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.

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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.

Al Fuller

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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