Thursday, August 13, 2015

Where you stand sometimes depends on where you sit: Slave owners profited greatly from their slaves.

It seems that historians now generally agree that the Confederacy was formed to protect the institution of slaver, and thus that slavery was the cause of the American Civil War. I beg to disagree. I think had plantation owners, who dominated the political institutions of the American South, been offered an alternative in which the institution of slavery was abolished but their wealth and income were enhanced, they would have jumped at that alternative. It was argued at the time that the slaves were from an inferior race and that they required the supervision of their owners; does anyone really believe that the institution of slavery was operated and managed for the benefit of the slaves?

A great deal of the wealth of the plantation class was in the form of the slaves that they owned. I understand, however, that like rational capitalists the plantation owners tended to use the slaves as collateral and to borrow against them. The income for the plantation owner generated by the slave would serve to pay the interest on the loans and eventually to pay off the principle amount. If, as happened, slaves were to be emancipated without reimbursement, not only would the owner lose wealth, but would also be left with a debt suddenly without capital and lacking the source of income to pay the interest and principle.

With the invention of the cotton gin at the end of the 18th century, the labor intensive job of removing the seeds from the cotton was inexpensively automated, and costs for the production of cotton fiber was greatly reduced. The alluvial soils in much of the American south together with the climate provided very good growing conditions for cotton. The industrial revolution, which mechanized cotton spinning and weaving, greatly decreased the cost of production of cotton cloth from cotton fiber as well as increasing the amount of cotton cloth that could be produced. Thus the southern United States with its use of slave labor, with the cotton gin, and with an abundance of land close to ports suitable for growing cotton increased cotton production rapidly. The demand kept pace with the increased supply as the mills in England and the northern United States produced more and more cotton cloth, and the railroads and steam ships sold the low cost cloth around the would in increasing amounts.

Cotton was King! Planters got rich! The money flowed in! How would the planters not like the institution of slavery which produced this bounty. However, when slavery was abolished, the planters continued to own the land, and they continued to extract wealth and income by institutionalizing sharecropping and tenant farming. Of course, the sharecroppers and tenants had little power and continued in poverty.

So was the southern support for slavery due to a love of the institution of chattel slavery, or to a love of the economic benefits it brought to the ruling elite. One notes that when slavery proved uneconomical in the north, it was quickly abolished in the northern states. One also notes that cotton producers have not been slow to adopt labor saving mechanization when that was financially advantageous and economically possible.

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