The main idea of this book is pretty simple: to use actual raw historical documentation to understand real condition of slavery in American South. Instead of emotional fiction written by people who really did not know what they are writing about, as was the case with majority northern abolitionists, the sources of the book are emotionless church records of births and deaths, accounting books of profits and losses from cotton or selling and buying slaves or doing any other activities. Important sources of information also were diaries of multiple individuals of what was a pretty literate society of South. These records where not created to convince anybody in anything or to create positive narrative for future historians. These were everyday records used to run business and trace events of live and therefore they are the best source to recreate what this society was really like.
While authors go out of their way to stress again and again that they are completely detest slavery and racism, the documents create much more complicated picture than one taught in American colleges and schools.
Prologue. Slavery and the Cliometric Revolution
The prolog is a short description of Cliometric method and its application to the history of South.
One. The International Context of U.S. Slavery
The review of slave trade brings some not exactly expected facts. One of the most interesting is that slave trade in America was very unevenly distributed along the continent. The number of slaves imported to US was just 6% of total, while Brazil had 36% and Caribbean 17%. However survival rate was so different that black population of United States continued to grow even after all slave trade stopped while population in Latin America was barely supported by continuing import. The share of foreign-born slaves in US went below 50% sometime in 1710s and by 1860s it was close to 0. The process of emancipation of slaves started in England when in 1772 Lord Chief Justice ruled slavery not supported by English law. It started nearly immediately in USA with Society of Friends in Philadelphia banning it for its members in 1772 and completely abolishing in 1865. The last country to abolish slavery in America was Brazil in 1888.
Two. Occupations and Markets
Unexpected data came from comparative analysis of professional activities of slaves versus total adult population. While majority of all adults were manual laborers as expected, % of artisans and semiskilled workers was pretty much the same between all adults and slaves. Even more unexpectedly was to find out that about 7 to 8% of slaves worked in managerial and professional positions. Obviously it was within constrains of plantation, but nevertheless it puts and interesting twist on racial attitude variation between white individuals who were familiar with individual slaves and whose who were not. The southerner exploiters of slave labor often knew and appreciated real capabilities of individuals and used their ability in the most effective way they could come up with, while northern abolitionists fought slavery on moral grounds while firmly believing in inhering inferiority of black people.
Another interesting fact is that slave trade did not play significant role in business amounting to less then 2% of slave population in any given time. According to documents it also contained disproportional number of young individuals and seldom included families either whole or broken. Studies of Maryland slave trade show that about a half of all sales was due to bankruptcy or from estate of deceased planters. I guess humans are not a very profitable if used as merchandise.
Also an analysis of migration patterns shows that slave migration usually occurred as part of planter’s movement to new land, rather then slaves movement via trade.
Three. Profits and Prospects
The analysis shows that slavery was profitable, but only in very complicated way related to human life cycles. Based on age/price variation the pick returns from slave labor was in the age 25-40 years, but in order to achieve it the investment in childbearing and upbringing was necessary before labor extracted from a slave would allow breakeven between cost of slave maintenance and returns on slave labor. Interestingly enough prices for old slaves did not fall to 0 until age of 70+ signifying that even at this age return from slave labor was profitable. The data also reject notion of slave breeding for sale. Analysis of prices for cotton and other products of plantation show that slavery was economically viable system. Moreover analysis of slave employed in cities as artisans often on their own making money and paying taxes to owner demonstrates that cities did not kill slavery, but rather provided additional venue for its use.
Four. The Anatomy of Exploitation
This is detailed review of documented information about live of slaves and level of satisfaction of their needs. It reviews food, shelter, medical services, family live, and also exploitation with punishment and rewards used to extract maximum returns. Not surprisingly it confirms notion of tangible advantages over hired unskilled hands in all these areas. More strikingly is to find out that life expectancy of slaves in USA was only slightly lower then free whites and at the same level as for population of France.
Five. The Origins of the Economic Indictment of Slavery
This chapter is not about slavery, but rather about slavery related writings and how attitude to the slavery created familiar narrative about slavery being economically inefficient system regardless of real facts on the ground.
Six. Paradoxes of Forced Labor
After review of myth creation, the detailed review of actual economic performance paints quite a different picture. This picture includes a set of data supporting a number of notions that authors considers as paradoxes:
1. Slavery based agriculture was more efficient then fee labor based agriculture
2. Quality of slave labor was much higher then it is commonly perceived
3. The black low level managers (drivers) and middle managers (overseers) were quite competent in their job, often more competent then white overseers hired from outside.
This chapter also provides an interesting discussion about economic significance of property rights in man. The proposed notion of difference between slave owning and free society as difference in who has title to human capital rather then who controls it. In free society the title on human being is not separated from this human being, while title on slave belongs to slave owner. Paradoxically it could mean that free man would rent out himself at a market price, which depends on supply and demand for labor that could lead to extremely low price at the level of minimal subsistence. Slave owner on other hand owns this particular individual slave as capital good with significant investment and therefore amount of resources allocated to slave’s subsistence could be significantly less depended on market fluctuations. Net result is higher level of subsistence available to a slave comparatively to free laborer.
Epilogue. Implications for Our Time
The epilog provides a short review of what happened next after emancipation. The picture was not a pretty one. The South economy significantly deteriorated for all population, but it was especially bad for former slaves. While getting title on themselves they did not get main source of subsistence – land. Without land they had to sell their labor and price for this labor went as low as it gets. Overall statistical information shows a drastic decrease in all measures of well being such as life expectancy for former slaves.
My Take on It:
Free man curries his own cost so his market price could be marginally lower then slave’s because slave owner carries cost of raising slave and has to include this investment costs in his calculation. Based on statistics collected and analyzed in this book the slave’s life was not significantly worse then life of free laborer in terms of food, shelter, housing, and, consequently, qualitative parameters such as life expectancy. However humans are not machines and they tend to put a very high value on self-control and self-direction. This value could not possibly be matched by improvement in material wellbeing because these are incomparable apples and oranges.
Too bad that vast majority of Americans especially young does not know details of slavery history provided in this book and mistakenly believes that slavery means materials deprivation. It makes them blind to real nature of promoters of big democratically elected government and welfare state. They fail to notice that such welfare state is slavery under other name because it would deny them options of self-control and self-direction the same options that slave owner denied to well fed and sheltered slave.
However I am very optimistic about future because we have overwhelming prove of inability of centralized welfare state to produce goods and services that people want and therefore being inferior to laissez-faire capitalist society.
Southern slaveholding capitalism was economically effective and therefore stable. Welfare state is not economically ineffective and therefore is unstable. In its most murderous communistic form it could last for a few generations by killing all opposing individuals. In its relatively benign social-democratic form it would not last beyond running of other people’s money.