Sunday, February 02, 2014

Did Slavery Pay? The Economics of Slavery

From : Why the South Fought the Civil War

The production of cotton in the Deep South demanded labor, and with the termination of the African slave trade, this demand for labor fueled an explosion in the price of slaves and the proliferation of the domestic slave trade.  Slavery was a dynamic institution, expanding where the economy was expanding and providing an easily convertible asset in case of need.   The case of Hickory Hill plantation is illustrative.  Hickory Hill, owned by the Wickham family, was a 3,500 acre plantation located in central Hanover County, near Richmond, Virginia.  The plantation practiced the most up to date agricultural methods.  The most important pillar of the Wickhams’ financial security, however, was the increasing value and number of slaves at Hickory Hill.  In 1852 there were two hundred slaves valued at $70,000, an average of $350 each at Hickory Hill.  In 1860 there were 275 slaves, averaging slightly more than $650 each, worth $180,000.  In eight years the value of the Wickham’s slave property increased two and one half times.  Low crop yields were not something the Wickhams had to worry about.  If the Wickhams had to endure several consecutive years of crop failures, they could always sell some of their slaves.(9) The Wickham family was not alone however; as previously noted, slave owning was not only for wealthy planters.(10)

     Fueled by speculation, the total value of slave property across the South in 1860 was enormous compared to other sectors of the economy.  It was nearly three times larger than the total amount of capital invested in manufacturing throughout the entire country, almost three times the amount invested in all railroads, and seven times the amount invested in all banks.  It was three times the value of all livestock, twelve times the value of all farm implements and machinery and forty eight times larger than the total annual expenditures of the Federal government. (11)  Slave owning Southerners worried about the loss of this huge investment.  Northerners, such as Ambert Remington of New York, foretold that, “…a man that owns ten, twenty, or thirty thousand dollars in slaves, ($4-12 million in current dollars) will not give them up without a struggle….” (12)

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