In 1973, a business historian named Robert Sobel published a highly entertaining book entitled For Want of a Nail. It is an incredibly detailed faux history book from a world where the British defeated the American revolution, all the way down to a plethora of fake footnotes. It is a fun read, enough to inspire me and some friends to make a long foray into fanfic back in the early 2000s.
One of us, Johnny Pez, has received the rights from the Sobel estate to rewrite the book. Johnny intends to fill in a lot of gaps in the original as well as bring it up to 2016. He is off to a great start, which you can read here.
The problem is that major parts of Sobel’s alternate history are simply broken.
Take, for example, the way his imaginary British North America. At first, in his world, things are different because the slave trade is not stopped: rather, it continues until the 1830s. Then, in 1835, he has a financial crisis hit London. Cotton prices drop and slave prices go down with them. As a result, with an unspecified amount of financial support from the British government, the Southern Confederation (coterminous with our slave states of the same period) bails out the planters with a payment of £35 per slave in 1840, twice their market value.
How does a world where the slave trade remains open — itself a most improbable development — wind up with fewer slaves than in real history? Sure, the victorious British manumitted a bunch, but not that many.
Then there is the price of those slaves. When Sobel’s financial crisis hits, the slave price he lists is roughly the same as the price of a young male slave in New Orleans in the real world. They then crash by an incredibly implausible amount by authorial fiat. He just waves his hands. The below chart shows the extent of the hand-waving; I have deliberately included data from the real 1840s to show what a punishing price decline actually looked like:
Sobel does not say how the manumission bonds are paid for. There are two possibilities. First, that the U.K. government bore all the cost. That seems weird, as he has the bill being passed by the Southern Confederation. But it could be. Only if it was, then you have a situation in which the U.K. just agreed to transfer roughly 11% of its GDP to the Southern planters with no political concessions in turn. I suppose that is possible, but it seems unlikely.
More likely is that the Southern Confederation agreed to finance the bonds itself and then managed to transfer the cost of paying those debts to the Northern Confederation after the British agreed to unite the two small dominions into one big one in 1842. In return, the Northern Confederation gets a big protective tariff around all of North America. I can imagine that ... although one imagines a slightly more interesting convention than the one Sobel describes. After all, the new united North America is going to be born with a manumission debt worth 17% of its GDP.
But that is fixable. What seems unfixable, at least at first glance, are the following:
- Keeping the slave trade open until 1840 is very implausible;
- If it remained open, there would be a lot more slaves in North America, with unknowable effects on the price and even larger fights over the spread of the institution into Indiana (our Northwest Territories);
- If it was closed, then the slave population should still have been much larger;
- It is hard to imagine why the slave price would have declined so much and be seen by the planters as a permanent decline. A temporary depression is not going to convince slaveowners (or any asset holder, for that matter) to sell at the bottom. You need to create some sort of contrived situation involving bankers and bankruptcies and even then Sobel has painted a situation in which all the Southern banks are going under, so who cares whether you can repay your debts?
How you can square all of those circles, I do not know! If you can find cases of reputable books from the 1960s with equally bullshit numbers, then you can say the numbers are wrong and give a story for why they are wrong. (Although ... man, the number of slaves is not a state secret, even if slave prices were hard to find. Ditto the statements about the slave trade being open seem pretty damn clear.) But that puts you in a situation where the new country has to finance a manumission cost that is more on the order of 48% of GDP and convince the planters to take the deal.
In short, Mr. Sobel pulled a magic price decline out the air to tell his optimistic story about the British Empire. Take that away and it gets much dicier.