Slavery and American Capitalism

 “Slavery was not a sideshow in American History, it was the main event.” Dr. James Horton, George Mason University.

From the day the America was founded, her economic growth was the envy of the rest of the world. Academics and other liberals are pretty consistent in the explanation they offer for this rapid early growth. The nation’s prosperity, they tell us, was built on the backs of black slaves. American capitalism, they say, is so closely linked to slavery that its achievements should always be viewed with shame. This negative portrayal of American enterprise shows up in textbooks, in classrooms, and even in publicly-funded “educational” broadcasting.

There is another side to the story.

 How It’s Taught in School

The prevailing view in academia is that America’s economic achievements were built on slave labor. A PBS-funded television series describes black slavery as “an indispensable feature of the American economic landscape.” In his textbook A People’s History of the United States, Professor Howard Zinn admits that slavery has existed in places other than the United States, but goes on to say that American slavery was “the most cruel form of slavery in history” because it was motivated by “the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture.”

The textbook America’s Promise states “much Northern guilt about slavery grew out of the perception that the entire nation owed its prosperity to the enslaved producers of cotton.”

Professor Eric Foner tells a similar story in his textbook Give Me Liberty. He quotes a like-minded earlier historian who said “The growth and prosperity of the emerging society of free colonial British America…were achieved as a result of slave labor.” Foner goes on to say that “Slavery’s economic centrality for the South and the nation as a whole formed a powerful obstacle to abolition.” (Italics added) The idea of abolishing slavery, he tells us, “aroused violent hostility from northerners who feared that the movement threatened to disrupt the Union, interfere with profits wrested from slave labor, and overturn white supremacy.”

The truth of the matter is very different. America’s economic and technological greatness were built by free individuals, allowed to work and create for their own benefit. The institution of slavery didn’t contribute to the process; it got in the way.

African slaves were imported to many colonies and nations other than those in North America, and none of the other slave-importing countries achieved anywhere near the economic growth seen in the United States. Within the United States, those states that banned slavery soonest created wealth fastest. And, of course, America’s prosperity continued to grow at a world-beating rate after the Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery nationwide in 1865.

The Ubiquity of Slavery

According to Wikipedia, some 645,000 African slaves were brought to what is now the United States before slavery was banned here; and about five times as many were taken to Brazil. Other historians have used similar numbers. If slave labor were the quickest path to national prosperity, one would expect Brazil to have outpaced America economically; but Brazil has not done anything remotely like that. The same could be said of other South American countries that imported large numbers of slaves prior to the late 19th century.

And North and South America are not the only regions that imported large numbers of African Slaves. Over the centuries more black slaves were taken from Eastern Africa to the Islamic states of the Middle East and North Africa than were hauled across the Atlantic to the Americas.1  Yet the estimated fourteen million slaves taken to the Islamic world did not produce anything like the economic miracle of the United States.

It should be noted that black Africans are not the only group of people victimized by slavery on a large scale. The word “slave” actually derives from “Slav,” because for centuries the European Slavs were so widely and often enslaved by surrounding groups of Europeans. In the words of economist Thomas Sowell “Slavs were so widely sold into bondage that the very word for slave was derived from the word for Slav in a number of Western European languages, as well as in Arabic.”2

Slave States and Free States

Within the US, the Northern states, all of which banned slavery early, far outpaced the Southern slave states in wealth creation. Next week’s post will go into this issue in detail, but the short version is that the culture in Southern slave-holding states attached a stigma to the virtues of hard work and self-reliance. The most admired lifestyle in the South was a life of indolence and luxury, built on the work of others. Any white man who worked hard with his own hands, for his own benefit, was looked down upon. 

In the North, by contrast, hard work and self-reliance were held up as the highest of virtues; followed closely by that brand of problem-solving inventiveness that came to be known as “Yankee ingenuity.”

In his famous and influential book Democracy in America, French bureaucrat Alexis de Tocqueville discusses the disparity of wealth between America’s slave states and free states. America had not yet gained her independence, he writes, when “the attention of the planters was struck by the extraordinary fact, that provinces which were comparatively destitute of slaves increased in population, in wealth, and in prosperity more rapidly than those which contained the greatest number of negroes.”3

Tocqueville goes on to describe in detail the differences he saw during his travels in the United States in the early 1830’s. During a trip down the Ohio River, with the slave state of Kentucky on his left and the free state of Ohio on his right, he observed that all the productive activity seemed to be going on to his right:

Upon the  left bank of the  Ohio labor is confounded with the idea of slavery, upon the right bank it is identified with that of prosperity and improvement; on the one side it is degraded, on the other it is honored; on the former territory no white laborers can be found…on the latter no one is idle, for the white population extends its activity and its intelligence to every kind of employment. Thus the men whose task it is to cultivate the rich soil of Kentucky are ignorant and lukewarm, whilst those who are active and enlightened either do nothing or pass over to the state of Ohio, where they may work without dishonor.4

First Lady Abigail Adams made similar observations in 1800, when the Capitol and White House were moved from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. Mr. and Mrs. Adams had lived in Massachusetts for most of their lives, and Washington was the first place where they were directly exposed to the institution of slavery. As construction on the new White House was going on she watched a team of twelve slaves doing their work each day, while the owners of the slaves stood around doing nothing. In a letter to a friend she expressed her contempt for both the slave owners’ character, and  amount of work that was getting done. “Two of our hardy New England men would do as much work in a day as the whole 12,” she opined.  She went on to say that she could not understand how a slave-owning white man could “walk about idle, though one slave is all the property he can boast.”5

America Without Slaves

In 1865, shortly after the end of the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment ended the institution of slavery in the United States. If, as many historians claim, the nation’s prosperity was built mostly on slave labor; the economic growth of the US should have slowed down to that of other nations at this point. The opposite is true, of course. America was just getting started. Yankee ingenuity and industry, fueled by the fierce competition for profits, would soon make America the world’s unchallenged economic powerhouse.

1 Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures (1998 paperback), p. 111
2 ibid, p. 191
3Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Bantam Classic paperback) pp. 416, 417
4ibid, pp. 418, 419
5 David McCullough, John Adams, 2001 hardcover, p. 553

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12 thoughts on “Slavery and American Capitalism

  • I was going to comment on this column until I checked out your link to another of your columns here:

    http://historyhalf.com/american-capitalism-the-engine-of-progress/

    Where you say:

    “The human race did very little to improve standards of living during the four or five thousand years of recorded history leading up to 1776.”

    I would take what you have to say much more seriously if you hadn’t posited that the human race accomplished very little in the 5000 years or so prior to the the American Declaration of Independence, our Revolution, and our exercises in capitalism.

  • I don’t think the ancient and extensive existence of slavery altogether condemns American capitalism, and most serious historians won’t say so either, but connections between the systems of capitalism and slavery persist in its freemarket model, esp. the splitting of rich and poor, and the dehumanization or alienation of labor. Most of your essay simply casts people who are concerned with such issues as simple-minded haters, and diverts responsibility from American capitalism to assumed enemies overseas. None of these rhetorical strategies are surprising or novel, but they only confirm existing prejudices instead of exploring our actual condition.

  • I don’t have enough scientific data to conclude if slavery fueled, or held back American economy , but having grown up in Poland ,I visited Soviet Union many times, and I can tell you that comparing slavery to socialism or even communism makes you sound like an idiot.However low the pay for bottom earners in Soviet Union was , it was still thousand times more than what slaves got paid in American colonies. Many top earners , like doctors , scientists and political dignitaries made a pretty comfortable living . The Soviet Union failed because of corruption ,waste and arms race.

  • Thanks Ethan.

    Like many of the people who have left comments on this page, you seem to misunderstand the basic point of this column.

    It’s interesting that so many people have such a hard time understanding the point I’m trying to make.

    When you say that the idleness of Southern whites was the real problem in the south, you are not contradicting me at all; you are actually just re-stating my central point.

    And if you go looking for “evidence that slaves held back American economic growth,” you probably won’t find any. I certainly have not said that slaves held back economic growth; I said that the institution of slavery held it back. That’s an important distinction.

    As I said in my response to an earlier comment, if enslaving people and robbing them of their human dignity were the way to build a strong economy, the Soviet Union would have won the Cold War. President Reagan understood the inherent weakness of the USSR’s centrally controlled economy, and it guided him in all his Cold War policies.

    The thing that has made America great is the ingenuity and effort of free individuals.

    The reason this is important today is that too many Americans think that top-down control, from, for example, a paternalistic government, can build a strong nation. I want to make my readers question this assumption.

    Al Fuller

  • Mr. Fuller,

    Your point is well taken and you may be right if a more in depth economic analysis were performed. However, your analysis uses crude analytical tools to make your point. Abigail Adams observations may be interesting, but I wouldn’t consider her to be an authority on the Anerican economy at that time. If slavery held back American economic progress, it was because there were many idle Whites. So it would be better to discuss number of Whites who were employed tradesmen in north versus south. Also, what percent of GDP was the southern versus northern economies? I’d have to have a lot more economic evidence that slaves held back American economic growth before I believed your story. Abigail Adams and some dude floating down the Ohio not good enough.

  • It’s always interesting to hear the reactions to one of my columns. Judging from the comments that people have left about this one, it looks like most readers have focused on my comments about slavery and ignored the more important point: that the real driver of progress and prosperity is freedom.

    If enslaving people and robbing them of their human dignity were the best way to build a successful society, the Soviet Union would have won the Cold War.

    For anyone who still doesn’t understand my point about what it takes to build a strong nation, here is another column, in which a address the issue more directly: http://historyhalf.com/american-capitalism-the-engine-of-progress/

    Al Fuller

  • This post does have facts in it but for the most part it is told in a way that is greatly misleading to the reader (then again so are lessons taught in college). The reason that the States that abolished slavery first were the faster to gain wealth was because it was the north and it was the start of the industrial revolution. Slavery was no longer a profitable business with the advancement of technology.

    To imply (which im assuming you are doing) that the U.S would be better off economically without slavery (which is a black mark in our history) is completely false. And ignorant. Sad to say it but during its period in our history slavery was the main reason we had the wealth we did at the time. Not to mention if we didnt have slavery we would not have african americans and a diverse culture that we do now and this country wouldnt be nearly as great as it is now. This country is great because of the diverse people in it and we continue to be great due to those who let go of pety things and unite to do great things.

    Bottom line this article does have facts that are arranged in a way to make a certain view point that is not correct.

  • This article does its job well. It is designed to catch the eye of readers that are scanning through the text and looking for valid facts. They are looking for facts to validate that slavery was a bad thing and that America was infact built on slavery. This writer of this article believes that slavery was not responsible for any contributions to our nations economicle growth.

  • Enough with the free market porn!!!

    I’m sorry but is it not possible to compare 18th & 19th century Brazil to the equivalent period in the US. These two societies were at completely different stages of social and technological development for any accurate comparison.

    More to the point simply referring uncritically to the numbers of slaves is a frankly idiotic approach to historical economic analysis.

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