Slavery was both a set of economic arrangements and also a raw authoritarian human rights violation. It\’s unsurprising that there has been long-standing controversy over the relationship: for example, did slavery in the United States boost to economic growth or hold it back? Gavin Wright revisits these issues in \”Slavery and Anglo‐American capitalism revisited\” (Economic History Review, May 2020, 73:2, pp. 353-383, subscription required). The paper was also the subject of the Tawney lecture at the Economic History Society meetings in 2019, and the one-hourlecture can be freely viewed here.
The prominence of slave-based commerce for the Atlantic economy provides the background for the arresting connections reported by C. S. Wilder in his book Ebony and ivy, associating early American universities with slavery. The first five colleges in British America were major beneficiaries of the African slave trade and slavery. ‘Harvard became the first in a long line of North American schools to target wealthy planters as a source of enrollments and income’. The reason for what might seem an incongruous liaison is not hard to identify: ‘The American college was an extension of merchant wealth’. A wealthy merchant in colonial America was perforce engaged with the slave trade or slave-based commerce.
However, as numerous writers have pointed out over time, the coexistence of slavery with British and American capitalism of the 17th century does not prove that slavery was necessary or sufficient for an emerging capitalism. As many writers have pointed out, historical slavery across what we now call Latin America. At that time, Spain and Portugal (among others) were also active participants in the slave trade, yet their economies did not develop an industrial revolution like that of the UK. Countries all over Latin America were recipients of slaves, like the area that became the US, but those countries did not develop a US-style economy. Clearly, drawing a straight line from slavery to capitalism of the Anglo-American variety would be wildly simplistic.
The Atlantic economy of the eighteenth century was propelled by sugar, a quintessential slave crop. In contrast, cotton required no large investments of fixed capital and could be cultivated efficiently at any scale, in locations that would have been settled by free farmers in the absence of slavery. Early mainland cotton growers deployed slave labour, not because of its productivity or aptness for the new crop, but because they were already slave owners, searching for profitable alternatives to tobacco, indigo, and other declining crops. Slavery was, in effect, a ‘pre-existing condition’ for the nineteenth-century American South.
The best evidence that slavery was not essential for cotton supply is what happened after slavery’s demise. The wartime and postwar years of ‘cotton famine’ were times of great hardship for Lancashire, only partially mitigated by high-cost imports from India, Egypt, and Brazil. After the war, however, merchants and railroads flooded into the south-east, enticing previously isolated farm areas into the cotton economy. Production in plantation areas gradually recovered, but the biggest source of new cotton came from white farmers in the Piedmont. When the dust settled in the 1880s, India, Egypt, and slave-using Brazil had retreated from world markets, and the price of cotton in Lancashire was back to its antebellum level …
First, \”[t]he region closed the African slave trade in 1807 and failed to recruit free labour,
making labour supply inelastic.\” Why were slaveowners against having more slaves? As Wright points out: \”After voting for secession in 1861 by 84 to 14, the Mississippi convention voted down a re-opening resolution by 66 to 13. The reason for this ostensible contradiction is not difficult to identify: to
re-open the African trade was to threaten the wealth of thousands of slaveholders across the South.\” In short, bringing in more slaves would have reduce the price of existing slaves–so existing slaveowners were against it. In addition, immigrant to the US from, say, 1820 to 1880 overwhelmingly went to free states. Slave states in the southwest \”displayed net white outmigration, even during cotton booms, at times when one might have expected a rush of immigration. One result was low population density and a level of cotton production well below potential.\”
Third, \”the fixed-cost character of slavery meant that even large plantations aimed at self-sufficiency in foodstuffs, limiting the overall degree of market specialization.\” One main advantage of slavery in cotton production was that it guaranteed having sufficient labor available at the two key times of the year for cotton: planting and harvesting. But during the rest of the year, most cotton plantations grew other crops and raised livestock
The shortcomings of the South as a cotton producer during this time were clear to some contemporary observers. Wright says: \”Particularly notable are the views of Thomas Ellison, long-time chronicler and statistician of cotton markets, who observed in 1858: `That the Southern regions of the United States are capable of producing a much larger quantity of Cotton than has yet been raised is very evident; in fact, their resources are, practically speaking, almost without limit’. What was it that restrained this
potential supply? Ellison had no doubt that the culprit was slavery …\”