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November 23, 2017

Profits and Costs of Slavery Up to and After the Civil War


How did the economic developments of the period 1790-1860 influence political stalemate, secession, and war? What were the economic and social costs of this road to abolition?

While other nations – such as Britain and France – managed to put an end to slavery in a way that prevented political discourse, the United States of America found itself in a rather unfortunate situation. Other nations found slavery to be unprofitable, as their economic foundations strayed farther from slavery in favor of industrialized institutions and other forms of trade. Their economies distanced profit margins away from the methods of slavery, and thus the political atmosphere didn’t necessarily witness the removal of said ‘outdated institution’ as controversial.

America, on the other hand, managed to accumulate more access to rich, agricultural land than others did. As the Americans shot their way through the west, more and more space became available for King Cotton to prosper; and wherever King Cotton reigned, slavery was sure to follow. This became a way of life, and the road to abolition would bring incredible changes in sociological and economic values that Americans built themselves upon – before, during, and after the secession of the south and the Civil War that followed. Immediately after the War for Independence, Americans had debates about how exactly the brand-new country should shape itself. As stated in “An Economic Interpretation of the American Revolution”, southern planters desired to continue the push for cultivation that required capital “chiefly in the form of slaves”[1] to continue the growth of wealth.

The most commonly referred to excuse for slavery – witnessed academically as recently as the last half-century and still cited amongst individuals to this day – is that slavery was never profitable to begin with, and that slave-owners were providing living quarters and arrangements out of the ‘moral kindness’ within their hearts. Southern agriculture prior and up to the American Civil War created a “large-scale, commercial dependence”[2] between economic profits and the institution of slavery. Southern agriculture, according to Conrad and Meyer’s “The Economics of Slavery in the Antebellum South”[3], relied upon two critical functions: 1) ‘staple crops’, such as cotton itself, that required extensive slave labour to steadily maintain ahold of the American economy, and 2) the increasingly valued production of a more ‘intermediate good’: that of slavery itself. As the international slave trade grinded to a halt, the American economic system didn’t take the opportunity to evolve past the need for slavery as the system, unlike those within European countries, was already increasingly co-dependent with it.

The profitability of this slave market is witnessed in the secession statements given by many of the southern states that rallied up and followed suit behind South Carolina to create the Confederacy. From the very beginning of the birth of the country up through the Antebellum era, the ‘slavery dependency’ that the south’s economy desperately needed and the north’s economy essentially benefited from made it so that the political atmosphere would remain tense on the topic of abolition. We, when studying the period, witness such brutality between ideologies in Bloody Kansas (during the failed Kansas-Nebraska Act) and the back-and-forth amongst politicians that refuted earlier statements concerning the spread of slavery. Eventually, the road to abolition came to a brick wall with the election of “moderate abolitionist” Abraham Lincoln, and the southern states decided that they had had enough.

Profits of Slavery

Sources: Carter et al., Historical Statistics.

The technology behind cotton production, the efficiency of the market itself, and the relative success that came from the slave-based North American market are all ultimately factors that led to the political stalemate (Missouri Compromise, Kansas-Nebraska Act, etc.) that did nothing more than postpone secession and war.[4] Values of cotton production, the “real price” of the ‘intermediate good’ of working male slaves, and the overall price of cotton bales are all immediately related to one another, as shown on Figure 1 within Olmstead and Rhode’s “Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy”.[5]

The chart, covering the period between 1790 and 1860, shows a relation between a rise in male hands and the overall production of cotton bales; the price of a single bale, on the other hand, roughly remains the same with dips and rises still relating to the ‘staple crops and ‘intermediate good’.

This all ties back into the concept of economic dependency, and thus the ‘way of life’ as southern elitists knew it were at risk.  The war was a failure for the south, and its costs are still noticeable in modern day America today. It is said that the Civil War lost an entire generation of able-bodied men, and the best way of proving it would be a map showing the distribution of population through the sex of those considered ‘of age’ from the Ninth Census, which took place in 1870. The map shows just how devastating the war was, as both the south and New England lost much of their working male population.[6]

With no working ‘of age’ men, all social, economic, and cultural values that Americans had depended upon were forced to go through a period of change. The south took around thirty years before it managed to repair the population-based damage; but by then, the North had already furthered itself to where the rest of the world was. Even today, the social and economic costs of the Civil War have affected southern states can still be witnessed – almost on the same level that it was witnessed after the end of the conflict itself. The primary and secondary sources provided all point to this conclusion: that the profitability of slavery led to a conflict that still sees consequences to this day. Overall, the road to abolition led to the freedom of some and the death of many – on both an economic and a social foundation.

[1] Marc, Egnal, and Ernst Joseph. "An Economic Interpretation of the American Revolution." The William and Mary Quarterly 29: 31.

[2] Alfred Conrad and John Meyer, “The Economics of Slavery in the Antebellum South,” Journal of Political Economy 35 (1958): 95.

[3] Alfred Conrad and John Meyer, “The Economics of Slavery in the Antebellum South,” Journal of Political Economy 35 (1958): 96.

[4] Olmstead, Alan, and Rhode, Paul. " Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy." The Journal of Economic History (2008): 1124-1125.

[5] Olmstead, Alan, and Rhode, Paul. " Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy." The Journal of Economic History (2008): 1126. Sources: Carter et al., Historical Statistics, table Da756 (cotton output); table Bb210 (slave prices); table Cc222 (cotton prices); and table Ccl 13 (deflator)

[6] Walker, Francis A. "Map of Predominating Sex ." Showing the local excess of males or of females in the distribution of population over the territory of the United States east of the 100th Meridian; Compiled from the Statistics of Population at the Ninth Census. Digital image. June 1870. Accessed September 29, 2017.

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