Book Review: Did Slavery Pay?

Did Slavery Pay?, by Hugh G.J. Aitken

This book was a deeply fascinating one for me to read and it is a book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to someone who wants to recognize the struggle in economic history between the statistical and “objective” approach of economists and the more human and complicated and quantitative approach of historians to problems of deep and obvious controversy and relevance.  This particular book shows the author/editor providing texts from a variety of economic historians that appear to divide into different camps based on whether the particular author in question emphasizes the economic side of economic history or the historical side of the field.  Those who emphasize the economic side argue about the profitability of slavery, especially if slave breeding operations are taken into account, in a way that ignores the inhumanity of the institution and its cruelty to blacks, and even the damage it did to efforts on the part of white southern businessmen to profit from the small local market that resulted from having so many Southerners so destitute and thus so unable to serve as consumers for Southern businesses.  Yet the argument from the point of view of morals, while it recognizes the horror that we have towards slavery, does not do justice to the way that slaveowners themselves sought both economic wealth and non-economic status and luxury through slaveowning and were for a good long while very successful at it.

This book is about 350 pages or so and is made of a variety of essays on the debate over the profitability of slavery in the south with comments from the author/editor.  These papters begin with a discussion by Woodman and a very early writing by Cairnes on the economic basis of slavery.  After that there are various papers that look at the subject from a Lost Cause myth point of view that downplay the economic profitability of the South as a way of minimizing the unrighteous mammon that plantation owners gained as a result of slavery.  Still other papers look at the profitability of slavery in the antebellum South from the point of view of accountants or economists or business firms, discussing in terms that downplay the horrors of balancing one’s books through slave breeding operations.  And still other papers take offense at the phlegmatic approach of those who would look at slavery only from a balance sheet perspective while ignoring the very human costs of slavery, while not recognizing the hazards to the academic discipline of history that result from a thoughtless and heedless moral anachronism that does not recognize the way in which we are not only judges of the past but also will stand in judgment for our own times and behavior.

When we ask the question if slavery paid, the obvious follow-up question in the Socratic process is to ask for whom?  Did slavery pay for slaveowners?  Almost certainly it did, because they could command the entire surplus above maintenance cost for themselves and even profit off of the sale of slave children, some of whom were likely their own offspring, in order to balance the books when times were tough or a new expenditure had to be paid for.  Did slavery pay for the South itself?  Yes, if one judges on per capita income but perhaps not if one judges on the median income of ordinary white southerners, many of whom were not slaveowners and did not greatly profit economically from it even if they did get psychological benefits from being a subsidiary elite.  And slavery most certainly did not pay if one looked at the misery of blacks, although it must be admitted that the end of slavery did not exactly raise the status of blacks to a great degree because it reduced the economic motives that may have led to medical care being given to profitable human capital that was not given to far less profitable independent contractors.  And yet those questions have been fought over for a long time and show no sign of stopping any time soon.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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