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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Universal Attractions of Slavery

David Brion Davis, writing in the New York Review of Books has written an excellent review (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/dec/17/the-universal-attractions-of-slavery/)  of Seymour Drescher’s book Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery.  The book argues that contrary to current popular opinion, slavery would not have collapsed on itself,  and only the various social, religious, political, and economic movements against it, ending in cataclysmic Civil War, could have stopped it.

Slavery, the institution that perhaps most defines American history, that precipitated a catastrophic Civil War,  and whose legacy lives on today, was not an American one and was well known long before its establishment in the New World.

In view of the gradual disappearance of slavery and serfdom in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, it is easy to forget that free labor was virtually unknown in the rest of the world during most of human history.

In the preceding three centuries [prior to 1492), slavery in the Christian Mediterranean had been identified with so-called Slavs, many of them from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, who had been purchased by Italian merchants and sold in both Christian and Muslim markets (and the Western European words for “slave”—esclavo, escravo, Sklave, esclave, schiavo—stem from the Latin for Slav, sclavus).

In 1670 or 1710, an Englishman would almost certainly have referred to fellow white countrymen who had been seized on the English coast or on ships by Barbary corsairs and transported to Muslim North Africa for heavy labor or sometimes ransom. For some three centuries Muslim raiders, often aided by European renegades, enslaved English, Irish, Scottish, French, Iberian, American, and even Scandinavian and Icelander captives, who joined other slaves from Russia, Italy, the Balkans, and sub-Saharan Africa in the Maghreb. From 1600 to 1750 at least 20,000 British and Irish were held as slaves in North Africa.

Regardless of its longevity or acceptability as an economic system, there is no way to underestimate its corrosive consequences.  As early Americans soon found out, there was no way to simply free the slaves.  The formal abolition of slavery in 1865 through the Thirteenth Amendment was only the first official step to functional abolition, and the country had to wait a hundred years until the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1965 for a true dismantling of the institution to begin. In the hundred years between the two important dates, blacks in the South were little better than slaves, working as tenant farmers at best under a strict apartheid-style system of segregation.  Reconstruction, initiated in principle to restore the defeated South and to make it fit for re-inclusion into the Union, only resulted in the further alienation of the region; the ultimate establishment of a de facto system of modified slavery – segregation; and a the creation of a determined, entrenched, and politically powerful elite that perpetuated hatred of the North, and a passionate defense of its own ‘way of life’. 

The legacy of slavery is with us today; and to travel through an inner-city neighborhood – black, segregated, poor, and dysfunctional – can only remind us of our past.   It is perhaps because of this living legacy that our vision of slavery has become one-dimensional - a deprivation of human rights, the mistreatment of the enslaved, and the degradation of the individual.  While this is no doubt true, it overlooks one of the most important aspect of American slavery - the economics of the ‘peculiar institution’ and the fact that it was a strong, productive, and viable system.  The slave represented both labor and capital, and thus had to be managed in a way that would produce the greatest return on investment.  Records taken from antebellum plantation homes show that many, if not most slave owners carefully managed their investment, assuring that slaves would be strong, healthy, and reproductive. 

Given the above-mentioned legacy, it is hard for most Americans to accept that slave owners were business men and had more to gain by treating slaves well than poorly.  This is not to say that Simon Legrees did not exist. Mastery creates abuse; and human nature is such that those who have unchallenged power and authority will abuse it.  Nor is it to say that slavery – as judged through the relatively modern lens of the Enlightenment (the period when slavery was beginning to be examined) – is not a moral evil.  It is only to say that slavery was a going business, a successful economic model and that only Civil War could have ended it.

This long-dominant mythology seemed to draw some confirmation from the fact that slavery was often associated with soil exhaustion, indebtedness, and low levels of literacy, urban growth, industry, and immigration. Drawing on Adam Smith’s arguments on the superiority of free labor, or on Marxist concepts of alleged irreversible material progress, or on racist views that American slavery, while an anachronism, helped civilize so-called African savages and would have soon died out on its own without a needless Civil War, countless historians, novelists, politicians, and others misrepresented an institution that served as the crucial basis for New World settlement and expansion for over three centuries. It was a system, moreover, that anticipated the efficiency and productivity of factory assembly lines while also leading the way to the first stage of a globalized economy.

As the croplands of the Deep South opened up and the demand for labor increased, plantation owners were even more interested in assuring the fertility and reproductive health of their slaves.  Thomas Jefferson among other slave owners understood the economics of the institution as well as anyone else, and although he was morally and philosophically opposed to slavery, he knew that his wealth increased with the growing demand for his slaves.

Drescher – like Fogel and Engerman in Time on the Cross – conclude that because slavery was indeed a productive and profitable system and that it would not have collapsed upon itself, it was only because of the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements which drew their argument from philosophy (the Enlightenment’s concept of free labor and the rights of Man), religion (in particular the Quakers but later the Methodists), and economic competition (the industrialized North vs. the agricultural South) that created the pressure to go to war against an equally determined South, convinced of its own rights and ready to fight to defend them. 

What makes the success of that movement especially amazing is the extraordinary strength, vitality, productivity, profitability, and transferability of racial slavery in the New World. By the late 1600s the sugar-producing Caribbean colonies had created the most profitable economy, per capita, in the world. Their exports were worth two and a half times those of the partly free-labor economies of North America, and colonists with the highest incomes now lived in the West Indies. And despite the emergence of liberal and radical ideologies in the Age of Revolution, despite the rise of antislavery organizations in Britain, America, and France, despite the disruptions of the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, the African slave trade reached its peak between 1783 and 1793 and could hardly have been more vigorous and profitable when outlawed in 1807 by Britain and the United States.

The value of British West Indian exports to England and of imports in the West Indies from England increased sharply from the early 1780s to the end of the eighteenth century. Drescher also demonstrated that the British West Indies’ share of the total British overseas trade rose to high peaks in the early nineteenth century and did not begin a long-range decline until well after Parliament deprived the colonies of fresh supplies of African labor.

After assessing the profitability of the slave trade, which brought rewards of around 10 percent on investment, and the increasing value of the British West Indies, Drescher contended that the British slave system was expanding, not declining, at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Much of Drescher’s book, then, focuses on the factors which led to abolition.  Since slavery was an economically productive system, both for Britain and the United States, and there was no economic self-interest in destroying it, it was left to the non-economic forces of society to demand its cessation.

No theme in Drescher’s book is more striking than the extraordinary success of abolitionism in mobilizing public opinion in Britain and then in the northern United States (with a very different outcome), as well as the failure of such efforts on the Continent.

He convincingly underscores the importance of representative government and the tradition of public petitioning as well as the fact that newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, voluntary societies and associations, and a common-law tradition created in Anglo-American societies a degree of public participation unmatched in the rest of the world. He also briefly notes that by the 1780s, British culture had long been saturated with appalling descriptions of the cruelties of the African slave trade.

British abolitionists’ [enjoyed] extraordinary success in mobilizing public opinion and influencing government policies. In 1787, when reformers in London founded the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, a separate society emerged in the industrial center of Manchester with 68 women among its 302 subscribers. From the very start women had a prominent part in the British movement as writers, public speakers, leaders of campaigns to boycott slave-grown sugar, and by the 1820s as signers of petitions and influential advocates of “immediate,” as opposed to gradual, slave emancipation.

Although Drescher underestimates the central force of evangelical religion in motivating Anglo-American abolitionism, he convincingly underscores the importance of representative government and the tradition of public petitioning as well as the fact that newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, voluntary societies and associations, and a common-law tradition created in Anglo-American societies a degree of public participation unmatched in the rest of the world. He also briefly notes that by the 1780s, British culture had long been saturated with appalling descriptions of the cruelties of the African slave trade.

There are many additional factors which influenced the course of events in the United States.  The defense of ‘free labor’ – a philosophical principle derived from the Enlightenment and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – was made even more compelling because of our colonial history.  Americans were slaves of a sort to their colonial masters, unable to profit from their own labor, and therefore philosophy grew practical, political teeth.  The fact that the concept of ‘free labor’ as a strictly economic system was flawed did not matter.  It had such strong philosophical and nationalistic roots, that it persisted despite the evidence:

Abolitionists were encouraged by the prevailing conviction regarding the economic superiority of free labor and the belief, shared even by many New World slaveholders, that slavery, like medieval serfdom, was destined by history to be extinguished. Yet they were forced to deal with the repeated limitations and failures of free-labor ideology, for example the discovery that freed plantation workers were not as productive as slaves, even after periods of “educational” coerced apprenticeship.

The role of religion in America was even more important in abolishing slavery for the same reasons.  Disaffected and subjugated members of religious minorities in England fled their imperial masters and were passionately committed to any kind of freedom.  Not surprisingly religions proliferated in America, and in the South Methodists in particular were responsible for slave literacy (to be able to read the Bible) and inclusion in religious worship.  Although these religious groups were not directly or necessarily contributing to the demise of slavery, they nevertheless were important actors in the movement.  

America, as a new nation, was feeling its muscle early and often.  America was expansionist and industrializing early in the 19th century.  The cotton gin revolutionized Southern agriculture and made a productive crop even more so; but at the same time threated the economic interests of the North.  As anti-slavery movements gained momentum in the North, the South turned increasingly to Britain as the major buyer of cotton – enriching a former enemy and a potential new one. 

In short, although slavery was indeed a viable and productive economic system, it could not withstand the onslaught of what was becoming a perfect storm, a confluence of factors which precipitated its demise.  Because the South had its own perfect storm – an economic model which produced wealth; a plantation society based on the old English Cavalier tradition and one prized for its ‘higher values’ of social grace and propriety; and a growing defiance of ‘foreign intervention’ (the precursor to ‘states’ rights’.  War was inevitable.

It is not surprising that even in defeat the South was determined to salvage as much of its own legacy as possible.  The successful fight to reject Radical Republicanism, to establish Jim Crow, to create an economic system of tenant farming which was little different from slavery, and to coalesce political forces into a strong political force, made the South once again an enemy, but this time within the Union.   Given the North’s many justifications for war and the destruction of the South’s economic and social structure, the continuing antipathy towards it was also not surprising.

Lincoln of course, as a consummate politician trying desperately to save the Union, found the Abolitionists more of a problem than an ally.  He knew that compromises would have to be made to ensure that the South would not secede, and he felt that their harsh and inflexible positions would make this difficult.  The more Lincoln resisted complete abolition and emancipation, the louder their cries became and the more determined the South became.

In conclusion, slavery was a successful, productive, and viable system which for centuries had produced great returns and it would not have collapsed on its own.  It was not the universally brutal and exploitive regime portrayed by the Abolitionists and modern day ‘Progressives’.  It was a business to be managed like any other.  The fact that it was so unique, combining labor and capital in each slave, slave owners’ attention to individual productivity (economic and reproductive) was paramount.  As the development of the Old Southwest continued apace and new cotton lands were developed, the value of slaves rose, as did the desire to protect investments.  Because it was viable, growing, and expanding, it took a concerted effort from the North to eliminate it.  Unfortunately war was inevitable and Lincoln was assassinated.  Had he lived, Reconstruction would certainly not have been so draconian and unreasonable, the integration of former slaves into American society accomplished more easily, and a more perfect re-Union realized.

1 comment:

  1. Although Scotts German Appalachian Evangelicals were the core of abolitionists, they supported segregation because most former slaves had syphilis from being abused. Slave owners were Anglican refugees from Cromwell’s Puritans. All the Daisy Duke Cut Off Hot Pants in southeast colleges manifest how sexually depraved they were. The slave trade continued silently through the French Catholic ports of New Orleans and Mobile aided by Lehman bankers and Benaki ships. Don’t forget the Confederate treasurer was Jewish.