Did Slavery Create American Prosperity?

Recently there seem to be an increasing number of claims that American prosperity resulted from slavery.  This is presented as justification for the renewed calls for reparations for slavery, which Democrats are using in an attempt to gain support as we approach the next presidential election.  But did slavery actually create the wealth of the U.S.?  Does this claim have any historical basis in fact, or is this a distortion of history to influence the views of voters?

We should all agree that slavery is an immoral institution in which people are treated as property and work, not for themselves, but for the benefit of their “owners.”  It is an extractive economic system that shares some characteristics of feudalism and communism.  They are all extractive in the sense that work is extracted from laborers who benefit very little from their own efforts, and as a result do not have much incentive to work hard, to make improvements, or to innovate, even though they may be faced with threats and coercion. 

Credit: Florida Center for Instructional Technology.

Lacking the motivating force of self-interest, such systems have proven to be highly inefficient, as well as inhumane, and hinder economic growth.  So, while a small elite can live well through the efforts of others under these systems, the overall economy suffers, there are fewer opportunities, and a lower standard of living for members of society as a whole.

If we consider the historical experience of other nations involved in the slave trade, it could help our understanding of the issue.  The transatlantic slave trade that took place from the 16th to the 19th centuries was a system in which Africans sold members of other tribes, often prisoners, as slaves to Europeans, who then shipped them to the Americas.  During this time period only 5% of the total number of slaves sent across the Atlantic went to the U.S., with the other 95% going mostly to South America and the Caribbean.

If American prosperity is based on slavery, then we would expect other nations that participated in the transatlantic slave trade to also be prosperous.  If we take Brazil, for example, that nation took about 20 times more slaves than the U.S.  So, if slavery leads to great prosperity one would expect Brazil to be much more prosperous than the U.S., since they took many more slaves.  However, the U.S.’s GDP per capita is about four times greater than Brazil’s.  Although the standard of living in Brazil is significantly lower than that of the U.S., other nations in South America are even worse off and among the poorest in the world, despite their historical experience with slavery.

Now if we consider a sample of other prosperous nations that have a standard of living comparable to that of the U.S., would we find that their prosperity resulted from slavery?   In Europe let’s take Switzerland, Germany, and Norway; in Asia, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea; and let’s also consider some other former British colonies, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  None of these prosperous nations participated in the transatlantic slave trade. 

 If American prosperity were based on slavery, then we would expect to learn that in the 1800s the Southern States were wealthier than the Northern States, where slavery was illegal.  However, this was simply not the case.  The Industrial Revolution, which included new mechanized manufacturing techniques along with innovations in transportation and communication, such as the railroads, steamboats, and the telegraph, dramatically increased production.  This was the driving force of the North’s economy, and in 1860, 90% of the nation’s manufacturing output came from the North. 

In the Southern States that became the Confederacy during the Civil War, 84% of the population worked in agriculture in contrast to 40% in the North.  Although the South had an agricultural-based economy, through mechanized techniques the North also surpassed the South in some areas of agriculture.  For example, in 1860 80% of the U.S.’s wheat was produced in the North.  Southern plantation owners had less motivation to invest in modern farm machinery since they owned slaves, so Southern agriculture remained more dependent on labor, which hindered progress and economic growth as the North became more mechanized and productive.  In 1860 per capita income in the South was only 72% of the U.S. average, so there is no evidence that slavery made the South wealthy, let alone the entire U.S.

While it is true that a small elite group in the South did become wealthy from growing cotton through the use of slave labor, we also need to take into account the impact this had on the U.S. economy as a whole.  At the outbreak of the Civil War the Confederate States of the South had a population of 9 million as opposed to 23 million in the Union.  The overwhelming majority of people in the South were poor farmers who did not own slaves.  The 4.9% of Southerners who did own slaves had most of them working on plantations to produce cotton, which was the South’s biggest cash crop.  Almost all was sold to the British market.  Cotton made up 59% of exports from the U.S. at the outbreak of the Civil War, but in 1860 cotton production represented just 5% of the U.S. economy.  It is also worth noting that in the years after the war cotton production increased dramatically without the use of slave labor.

We also need to be aware that during the war, wealth that had accumulated in the South was wiped out.  The physical devastation that was experienced by the Confederacy left it in ruins.  As Union soldiers marched through, buildings were burned, crops destroyed, and livestock killed.  Southern cities such as Atlanta, Savannah, and Richmond were burned.  At times, Confederate troops also contributed to the destruction on their own territory when they burned anything that could be used by advancing Union troops.  And by the end of the Civil War, the currency of the Southern States had become worthless.

By any objective measure, American prosperity is not based on slavery.  The industrial revolution set the stage for people such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and companies such as Boeing and Apple.  It set the stage for all the American entrepreneurs, small businesses, and workers that contributed to American economic growth and prosperity.  This along with a developed legal system, property rights, a high literacy rate, and a market economy is what led to a prosperous nation.  To deny this and distort history to further a political agenda only creates more conflict and division at a time that has already become one of the most divisive in the U.S. since the Civil War.

Recently there seem to be an increasing number of claims that American prosperity resulted from slavery.  This is presented as justification for the renewed calls for reparations for slavery, which Democrats are using in an attempt to gain support as we approach the next presidential election.  But did slavery actually create the wealth of the U.S.?  Does this claim have any historical basis in fact, or is this a distortion of history to influence the views of voters?

We should all agree that slavery is an immoral institution in which people are treated as property and work, not for themselves, but for the benefit of their “owners.”  It is an extractive economic system that shares some characteristics of feudalism and communism.  They are all extractive in the sense that work is extracted from laborers who benefit very little from their own efforts, and as a result do not have much incentive to work hard, to make improvements, or to innovate, even though they may be faced with threats and coercion. 

Credit: Florida Center for Instructional Technology.

Lacking the motivating force of self-interest, such systems have proven to be highly inefficient, as well as inhumane, and hinder economic growth.  So, while a small elite can live well through the efforts of others under these systems, the overall economy suffers, there are fewer opportunities, and a lower standard of living for members of society as a whole.

If we consider the historical experience of other nations involved in the slave trade, it could help our understanding of the issue.  The transatlantic slave trade that took place from the 16th to the 19th centuries was a system in which Africans sold members of other tribes, often prisoners, as slaves to Europeans, who then shipped them to the Americas.  During this time period only 5% of the total number of slaves sent across the Atlantic went to the U.S., with the other 95% going mostly to South America and the Caribbean.

If American prosperity is based on slavery, then we would expect other nations that participated in the transatlantic slave trade to also be prosperous.  If we take Brazil, for example, that nation took about 20 times more slaves than the U.S.  So, if slavery leads to great prosperity one would expect Brazil to be much more prosperous than the U.S., since they took many more slaves.  However, the U.S.’s GDP per capita is about four times greater than Brazil’s.  Although the standard of living in Brazil is significantly lower than that of the U.S., other nations in South America are even worse off and among the poorest in the world, despite their historical experience with slavery.

Now if we consider a sample of other prosperous nations that have a standard of living comparable to that of the U.S., would we find that their prosperity resulted from slavery?   In Europe let’s take Switzerland, Germany, and Norway; in Asia, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea; and let’s also consider some other former British colonies, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  None of these prosperous nations participated in the transatlantic slave trade. 

 If American prosperity were based on slavery, then we would expect to learn that in the 1800s the Southern States were wealthier than the Northern States, where slavery was illegal.  However, this was simply not the case.  The Industrial Revolution, which included new mechanized manufacturing techniques along with innovations in transportation and communication, such as the railroads, steamboats, and the telegraph, dramatically increased production.  This was the driving force of the North’s economy, and in 1860, 90% of the nation’s manufacturing output came from the North. 

In the Southern States that became the Confederacy during the Civil War, 84% of the population worked in agriculture in contrast to 40% in the North.  Although the South had an agricultural-based economy, through mechanized techniques the North also surpassed the South in some areas of agriculture.  For example, in 1860 80% of the U.S.’s wheat was produced in the North.  Southern plantation owners had less motivation to invest in modern farm machinery since they owned slaves, so Southern agriculture remained more dependent on labor, which hindered progress and economic growth as the North became more mechanized and productive.  In 1860 per capita income in the South was only 72% of the U.S. average, so there is no evidence that slavery made the South wealthy, let alone the entire U.S.

While it is true that a small elite group in the South did become wealthy from growing cotton through the use of slave labor, we also need to take into account the impact this had on the U.S. economy as a whole.  At the outbreak of the Civil War the Confederate States of the South had a population of 9 million as opposed to 23 million in the Union.  The overwhelming majority of people in the South were poor farmers who did not own slaves.  The 4.9% of Southerners who did own slaves had most of them working on plantations to produce cotton, which was the South’s biggest cash crop.  Almost all was sold to the British market.  Cotton made up 59% of exports from the U.S. at the outbreak of the Civil War, but in 1860 cotton production represented just 5% of the U.S. economy.  It is also worth noting that in the years after the war cotton production increased dramatically without the use of slave labor.

We also need to be aware that during the war, wealth that had accumulated in the South was wiped out.  The physical devastation that was experienced by the Confederacy left it in ruins.  As Union soldiers marched through, buildings were burned, crops destroyed, and livestock killed.  Southern cities such as Atlanta, Savannah, and Richmond were burned.  At times, Confederate troops also contributed to the destruction on their own territory when they burned anything that could be used by advancing Union troops.  And by the end of the Civil War, the currency of the Southern States had become worthless.

By any objective measure, American prosperity is not based on slavery.  The industrial revolution set the stage for people such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and companies such as Boeing and Apple.  It set the stage for all the American entrepreneurs, small businesses, and workers that contributed to American economic growth and prosperity.  This along with a developed legal system, property rights, a high literacy rate, and a market economy is what led to a prosperous nation.  To deny this and distort history to further a political agenda only creates more conflict and division at a time that has already become one of the most divisive in the U.S. since the Civil War.