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THE ECONOMICS OF SLAVERY

As a nation founded on the ringing words of freedom, the United States was never proud of slavery, even though many of its founding fathers owned slaves. Like a bad habit you mean to give up next year, slavery just kept getting bigger and harder to shake. Opposition to the peculiar institution (as slavery was politely called) grew in the North, which didn't have any slaves. In the South, it was considered too profitable and too vital an institution to be publicly debated.

The cotton trade did not just enrich a few southern planters. It was a money-maker, directly or indirectly, for the North and the South. Northern ships carried Southern cotton to market in Britain and New England. To a large degree, the extra profits of many merchants in all parts of the United States before the Civil War depended on the crushing work of slaves.

Cotton represented half the value of all U.S. exports in the years before the Civil War. The profits of slave labor didn't stop at the border: About one of five jobs in Britain was tied to manufacturing cotton cloth, most of it from raw cotton grown in the American South. Southerners assumed that Britain would have to support them in any break with the North to keep Britain's vital supply of cotton raw materials coming. The South called it King Cotton (1860).

Fewer than 2,000 families in the South owned more than 100 slaves. Three of four families owned no slaves at all. Because the South was basically a three-crop economy, even large landowners could suffer reversals when their crops did poorly. In fact, some of the strongest supporters of slavery were small Southern farmers who owned no slaves. These small farmers looked down on the black slaves who lived around them and felt a shallow brotherhood with their rich, white neighbors. Poor whites could look forward to the day when they could buy a slave or two. It was a sick application of the American dream of upward mobility.

Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder, said this about slavery: "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of . . . despotism on the one part and degrading submissions on the other. . . . I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever." People often see more than a little moral disconnect between Jefferson's proclamations against slavery and the fact that he kept slaves. Sadly Jefferson — a good president but a poor businessman — couldn't free his slaves in his will. He had mortgaged them to get enough money to live on.

In addition, the South was at the mercy of the North for basic manufactured supplies; even cotton clothing came from New England.

Slavery could be a money-loser. A slave cost as much as $80,000 in modern money. If slave traders missed the market or some of their charges died, they were in trouble fast. Economically as well as morally, the slavery/cotton empire was a bet with the devil. On average, it continued to be profitable right up to the time of the Civil War, but it was a house of cards.

 
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