%)


l03,036 (32.2%)

87,189 (l2.7%)

District of Columbia


3,185 (4.2%)


293,427 (39.2%)

490,865 (30.7%)

North Carolina

l00,572 (25.5%)

33l,059 (33.4%)


11,830 (16.2%)

225,483 (l9.5%)



ll4,93l (9.7%)


3,417 (9.5%)

275,7l9 (24.8%)

Deep South by state



South Carolina

l07,094 (43.0%)

402,406 (57.2%)



462,l98 (43.7%)



6l,745 (44.0%)



lll,ll5 (25.5%)



435,080 (45.l%)


16,544 (51.6%)+

33l,726 (46.9%)



436,63l (55.2%)



l82,566 (30.2%)

* Parenthetical numbers represent percentage of local population.

t Includes 18 lifetime apprentices in New Jersey.

+ In 1785; not included in regional or nation totals.

Even within the South, however, slaves were not evenly distributed. In 1790 a little under half of the slave population (293,427) was concentrated in Virginia (accounting for close to 40 percent of the state’s total population), with Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina accounting for most of the other half. By 1860 slavery had expanded geographically along with the South. Although Virginia and North Carolina continued to lead the states of the Upper South and South Carolina and Georgia continued to be among the leading states of the Deep South (with well over half of South Carolina’s population being made up by slaves), Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana had also emerged as major slave states, and, equally important, the institution had infiltrated every Southern state.

The distribution of slaves throughout the United States and its change over time reflected basic economic realities on the ground. In the preindependence period, the colonies could be usefully divided into three basic groups: the North, the Upper South, and the Deep South. The primary early demand for slaves was concentrated in Virginia, Maryland, and the upper part of North Carolina and was mostly driven by the development of commercial tobacco farming, which grew rapidly through the latter part of the seventeenth century (increasing from exports of 20,000 pounds in 1619 to 38 million pounds in 1700). Toward the end of the century, South Carolina and later Georgia emerged as a second major source of demand for slaves as the commercial farming of rice developed in the low country (growing from exports of 12,000 pounds in 1698 to 18 million pounds in 1730 and 83 million pounds in 1770).

Finally, at the turn of the century and into the antebellum period, technological advances (such as the harnessing of steam power and the invention of the cotton gin in 1793) resulted in a sharply rising demand, particularly in England, for cotton, a crop for which the conditions of the Deep South were particularly well suited. Although America exported only 3,000 bales of cotton in 1790, total exports rose to 178,000 bales by 1810 and surpassed 4 million bales by 1860. The cultivation of cotton initially was restricted to South Carolina and Georgia but quickly expanded into newly settled states, such as Arkansas, Florida, Texas, and, most prominently, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana (which together grew more than half of the nation’s cotton by 1834). The highly labor-intensive character of cotton cultivation generated an insatiable demand for labor. The steep growth of the cotton industry and its rapid expansion westward through the Deep South correspondingly help to account for both for the spread of slavery throughout the states of the South, especially the Deep South, and the remarkable increase in the numbers of slaves working in these states.

The distinctive character of the intensive slavery that emerged with the opening of the Deep Southwest suggests a final subdistinction that is useful to keep in mind. The Deep Southeast continued to mix limited cotton cultivation with traditional rice (and indigo) cultivation, whereas the Deep Southwest concentrated on intensive cotton cultivation. The resulting demand for labor in the Deep Southwest generated high prices for slaves and resulted in enormous sales of slaves “down the river”—farther into the West and deeper into the South. Although statistics are not precise, scholars estimate that over a million slaves were sent westward between 1790 and 1860—perhaps up to twice as many as made the transatlantic passage.

The danger of being sold down the river into the “new” South represented a genuine horror for slaves, not only because of the trauma of adjusting to unknown owners and the separation from family that was often implied (usually permanently) but also because of the rumors they heard of a harsher and more brutal slavery awaiting them in the West. The rumors were not wrong. It was generally better to be a slave in the Southeast than in the Southwest (although rice cultivation in the Southeast was probably worse than tobacco cultivation in the Upper South or the kind of slavery that had developed in the North). This state of affairs evolved for sound economic reasons. With the dearth of labor in the West and the enormous profits to be made on cotton exports, planters worked the slaves that they could get as hard as they could. In short, there were undoubtedly important differences in the character of slavery in the regions that have been distinguished in this essay, and these differences of character changed over time.

In broad terms, the situation of slaves worsened from North to South and from East to West. In the North, where commercial cultivation of cash crops was never the focus of the economy, slavery remained relatively marginal (although the slave population rose by 1790, just before slavery was legally prohibited, to around 20 percent of the total population in some regions of states such as New York and Rhode Island). Slaves were used in domestic service, in skilled crafts, and as day labor. Some slaves were also used in larger commercial projects—they cultivated wheat along the banks of the Hudson River or raised horses and dairy cows in Rhode Island—but there is little evidence in these cases of an extensive use of the harsh discipline and cruel punishments employed throughout the South. Slaveholdings were typically small, rarely exceeding five, and slaves worked with or under their owners and usually enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy in arranging their lives outside the workplace— choosing a spouse and raising a family. The conditions of work were generally good by comparison with those in the South, and the proportion of free blacks was comparatively high and rose continually through the postindependence period (already reaching over 40 percent of the total Northern black population by 1790).

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, the obvious implications of the War of Independence, fought in the name of a right of all men to “liberty,” had a deep impact on Northern views of slavery. Although the founding fathers (many of them among the largest slaveholders of their time) compromised with powerful slaveowner interests in drafting the Constitution and so declined to constitutionally abolish slavery, they did indicate an intention to banish the slave trade in 20 years’ time (a number of slave states in the meantime acted on their own to do this, including Virginia in 1778). The War of Independence produced a reorientation of attitude in the North, which led to laws outlawing slavery in all Northern states by 1804 (although some of these included gradualist features).

In the Upper South, as Table 2 indicates, slaves typically lived in larger holdings than in the North but distinctly smaller holdings than in the Deep South (around half as large), especially once Louisiana (purchased in 1803), with its large sugar plantations, is factored in. The smaller size of holdings reflects the fact that tobacco, the predominant cash crop in the Upper South, could be cultivated successfully in small or medium-sized plots. In general, tobacco farming was less labor-intensive than rice or cotton cultivation, and it did not expose laborers to the health risks associated with working in rice fields in the midsummer. Most of these slaves worked in small groups either directly or indirectly under the supervision of their owners and thus were less often and less thoroughly subject to professional overseers and drivers. The smaller scale of production did not demand the rigid systems of rules characteristic of large plantations and the harsh punishments associated with those rules. Moreover, in the second half of the eighteenth century, land exhaustion led to a tobacco crisis, and many planters turned all or part of their fields toward the cultivation of other, even less labor-intensive crops, such as wheat. On average, the food and habitation provided for slaves were simple but adequate and certainly better than the crowded collective dwellings and more regimented life further south and west. Finally, as the overall slave population shifted from transported Africans to native-born slaves, with slaves thus becoming more fully socialized into the life of the Upper South and gaining the confidence of their owners, slaves were frequently allowed a good deal of independence in organizing their personal affairs.

Table 2 Median holdings of slaves in the South by state








South Carolina
























North Carolina
































Total Deep South




Total Upper South




Total South




Finally, Elkins in particular makes a convincing case that slavery in the Deep South, both in the East and especially in the West, was particularly harsh, although the further claim that it was worse than the forms of slavery that developed in South America and the Caribbean remains problematic. It is difficult to systematically quantify these differences, but extensive anecdotal evidence suggests that demands on slaves were greater, life was more rigidly and intrusively organized, and punishments were more severe and more frequently employed in the large slaveholdings of the Deep South. In general, the intensity of economic exploitation of the slave-labor systems seems to have been comparatively higher, especially in the early period of western expansion.

As slavery in the South became increasingly isolated through the later antebellum period, however, the most harsh and brutal features of the system were moderated or at least de-emphasized, and the distinctive characteristics of American slavery began to coalesce into the “peculiar institution” that the South defended in the Civil War. To begin with, Southerners found themselves increasingly alone. In 1750 slavery extended throughout the American colonies and indeed through virtually all of the New World. By 1850, however, the North had done away with slavery, and in the Western Hemisphere, only Brazil and the Spanish islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico retained it. At the same time, a strong abolition movement developed both in the North and, to a much more limited extent, in the South (mostly among Quakers). Finally, two great religious revivals that swept across the South instigated growing concern with the spiritual condition and humane treatment of the slave population. Both the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s and a second wave of religious revivalism that ran through the South in the 1770s and 1780s emphasized the “equality of all souls before God” and thus led, by the turn of the century, to an increasingly widespread concern with the moral implications of slavery; in some cases, they even led to direct antislavery agitation in the South itself (particularly among Methodists and Baptists in the Upper South). This last development, however, should not be overexaggerated. Explicit abolitionism never developed into a significant mainstream movement within the South itself. Nonetheless, as a result of the increasing isolation of slavery in the American South, the widespread calls for abolition in the North, and at least the emergence of doubts and concerns about slavery in the South, Southern slaveowners (who never made up a majority of the white population, even in the South) were increasingly called upon to explicitly defend their “peculiar institution.”

These external pressures on slavery were complemented by a number of internal developments, and together, they generated a gradual shift through the antebellum period from an aggressive and nakedly exploitative form of slavery to a more moderate and paternalistic slavery across the South, although important regional disparities in terms of harshness remained. In the first place, the slave population itself was becoming more and more pervasively American-born, particularly following the ban of the slave trade in 1804. As Fogel and Engerman argued, the foreign-born proportion of the black population in America had fallen to around 20 percent by 1800, and it fell off further as imports were banned. American-born slaves did not generally require the same extreme measures to “break their spirits” as many of the adult Africans who had been sold into slavery and transported to America. Their socialization typically occurred more smoothly and gradually while they were growing up, and although a background regime of discipline was certainly deemed necessary, flogging (or whipping) generally proved adequate. Punishment did not need to take the flagrant and brutal forms, such as branding, castration, amputation, and hanging, that were often required to “break in” new slaves or to make examples of those who refused to accept their new status. Finally, the passage of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, may have also contributed to the progressive shift away from the harshest forms of slave discipline.

A second distinctive feature of American slavery also influenced the later antebellum character of slavery in the South. Southern owners were typically resident owners, and even in the larger slaveholdings of the Deep South, as more slaves were born in the States, they increasingly knew and were personally known by their owners. The Southern slaveowners in the late antebellum period continually emphasized their care and concern for their slaves, and it was common to hear a slaveowner describe these slaves as “my people.” Indeed, slaveowners’ professions of “love” for their people filled the literature of the time. Moreover, slavery was increasingly defended as a tutelary situation, which above all benefited the slaves themselves. No doubt, much of this talk of care and concern was hypocritical hyperbole, all of which never stopped most slaveowners from extracting extensive profit from the labor of their property. Yet it is important that many Southern slaveowners made at least superficial efforts to improve the condition of “their people” (although often in a manner designed to reinforce their dependence on their masters), either by improving their habitations, food, clothing, and skills; by rewarding them when they performed noteworthy services; by allowing them greater leisure and more autonomy over their leisure time; or by assigning them greater responsibilities when warranted (often involving the supervision or direction of other slaves).

There is evidence, then, of a general improvement in the material conditions of Southern slaves, particularly in the late antebellum period. In some cases, indeed, their material condition may have compared favorably (particularly in the Upper South) with that of industrial workers in the North, as Fogel and Engerman insisted. Thus, it is ironic that the war to end slavery may have been fought at just the time when slavery was reaching its least onerous stage. The point that must, however, be borne in mind is that slavery remained slavery— a degraded and morally repugnant condition, regardless of any marginal improvements in slaves’ material welfare.

The growing strength of abolitionism in the North along with the decline of the Whig Party opened the way in the 1850s for the emergence of the new Republican Party, with strong antislavery sensibilities. Drawing on the growing concentration of population in the industrialized North, as well as division and disaffection in the South, the Republican Party presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, defeated Stephen Douglas, the (Northern) Democratic candidate, in the 1860 election. Despite Lincoln’s assurances that, to preserve the integrity of the Union, he would refrain from outlawing slavery, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union by the time of his inauguration in March 1861. Then, on April 12,1861, South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. The Civil War, which would ultimately lead to the elimination of American slavery, had begun.


With a basic historical and regional sense of the development of American slavery, it may now be productive to return to some of continuingly controversial questions with which this essay began. Why did the slave system of labor, for example, embed itself so deeply in the American South while gradually disappearing in virtually every other New World colony? The answer must be, as is so often the case, a combination of factors: the continuously high demand for and corresponding scarcity of labor throughout America’s colonial and antebellum history; the emergence and rapid growth of a manageable population of native-born slaves; the commercial success of American slave-based cultivation; and the continuing dispersion of slaves among a majority white population, which militated against any organized, armed resistance. All of these factors contribute to explaining the resilience and longevity of American slavery.

Did American slaves live in materially worse conditions than free industrial workers in the North? Did slaves benefit substantially from the value that they produced? The answer here is that sometimes they benefited, and sometimes they were materially better off, depending on which regions and historical periods of slavery are under consideration and which industrial workers, living where and when, are taken as a basis of comparison. Slaves in the postindependence North or late antebellum South may have done moderately well on some such material comparisons, and this finding may also help to explain why American slavery survived for so long. But even where they did compare favorably, the comparison only reveals a misleadingly tiny aspect of the slaves’ overall condition. Slaves were the explicit and legal property of others, an indefensibly degraded moral condition that has no comparator among Northern industrial workers.

Was American slavery comparatively humane, at least relative to other New World systems of slavery? In general, it probably was, and this was likely another factor contributing to its longevity, although results would likely vary somewhat depending on region and period (if not according to individual owners). Early American slavery in the low lands of Georgia or the sugar plantations of early-nineteenth-century Louisiana may not have been noticeably more humane than slavery in Bermuda, for example. Finally, American slavery ultimately outlasted slavery almost everywhere else in the New World, and it is unlikely that it was more humane than any free system of contract labor.

Was the American slave-labor system inefficient in comparison with “free” agricultural labor? Historians Alfred Conrad and John Meyer reversed much of the received wisdom about low slave-labor productivity and profitability by showing that the rate of return produced by an average male slave on Southern antebellum plantations was typically between 5 and 8 percent of his initial cost annually (falling to 2 to 5 percent in the exhausted lands of the eastern seaboard and rising as high as 10 to 13 percent on the best lands in Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina), with a slightly lower rate for female slaves. They further argued that these numbers compare favorably, on average, with the vast bulk of both agriculture and industrial concerns in the North. This analysis helps to explain the rapid economic growth of the antebellum South. Fogel and Engerman later revisited Conrad and Meyer’s analysis in detail, and in what probably remains the most comprehensive and compelling examination of slave-labor profitability, they determined that Conrad and Meyer had somewhat underestimated the level of profitability for male and especially female slaves. Their revised conclusion was an approximately 10 percent aggregate rate of annual return for both male and female slaves. Again, this rate compared favorably with both successful agricultural and industrial concerns in the North. Although Fogel and Engerman’s conclusions are still disputed by many scholars and may legitimately be accused of slanting far more to the antebellum than the colonial period, a consensus seems to be emerging that slave cultivation was generally far more profitable than was previously thought and was probably not only a better investment than free Northern agriculture but also likely comparable with some more successful industrial investments.

Was American slavery moribund by the eve of the Civil War, or was it dynamic and expanding? Between the War of Independence and the Civil War, nine new states adopted the system of slave labor, and vast new territories came under its control. Slavery virtually monopolized the cultivation of America’s biggest and most valuable export, cotton. In 1854 Congress’s Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up Northern states, which had been closed to slavery by the Northwest Ordinance. Meanwhile, the Southern economy was growing much faster than the economies of England, France, or Brazil throughout the late antebellum period. There can be little question, then, that slavery was not only healthy in America in the 1850s but also rapidly growing. Indeed, it was the threat posed by the rapid expansion of slavery that galvanized the North to take the drastic action of electing a Republican president. Lincoln himself argued, in a speech in Springfield, Illinois, on June 16, 1858, that the United States had to quickly confront the slavery question once and for all, or all would ultimately succumb to its temptations—the Union had to be “all slave or all free,” for “a house divided cannot stand.”

Finally, setting aside the issue of its morality, was slavery at least economically rational? Unquestionably, it was. Slavery was stable and highly profitable and could, at times at least, be arguably beneficial in a material sense to those subjected to it (in comparison to comparable free labor). The market could coexist as easily with a slave-labor system as it could with a contract-labor system in the North. The choice to invest in slavery, to practice slavery, and to legalize and defend slavery was fully rational in economic terms.

The moral of this long story, then, is simply this: The American experience with slavery illustrates that the market is morally neutral—it can reward and encourage morally abhorrent institutions as easily as morally laudable ones. The market itself is in no sense a dependable moral guide. Attention must be paid to the way that culture, politics, and law shape the dynamics of the market, and the consequences of market interactions must be carefully examined to avoid such disasters in the future.

Next post:

Previous post: