Slavery was bad
A hotter economic history take than you might think
To the best of my understanding, the slaveowners among America’s “founding fathers” generally understood the institution to be, in some sense, bad.
George Washington embraced perhaps the most chillingly real version of this in that he freed his slaves upon his death — he knew it was the right thing to do, he just liked profiting from slavery too much to do it until it wouldn’t cost him anything. But there were real ideological and policy elements to this, too.
Slavery in the territories became controversial later in American history, but the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that prohibited it in the area that became Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin wasn’t particularly controversial at the time. Thomas Jefferson was a major force behind the legislation, and he wasn’t pushing to expand slavery into the northwest. He was extremely racist and not at all prepared to live side by side with a population of free Black people, but the Founding generation was generally not enthusiastic about trying to spread the slave-plantation socioeconomic model.
Later, though, as slavery came under more severe criticism from abolitionist and Free Soil types, the ideological currents in the South shifted.
During the 1820s, southerners started instead articulating the “positive good” theory of slavery. Or, as governor Stephen Miller of South Carolina put it in 1829, slavery was really awesome. Not just convenient for the slaveowners or an alternative to racial equality, but “a national benefit” that drove the prosperity of the whole country:
Slavery is not a national evil; on the contrary, it is a national benefit. The agricultural wealth of the country is found in those states owning slaves, and a great portion of the revenue of the government is derived from the products of slave labor—Slavery exists in some form everywhere, and it is not of much consequence in a philosophical point of view, whether it be voluntary or involuntary. In a political point of view, involuntary slavery had the advantage, since all who enjoy political liberty are then, in fact, free.
This was an important shift in American political discourse in the first half of the 19th Century. Free Soilers and the early Republican Party had developed the concept of the “Slave Power,” a mechanism by which a group of plantation owners who were a numerical minority even in the South, managed to drive national policy to serve their interests. The Positive Good theory was designed to debunk this. Over time, it failed to convince the majority of northerners, but it did convince the majority of southerners, leading to political fracturing and the American Civil War.
You would think that 160 years later this would be a definitively settled issue. But in a weird way the old Positive Good idea keeps ricocheting around as people look for cute history theses to advance, and most oddly of all as leftists try to indict capitalism by agreeing with Positive Good theorists’ exaggeration of slavery’s benefits.
So a new paper by economic historians Richard Hornbeck and Trevon Logan with the thesis that the costs of the slave system greatly exceeded the benefits is more important than you might think.
The bleak economics of slavery
I think the most straightforward way to think, economically, of enslavement is that it functions like theft. If I take something of yours, that is good for me and bad for you, but no wealth or income has been generated. There’s no prosperous society created —the wealth is just being shifted from victims to perpetrators.
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