The debate over the economic advantages of slavery in the South has raged ever since the first slaves began working in the cotton fields of the Southern States. Initially, the wealth of the New World was in the form of raw materials and agricultural goods such as cotton, sugar, and tobacco. Slavery, without a doubt, had its profitable aspects prior to the Civil War. However, this postulation began to change as abolitionists claimed the land of the Southern Plantations was overworked and the potential income of slaves was lower than that of white people who had a vested interest in the productivity and success of the South.

The concept of slavery had been brought over to America by the ideals of British Mercantilism which called for strict regulation of the state and its people for the good of the national economy. In the early 1700’s, Frenchman Colbert stated that, “no commerce in the world produces as many advantages as that of the slave trade”(Williams, 144). The inhumane practice of slavery began in the American colonies in 1619. Although Africans first came to the New World around 1501, the early colonists did not think to use them as slave labor. Instead, they imported poor, white indentured servants from Europe to clear forests and cultivate fields. It was the English colonists that incited the idea of using Black slaves. They could be caught easily because of their color and they could be bought and kept until they died. “Negroes, from a pagan land and without exposure to the ethical ideals of Christianity, could be handled with more rigid methods of discipline and could be morally and spiritually degraded for the sake of stability on the plantation,” wrote historians John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss Jr. in “From Slavery to Freedom” (22). Where America failed in Mercantilism was in not providing enough slaves to generate a sufficient profit margin and by becoming a divided nation over the issue of slavery.

Southern slaves were viewed in economic terms of labor to capital. While the ownership of slaves was a source of pride in plantation owners, this interdependence of slave on master and master to slave created a vicious cycle of rashness that caused slave owners to often become irrational. In the south, slaveholdings varied according to size, location, and crops produced. Slavery in cities differed substantially from that in the countryside. Masters exhibited varying temperaments and used diverse methods to run their farms and plantations. Slaves served as skilled craftsmen, preachers, nurses, drivers, and mill workers, as well as field hands and house servants.

Despite these variations, southern slavery displayed some distinctive features. Unlike slavery in the rest of the New World, which depended on the continued importation of Africans, that in the southern United States was self-sustaining: during the half century after the end of legal importation in 1808, the slave population more than tripled. One consequence of this natural population growth was an equal ratio of males to females that – in contrast to the male preponderance in slave societies heavily dependent on imports from Africa – facilitated the formation of strong families. Another was the emergence of a slave population that, despite its distinctive cultural norms, was increasingly American in birth and character. Slaves adopted the religion of their masters, for example, but adapted it to their own particular needs. In short, Africans became African-Americans.

The shift in control of prosperity is illustrated in the words of the Mississippi proposal of succession from the Union. Southern politicians and plantation owners knew their prosperity was in the hands of slaves and that the economics of the South depended on the production of the slaves. The Mississippi’s secession convention stated:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery… A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization… There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union (Journal of State Convention, 86).

One of the earliest proponents of the theory that the South was suffering economically from slavery was Cassius Marcellus Clay. The main assertion of Clay was that slavery was an inefficient form of economic organization. According to Fogel and Engerman, Clay asserted, “It was inefficient because slavery impoverishes the soil,’ because, in comparison with whites, slaves were not so skilful, so energetic, and above all, have not the stimulus of self-interest'” (160). Clay continued to assert that slaves consume more and produce less than free men.

Two proponents of Clay’s theory were Hinton Rowan Helper and Frederick Law Olmstead who appeared to produce evidence in the 1850 census that supported the claims of Clay. To prove his point, Hinton Helper compared the growth of three pairs of states between 1790 and 1850. In a comparison of the states of New York and Virginia throughout the years, the growth of New York had doubled in population, exported 30 times that of what Virginia had, and held 8 times her manufacturing output (162). The contrasts between states that were aggregate and free verses with slaves was not as startling but still showed a disproportionate amount of economic growth, with the South lagging behind.

Unfortunately, Helper’s statistics were flawed in several areas. Helper assumed that the South had better resources than the North, when in actuality, the reverse was true. The North excelled greatly in natural resources and minerals while the South struggled to economically stay in line with the North in as far as land values and marketability of goods. Also, the North generally had better soil than the South, which had repeated trouble with erosion and climatic factors destroying topsoil and crops.

Fredrick Olmsted took the microeconomic answer to the problem of slavery. Olmsted asserted that the “majority of those who sell the cotton crop” were “poorer than the majority of our day-labourers at the North” (171). His chief complaint with slavery was that the quantity produced by slaves, be it cotton or tobacco or any marketable good, was drastically inferior. Olmsted asserted that it took two times as many slaves as Northern labourers to accomplish a task (172). “Low-quality labor, poor use of resources, and indifferent management all combined, said Olmsted, to make southern agriculture far less efficient than northern agriculture” (172). Olmsted asserted that psychologically, slaves preformed poorly under conditions of fear of punishment and free men, without this fear, would certainly be more productive in defending their reputation and standing with pride with their employer.

The low productivity of slaves could be explained by the conditions in which they were forced to live and work in. Inadequate care, incentives and training left the slaves without proper preparation for their role on the plantation (Genovese, 46). A cyclical effect of malnutrition and disease was apparent on many plantations. Since malnutrition …………………………………..
Cairnes, John Elliot. Slave Power. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

Franklin, John. From Slavery to Freedom. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.

Genovese, Eugene D. The Political Economy of Slavery. New York: Pantheon Books, 1965.

Gray, Lewis Cecil. History of agriculture in the southern United States to 1860 . Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958.

Hopkins, James F. A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky. Louisville: University of Kentucky Press, 1998.

Journal of the State Convention. “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.” Jackson, MS: E. Barksdale, State Printer, 1861.

Owsley, Frank. King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign relations of the Confederate States of America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.