Political compromise and profit motives preserved slavery at the United States’ birth and kept it expanding for a century. Slavery wasn’t merely a backward institution ended by the Civil War, a common assessment. Instead, historian Edward E. Baptist asserts that it underwrote American wealth and power and inspired modern capitalism. Charting the parallel growth of cotton and the rosters of enslaved people, Baptist details the intricate relationships between slavery and the US economy. In the process, he brings to life the people whom slavery had turned into commodities.
- A half-million enslaved Africans lived in the original 13 American colonies.
- Cotton – the world’s most heavily traded commodity – transformed the global economy.
- “Accounting and torture” created slave labor efficiencies.
- Slavery’s expansion gave the South growing political power. Political and moral anxieties grew in the North.
- By the 1820s, most states let white men vote, even if they had no property – thus increasing their political power.
- Southern planters established their own banks to take advantage of the cotton boom.
- The price of cotton crashed, plunging the nation into depression.
- By the 1840s, Northern industry was less dependent on cotton and more inclined to believe that slavery was morally wrong.
- Congress believed the first transcontinental railroad would expand prosperity. Southerners saw it as a way to spread slavery.
- During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.
A half-million enslaved Africans lived in the original 13 American colonies.
In early America, race-based slavery built a powerful tobacco industry along the Virginia and Maryland coasts. African slaves had no rights; US law saw them as property and defined enslaved women’s children as slaves. The drafting of the US Constitution included political compromises that gave economic incentives to slavery. Each slave counted as three-fifths of a person in the census that set each state’s number of representatives and electoral college delegates. In 1793, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, saying runaway slaves belonged to their enslavers.
“Lincoln’s astonishing second inaugural address…perhaps, the greatest speech ever given in the English language…was a history of the half untold. It named slavery and the incessant pressure for its expansion as the reason why oceans of blood had drowned the battlefields of the Civil War.”
Before 1800, Caribbean sugar drove the international slave trade. In 1791, slaves on the island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) revolted, killing their masters and torching plantations. The rebels defeated the army that Napoleon sent and founded Haiti. Napoleon sold the Louisiana territory, including New Orleans, for $15 million, instantly doubling the nation’s size.
Union Army General Andrew Jackson fought to take Native American land in the area that includes Alabama and Mississippi. He beat the British at New Orleans to consolidate US power. Annexing the Mississippi River Valley opened a land rush. Slave merchants and owners forced nearly one million slaves to migrate south and west between 1790 and 1860.
Cotton – the world’s most heavily traded commodity – transformed the global economy.
Raw cotton traveled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and then to Manchester, England’s textile mills. “Drug foods” like sugar, coffee, chocolate and tobacco fueled the “first slavery complex.” But cotton laid the foundation for a modern economy. Traders commercialized agriculture and increased growing capacity. In 1820, cotton was 42% of US exports.
“In this story, there is no good master, no legitimate heir to the ownership of slave property, no kindly plantation owner – only the ability of the strong to take from others.”
New York and London bankers backed Southern raw cotton for staggering profits. The new economy ran on credit, leveraging today’s deals with tomorrow’s revenues. Congress chartered the Second Bank of the United States (BUS) in 1816. It drew foreign investors and lent to US entrepreneurs. Easy credit and so-called Alabama Fever – “the fervent belief that every white person who could get frontier land and put enslaved people to work making cotton would inevitably become rich” – convinced people there to buy property and slaves on credit.
After the Panic of 1819, BUS president Nicholas Biddle reorganized and revitalized the bank in a way that would fuel economic growth. BUS instituted a fractional reserve system, mandating that its banks back some portion of the currency and credit they issued with gold and silver. But while growing credit enabled more economic growth, Americans increasingly saw the BUS – an institution that benefited only its 4,000 shareholders – with suspicion. An elite class became entrenched due to rampant cronyism among BUS, state banks and big borrowers.
“Accounting and torture” created slave labor efficiencies.
In 1805, planters expected each slave to weed five acres yearly. Fifty years later, the expectation was 10 acres. Production gains per picker rose by nearly 400% between 1800 and 1860. This confounded Northern advocates of free labor, who argued that wage earners had more motivation to be efficient than slaves did. Overseers measured a slave’s first-day picking and demanded at least that much daily. Failure meant the lash. Some slaves picked with both hands simultaneously, turning their bodies into machines. Overseers kept raising the quotas.
“So much had been stolen from them. But African-Americans had a story that made them a people. They had a unity that was ultimately political.”
Slaves evolved a distinctive African-American English. In the fields, they sang of sorrow and hope. They crafted an oral history that defined and explained the nature of slavery, condemning “this common story [as] a crime story.”
Slavery’s expansion gave the South growing political power. Political and moral anxieties grew in the North.
More cotton meant more slaves and more Southern Congress members which meant more pro-slavery laws. Congress divided bitterly on allowing Missouri to join the union as a slave state. The Missouri Compromise admitted it as slave-holding and Maine as free. Congress forbade slavery north of the 36th parallel, delineating political fault lines.
“The entire Atlantic economy now depended on the ability of the planters to cycle cotton revenues back through the system.”
White resistance to slavery arose, primarily among Quakers. William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, called for immediate emancipation and excoriated slave holders for separating families and raping enslaved women. In 1829, free-born African-American shop owner David Walker of Boston wrote the explosive Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, a challenge to the slave system in “four devastating essays.” In response to its distribution in the South, local authorities passed laws to limit the movement and literacy of black people and to suppress advocacy of abolition. The South was rife with violence, often springing from masculine honor.
Slavery spread alongside evangelical Protestantism. In the North, evangelicalism emphasized personal choices that led to salvation; Southern churches preached surrendering to God’s mysterious will. Enslaved Virginia preacher Nat Turner said his God called for vengeance. On August 22, 1831, he led slaves in the murders of 60 white people. The state crushed his rebellion, and Southern states further restricted black people’s freedom.
By the 1820s, most states let white men vote, even if they had no property – thus increasing their political power.
Men of property dominated American politics. Andrew Jackson became president in 1828, vowing that government would work for all white male citizens, not just the elite.
“From 1854 forward, the right to expand slavery into the territories would be an article of faith in Southern popular politics.”
White frontiersmen, free from most laws, became reckless and violent. They refused to continue to follow polite society’s class structure, which regarded them as second-class citizens. However, they continued to hold slaves and to scorn religious protests – led by white women – about the immorality of slavery. In that day and time, women’s opinions didn’t matter.
Southern planters established their own banks to take advantage of the cotton boom.
Frustrated with the BUS, Louisiana speculators partnered with European investors in 1827 to charter the Consolidated Association of the Planters of Louisiana. The state’s taxpayers guaranteed its undertakings, as its banking model of mortgaging slaves as well as real estate spread through the South. Thus, many shared in the slave economy’s growing prosperity.
“An entire planet’s consumers shared in the welfare of the growing margin between the price of raw cotton and what the price would have been if picked by free labor.”
State banks flourished under Jackson, a populist who vetoed a bill to recharter the BUS. Jackson delivered the killing blow to the BUS by removing government deposits and distributing them among “politically friendly” state banks. By 1833, banks had ramped up lending and were circulating their own paper currencies. The prices of slaves rose with no relationship to the price of cotton. The nation boomed economically as men in power considered ways of expanding slavery.
The price of cotton crashed, plunging the nation into depression.
In 1836, the Bank of England began withdrawing credit from Liverpool cotton traders, setting in motion a credit-tightening that drove companies out of business. New York banks closed to avert runs. Southern banks were left with worthless paper, undervalued cotton and mortgaged slaves. Then, the price of slaves dropped. Credit propped up cotton prices, but an oversupply of cotton in 1839 drove prices back down. A panic set in nationwide.
“Slavery undermined freedom’s future for whites as well as blacks. It could not be allowed to expand, or it would go everywhere and change everything.”
Creditors called in state “faith bonds,” obliging states to levy taxes on residents. Democrats decried the injustice of poor men covering the debts of the rich. Multiple states repudiated their debt obligations, destroying the South’s creditworthiness for decades. The United States annexed Texas in the 1840s, extending slavery and cotton for new investors.
By the 1840s, Northern industry was less dependent on cotton and more inclined to believe that slavery was morally wrong.
The cotton mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, turned 5.5 million pounds of cotton – produced by 100,000 slave-labor days – into cloth each year. Investors used the profits to build a diverse Northern economy; the South plowed its profits back into cotton and slaves. Between 1840 and 1850, the population of factory workers grew from 500,00 to 1.2 million, creating new consumers. Industries like railroads depended on working-class spending. The rising need for labor drew European immigrants, and Northern states grew exponentially. The census began counting immigrants as full people, giving the North more political power.
“The willingness of many white Southerners to unite around the idea of hanging on to racial power made the South a swing region – and white Southerners a defined interest group.”
Northern politicians formed the anti-slavery Republican Party. In the 1850s, Southerners expected a rosy future based on slavery. Southern lenders offered more controlled credit to planters, and cotton regained profitability. Northern politicians tried to limit slavery in new territories. Southern politicians sought to expand it, claiming that the federal government couldn’t interfere with personal property rights, so states couldn’t impose emancipation.
Harriet and Dred Scott’s “freedom suit” struck at the heart of this question. The Scotts, former slaves, became technically free when their enslaver moved them to the free territory of what is now Minnesota and then south with him to St. Louis. After he died, his widow wouldn’t let the Scotts buy their freedom. They filed suit. The Dred Scott case reached the US Supreme Court in 1856. The court ruled that the Missouri Compromise and legal emancipation were unconstitutional, finding that anti-slavery laws didn’t supersede the property rights of a Missouri citizen. Republicans argued that the court disregarded the role of Congress.
Congress believed the first transcontinental railroad would expand prosperity. Southerners saw it as a way to spread slavery.
The compromise to secure Southern votes caused violent conflict in the Kansas-Nebraska territories. Strife in Kansas halted economic growth, banks collapsed and the country entered the Panic of 1857. In 1858, former Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln challenged Senator Stephen Douglas and lost. During the seven Lincoln–Douglas debates, Lincoln argued, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” In 1860, Lincoln became president with 40% of the vote. Before his inauguration, the Southern states seceded, setting in motion the events that led to the Civil War. At the beginning of the war, the South slowed cotton production to a trickle, hoping to force Europe to support it, but cotton production flourished elsewhere.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and confirmed Congress’s 1862 mandate to let African-Americans join the Union Army in the new “US Colored Troops.” By 1864, 40,000 black soldiers had died in the war. During the war and later, when previously enslaved men and women wed, the law protected their marriages from their enslavers. In March 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, ending slavery. The South surrendered in April.
Lincoln blamed the war’s carnage on slavery and its quest for new territory. He supported suffrage for black men, but he was assassinated in 1865 before he could give black males the right to vote.
“Abraham Lincoln was either the last casualty of the Civil War or one of the first of a long civil rights movement that is not yet over.”
His successor, racist Andrew Johnson, supported white supremacy. Southern legislators passed laws limiting black citizens’ freedom. In 1868, Congress passed the 14th Amendment establishing “birthright citizenship.” The 1873 depression allowed Southern whites to assert power, including through the Ku Klux Klan. In 1876, Republicans gave Southern Democrats “home rule,” and the South passed Jim Crow laws to roll back Reconstruction’s advances.
Segregation in the North and South continued to bar blacks from financial, social and political advancement. The South couldn’t survive the isolation it instituted in an effort to preserve white power. By the 1930s, most Southerners, black or white, were poor.
The impact of slavery on American history and society – “the other half of the story” – remained hidden for a terribly long time, but its reverberations continue.
About the Author
Edward E. Baptist, PhD, teaches history at Cornell University and is the author of the award-winning Creating an Old South.
This document is restricted to personal use only.