What self-interested incentives did white Northerners have to oppose slavery?

While the humanitarian reasons for abolition were morally sufficient, what were the self-interested, perhaps mainly financial, reasons why white Northerners or subsets of them would have opposed slavery or the extension of slavery into annexed territories? What did some of them stand to directly or indirectly personally gain by making sure annexed territories were free?

Any of those people who had figured out how to make a profit running a plantation or other business using paid workers. If they were competing against similar businesses using slave labor, a lot of their competition would go away if that free labor they used were outlawed. This assumes of course that most slave-using business owners wouldn’t be able to change their business models fast enough to survive.

Some of the economic arguments encouraging the abolition of slavery in the 19th century (not only in the US) are discussed here.

Freed blacks would work cheap. Cheaper than even immigrants, many of whom (unlike most blacks in the US) didn’t speak the “right” language or practice the “right” religion. This was ideal for any Northern business owner or any family with house servants. This was quickly discovered by railroads and middle class white families soon after emancipation.

Freed blacks would be able to buy commercial goods that slaves didn’t even dream of having. New consumers.

There were self-interested incentives that were political as well as economic. The “Slave Power” was seen as a threat to republican government (with a small “r”, although the Republican Party was founded with anti-slavery as a major part of its identity)–it was feared that people who owned other people (especially very large numbers of people) would fundamentally become “aristocrats” with an underlying contempt for the ideals needed for republicanism and democracy to flourish, and potentially be capable of ignoring not just the rights of black men, but also the rights of other white men as well. IIRC, the slavery issue gave rise to some quite modern-sounding concerns about concentrations of wealth, and the relationship between those sorts of economic inequalities and political inequality.

There was also resentment of the way the “Slave Power” interfered with the normal processes of republican legislatures, and threatened the ideals of free speech and freedom of the press. From William Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, the “Gag Rules” in the United States Congress were deeply resented by people who didn’t necessarily care one way or another about slavery (or about the more specific issue of slavery in the District of Columbia), but strongly objected to the idea that the United States Congress could be barred from even considering legislation on a particular topic, simply because the “Slave Power” said so.

As to free speech and the free press, there was also resentment at the idea that Americans might not be able to send literature through the United States Mail on the say-so of very rich people, because it might interfere with the source of their wealth. (My recollection from Freehling is that Northerners weren’t too concerned about anti-slavery literature being excluded from the U.S. Mail as long as those bans were confined to the South, but there would certainly have been deep-seated resentment of any attempt to nationalize that sort of censorship.) Instances of abolitionist newspapers being shut down–by mobs, or force of law, or some combination of both–did not necessarily sit well even with Americans who maybe disagreed with some of the things those newspapers were saying.

Did slave States tend to want different federal economic or diplomatic policies than free States? For example, did slave States tend to want to cozy up to some countries while free States to other countries? Or one wanted protectionism and the other free trade?

I’d like to see the evidence for such claims, especially the idea that middle class Northerners ran out and got cheap black servants after the Civil War. If the idea of using immigrant labor was socially unacceptable, it’s doubtful that freed blacks would’ve fit in better (never mind that the strain of paying any household help was likely beyond the capacity of the middle class in most cases).

A reminder that economic incentives were what kept England on the side of the Confederacy, until Lincoln pulled the rug out from under businessmen and other elites with the Emancipation Proclamation.


Your source says that it was pressure from the British working class that motivated the UK govt to forbid and then condemn slavery. Maybe the Northern working class was an anti-slavery political base? Like today’s working class can be against cheap foreign labor because it competes with the same level of skill.

I’m not sure how US slaves took many jobs from Northern factory workers though. It’s not like cotton was gonna start being grown by working class employees in the North.

How was the UK working class harmed by slavery since the UK working class mainly worked in factories (right?) and slavery is seldom used in factories?

Slavery didn’t work in factories, because the incentive to work hard and work right in a factory, was that you mess up and you are out on your ear, no money, no way to feed yourself, and they hire someone else. That particular fear was not easily available to slaves. They worked best for simple tasks, like picking cotton - where the daily output could be measured in baskets filled. A factory worker who messed up could do massive damage to complex machinery in addition to not filling their quota. (I recall memoirs of a forced labour worker in the Nazi munitions factories, where they regularly sabotaged production by for example, replacing the trigger charge in shells with a ball of chewed bread)

As I understood it, generally social attitudes toward slavery had become generally negative in European countries since the middle ages, particularly in the attitude that every human being was a creature of God. The religious wave of Protestantism through northern Europe probably helped in this regard. One justification for slavery of Africans was that they were better off being enlightened to the Christian Word as slaves than running around free as heathen idolaters. I assume as more of the slaves were descendants of Christianized slaves rather than imported themselves, this justification would wear thin.

Also note the original settlers in many northern colonies were assorted extreme protestants who took things further than the Church of England.

Never, too, underestimate the value of moral justification when nothing is personally at stake economically. While the morally righteous were bombarding the wavering with stories about the horrific abuse of slaves ("Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a big hit) the South’s justification “but it keeps a few of us very rich” was kind of a hollow rebuttal. There probably was a reasonable fear that sometimes factory jobs might be taken by slaves The moralists were determined to avoid expanding slavery, and the South fought a rear-guard action to ensure the moralists did not gain sufficient votes (in the senate) to impose their will on the South. .

Punch summed up England’s support of the South, somewhat sarcastically:
Though with the North we sympathize,
It must not be forgotten -
That with the South we’ve stronger ties,
That are composed of cotton.

The mills of England had a voracious appetite for American cotton to make cloth. After the war, Britain ended up paying reparations to the North for damage done by supporting the South.

IAN Elmer_J.Fudd but I’ve seen such claims elsewhere. I’m not sure they contribute much to the hypothesis of economic motives for antebellum opposition to slavery, though. What antebellum employers expected would be economically advantageous and what postwar employers actually found to be economically advantageous are not necessarily the same thing.

What the ever-lovin’ fuck? Wikipedia.

In the antebellum southern United States, industrial slaves were often the property of a company instead of an individual. These companies spanned various industries including sawmills, cotton gins and mills, fishing, steamboats, sugar refineries, coal and gold mining, and railroads.

Industrial slaves were exposed to many dangerous jobs in factories. Most of the machinery and tools were very new and the simplest mistake could mean the loss of a hand, foot, or even death. Industrial slaves worked twelve hours per day, six days per week. The only breaks they received were for a short lunch during the day, and Sunday or the occasional holiday during the week.

Industrial textile mills in the old south that used slave labor “Usually earned annual profits on capital between 10 and 65 percent and averaging about 16 percent.” The use of industrial slaves sometimes allowed a bankrupt company to be resurrected: “The Woodville mill, which went bankrupt with free labor, annually paid 10 to 15 per cent dividends after switching to slave labor”.

I didn’t know slaves got days off. Was this the case for agricultural and house slaves too?

I have a vague memory of slaves being considered half as productive as free workers. They probably represented a bigger risk in that slaves have to be bought and sold whereas free workers (especially in the 19th century) could be summarily hired & fired. It’s the difference between buying vs renting a truck but here, the rented truck has twice the load capacity.

Factories closed on Sundays because of religion. Farms did not.

Yet the North was heavily industrialized and the South was not - which contributed to the loss of the Civil War.

That wasn’t a choice made by the slaves or the workers. The southern states had an entrenched plantation economy; the people who were already rich and in political control had no incentive to open their region to industrial development and future rivals for political power.

Psychological well-being in a self-interest. If The South is out of sight, out of mind, you might not care or mildly oppose slavery, because you can more successfully compartmentalize it. But the Fugitive Slave Law forced Northern states to be complicit in sending escaped slaves or even random people to the South to be enslaved, and being forced to do something feels a lot worse than merely not doing anything about something horrible.

But the South did not even invest in a decent number of cloth mills - to the extent that it was cheaper to ship raw cotton to Britain (or the North) and import cloth, than to turn it into cloth using slave labour. Obviously entrepreneurs could open factories and other resource processing, as evidenced by your quote, and use slaves in these - they just didn’t do so in appreciable numbers - even though at a certain point I assume all the land had been distributed and there were no more plantations to be established, so the way to invest was to set up other businesses.

Perhaps there was a social disdain for free men to take the same jobs slaves could do in local factories in slave states? Was there a fear tht teaching slaves to do advanced jobs like operating a steam engine without blowing it up, or running a sawmill without wrecking the sawblades, may lead them to think they could do the same job for actual money if they ran away to the north?

Perhaps the cost of slaves made it prohibitive to open slave-based factories? While immigration to the North made available a cheap and large supply of labour.

One discussion I recall was that the plantation slave work was a month or two of frantic picking and then 10 months of minimal work - an advantage of slave labour was that the slaves could be sustained on a minimal diet during the quiet times, while if you didn’t pay workers the same wages year round, they disappeared when the job was over and were hard to get back - as happened over time with freed slaves after the civil war, many migrated north to jobs that were available and paying year round.

I think the mentality was that they wanted to remain the big fish even if it meant keeping the pond small.

Developing industry, even cotton mills, would have opened up a new source of wealth. The plantation owners might have controlled it - but they might not have. Their experience, after all, was in agriculture not factories. The likely outcome would have been the rise of a new class of wealthy factory owners (such as existed in the northern states or in Europe) who would have been rivals to the plantation owners. So the plantation owning class preferred to keep industry out of their states and export their cotton to other places to be processed.

But many agricultural slaveowners, even cruel and extortionate ones, allowed Sundays as a “day of rest” for at least some slaves. This might be because of their own religious principles (after all, Deuteronomy 5:14 commands people to let not only their servants but even their draft animals to rest on the Sabbath) or because white overseers and other employees would expect not to work on Sundays.

As Frederick Douglass described it,