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July 04, 2016


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Given the strong linkage between English cotton manufacturers and southerner slaveowners why wouldn't we see something like the Era of Good Feelings but with English business interests taking the place of Northern ones?
Is it conceivable the South would be given an early separate autonomy (of whatever form) so Parliament can pass the buck and Manchester can keep weaving?
SHWI, good times.

After reading the very informative book, The American Slave Coast by Ned and Constance Sublette, I have the following pertinent observations:

Virginian interests sold slaves to other states; a very lucrative business. South Carolina interests imported slaves from Africa and transshipped them to other states. The Constitutional ban on the international slave trade in 1808 obviously favored the Virginians in this matter.

Slave values increased when there was new frontier land in slave states, e.g. Alabama and Mississippi, then Texas. Settlements in these areas created a demand for slaves from elsewhere in the U.S.

President Jackson's closing of the National Bank made slaves more valuable, as slaves were good investments (natural increase of 4% as Thomas Jefferson noted), and the lack of a banking system made paper money less valuable for interstate trade.

Shortly before the Civil War, South Carolinian interests advocated for the reopening of the international slave trade in order to drop the prices and allow poorer whites to buy slaves.

The discovery of gold in California was the nail in slavery's coffin, as free gold miners did not want to be outcompeted by slave gold miners, and vigorously advocated for California to be a free state. The difficulty of transporting slaves to California (slaves could be transported in coffles from the Chesapeake to the Mississippi and on to Texas, but it's hard to march slaves across the Mojave desert, and ship transport is expensive.

JKR: these are good points, but I'm not sure about three of these assertions. I haven't read the book.

(1) Jackson and the BUS: I don't see how that would have a direct affect on the price of slaves. The impact (or lack thereof) of Jacksonian economic policies is complicated. A good place to start is here: https://eh.net/book_reviews/the-jacksonian-economy/

(2) California and slavery: It is true that there were large pressures to bring California in as a free state. Thankfully, those pressures succeeded! How that ended slavery, however, is beyond me. There is a fairly widespread consensus that slavery was doing just fine economically right through 1860: it took the Civil War to kill the goddamned thing.

(3) South Carolina and the slave trade: The story is complicated. S.C. banned the trade, then reopened it from 1803 to 1808 as slave demand skyrocketed in Louisiana. The 1803 vote is interesting: the backcountry voted 30-19 in favor, whereas the low country voted 27-25 against. In fact, of the 25 low country legislators who supported reopening the trade, 14 of them were turfed out in the 1804 elections. That's a microcosm of the national story!

But, sadly, the politics didn't shake out that cleanly. Low country interests in the state senate blocked attempts to close the trade, in contravention of their own interests.

Why did the low country interests do that? Well, two reasons: one, as you say, to spread slave ownership inside South Carolina. Two, to insure that more slave states would enter the union, by making slaves cheap.

The people who wanted to reopen the trade in the 1850s had the same motives ... but even in South Carolina they came up against strong internal opposition. Many slave owners wanted to keep the trade closed, for obvious reasons. So, perhaps surprisingly, did a coalition of back-country interests who feared the impact on white wages of importing more slaves.

The issue came up in the South Carolina legislature four times in 1857-59; in no case could a bill make it out of the Senate.

Moreover, the Confederate constitutional convention banned the trade! Alabama was a frontier area; it should have opposed such a ban. But it didn't: first, it wanted to insure that reluctant border states would join the rebellion; second, it did not want to incur the wrath of foreign public opinion. (Yeah, I know, that's weird. But it's not that weird: people in Europe felt complicit in the trans-Atlantic slave trade but not in the existence of American slavery.)

My chief references are Ronald Tanaki (1965) and Jed Shugerman (2002).

Noel, I will certainly hunt down your referenced books. In the meantime, I can heartily recommend the Sublettes' work.

They aver that slavery and territorial expansion went hand-in-hand, as new territories created demand for slaves to work in those territories, raising prices for slaves throughout the Union. The obvious market for slaves would have been Cuba; annexation of Cuba, with its sugar death-camps, would have meant decades of high prices for slaves.

This troubles me, JKR. I will need to read the book. From your capsule description, it seems like the authors chose to ignore a great deal of scholarship.

From what we currently know, they would seem to be wrong to conclude that territorial expansion had any direct economic impact on American slavery. Unless they bring new evidence -- and please tell me if they do! -- then they would be engaging in historical malpractice.

Here is what we know. I will take Cuba first and then turn to the issue of the domestic frontier.

Bergad, Barcia and García, The Cuban slave market, 1790-1880 (1995), Figure 7.2, shows that the variation in Cuban slave prices paralleled American prices but averaged about half the level. That implies that the markets were interconnected at the margin ... but also that Cuban slave productivity ran rather below the southern United States.

Second, Cuba remained open to African slave imports into the 1850s. In the Matanzas market, for example, Cuban-born slave sales only outnumbered African-born sales in 1850.

Finally, American slavery dwarfed Cuban slavery in size. Not only were there many more American slaves, but Cuban importation from Africa ran only about 23,000 per year at its peak and averaged more like 7,000. (See D.R. Murray, "Statistics of the Slave Trade to Cuba, 1790-1867.")

Put those three facts together, and the Sublettes' conclusion that annexing Cuba would have meant decades of high slave prices simply makes no sense. I would be appreciative if you could tell me what evidence they used to come to their conclusion.

The same applies to the U.S. territories acquired after 1848. We know that the area under cultivation in the lower South grew rapidly all the way through 1860. We also know that cotton productivity grew rapidly during the same period. (See Olmstead and Rhode, "A New View of Slave Productivity.")

That is more than enough to explain the run-up in slave prices. It boggles belief that opening south-central California or northeastern Mexico to forced labor would have caused dramatic further increases slave prices over what actually occurred.

The Sublettes may be thinking about the Lower South rather than the West, of course. Expanding into the Lower South certaintly did increase slave prices! But the United States possessed most of the Lower South at birth and acquired the rest in 1803. The cotton frontier in that region was far from closed in 1860. (See Atack and Passell, A New Economic View of American History, Figure 14.1, for a very dramatic map making the point.)

There is a political argument about the expansion of slavery: namely, the need to preserve Senate balance. But that is very different from claiming that slavery needed to expand in order to survive for economic reasons.

It worries me to the point of depression that the Sublettes could apparently ignore so much of what economic historians have uncovered about American slavery. It sounds like an excellent book on its own terms -- so I hope that either you've accidentally misrepresented their argument or that they've brought some dramatic new evidence to the table!

P.S. Would you mind telling me if the names Bergad, Eltis, Engerman, Fogel, Galenson, Olmstead, Ransom, Rhode, Sutch, Tanaki or Wright show up in their footnotes? I can send most of the non-book references to you.

Noel, as you are aware I am not an academic, and in these posts I am drawing conclusions based on what I remember about the book's main points. I returned it to the library yesterday so I cannot check the references.

Meanwhile, I believe you are passing over the status of Florida; Florida (including the gulf coast east of the Mississippi) was not part of the US until 1822. The importance of this to the history of Slavery, argue the Sublettes, was that the Spanish policy was to grant freedom to escaped slaves arriving in Florida who converted to Catholicism.

I'm sure that slavers didn't like Spanish Florida! (They didn't like Seminole Florida, either.) But the slave system was totalitarian enough to survive a border with freedom: it did before the Fugitive Slave Act and it did with Mexico. Keep Florida in Spanish hands by some weird quirk of history and you don't change much ... other than causing Senate balance to break down a bit faster.

Slave Florida was a horrorshow under American rule, but that doesn't imply that the rest of America would have been any better if it hadn't been annexed.

I'm still depressed.

There is one major difference between Sobel's South and our history's South: in our history, slavery was only just expanding beyond the Mississippi in the 1830s. Arkansas didn't join the Union and Texas didn't secede from Mexico until 1836. In Sobel's history, the area west of the Mississippi was receiving thousands of slaveowning Anglo settlers every year starting in the 1780s. By 1816 the population was approaching 130,000, and growing rapidly.

The crucial point is that the trans-Mississippi area was not part of the Southern Confederation. It was an independent republic called Jefferson. Though Sobel never specifically says so, there was presumably a steady movement of both white settlers and slaves from the S.C. to Jefferson throughout the period. What Sobel does specifically say is that "by 1831 the S.C. was running out of good cotton land" and "by 1837 the last great area for cotton cultivation had been taken, with no more acreage in sight." The fall in the price of slaves was due to the slowing of cotton cultivation and competition from Jefferson as well as the recession.

The Jeffersonians could look forward to continued growth after the end of the recession, so their slaveowners could hunker down and weather the storm. Slaveowners in the S.C. knew that the cotton boom was over, so prices would never recover (or at least, not enough to save the situation), so they were open to emancipation. So, still a handwave, but not as much of a handwave.

There were also stronger social factors favoring emancipation in the S.C. than in our South, but that's another discussion.

You can't escape. What are the social factors?

Johnny: The real problem with the scenario is simple -- the Lower South was not running out of cotton land! The frontier in Alabama and Mississippi was wide open as late as 1859; heck, the area under cultivation continued to expand into the 1880s.

There is simply no way on God's green Earth that "by 1831 the S.C. was running out of good cotton land" and "by 1837 the last great area for cotton cultivation had been taken, with no more acreage in sight."

It's a statement of stunning ignorance on Sobel's part. Now, a lot of historians (not Southern ones) believed that the South had been running out of good land; in fact, the belief has popped up again in the Sublettes' work, referenced above. But it's simply wrong.

There are other issues with the scenario, but that's the big one.


The fact that real historians have been ignorant about the cotton frontier makes your job easier, Johnny! Clearly, Hartwick was a terrible historian. The cliometricians of the 1970s will make careers in tearing him apart.

The second problem with idea of an early end to the cotton boom, not surprisingly, is that demand for cotton was growing at more than 5% per year throughout the entire first half of the 19th century. Lower that and you've just short-circuited the industrial revolution in Britain and elsewhere. But said industrial revolution is clearly not short-circuited in the Sobelverse.

The circle can probably be squared, but the squaring has got to be on the political side. Sobel hand-waves slavery's end in a deus ex machina; you've taken on the job of explaining how the abolition machine really worked.

The inability to embed charts here is a PITA. Anyway, from the 1840 statistics (page 10 here), Arkansas and Louisiana produced about 21% of the total American crop.

Interestingly, Sobel comes up with quite plausible alternative figures for cotton production. For example, in 1835 he has the South produce 998,000 bales; in real life, the South sans LA and AR produced 873,000 in that year. In 1837, with the crisis on, his South produced 980,000 bales versus 1.2 million in the real history.

It is certainly plausible that Texan production would be higher in the Sobelverse. Let's say it hits its 1860 production by 1835 (including additional production in Nuevo Leon and Coahuila) --- that's about 374,000 additional bales on the world market. Is that enough to drive cotton prices down? Well, maybe --- figuring that out would involve estimating costs and demand elasticities. Either way, I have doubts that Texas and NE Mexico (aka "Jefferson and eastern Durango") enjoyed cost advantages over the Deep South (aka "the Southern Confederation.")

Ah. So the argument I'll be making is that Sobel was misled by his sources into believing that abolition was mainly driven by economics, when it was actually mainly driven by politics. Works for me.

The social factors also involve Jefferson, which was founded by pro-independence Americans after the North American Rebellion failed. In the Sobelverse, the Rebellion is associated with slavery due to 1) leading figures in the Rebellion being prominent slaveowners, and 2) the association of Jefferson and the USM with slavery. Abolitionism is associated with Loyalism due to Lord Dunmore's Proclamation, which is retroactively seen as a great humanitarian gesture.

Also, the USM's pro-slavery ideology serves as a magnet for the S.C.'s Edmund Ruffin types, the ones who are most wedded to white supremacy as a justification for slavery. The result is a Southern Confederation that, while still plenty racist, is not racist enough to rebel to protect slavery.

With fewer diehard white supremacists in the South, abolitionism is a more popular position. Sobel even states that an abolitionist political party called the Southern Union was founded in 1825 and attracted enough support to "shatter political life in the Confederation." Abolitionism was adopted by one of the two major political parties in 1829, and was a hotly-contested political issue until the Manumission Act was finally passed in 1840.

The Manumission Act would have served to push even more white supremacists into leaving the South for the USM (and taking their slaves with them rather than seeing them freed). As a result, the S.C. is closer to the rest of the CNA than our South is to the rest of the USA.

This might be fixable, with the knowledge that we're exploring an improbable, albeit plausible, timeline.

You need a grand bargain between the South, the North, and the U.K. What would that look like?

Well, for the South, compensation. This could take three forms. One is payment for the slaves. You can run this in two-nonexclusive ways. The first is to say that an 1837 pound was worth more in the Sobelverse than in our own. That feels a little like cheating and would require you to delve into an entire alternate path of specie standards and price levels.

The second is to say that slaves went for around £60 at abolition (near their real world lows in the 1840s). The recession was brutal enough that most slaveowners didn't think prices would be recovering anytime soon. So they get a little over half market value, plus three other things:

(1) Forced labor. This is actually in Sobel. I suspect that race relations in the Sobelverse are at least as bad as our United States. No, I suspect they're worse, at least in the south.

(2) A U.K. tariff on non-American cotton. Price supports for the southerners! Does this world have free trade and most-favored nations? Apparently not.

(3) Plenty of pork from the united CNA budget.

Using actual slave populations (I leave it to you to explain how Sobel got the number of slaves wrong) that gives the Second Brittanic Design a manumission debt of roughly 16% of GDP.

The north gets a protective tariff. In essence, they get a captive market. This is actually the postwar deal that Richard Ransom proposes for an independent Confederated States. (You should read his book.) Much of the resulting spending will flow south, but that's part of the political price.

The U.K. avoids paying for manumission from the Exchequer, although its consumers pay via higher cotton prices. Their main benefit from the deal is manumission itself; they get to say that they abolished slavery within the Empire, never mind the forced labor.

There's a timing issue, with abolition coming before union instead of conterminous with it. There's also the fact that cotton later collapses in Mexico for no reason other than that Sobel wants it to. (Makes ... no ... sense. I don't care how fast he pretends that other sources come on line.) British protection can square some of that, but you've still got a challenge in rationalizing Frank Dana's work.

I don't really believe in this deal, but it's plausible.

Whoops! Excel error. Using the £35 price but 2.5 million slaves gives you a manumission debt of 28% of GDP, possibly a little more. (I used actual U.S. £35 GDP as a denominator, ignoring the fact that the CNA has something different boundaries.)

I want to know how you rationalize Sobel's low slave population numbers. The numbers, as they are, make no sense; not even with Jefferson right there. And that's before taking an open slave trade into account.

(It's likely that Georgia banned the slave trade, even if South Carolina does not. BTW, how does the entire Tennessee Valley wind up in Georgia? I just noticed that passage in Sobel --- somehow during all of our time writing FAN it passed me by. Ah, old times. Now back to the Argentine patent data.)

Okay I asked this in the other post on the American Revolution and slavery, but Johnny Pez might be able to answer it here:

This brings me to another question that I had wondered about on and off - when would slave prices have declined (if ever) in the South had the CSA become independent (either with war or without war)? And to relate this to the "failed American Revolution" theme, when would slave prices have declined (if ever) in the South had the American revolution failed?

I've thought that it would definitely survive economically until at least the mid-1910s into the 1920s by which time the boll weevil had begun to really impact the cotton growing areas (after which point I think the productivity/output and value of cotton declined). Could this have lead to a decline in slave prices to the point where slavery would not really be economical especially as working class whites would not be in favour of slaves taking up the kind of work they were doing? So you would have economic pressure from environmental factors and political pressure from working class, non-slave owning whites squeezing slavery by the 1920s?

Checking a bit more into it, the peak of cotton prices when adjusted for inflation was around 1913. Cotton production (when adjusted for inflation) also declined greatly from the 1940s onwards. So could the price of slaves have tracked the inflation adjusted price and production of cotton to mean that slaves would become uneconomical after the 1940s or at least cheap enough for compensated manumission by the 1940s/1950s?

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