Book Review: The Political Economy Of The Cotton South

The Political Economy Of The Cotton South:  Households, Markets, ANd Wealth In The Nineteenth Century, by Gavin Wright

The question of the profitability of slavery is one that has always struck me as deeply interesting and sometimes quite funny.  Nevertheless, one does not expect to find books on political economy to be riveting reading because much of the time they argue over definitions and categories and assumptions.  How did slaveowners make money during the 19th century and how did the cotton economy of the South survive after the Civil War?  Absent slavery, sharecropping for both poor whites and blacks was a sensible if not necessarily very profitable option for everyone involved, but with slavery slaveowners had the chance to earn money from their slaves in three main ways.  Either those slaves could work for the master for goods that were to be sold, either the slaves or their children could be sold for profit, or the slaves could be hired out to others for a wage to be paid to the owner.  And looking at how this was done in the region of the South as a whole is interesting to me even if it may not be as interesting to everyone else.

This book is a bit less than 200 pages and is divided into six large chapters.  The book begins with tables, figures, maps, a preface, and then an introduction that discusses various models that economists have developed about slavery and the argument of the book (1).  After that the author discusses the structure of the cotton-slave economy of the antebellum South, including the rise of Cotton, the status of the South in 1860, the distribution of wealth at the time and in the historical perspective, as well as the paradox of personal wealth and societal backwardness (2).  After that the author looks at the microeconomics of plantation and farm by discussing issues of scale, choice of crops, risk, economies of slave, and labor as a commodity (3).  There are then materials relating to the pace of progress in the Cotton South depending on demand, productivity, non-agricultural economic activity, and immigration (4).  The author discusses how one makes sense of cotton, slavery, and the Civil War from an economic perspective (5), and then the last chapter of the book looks at the rise of tenancy after the Civil War (6), after which there is a bibliography and index.

This book is dry and technical, but the information it talks about is worthwhile because it deals with the thorny repercussions of what happens when labor is also property and when the benefits of that labor do not serve the interests of the worker himself (or herself) but serve a third party.  The fact that slaves themselves could provide great wealth to their owners while bringing poverty to the regions as a whole and destroying the trust and basis for prosperity for the area as a whole is one of the more fascinating aspects of the paradoxes of slavery that are really the paradox of tyranny in general.  Tyrants benefit from oppression, but the reality of that oppression harms the well-being of everyone else, even those who are deceived into going along with that oppression for non-economic benefits like having someone else to look down on.  Obviously, this is relevant not only to the history of the antebellum South or to American history in general or even the subject of slavery in general but to the larger question of how it is that what benefits some people can be immensely harmful to society at large but nonetheless impossible to root out because those who benefit are the ones who have the power to make the decisions.

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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