Did slavery in the US make economic sense?

Something I’ve long wondered about slavery: A field hand cost about as much as a nice car does today then needed to be housed, fed, and kept from running away. A sharecropper costs nothing to acquire, houses and feeds himself, and pays YOU for the honor of working your land. How then was slavery a good idea economically?

Good lord yes, dropzone!

A sharecropper gives his landlord (for lack of a better word right now) a share of the crops. The sharecropper can keep and make a profit from the rest. A slave gives you free labor and the slave owner gets to keep all of his crops.

Yeah, but there’s more to it than that.

The sharecropper is economically motivated to raise a crop (he gets to keep part of it). A slave has no stake in the system. To say that this discourages morale and effort doesn’t begin to cover it. Read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, especially where he talks about how inefficient the slave system is (you have to detail guards to stand over the disaffected slaves, and the guards/overseers have to be well-paid and looked after. And they produce nothing)

On top of which sharecroppers aren’t going to be likely to revolt or run away.

I’m not saying there aren’t economic pluses as well as minuses, but slavery had some considerable problems. On top of all that, it had been outlawed in many other parts of the world (including Mexico, which had as much economic impetus as the US to hang onto slavery), and the ill feeling probably affected trade, even though there was still a lot of it. I really do believe that the invention of steam power ultimately did slavery in, although it took a while to do it.

Slavery did make economic sense in the USA. It was and is also unexcusably immoral. Unfortunately, I’ve come across people for whom “economic sense” is identical with “moral”, but they also abhor slavery. Oddly enough, they’re also all liberals. These bizarre individuals scream blue bloody murder that any claims regarding economic viability of slavery are 100% identical with demanding that slavery be re-instituted, since, in their sick, twisted, and vile worldviews, “makes economic sense” is identical to “very moral and we should do it a lot”.

The economics of slavery are not as cut and dried as you might expect. From what I’ve read slavery (from an economic standpoint) was almost certainly doomed to failure sooner or later. Slave labor is inherently less efficient than almost any other type of labor. For a time it certainly made economic sense but time changed and the fiscal motivation for slaves was disappearing.

When you have slave labor you are less likely to invest and improve on your farm. Sooner or later someone will and eventually you reach a point where a farm with paid labor was more profitable than a slave-run farm. Additionally, slaves weren’t cheap and while you didn’t have to pay them anything you did have to pay for their upkeep. Slave labor still wasn’t ‘free’ labor.

Then you have to add the societal cost. The vast majority of the southern US population did not own slaves (something like 25% owned slaves but that’s just a dim memory so don’t crucify me if that is off). However, the other 75% had to bear the costs of a slave economy. Essentially the state had to support the means to operate a slave economy (enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and so on). This was a significant cost to the state and was being supported more by those who didn’t own slaves than those who did. Sooner or later the 75% of the population would agitate to shift the costs away from them and to those who actually benefited from it thus increasing the costs of owning slaves even further.

In the end slavery as an economic model would probably have collapsed. For all that ‘free’ labor seems like a huge advantage it wasn’t all it was cracked-up to be. You could already see this in teh disparity between the average standard of living between the North and the South. I’m not suggesting slavery should have been left to disappear on its own nor am I in any way supporting the notion of slavery. Far from it…that it happened at all is a blight on this country’s history and it couldn’t have been stopped soon enough. All I’m saying is that slavery is not as profitable as it might appear at first glance.

Supporting Whack-A-Mole on this.

Slavery was a really a primitive economic holdover from days of extreme labor shortage. Strangely, lsavery in the tidewater region - the Old South - was really not profitable, and apart from the plantation itself owners rarely produced any real money.

The New South wa sa different story, but even there enough problem croppped up that sooner or later, slavery would have been minimized. The New South was all about small plantations, which tried to intensively farm the land and then move on.

Its also been very strongly suggested that slavery the US would have been a waste of money had corn not been available. It could be grown easily after cotton and didn’t need as much care. Wihtout it, they’d have had to spend much more time and money growing staples, and erase even the profits of the New South. Cotton may have been King, but it never got to be God.

C’est la Vie.

[possible aside]

I have always heard what a bad role model Steppin Fetchit was. Perhaps that is true for free, stake-holding workers but if I were a slave that is exactly how I would act–too stupid and incompetent to be given responsibility or hard work but not quite annoying enough to kill. See Cecil’s remarks on Passive Aggressiveness vs Being a Pain in the Ass a couple months ago.


Looking at it from a purely economic perspective, it’s up to capitalism and the marketplace to determine if slavery is economical or not.

If it was cheaper to not use slave labor then it wouldn’t be profitable for the slave traders to bring slaves to the colonies. It also wouldn’t be profitable for plantation owners to buy slaves, or to feed, clothe and house the slaves they owned.

It very well may be that slavery ultimately was doomed to fail economically. However, slavery must have been economically profitable at least in the short term or no one would have been doing it.

The automobile industry in the US currently may be doomed to failure because of the world running out of fossil fuels. But, cars must still be worth building today because Ford and GM are still in business.

Disclaimer: this post simply looks at the economics of slavery and ignores the obvious moral and ethical issues that make slavery repugnant to the author.

It’s MY thread so I can make the rules!


Yeesh. :smiley:

There is no question that slavery was initially profitable (for the slave owners). When you have a lot of incredibly labor intensive, physical, difficult and possibly dangerous work that almost no one would want to do slave labor makes economic sense. It’d cost too much to hire someone to do the shitty jobs that need doing especially when the farmer down the valley has free, slave labor. Paid labor will be more efficient but if the volume of work is sufficiently high the greater efficiency won’t surpass what you gain with slaves. As a result you slave slave labor used around the world in many societies.

However, as farming methods improve and technology caught-up to farming (e.g. the cotton gin) you could now pay one guy to do the work of ten slave laborers (just making that number up for example) and get your product to market faster and cheaper than the guy who still used slaves.

I think the economic reasons for keeping slavery around were long gone by the time of the Civil War. As I mentioned before the actual costs to support a slave economy were far beyond what the slave owner had to pay directly. The American South was already far behind the North in terms of overall development and general ‘progress’. Slavery at that point stuck around despite the economics not working out so well. You have a certain momentum to deal with. It was what everyone was used to. Additionally powerful plantation owners still benefited from slavery and it is nothing new (then or now) that a very few will do what is in their interests despite what may be best for the population at large. You also have to deal with how a switch would happen. At the very least it will be wrenching and difficult for the local economies to adjust to just turning slaves loose one day. Looking at taking a hit economically if slavery just ‘stopped’ would make most southerners keep pushing for the status quo hoping either a solution they can stomach will turn up or the problem will just go away.

In the end however the writing was on the wall for the south whether they realized it or not. Civil War or no slavery as an institution would have collapsed on itself sooner or later. I think the only real debate is just when that might have happened.

[chilling anecdote]
As part of my job, I was interviewing a man whose family had been Mississippi plantation owners. The man now worked in finance and is quite well off, as his family has been for generations. He showed me an old photo of a HUGE plantation house, explaining “My great great grandfather built this house as a wedding present for his daughter.”
“Wow!” I said. “That’s some present!”
“Well, they had so much money in those days,” he said wistfully. “Because they didn’t have to pay labor…”
[chilling anecdote]

Perhaps the best known and most controversial analysis of the economics of slavery was a two-volume work published in 1974:

Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Boston: Little, Brown, 1974).

The first volume was a narrative story of their discoveries, giving their main conclusions and the arguments that sustained them. The second volume, only really of interest to trained mathematicians, statisticians and economists, listed the raw data and outlined the various statistical methods, regression sequences, etc. that they used to arrive at their conclusions.

Broadly speaking, the authors (one of whom, Fogel, would receive the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994) concuded that slavery was indeed an economically efficient system. The book aroused a storm of controversy, among economists, historians, and the general public.

Many economists agreed with the methodology and supported the conclusions, while others did not. Some historians thought that arguing about the economics of slavery tended to downplay the dehumanizing moral aspects of “the peculiar institution.”

If you want to read a couple of interesting and well-written articles on the issue, may i suggest:

Thomas Haskell, “Were Slaves More Efficient? Some Doubts About Time on the Cross,” New York Review of Books, 19 September 1974, pp.38-42.

Thomas Haskell, “The True and Tragical History of Time on the Cross,” New York Review of Books, 2 October 1975, pp. 33-39.

The book also inspired a bunch of other, larger works, including:

Herbert Gutman, * Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross* (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975)

Gary Walton, ed., “A Symposium on Time on the Cross,” Explorations in Economic History, vol. 12 (Fall 1975).

Paul David et. al., Reckoning With Slavery: Critical Essays in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

I’m sure there have been plenty of new, more up-to-date studies published since then, but the nineteenth century isn’t my period and slavery isn’t my area, and the studies i’ve cited here are the ones i know best.

Damn beat me to it (my alma mater would not be proud). I would like to note that Fogel’s detractors like to think that the Nobel prize committee didn’t give the prize because of its conclusion: that slavery was viable if it were not for political changes and war.

Many definitely did disagree with Fogel & Engerman (F&E) on their book and I’ve found their arguments (admittedly not too many that I’ve read) to be fairly persuasive.

F&E seemed to be too narrowly focused (as I understand the criticism) on the costs of slavery. A prime foundation is the high cost of purchasing a slave (which, IIRC, were about $19,000 each in today’s dollars). The assumption is slavery must have been economically viable to support such high costs. However, they seem to ignore other factors that played into that cost such as the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act and other issues.

Admittedly I am no scholar on this and I am recalling (and severly paraphrasing) what I read awhile ago and may be missing many important points. As near as I could tell no one blasted F&E for being way off base or having some agenda…just missing some details.

It certainly seemed that slavery wasn’t making the South rich…just a (relatively) very few very rich. Only 20-25% of southerners were slave owners. One would assume if they were such an economic boon everyone would try and have at least a few. Great Britain had already seen this and abolished slavery in their colonies in the 1830’s (compensated emancipation…slaves had to work off their ‘debt’ to gain freedom). The South was nowhere near economic parity with the North where there was no slavery. Slavery also depressed local wages so many southerners moved north to find better paying jobs. (And so on)

In the end it didn’t look like slavery was a workable economic model in a rapidly modernizing world.

Did banning the importation of slaves in 1808 cause slave prices to rise?

It’s also worth noting that Fogel’s Nobel Prize (which was shared) was not awarded solely for his work on Time on the Cross, but

This covered all of the other contributions he made to economic history, such as his important work on the significance of the rise of the railroads.

You’re right. I should have put “many” into the second half of my sentence too. In fact, i think it’s fair to say that more disagreed than agreed with the methodology and conclusions.

Haven’t met many liberals, have you? It’s been my experience that, since they equate “makes economic sense” with “is virtuous”, one has to make that caveat when dealing with such people, and given the large number of liberals on SD, better to be safe.

Your username is appropriate, considering the Pavlovian responses you demonstrate whenever there is the chance to make a gratuitous and wholly irrelevant attack on liberals.

The bell’s ringing, Dogface. Time to start slobbering and drooling.

This is not true, since it was the invention of the cotton gin that made raising cotton with slaves economically feasible


There were many reasons that the south was behind, including the simple fact that the English settlers went to the New England states first. However, there is another little known reason

Find Falls River, MA on the map and you will realize why mills were established there. In the south you had to go to western NC and Tennessee to get to the fall line. Industry was just getting started in the south when the civil war broke out.

Another reason was the climate. It really wasn’t until air conditioning came along that industry moved to the south.

One reason that slavery caught on was that the government was trying to open up the Ohio Valley. I have a direct ancestor that moved from PA to Ohio in the late 1790’s. So there was not an incentative for people in the north to go south in pick cotton. Who then was going to do it? Pretty much boils down to a supply and demand question. While you are considering that statement remember that the demand was coming from Fall River, MA and other northern mills.

I pretty well agree with this and the rest of WAM’s post.

However, I don’t understand why everyone seems to think that the problem stopped with the abolition of slavery. What was as bad and maybe worse was restoration, which included “share cropping” which the OP seems to think was so much better.

Do you have any idea of where the sins of Jim Crow grew from? It came from the poor white man that had no money, no house of his own, nothing, rationalizing that at least he was better than the blacks that lived in the shack down the road. This system was imposed by the government in Washington and those that benefitted were not just southerners, but also “Carpet-Baggers” that came from the north.

Cotton was the devil, until the 1960’s when fewer and fewer people were willing to go into the fields and pick cotton. In the 1970’s, there wasn’t enough cotton and so along came polyester. Thank goodness the automated cotton picker also came along about that time. In the 1990’s, the field compactor came along and today cotton is planted and harvested without being touched by human hands. I know this since they started harvesting the cotton around my house today. :wink:

Yup. A very sad thing. It all looked so bright (well, at least to us now) right after the civil war.