Was America ever a poor nation (compared to the relative standards of its time?)

Well, I’d say that the relative lack of tropical diseases was the real difference maker. From my reading, more slaves died proportionally the farther South they lived.

That too. But again, an illustration that what became the US was primed for relatively high quality of life. The natural increase of slave populations was likely in spite of slave owners, not because of them.

I think some of the reason the U.S. sustained the largest / best documented naturally reproducing and naturally growing slave population is a combination of laws, economics and technology. The ban on importing more slaves from overseas is important, because it changes the economics of keeping slaves. For most of human history, slave marriages/pairings, and their resultant offspring were not significantly encouraged. While it was a recognized means of acquiring new slaves in say, ancient Rome, many masters didn’t permit it, and would often keep the male and female slaves (particularly the agricultural and quarry workers) completely segregated. Why? Because a slave child is a pretty long-term investment that has a high chance (due to poor infant mortality) of ever paying off. It takes a productive adult female slave and makes her less capable during pregnancy, and until the child is weaned and learns to walk and etc it can do no real work and in fact takes up time from a slave who could do work.

When your armies are regularly waging wars generating many tens of thousands of new slaves, why bother?

In America, it was understood if you wanted new slaves they would have to come from breeding. Technology of the time, while not quite modern medicine, was improved enough that life expectancy was longer, infant mortality was lower, so the “investment” in a child slave was more likely to bear fruit. Additionally agricultural technology had improved somewhat so that an individual slave in antebellum North America was more productive than an Ancient Roman slave, so there was more “slack” in the system, where the cost of the slave having to deal with child rearing wasn’t such a hit to the overall productivity of the plantation.

Another thing is just the generally positive agricultural and economic situation America was in, lots of very productive land. One of the reasons we had such high population growth in the 18th and 19th centuries is because we had a huge largesse of arable land and excess food, there is a strong historical correlation between food supply and population growth. In Ancient Roman times it wasn’t necessarily because Roman masters were “more evil” that they fed their slaves even worse than antebellum American slaves, or that antebellum American slavers were “'nicer”, it was more likely that food was more plentiful and cheaper, and all things being equal it was understood a better fed slave was going to be able to work harder and more likely to produce valuable offspring. A Roman slave master working with slaves who in some records had a life expectancy of less than 20 years, food was probably dear enough that they just couldn’t justify feeding their slaves to the level needed to see better longevity/reproductive outcomes.

Trying to discuss the status of slaves over a thousand years of Roman history is even worse than answering a vague question on America’s relative status. I do want to point out, however, that while some Roman slaves could be and were treated extremely harshly, the percentage of slaves who were manumitted was much higher than in the South, majorities of those who lived to be 30 died free, and in various times and circumstances free slaves would become true Roman citizens, which never happened in the South.

Of course the area that became America had fantastic natural resources compared to Europe, which had been depleted over its long history, but even here it took technological innovation to use the prairie lands that eventually became America’s “breadbasket.” The opening of the prairies is a post-Civil War development. In fact, dime novels written just after the Civil War used the prairies, not what we consider the West, as their frontier, complete with Indians, outlaws, wild animals, hunters, and all the other imagery we today associate with cowboys and the Wild West.

Pre-Civil War 19th century conditions and post-Civil War 19th century conditions are so vastly different that they shouldn’t ever be moshed together into a hand-waving “back then.” They are two worlds as much BCE Rome was from CE Rome.

In a previous thread it was pointed out - the work load of a cotton plantation was about 1 to 2 months of hectic cotton picking, and for most, another 10 months of minimal work. This also made it unlikely for plantation owners to used hired hands, because the job was horrible. “Cotton Pickin’ Hands” was a commentary on the fact that picking sharp cotton bolls caused many tiny cuts that callused over, making the fingers thick and rough; while paying people to sit around for 10 months was uneconomical. By the time harvest came around, much of the workforce would have left for steadier jobs. Slavery conveniently meant the only expense was minimal rations for 10 months.

So a well-timed pregnancy would not heavily interfere with the work a slave could perform.

The other problem - so many stories and histories of the time have the common theme that masters - or their heirs - had no problem reneging on promises to free their slaves sometime in the future; which makes sense for an “asset” apparently worth more that a year’s wage for a common labourer.

Yes, but at times slave life expectancy in Rome was less than 30 years (sometimes less than 20.) A lot of times the process by which older slaves were manumitted in Rome wasn’t exactly an example of Roman nobility, either. A common scheme was for a master to “set aside” an amount of money from the slave’s earnings over their time of bondage, and once they had enough to pay for themselves, they would be freed. The master would often arrange it so this was likely to happen around the end of the slave’s working life. The master then has the money (that they took from the slave’s earnings) to buy a new slave, and the slave was turned out on the street with essentially nothing, left to rely on charity in their dotage.

Not that I necessarily think Southern slave owners would do any better, but a lot of State laws prohibited casual manumission specifically to stop just this situation–a free black person with no means of supporting themselves, most states required the slave owner to provide money enough for the freedman to establish themselves (most also required they establish themselves in another state, part of the money requirement was to be used to buy passage to another state, as most Southern states didn’t want freedmen staying, but some allowed it.)

Europe’s farmland wasn’t really “depleted”, arable soil can lose nutrients if over farmed, but they generally return after a few plantings of inactivity. But America certainly had much greater food supply than ancient Rome did on a per capita basis (at really any point in American history you want to pick, including colonial times). It gets difficult to compare farmland from over 1000 years ago, because the ability to clear and utilize certain land has changed over time (arable lands have mostly increased since Ancient Roman times, and then decreased slightly in the 20th century in many places), but while Rome did control several countries like Spain and France that have quite large amounts of arable land today, we can suspect that a much smaller portion of French land under the Romans was arable given limitations of the time (and probably even less was actually used as farmland due to limited technology and etc). The big thing is Rome had way more mouths to feed–there were something like 3.5 million slaves at peak in the United States, and in the era of slavery U.S. population peaked at 31m. In the core imperial period of Roman history, from 1 AD to 350 AD, population figures over time fluctuate from an estimated peak of 70m to 100m, to a low of around 39m at the end of the date range (population was on the decline in the 4th century.) At peak the Romans would have been feeding 15m slaves, food almost certainly would have been a much greater relative cost of maintainence for a Roman vs an American slaver.

That’s a silly statement. 1 BCE Rome was not that different from 1 CE Rome. Nor were conditions in the U.S. at large dramatically different from 1859 vs 1866.

No, this is a silly reductionistic restatement of what I said.

I used to do presentations at our local Civil War Roundtable, and I always tried to do a non-military topic. One time I did a mock-Jeopardy! game with questions on “other things happening” during or adjacent to the US Civil War. Manet’s Olympia perhaps? Italy’s unification? Homestead act?

(I wish I could find the presentation but it was 15 years and several computers ago…)

I think median vs mean matters in the answer to this question. I thought the Carribean colonies were extremely rich at the end of the 18th century and start of the 19th, that despite the fact most of their population had an income of zero (as they were enslaved), there was enough money flowing from the sugar industry that the tiny elite in charge were rich enough to make them richer (by mean GDP) than the US at the time.

Well, to be fair, Martin, if you were a major slave holder in Mississippi, you would disagree with the above. There was a major war and cultural/economic shift which occurred during that period after all…

That was said in the context of the thread–which was about national wealth and whether America was ever a “poor” nation. Every national wealth indicator we have does not show an extreme difference post and pre civil war, they basically show steady increase from colonial times up through WWII. It would be crazy to speculate about narrow classes of individuals before and after X event, but that also clearly wasn’t the topic of discussion.

I was trying to find something about freeing slaves in old age - both USA and Roman Empire. Presumably both societies generally realized that the owner had an obligation beyond simply working a person until they stopped being useful and then dumping them out the door to starve to death.

(Whereas capitalists had no such compunction…)

I disagree that one-seventh of population is a narrow class of individuals. Economic histories have consistently overlooked the plight of slaves while concentrating on the wealth they produced for others. Trying to deal with a large vague subject like this, different approaches are not only okay but necessary.

One look at the effects of the Civil War is given here:

Owning slaves in the South reflected economic status and power and was the exception rather than the rule. Only 20% of white Southern households owned any slaves and as little as 0.5% of households owned 50 slaves or more. Although slaveholding contributed to almost 50% of the aggregate Southern wealth, slave wealth was concentrated at the top end of the southern wealth distribution. The great disparity of wealth reflects the economic power of the richest farmers (planters) in the South before the Civil War. In 1860, a household at the 90th percentile of the southern wealth distribution owned 14 times more than a household at the median; for comparison, the 90:50 ratio was roughly 7:1 in the US between 1950–2000 and is at 12:1 today (Kuhn et al. 2017).

The Civil War constituted a major rupture for the Southern economy. With the formal abolition of slavery in 1865, wealth from slave-holding evaporated. Land values also declined substantially after the Confederacy’s defeat, reflecting lower levels of agricultural productivity after the war. Overall, these war-related events led to one of the largest compressions of wealth inequality in human history. Compared to 1860, a white household head at the median of the Southern wealth distribution held 38% less wealth in 1870. The wealth of the top 10% wealth-holders fell even by 75% such that the 90:50 ratio dropped from 14:1 in 1860 to 10:1 by 1870.

Note that the median would consist almost entire of white households.

The Southern elites did recover their position and Jim Crow laws helped ensure that upward mobility by free slaves was an impossibility. That large segment of the population were a frightfully poor enclave in a much wealther nation. That should not be forgotten.

While my comment may have seen a little bit snarky, the fact is that the United States just fought a half-decade long civil war which devastated a massive chunk of the capital infrastructure then extant, especially in the South, this devastation which literally included the loss of the entire productive capacity of the South’s slaves as well as the financial devastation caused by leveraging $4 billion in assets, assets now declared illegal… though the loans were still outstanding in 1865.

Otoh, Rome didn’t do that between 1ce and 6ce.

I would like to counter that the English, etc, did not come upon an undeveloped land but, instead, they found the remnants of a very well developed agricultural system, one which existed prior to the Europeans and largely abandoned during the great pandemics which swept the two continents from 1492-1600, killing up to 100,000,000 people.

By the time Europeans came across these farms, from 1700-onward, the food products still existed even if the farms, groves, and pastures were overgrown by a century or two of becoming suddenly untended.

The first chart shows the rate of actual native population decrease vs a theoretical population replacement rate of 75% and 50% of the actual replacement rates. As you can tell, the pandemic was even more severe than that, as if only (eyeballing here) 25% of the population was being replaced each generation for 10 generations, until they reached the new, allowed, replacement levels by around 1880.


Here are some numbers:


75% of the Timucua dead in a century, another century for the tribe to be entire wiped out - this time by likely skirmishes with Europeans and other tribes feeling population pressures because of the new invaders.

My point, again, is that the North American continent was not a pristine, undeveloped environment but one far more developed, especially agriculturally, than we are typically taught. 25,000,000 people lived in Mexico, they didn’t do that by hunting and gathering! The Timucua had 200,000 living souls in NE Florida and their diet sounds, shall I say, very creole: