July 4th is upon us, and here we go again with a bunch of “The American Revolution was a mistake” posts. Now it’s Dylan Matthews at Vox, giving us three reasons why 1776 and all that was a “monumental mistake.”
Reason number one? “Abolition would have come faster without independence.” His evidence for this? Well, only that Parliament in fact abolished slavery in 1833.
So lets look at that abolition for a moment. The British parliament voted to raise £20 million in bonds to compensate slaveowners in the West Indies and South Africa. The Abolition Act valued slaves at their average price in 1822-30, using a database of 74,000 transactions. They then divvied up the £20 million among all the colonies according to their proportion of total slave value. Across all the islands of the West Indies, that came to 780,993 enslaved people valued at £58 each, for whose freedom slaveowners received £26 per person. (Actual valuations varied from £115 in British Guiana to £27 in Bermuda.)
This brings us to the first problem facing a hypothetical British Empire contemplating abolition: using the same methodology, North America possessed 2.1 million slaves in 1833. Using the same methodology as the Abolition Act, that would have cost British taxpayers an additional £53 million pounds, on top of the £20 million for the West Indies.
How much was £73 million? Well, the entire nominal GDP of the United Kingdom came to only £440 million in 1833. More relevantly, perhaps, total public spending came to only £51 million. Financing an additional £50 million in bonds at 3.4% would have cost £1.8 million per year ... almost 4% of all public spending. In the abstract, that was easily affordable ... in the concrete, the additional expense could have sunk the bill.
But there is a second problem. Slave prices in the West Indies were sinking in the 1820s along with the price of sugar, which dropped (net of shipping costs) from 2.3p per pound in 1818 to 0.8p per pound in 1829. (Prices are contemporary, but expressed in modern decimal values. Data from Robert Martin, Statistics of the Colonies of the British Empire, 1839, Appendix p. 3.) There were exceptions, of course: slavery was booming in Trinidad and British Guiana. But in general slave prices were declining across the West Indies and British policy prevented slaves in declining areas (like Jamaica) from being sold on to booming places. Barbadian slave prices, for example, fell by half between 1823 and 1831. (Table 5.)
That is not to say that the British planters supported abolition: slavery was obviously more profitable to them than free labor would be. (J. R. Ward looked into that back in 1978.) It is to say that they were willing to accept compensation at 44% of the average market price because market prices were falling fast.
Contrast that with the southern United States, where the cotton boom was just getting started. By 1833, the South was starting a prolonged cotton boom driven by exploding British demand for cotton textiles. In addition, American slave populations were growing fast. Combine the two and you have rapidly growing wealth tied up in slaves:, expressed below as a percentage of the U.K. GDP:
It doesn’t take a political scientist to realize that the politics of abolition are going to look very different in the above world. West Indian interests reluctantly capitulated to compensated abolition; North American slaveowners are going to fight a lot harder. Any compromise is going to result in a much higher compensation per slave than the West Indian slaveowners received.
We then add the third problem: in the 1830s, cotton is a strategic crop. Sugar is nice; cotton drives the U.K. economy. It is the oil of the day. Politicians could contemplate a disruption of sugar production in the West Indies with equanimity. After all, the product is available from elsewhere and who cares if it comes from within the Empire or outside? Those same politicians could not easily contemplate a reform that might disrupt the flow of cotton to British textile mills.
Fourth, we have to think about how American independence was avoided. There are basically two scenarios: (1) British diplomacy avoids conflict, and (2) Britain wins on the battlefield. Scenario (1) implies that the British government accepted that it could not tax the American colonies. Scenario (2) implies that the U.K. repeals most or all of its exactions on the American colonies. Both make it unlikely that the U.K. would impose taxes on North America to pay for the freeing of North American slaves.
An abolitionist U.K. government will face a Hobson’s choice. They can abolish with insufficient compensation, even if it could get such a bill through Parliament — which is unlikely — they would risk triggering a revolt by Southern planters. The British Empire could probably win such a revolt (strangling Southern commerce and trying to mobilize Northern armies), but no government would take such a threat lightly. They can abolish with sufficient compensation — which would be extremely expensive and risk triggering a planters’ revolt regardless. Or they can ignore public opinion (10% of the British population signed an anti-slavery petition) and hope the problem goes away.
The problem is that the longer Parliament waits, the less tractable the problem becomes.
It is certainly possible that the British Empire would have abolished slavery earlier than the United States. Johnny Pez has a post showing the roots of how that might happen in a world where Britain defeats the Continental Army. (He is currently engaged in a magisterial project of re-writing For Want of A Nail, by Robert Sobel. It promises to be awesome.)
But the British Empire was ruled by human beings. And those human beings would have faced a situation where their medium-term political and economic self-interest conflicted with their morals and long-term interests. The result, I suspect, would be delay and half-measures, with a high likelihood of ending in a war.
The American Revolution might have been a mistake. But it is probably not because the horror of slavery would have ended much sooner.