The End of Slavery in the United States

This post commemorates the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth by revisiting two long-debated questions about the Civil War: Was it fought over the issue of slavery? Would slavery have ended in the United States, even if the Confederacy had not been defeated?

WAS THE CIVIL WAR ABOUT SLAVERY?

The war was about slavery, in a roundabout way:

  • The mainly agrarian South wanted low tariffs on manufactured goods because high tariffs meant that Southerners had to pay higher prices for manufactured goods. The North wanted high tariffs to protect its new manufacturing industries.
  • Slave labor was fundamental to Southern agrarianism. Abolition was largely a Northern phenomenon.
  • Anti-Northern feelings among Southern elites had been running high for decades. With the rise of the Republican Party, Southerners faced not only the continued prospect of Northern economic dominance but also the prospect that slavery would be abolished. The declarations of the causes of secession issued by four seceding States — Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas — leave no doubt that anti-abolition, pro-slavery sentiment fueled secession. Mississippi’s declaration, for example, puts this at the top of the list of reasons for secession:

    Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.

    In sum, the election of Abraham Lincoln posed an imminent threat to the Southern “way of life,” in which slavery was an essential ingredient.

  • War was inevitable, given the South’s aversion to the North’s economic and abolitionist agenda, on the one hand, and Lincoln’s determination to preserve the Union, on the other hand.

The North’s victory in the Civil War meant an end to slavery in the United States, even though ending slavery was, in Lincoln’s view, secondary to preserving the Union. According to one account of a failed peace parley in January 1865 — an account that is somewhat disingenuous about the South’s interest in preserving slavery — Lincoln

stated that it was never his intention to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed and he would not have done so during the war, except that it became a military necessity. He had always been in favor of prohibiting the extension of slavery into the territories but never thought immediate emancipation in the states where it already existed was practical. He thought there would be “many evils attending” the immediate ending of slavery in those states.

Be that as it may, the government of the United States did take advantage of the Civil War to eradicate slavery, first partially through the Emancipation Proclamation, then fully through the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

Slavery’s demise, as a byproduct of the Civil War, raises two questions:

  • Might not slavery have ended, regardless of the Civil War or its outcome?
  • Is slavery an indelible stain on American history?

WITH RESPECT TO SLAVERY, WAS THE CIVIL WAR NECESSARY?

There are those who argue that if the North had fought the Civil War over slavery, it had fought an unnecessary war because economic forces would eventually have put an end to slavery. There are others who argue that slavery would not have succumbed to economic forces. Crucial to the debate between the two camps is the validity (or invalidity) of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s cliometric study, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974), which makes a case that slavery would not have succumbed to economic forces. Fogel and Engerman’s study, however, is fraught with errors. Thomas J. DiLorenzo explains some of those errors:

. . . Fogel and Engerman’s . . . reliance on . . . the price of slaves . . . as “evidence” that slavery could not have been ended peacefully is poor economics. . . . For one thing, the Fugitive Slave Act socialized the enforcement costs of slavery, thereby artificially inflating slave prices. Abolition of the Act, as would have been the reality had the Southern states been allowed to leave in peace would have caused slave prices to plummet and quickened the institutionÂ’s demise. That, coupled with a serious effort to do what every nation on the face of the earth did to end slavery during the nineteenth century – compensated emancipation – could have ended slavery peacefully. Great Britain did it in just six years time, and Americans could have followed their lead.. . .

[T]he high price of slaves . . . in 1860 created strong incentives for Southern farmers to find substitutes in the form of free labor and mechanized agriculture. It also increased the expected profitability of mechanized agriculture, so that the producers of that equipment were motivated to develop and market it in the South. This is what happens in any industry where there are rapidly-rising prices of factors of production of any kind. As Mark Thornton wrote in “Slavery, Profitability, and the Market Process” (Review of Austrian Economics, vol. 7, No. 2, 1994), by 1860 “slavery was fleeing from both the competition of free labor and urbanization towards the isolated virgin lands of the Southwest.” Gunderson does not cite any literature past 1974 on this point, so he is probably unaware of such facts.

[T]here is a difference between slave labor being “efficient” for the slave owner and its effect on society as a whole. Of course slavery was profitable to slave owners. This government-supported system helped them confiscate the fruits of the slaves’ labor. But since slave labor is inherently less efficient than free labor, and since so many resources had to be devoted to enforcing the system — most of which were the result of government interventions such as the Fugitive Slave Act, mandatory slave patrol laws, and laws that prohibited manumission — the system imposed huge burdens (”dead weight loss,” in the language of economics) on the rest of society. Free laborers and non-slave owners in the South (at least 80 percent of the adult population) were the primary victims of these government-imposed costs, and would have been a natural political constituency for their eventual abolition. As Hummel concluded, “In real terms, the entire southern economy, including both whites and blacks, was less prosperous” overall because of slavery.

There was net internal migration from South to North, confirming the fact that free laborers in the South were also indirectly exploited by the slave system which forced them into lower-paying jobs. . . .

DiLorenzo — an anarcho-libertarian who despises Abraham Lincoln and is rabidly pro-secession (column archive) — may strike you as a biased source, even though he seems to have facts and logic on his side, in this instance. But we need not rely on DiLorenzo. Fogel and Engerman’s thesis has been attacked, on its merits, from many quarters. Here, for example, are excerpts of a review essay by Thomas L. Haskell, “The True and Tragical History of ‘Time on the Cross’ ” (fee required), from The New York Review of Books (October 2, 1975):

The flaws of Time on the Cross are not confined to its parts but extend to its conceptual heart: the efficiency calculation. No finding raised more eyebrows than the dramatic claim that slaves, through their personal diligence and enthusiastic commitment to the work ethic, made southern agriculture 35 percent more efficient than the family farms of the North. My own nonspecialist’s doubts about this contention . . . have been amply confirmed (and superseded in expertise and weight of evidence) by the work of a half-dozen economic historians.

Fogel and Engerman should have known from the beginning that any comparison of regional efficiency in the antebellum period was fraught with breathtaking difficulties. The basis for their comparison, a rather controversial economist’s tool known as the “geometric index of total factor productivity,” gives results whose interpretation is debatable in even the most conventional applications. . . .

Since the index is based on market value it reflects not only the performance of producers (which is what we have in mind when we talk about productive efficiency) but also the behavior of consumers, whose eagerness for the product helps to determine its market value. Consumer behavior is clearly irrelevant to productive efficiency and the index is misleading to the extent that it is influenced by this factor.

In short, the index is sensitive to demand: if two producers organize their work in equally rational ways, work equally hard, and even produce equal amounts of physical output, the so-called “efficiency” index may nonetheless rank one producer more “efficient” than the other because his product is in greater demand. As David and Temin observe, this is not the accepted meaning of “efficiency.”

Given the sensitivity of the index to demand and the heavy demand for the South’s principal crop, cotton, the index by itself is utterly incapable of justifying the chief inference that Fogel and Engerman drew from it—that slaves must have been hard-working Horatio Alger types and their masters skilled scientific managers. Gavin Wright confirms that the efficiency gap has more to do with voracious consumer demand for cotton than with any Herculean feats of productivity by southern producers. . . .

The bias introduced by cotton demand is only the most obvious of the flaws in the efficiency calculation. Even apart from the inherent frailties of the index in this especially difficult application, Fogel and Engerman’s use of it rests on some extremely dubious assumptions. The choice of 1860 as a typical year for measurement has been sharply questioned. So has the authors’ proposition that an acre of northern farmland was on average 2.5 times better in quality than southern farmland. This extraordinary assumption alone is enough to guarantee a finding of southern superiority in productivity. . . .

Lance Davis of the California Institute of Technology, a prominent cliometrician, singled out the efficiency calculation as the least plausible argument of a generally unpersuasive book. He estimated that Fogel and Engerman’s chances of successfully defending the efficiency finding were about one in ten. This is a telling judgment from the man who introduced the term “New Economic History,” who once called Fogel’s railroad study a “great book,” and who even crowned Fogel himself as “the best” of the cliometricians nine years ago. The efficiency calculation has been closely scrutinized not only by Davis, Wright, Temin, and Paul David, but also by Stanley Lebergott of Wesleyan, Harold Woodman of Purdue, Jay Mandle of Temple, and Frank B. Tipton, Jr. and Clarence E. Walker, both of Wesleyan. No one has a kind word to say for it.

Haskell certainly wasn’t offering an apology for slavery or for any other form of oppression. Nor am I. Slavery was evil, but it existed. The question facing our forbears was how best to eradicate it and then improve the lot of those who had been enslaved. With the advantage of hindsight a case can be made that America’s blacks would be better off today if their ancestors had been freed and integrated into society voluntarily — through economic forces if not social ones. But that is merely hindsight. Regardless of Lincoln’s motivation for prosecuting the Civil War, that war brought an end to slavery. And that — thankfully — is that.

Moreover, Lincoln-hater DiLorenzo gives us good reason to believe that slavery would have died hard in the South. DiLorenzo wants the best of both worlds. He wants to prove that the Civil War was not fought (by the North) because of slavery, and also to prove that the Civil War was fought (by the North) unnecessarily because economic forces would have put an (eventual) end to slavery. The second proposition is inconsistent with the first. DiLorenzo’s inconsistency arises because he is a pro-secessionist who also has the good grace to oppose slavery. He must therefore resort to alternative history in order to justify his secessionist views. His alternative history (sampled above) is that economic forces would have brought an end to slavery in the South, absent the Civil War. But would they have done so? Perhaps eventually, but not for an unconscionably long time.

Economic forces arise from human nature. One facet of human nature is a “taste” that manifests itself in the oppression of “inferior” races (e.g., blacks, Jews, Tutsis, Hutus). Such a “taste” can override “rational” (i.e., wealth-maximizing) forces. The post-Civil War history of race in the South suggests very strongly that slavery would have died hard in the South. Thomas Sowell examines a slice of that history:

The death of Rosa Parks has reminded us of her place in history, as the black woman whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, in accordance with the Jim Crow laws of Alabama, became the spark that ignited the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Most people do not know the rest of the story, however. Why was there racially segregated seating on public transportation in the first place? “Racism” some will say — and there was certainly plenty of racism in the South, going back for centuries. But racially segregated seating on streetcars and buses in the South did not go back for centuries.

Far from existing from time immemorial, as many have assumed, racially segregated seating in public transportation began in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Those who see government as the solution to social problems may be surprised to learn that it was government which created this problem. Many, if not most, municipal transit systems were privately owned in the 19th century and the private owners of these systems had no incentive to segregate the races.

These owners may have been racists themselves but they were in business to make a profit — and you don’t make a profit by alienating a lot of your customers. There was not enough market demand for Jim Crow seating on municipal transit to bring it about.

It was politics that segregated the races because the incentives of the political process are different from the incentives of the economic process. Both blacks and whites spent money to ride the buses but, after the disenfranchisement of black voters in the late 19th and early 20th century, only whites counted in the political process.

It was not necessary for an overwhelming majority of the white voters to demand racial segregation. If some did and the others didn’t care, that was sufficient politically, because what blacks wanted did not count politically after they lost the vote.

The incentives of the economic system and the incentives of the political system were not only different, they clashed. . . .

The “incentives of the political system” — a “taste” for racial oppression, in other words — dominated Southern politics until the 1960s. And that was in a defeated South. The determination of Southern political leaders to defend slavery in the first place, and then to salvage the remnants of slavery through Jim Crow, is strong evidence that economic forces might not have been allowed to operate freely in the South, at least not for a long time. The evil (take note, Mr. DiLorenzo) was to be found in Southern political leaders, not in the White House.

Opponents of slavery, unarmed as they were with “sophisticated” (and flawed) cliometric techniques, saw the evil in slavery and eradicated it when they had the opportunity to do so. Uncertain gradualism in the defense of liberty is no virtue. Opportunistic abolitionism in the defense of liberty is far from a vice.

THE STAIN OF SLAVERY

The fact that slavery existed in the United States for so long is taken by some — especially those of the Left, here and abroad — as evidence that white-male-capitalist-dominated-America is evil incarnate. But slavery in the United States was ended when white, male capitalists still dominated America, whereas slavery still exists in non-white areas of the world.

Strident critics of the United States nevertheless persist in saying that the existence in the United States of slavery (or any other “evil,” real or imagined) means that the U.S. was and is no better than, say, the fascistic Third Reich. (Leftists don’t like to remind us about the longer-lived and equally fascistic USSR.) Such assertions studiously ignore the fact that most Americans always have been freer than the subjects of Hitler and Stalin. The economic forces that could eventually have brought an end to slavery in the United States would not have been allowed to operate in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union — or in Communist China, Cuba, Saddam’s Iraq, North Korea, and other dictatorial regimes of the kind that Leftists often have defended and even idealized as “progressive” and even “freedom-loving.” Nor should it go without notice that Nazi Germany and the USSR met their demise at the hands of the “militaristic” United States.

It is supremely ironic that Leftists — who like to attack the United States as “fascistic” and “militaristic” — are proponents of government interventions in private affairs that are confiscatory and stifling in their effects on economic output. All working persons in the United States — and all who depend on them — are in thrall to the “plantation owners” who run our affairs from the Capitol in Washington, the various State capitols, and sundry municipal buildings. The Left applauds that thralldom and agitates for its intensification.

Yes, the fact that slavery existed in the United States for so long is a stain on the history of the United States, but it is not an indelible stain. To err is human, which must come as news to the Left, with its penchant for judging its enemies (mainly conservative, white, American males) by superhuman standards of conduct, while seeking to impose its utopian social and economic order through the power of the state. The Left’s cynicism stands in stark contrast to the vision of the Framers, who sought “a more perfect Union” by enabling the free exchange of ideas and goods.

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