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The Economics of Slavery Previous Next
Digital History ID 462


During the years before the Civil War many northerners charged that slavery was incompatible with rapid economic growth. Despite clear evidence that slavery was profitable for individual planters, a growing number of people felt that slavery was inherently wasteful and inefficient, that it degraded labor, inhibited urbanization and mechanization, thwarted industrialization, and stifled progress. They associated slavery with economic backwardness, soil exhaustion, low labor productivity, indebtedness, and economic and social stagnation. Philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said that "slavery is no scholar, no does not increase the white population; it does not improve the soil; everything goes to decay."

Like other slave societies, the South did not produce urban centers on a scale equal with those in the North. Virginia's largest city, Richmond, had a population of just 15,274 in 1850. That same year, Wilmington, North Carolina's largest city, had just 7,264 inhabitants. Southern cities were small because they failed to develop diversified economies. Unlike the cities of the North, southern cities rarely became centers of commerce, finance, or processing and manufacturing and Southern ports rarely engaged in international trade.

By northern standards, the South's transportation network was primitive. Traveling the 1,460 miles from Baltimore to New Orleans in 1850 meant riding five different railroads, two stage coaches, and two steamboats. Its educational system also lagged far behind the North's. In 1850, 20 percent of adult white southerners could not read or write, compared to a national figure of 8 percent.

Does this mean that slavery was a declining institution? Was it doomed to extinction, even in the absence of Civil War? The answer appears to be "no." In 1860, the South was more prosperous than any European nation except England, and had a higher per capita income than Italy on the eve of World War II.

Slave labor was efficient, productive, and adaptable to a variety of of occupations, ranging from agriculture and mining to factory work. Slavery was the basis of the nation's most profitable industry. During the decades before the Civil War, slave grown cotton accounted for over half the value of all United States exports, and provided virtually all the cotton used in the northern textile industry and 70 percent of the cotton used in British mills. Furthermore, a disproportionate share of the richest Americans made their fortunes from slavery. In 1860, two out of every three Americans worth $100,000 or more lived in the South. Slave prices soared during the 1850s, an indication of slaveowners' confidence in the future.

Nevertheless, the South's political leaders had good reason for concern. Within the South, slave ownership was becoming concentrated into a smaller number of hands. The proportion of southern families owning slaves declined from 36 percent in 1830 to 25 percent in 1860. At the same time, slavery was sharply declining in the upper South. Between 1830 and 1860, the proportion of slaves in Missouri's population fell from 18 to 10 percent; in Kentucky, from 24 to 19 percent; in Maryland, from 23 to 13 percent. By the middle of the nineteenth century, slavery was becoming an exception in the New World, confined to Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rice, a number of small Dutch colonies, and the American South. But the most important threat to slavery came from abolitionists, who denounced slavery as

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