Slavery and Southern Income
Tyler Cowen shares this quote from Douglas Irwin’s book Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy.
The South’s enormous economic stake in slavery far outweighed the impact of protective tariffs on its income. In 1860, the aggregate value of slaves as property was $3 billion, nearly 20 percent of the nation’s wealth. The value of slaves was more than 50 percent greater than the capital invested in railroads and manufacturing combined, a calculation that excludes the value of land in southern plantations. Slavery generated a stream of income that enable overall white per capita income in the south to approximate that of northern whites. In the seven cotton states, nearly a third of white income came from slave labor.
That’s staggering. Growing up in the South, I had an inherent bias towards finding reasons for the Civil War that didn’t involve slavery. For instance, Southern anger over Northern tarrifs. And, sure, that was a factor. But these numbers are a convincing indication that slavery was the chief economic reason for the Civil War.
In terms of both capital investment and income, slavery was the foundation of the Southern economy. Ending slavery would have financially wiped out many of the Southern whites, especially the rich and the powerful. Moral arguments against slavery barely stood a chance — to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, “It’s difficult to get a man to agree to end slavery when his income depends on his maintaining it”.