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Free Minds & Free Markets

Slavery Did Not Make America Rich

Ingenuity, not capital accumulation or exploitation, made cotton a little king.

In his second inaugural, Abraham Lincoln declared that "if God wills that [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk…as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

It is a noble sentiment. Yet the economic idea implied—that exploitation made us rich—is mistaken. Slavery made a few Southerners rich; a few Northerners, too. But it was ingenuity and innovation that enriched Americans generally, including at last the descendants of the slaves.

It's hard to dispel the idea embedded in Lincoln's poetry. TeachUSHistory.org assumes "that northern finance made the Cotton Kingdom possible" because "northern factories required that cotton." The idea underlies recent books of a new King Cotton school of history: Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams (Harvard University Press), Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf), and Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books).

The rise of capitalism depended, the King Cottoners claim, on the making of cotton cloth in Manchester, England, and Manchester, New Hampshire. The raw cotton, they say, could come only from the South. The growing of cotton, in turn, is said to have depended on slavery. The conclusion—just as our good friends on the left have been saying all these years—is that capitalism was conceived in sin, the sin of slavery.

Yet each step in the logic of the King Cotton historians is mistaken. The enrichment of the modern world did not depend on cotton textiles. Cotton mills, true, were pioneers of some industrial techniques, techniques applied to wool and linen as well. And many other techniques, in iron making and engineering and mining and farming, had nothing to do with cotton. Britain in 1790 and the U.S. in 1860 were not nation-sized cotton mills.

Nor is it true that if a supply chain is interrupted there are no possible substitutes. Such is the theory behind strategic bombing, as of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Yet only in the short run is it "necessary" for a good to come from a particular region by a particular route. A missing link can be replaced, as in fact it was during the blockade of raw cotton from the South during the war. British and other European manufacturers turned to Egypt to provide some of what the South could not.

Growing cotton, further, unlike sugar or rice, never required slavery. By 1870, freedmen and whites produced as much cotton as the South produced in the slave time of 1860. Cotton was not a slave crop in India or in southwest China, where it was grown in bulk anciently. And many whites in the South grew it, too, before the war and after. That slaves produced cotton does not imply that they were essential or causal in the production.

Economists have been thinking about such issues for half a century. You wouldn't know it from the King Cottoners. They assert, for example, that a slave was "cheap labor." Mistaken again. After all, slaves ate, and they didn't produce until they grew up. Stanley Engerman and the late Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel confirmed in 1974 what economic common sense would suggest: that productivity was incorporated into the market price of a slave. It's how any capital market works. If you bought a slave, you faced the cost of alternative uses of the capital. No supernormal profits accrued from the purchase. Slave labor was not a free lunch. The wealth was not piled up.

The King Cotton school has been devastated recently in detail by two economic historians, Alan Olmstead of the University of California at Davis and Paul Rhode of the University of Michigan. They point out, for example, that the influential and leftish economist Thomas Piketty grossly exaggerated the share of slaves in U.S. wealth, yet Edward Baptist uses Piketty's estimates to put slavery at the center of the country's economic history. Olmstead and Rhode note, too, from their research on the cotton economy that the price of slaves increased from 1820 to 1860 not because of institutional change (more whippings) or the demand for cotton, but because of an astonishing rise in the productivity of the cotton plant, achieved by selective breeding. Ingenuity, not capital accumulation or exploitation, made cotton a little king.

Slavery was of course appalling, a plain theft of labor. The war to end it was righteous altogether—though had the South been coldly rational, the ending could have been achieved as in the British Empire in 1833 or Brazil in 1888 without 600,000 deaths. But prosperity did not depend on slavery. The United States and the United Kingdom and the rest would have become just as rich without the 250 years of unrequited toil. They have remained rich, observe, even after the peculiar institution was abolished, because their riches did not depend on its sinfulness.

The virtue of liberty did matter. The magic world is liberalism, the liberalism of Adam Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft and Henry David Thoreau. The explosion of ingenuity after 1800 came from the gradual inspiriting of millions of liberated people to have a go. Thoreau ran his father's pencil factory, and made it flourish. Liberalism liberated first poor white men, then, yes, former slaves, then women, then immigrants, then colonial people, then gays. Liberation and innovation dance together.

To cast enslavement of some as requisite for the wealth of others is bad economics, then, and bad history. But it is also a toxic ideology. The left has long regarded any employment as slavish exploitation. The phrase wage slave is defined coolly by The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English as "a person who is wholly dependent on income from employment," with the notation "informal"—but not "ironic" or "jocular" or, better, "economically illiterate." By such a definition, you and I are slaves, even though we are paid the traded value of goods and services we produce at the margin for others.

The other Marx, Groucho, at the height of his success in movies during the hungry 1930s, was approached by an old friend, whom Groucho knew to be a communist. As the perhaps apocryphal story goes, the friend said, "I desperately need a job. You have contacts." Groucho, whose sense of humor was often cruel, replied, "Harry, I can't. You're my dear, dear communist friend. I don't want to exploit you." Ha, ha. But no employee in a capitalist economy owes coerced or unpaid service to any boss.

Well, except for our boss the state, through taxation by payment or draft or eminent domain. Taxation is a slavery admired by most of the left and much of the right. Its defenses echo Southern rhetoric in 1860. "Citizens are children who need to be protected, yet forced to work." "Liberty is dangerous." "The defense of property depends on a big government." "God ordained it."

We need to stop using the history of slavery to bolster anti-capitalist ideology. Ingenuity, not exploitation by slavery or imperialism or finance, is the story of the modern world.

Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty

Deirdre McCloskey is emerita professor of economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author most recently of Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World

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  • buybuydandavis||

    Yay! An actually interesting article at Reason!

  • gaoxiaen||

  • ColoradoKook||

    You're a slacker and you don't even know it, bot.

  • ColoradoKook||

    Slave. What the actual fuck, autocorrect?!

  • Tom Bombadil||

    I won't know what to think until Shikha Dalmia gives me the angry white man jihad analysis.

  • Griffin3||

    Nice shout out to the slavery of taxation. Yay.

  • Conchfritters||

    Great article professor. I liked the quick story about Groucho Marx. Too bad you aren't still teaching at the University of Iowa. I took your micro economics class in 1992, and the pleebs could sure use your insight today.

  • Jerryskids||

    If you bought a slave, you faced the cost of alternative uses of the capital. No supernormal profits accrued from the purchase. Slave labor was not a free lunch.

    But you're discounting the value of the joy evil capitalists derive from exploiting others. It's why corporations like Walmart and McDonald's refuse to pay their workers a living wage even though paying them a living wage would increase their productivity and their consumption of material goods and thereby increase the corporation's profits - they're so evil that they will forego higher profits for the chance to screw people over. (But this doesn't change the fact that they're also greedy and will do anything for a nickel. They're simultaneously greedy bastards that only care about profits and evil bastards that don't care about profits when it comes to screwing people over.)

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    They're simultaneously greedy bastards that only care about profits and evil bastards that don't care about profits when it comes to screwing people over.

    That little bit of hypocrisy shows up over and over, and is the main reason I have so little interest in collectivist arguments.

  • Steve Bird||

    Don't forget about how the evil, profit-obsessed corporations voluntarily pay their male employees a 40% premium over their female employees. 'Cause all they care about is money...and perpetuating the Patriarchy.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    The just encourages wo,me to quit their bitchin' and get back to the kitchen, where they can bake the menfolk a pie.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    So what you're saying is that we're all slaves to the cotton gin and one day robots will replace us all.

  • JWatts||

    "So what you're saying is that we're all slaves to the cotton gin and one day robots will replace us all."

    No, what she's saying is that one day giant robots will watch us as we pick the cotton. Virtually of course.

  • Bubba Jones||

    When we run out of fossil fuels, our robot overlords will rely on humans for labor.

  • NoVaNick||

    When we run out of fossil fuels, our robot overlords will rely on humans for labor.

    You mean FOOD

  • Mark22||

    When we run out of fossil fuels, our robot overlords will rely on humans for labor. lubrication

    FTFY. Why do you think obesity is so rampant?

  • gaoxiaen||

    I don't have a problem with that if the robot comes home and does housework.

  • IceTrey||

    It's funny you say that since slavery for cotton was dying out before the cotton gin because hand picking the seeds was not economical. Once the machine came along slavery exploded.

  • Paloma||

    It's very doubtful the invention of the cotton gin had anything to do with slavery "exploding" since the number of slaves could only have "exploded" by procreation. Under Thomas Jefferson, Congress outlawed the importation of slaves.

  • DarrenM||

    one day robots will replace us all.

    They already have. You just haven't noticed yet.

  • sarcasmic||

    This just isn't true. Protectionists say that Chinese Communists are getting rich off slave labor, so it must be true. Slavery made America great just as it is making China great. Protectionists said so.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    China is getting rich off trade. It just so happens that much of their labor force belongs to the state and gets more done for less.

    Being a person in a Communist state is slavery.

    Its very telling that Sarcasmic does not outright condemn the Commies as slave drivers.

  • Citizen X||

    You're right, sarc should have leavened the caustic sarcasm of his comment with an earnest disclaimer, lest the simple folk be led into believing he is pro-slavery.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Sarcasmic is sarcastic like Tony is funny. Or Kirkland is Libertarian. Or Buttplug is not for enslaving all Americans.

  • Citizen X||

    You don't actually know what "sarcastic" means, do you.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I think its funny when Citizen tries to defend people.

  • Citizen X||

    At this point i'm trying to defend the English language.

  • Rick B.||

    And failing.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Was Citizen ever not failing?

  • Don't look at me.||

    To be sure.

  • sarcasmic||

    Tony can be funny from time to time. He is certainly more thoughtful than your humorless ass.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Oh Sarcasmic, you Mini-anarchists never appreciate good humor.

    You're always lying about who you are rooting for and that you want the World to burn.

    America's freedoms allow Nanarchists to spout their fantasies while Anarchists want the USA to fail so they can have Anarchy-land.

  • sarcasmic||

    I'm always lying and I need you to clarify for me. Yeah. I'm glad you're so smart.

    You really don't understand sarcasm.

  • Rick B.||

    He appears to have at least a base understanding of it, he just also seems to have an unexplained, visceral dislike of it, even when it is properly deployed.

    Maybe because of how tediously boring it is.

  • MJBinAL||

    Hmmmmm, yep, ^THIS^

  • loveconstitution1789||

    sarcasmic|7.19.18 @ 9:21AM|#
    [...]
    You really don't understand sarcasm.

    Clearly you dont.

  • Zeb||

    Look, when LC1789 makes up a new definition for a word, it becomes the correct definition. Why is that so hard to understand?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Oh Zeb, the definition is what it is.

    Webster cant help that Citizen, Sarcasmic, and Zeb are witless infantiles.

  • Zeb||

    What is with your boner for sarcasmic lately, dude?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I have noticed a degredation in LC's posts lately. They seem to be falling back on his go-tos even harder than ever before.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    A Lot more trolls and puppets getting paid to smother Libertarian comments.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Sarcasmic is sarcastic like Tony is funny. Or Kirkland is Libertarian. Or Buttplug is not for enslaving all Americans.

    Or loveconstitution1789 actually understands the Constitution.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Oh Scarecrow, who thou est defend today?

  • gaoxiaen||

    Kirkland is Costco. It's a cult, I tell ya.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It's why I couldn't rent a condo there. I'm a Sam's Club man.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Nor is it true that if a supply chain is interrupted there are no possible substitutes. Such is the theory behind strategic bombing, as of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Yet only in the short run is it "necessary" for a good to come from a particular region by a particular route. A missing link can be replaced, as in fact it was during the blockade of raw cotton from the South during the war.

    The bombing of the Ho Chi Mihn Trail was done as a half ass attempt to stem a tide of men and material after it was too late.

    Almost the entire Vietnam war was fought with Uncle Sam having one arm tied behind his back. Lefties start these wars and then restrict how the military can win the war. The USA never invaded North Korea nor instituted a total bombing campaign on Hanoi or supplies coming from China.

    Not that the USA should have been fighting there for most South Vietnamese who never wanted to fight for their own freedom. The USA's involvement possibly extended the Commies still ruling Vietnam. Vietnam gets more free everyday and the Commie there use the USA's involvement as a propaganda tool to keep Communism around.

  • damikesc||

    Agreed.

    Vietnam was a mistake to get involved with in the first place ... but we doubled down on that idiotic mistake by fighting it as terribly as possible.

    Like it or hate it, Sherman showed how you fight a war. You cannot be friendly. You must be overwhelmingly cruel to end it as quickly as possible. Wars dragging on kill far more than a quick, very violent war.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Which leftie, Eisenhower or Kennedy?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Jfk. Einsenhower sent CIA to train non-commies to defend themselves from commies.

    JFK sent advisors who started out training, then American pilots ferried ARVN troops around.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Which is more of a threat to the US:
    Vietnam
    North Korea

    Which war did we "win"?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    NK

    We didnt win in korea nor vietnam.

  • MJBinAL||

    We didn't TRY to win in Korea or Vietnam, so winning would have been very difficult. We didn't even CALL them wars, and they was not declared by Congress ... they were "police actions".

  • loveconstitution1789||

    *invaded North Vietnam....

  • Longtobefree||

    "The USA never invaded North Korea "
    Well, then, who exactly was at at the Yalu river when the Communist Chinese came streaming across?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Democrats who defended slavery from America's founding until the Civil War wanted the state to control lives which is what they still want.

  • sarcasmic||

    Says the guy who wants the state to control who Americans can trade with.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Under the Constitution?

    Yup. I want the Constitutional Democratic Republican government of the USA to end managed trade policies, set up by the US government and foreign governments. Trump thinks he can do that by offering free trade to our trading partners. After they refused, he wanted to try pressuring them to lower trade restrictions.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Sarcasmic, you are free to move to a country that supports Anarchist's absolute Liberty and absolute free trade.

    Which country is that again?

  • Citizen X||

    Damn. Is there any direction of thought in which Piketty did not fuck all the way up?

  • Rhywun||

    Right? How does one be wrong about everything? It's impressive in a way.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Just bet the opposite of my cousin on NFL games.

  • gaoxiaen||

    And you'll win.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Another right-wing crank minimizing slavery because conservatives have been forced into a defensive posture with respect to their authoritarian bigotry. And finding an audience of faux libertarians.

    Carry on, clingers.

  • Citizen X||

    Boring Troll Doesn't Read Article, Comments Boringly; No Film At Any Time

  • Rick B.||

    "No Film At Any Time"

    Oh thank god.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    boring.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    What do you call a troll who hasn't even got enough interest in trolling to do even a half-assed job, yet somehow manages to drag his sorry ass to the keyboard every once in a while to plop out a new half-assed troll?

  • Rick B.||

    Palin's Buttplug.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Hitler?

  • Sevo||

    At least Hihn's typography is amusing, like movie ransom demands.
    Asshole here can't even get that going.

  • buybuydandavis||

    As he bitterly clings to The Narrative

  • turco||

    God, you are such a grating monotone
    Professor McCloskey is not a clinger by a any definition. Look up her biography.

  • turco||

    God, you are such a grating monotone
    Professor McCloskey is not a clinger by a any definition. Look up her biography.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Innovation is the true story of Capitalism.

    All the hardship, great inventions, and wealth that Capitalism has created are the examples that people should be reminded about.

    All the inventions leading up to computers. All the inventions leading up to cell phones. All the inventions leading up to the internet.

    Capitalism allocated those resources using the invisible hand of free market to make those great innovations happen. Freedom and property rights under our US Constitution provided the right environment to allow Capitalism to flourish.

  • sparkstable||

    Slight correction, although I largely agree with the sentiment. Freedom and property rights were not "provided" to us by the Constitution. It was created AFTER we had those things (they are natural laws according to the Enlightenment thinkers that created the document) and simply codified their existence into a legal system. A legal system designed to protect, rather than the historical norm of offending, such rights.

  • sarcasmic||

    Rut ro.
    This is when lc has a complete meltdown.
    There is no natural law. No law of society.
    There is government. The end.
    If you accept any law other than government, you are an anarchist who want to watch the world burn.
    Worship your god Government or admit you are an anarchist. That is your binary choice.

    lc said so.

  • sparkstable||

    Well... I am an anarchist. Not the bomb throwing type... I prefer progress through cooperation rather than dead bodies everywhere (also why I'm an anarchist... I don't particularly care for democide).

  • Microaggressor||

    The bomb throwing types tend to be communists who believe they are anarchists because "property rights are a function of the state, maaan. Pass the communal bong. No, fuck you, Jeffrey, it's a communal bong, I don't care how much you paid for it." And then, tragically, Jeffrey stopped bringing things to the community organizing events. And he had to be purged for succumbing to neoliberal ideology.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    There are natural rights.

    The USA uses a constitution to protect as many of those rights as we want.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Sarcasmic does read so well, so he mistates what other peoeple say.

    One thing is for sure, sarcasmic hates Libertarianism.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Capitalism made the 65 GTO. I'm happy with that.

  • Incurvar La Schiena||

    Really? Shockingly bad example here that sounds more like theology than economics or history.

    "All the inventions leading up to computers/cell phones/internet" were thanks to capitalism? Capitalism allocated those resources?

    Check your sources.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    "Liberalism liberated first poor white men, then, yes, former slaves, then women, then immigrants, then colonial people, then gays."

    If gays were enslaved, methinks it was in the bottom of dungeons of their choice.

  • damikesc||

    This whole theory of slavery making America rich is killed off by the reality that Brazil got many times more slaves than the US did --- and the Muslims in Africa used slaves even more than Brazil --- yet they are all hardly economic power houses.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Great point.

  • sarcasmic||

    Weren't you just ejumicatin me on how the ChiComs are an economic powerhouse because of slavery?

    Can you please make up your mind?

    Or did you mean...

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Communism is slavery and it does not make them an economic powerhouse.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    damikesc, what makes you suppose the economics of using slaves in Brazil matched those of using them in the American South? Or in the Caribbean? Or in Africa? Or in Arabia? Your conclusion largely depends for validity on a premise that those experiences were economically alike. See the problem?

    In passing, it's worth noting that some among the western hemisphere importers of slaves tended to fairly quickly work their slaves to death, instead of sustaining them. Perhaps that led to a greater need for more imports. It would be interesting to know the relative economics behind that difference. Maybe quick-value returns, whether from successful mining in South America, or from sugar culture in the Caribbean, could better support expenditure of slave lives. Maybe other factors played in.

    In history, it's generally a mistake to start out with a single-factor hypothesis, and attempt to shoehorn all your explanations to fit.

  • Bubba Jones||

    IIRC from my reading, Brazil suffered much higher mortality rates among immigrants, so they "needed" more seasoned slaves. I also don't know if they had a temperate zone that served as a refuge from mosquito borne illness.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    To get a mortality rate much higher than Jamestown's for its first few decades, you would probably have to totally wipe the place out. Jamestown came close. Ostensibly temperate climate, too.

    Didn't seem that way to British immigrants. Morgan cites high mortality in Jamestown as a reason the colony turned from indentured servants to Africans. For what it's worth, I have no idea what the comparative mortality rate was re Brazil, nor how many more slaves which colony imported, nor why.

    That last bit, the why of it all, isn't going to get a neat bow tied around it any time soon. Folks who suggest their ideology can pretty much explain everything, can't be sufficiently acquainted with history to earn a serious listen.

  • damikesc||

    damikesc, what makes you suppose the economics of using slaves in Brazil matched those of using them in the American South?

    If the underlying cause of American wealth was slavery...it would not matter. Slavery ALONE is why we are rich, according to some "historians". Pointing out that we had FAR fewer of them than other in our hemisphere while generating a markedly better economy for years and years now with zero signs of changing...it seems slavery alone wasn't the main factor. Seems a stretch to label is much of a factor at all.

    Slavery RETARDED growth in the South. It certainly didn't boost it in any measurable way. With no Civil War, it'd been gone within a decade because it was wildly unprofitable to have slaves at that point. Cotton prices were already dropping at that point.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Name the "historians." Then see if you can find any historians who say the same.

    By the way, the history of the South is not whichever sequence of events best bolsters your ideology. Attempting to reason from ideological premises to elucidate historical facts is a certain marker for a person who has never actually studied historical sources.

  • damikesc||

    That cotton was becoming less profitable leading up to the Civil War isn't exactly a "controversial" statement. It is reality. More sources of cotton were becoming available to Europe.

    Slavery slowed down the development of the South. Without it, the country would've been markedly wealthier than we presently are.

  • Bubba Jones||

    The Brazilian per capita income in 1880 was similar to the one of the United States[33]

    The first Republican Government's disastrous financial policy caused an economic stagnation that lasted from 1890 up to 1930.[37]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E....._of_Brazil

  • Paloma||

    Brazil finally ended slavery in 1888. The last American country to do so.

    African slavery existed in every single country in the Americas. Brazil imported the most African slaves, estimated at six million. The colonies which would become the United States, about one million

    About ten million African slaves were also sent to India, mostly as sex slaves.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Mainland North America received less than 5% of the Trans-Atlantic African slave trade.
    http://www.slavevoyages.org/assessment/estimates

  • Paloma||

    The Transatlantic Slave Trade didn't even include those African slaves shipped to India.

  • turco||

    One theory on why ancient Rome did not trigger an industrial revolution was the prevalence of slavery .

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    If the civil war was never fought, does anyone believe that slavery would still exist today?

    I tend to believe that slavery would have proved economically non-viable and would have collapsed eventually of it's own inefficiency. Let's face it - we don't use horse drawn plows anymore, and no one fought a war to free the horses.

  • SRoach||

    I'd like to say no, however...
    I do a number of things every day which are of no economic value. I have items which are more expensive than they need to be to serve my purposes, because I like having them at hand.

    I suspect slavery would have died a quiet death in all industries, as innovation outstripped what forced labor can do, and the industrialists discovered the true value of employing people only when they need them, and not year-round, or from cradle to middle-aged.
    Market forces, (the "invisible hand", as it's called,) eventually shows the error of any incorrect assumption, and eventually everyone gravitates to a winning solution abandoning their old, less efficient one, and then iterating on that better method to find an even better one.

    That said, I could see a case for slave house-servants sticking around a lot longer as a perverse form of status symbol years after they were proven to be a losing hand in industry economically. Expensive toys don't have to make economic sense.

  • DaveSs||

    That said, I could see a case for slave house-servants sticking around a lot longer as a perverse form of status symbol

    I kinda doubt that.

    One of the things you want from a domestic employee is good service. Having determined that hired hands in your factory are better producers you'd expect to bring the same conclusion back to your home.

  • Calidissident||

    I think you missed his point about people often doing things that don't make economic sense.

    Also, you have to account for the fact that slaves had a huge capital value to their owners, and compensated abolition would have been very expensive (in a time period of limited government revenue), so it likely would have happened over a lengthy period of time.

  • DaveSs||

    No I didn't miss the point.
    First, the scenario above didn't describe compensated abolition, but rather abolition by the realization that freedmen were superior workers.

    Second, yes having one or more servants did denote some status.
    Thing is, domestic servants were employed by more than just the super wealthy industrialists. Anyone who considered themselves middle class basically had a servant of some kind.

    So the question becomes does having a servant who is a slave give more status than having a servant who is free? I rather doubt that.

  • Calidissident||

    My point is that it's highly unlikely the slaveowners would ever agree to uncompensated abolition. Even if they came to the realization that paid labor provided more income on an ongoing basis, they'd be giving up a huge amount of capital wealth by agreeing to uncompensated abolition. That was not going to plausibly happen.

  • DaveSs||

    We are talking about a scenario where it goes away not by law, but by obsolescence.

    Yes someone who kept a slave probably wouldn't write out a manumission that took effect immediately, then go out and hire replacement workers simply because freedmen work harder.

    I'd expect it would probably happen by a period of indentured service or share cropping to buying freedom, noting that the (eventual) freedman will be more productive and industrious than he would be if he knew he and his children would be condemned to a life of permanent slavery.

  • afk05||

    Living in the Deep South, yes, some would absolutely have kept slaves as some moral superiority or way to show wealth and power. There are many baptists who still (although not as publicly) use the Bible to justify slavery. A report just car out recently about slavery existing in many countries today, even in a small percentage in the US by traffickers and those exploiting illegals.

  • ||

    I do a number of things every day which are of no economic value.

    Then why do you do them? If they don't bring you (including that part of your environment which affects you) into a subjectively more preferred state from a less preferred state then what is your reason for doing them?

    I have items which are more expensive than they need to be to serve my purposes, because I like having them at hand.

    They're as expensive as your need for them is: they can't be more expensive than that, because then you wouldn't have purchased them. But you like to having them at hand: their accessibility satisfies your subjective need.

  • SRoach||

    Some people have a subjective need to subjugate other people.
    Your dissection of the first part of my post doesn't invalidate or weaken my point.
    In the presence of clear evidence that slavery is less economical than hiring, there would still be those who kept slaves, because to them it would be the preferred state.

  • JFree||

    If the civil war was never fought, does anyone believe that slavery would still exist today? I tend to believe that slavery would have proved economically non-viable and would have collapsed eventually of it's own inefficiency.

    You seem to believe that such a collapse would have occurred peacefully. Absent a civil war. When that is very clearly NOT what the Southern plantocracy believed AT ALL. Post Nat Turner, the South moved from (perhaps) viewing slavery as merely an economic arrangement - to viewing slavery as the core cultural basis for the entirety of Southern society. That is why they began viewing the North itself as a threat. Everything the North did that wasn't completely 100% supportive of and subordinate to 'slavery as property' - was de facto deemed a threat to the South.

    With that mindset - and the ACTUAL King Cotton arrogance of the day, war/genocide was the inevitable outcome.

  • Calidissident||

    Good points. I think it's plausible that there could have been a gradual shifting in attitudes over the course of decades in the face of economic and social (from foreign countries) pressure towards allowing abolition. But even then, there's absolutely no way in hell political equality would have been allowed, abolition would have been conditional on a strict system of apartheid/segregation. Granting political equality to black people in many localities and some states would have meant surrendering control of the government to them (and/or sympathetic whites), which was absolutely intolerable for most of the white population (and especially those in power).

    Given that Jim Crow only ended IRL in the 1960s via federal interference, and that apartheid lasted in South Africa (where the white population was vastly outnumbered and thus had a much more tenuous grip on power) until 1994, I think it's also plausible that such a system could have continued to exist until the present day.

    But admittedly this is difficult to project - even setting aside possible slave revolts, future conflicts between the North and South (e.g. over the western territories), there's big questions about how much world history is changed by the South leaving - how is WW1 different? Does WW2 still happen? If so, how is it different? Is the Cold War still a thing? It's difficult to project what the international environment looks like and the effects of any differences on the USA and CSA.

  • Paloma||

    So how do you suppose every other country in the hemisphere ended it without a civil war?

  • Calidissident||

    I find your question a bit confusing given that I wasn't arguing slavery would have continued to the present day, I was talking about apartheid/segregation. I argued that slavery would have probably been abolished gradually over the course of decades.

    To address your actual argument - first off, that simply isn't true. Slavery ended in Haiti via slave revolt. The end of slavery was also heavily tied to wars of independence in much of Latin America. While none of them were primarily slave revolts, ending slavery was often a goal and/or byproduct of the revolutions and the slaveholders were generally among the staunchest opponents of independence. It's not a coincidence that among Spanish colonies, the two places where slavery lasted the longest by far were Cuba and Puerto Rico, which were the two places that didn't achieve their independence from Spain in the first half of the 19th century. And even there the end of slavery was partially influenced by slave revolts.

  • Calidissident||

    Beyond that, the South had a combination of economic, demographic, political, and social/cultural factors that made slavery particularly entrenched and difficult to dislodge. Slavery was widespread enough that it formed the basis of the Southern economy and society, but the majority of the population was still white (of whom 1/3 of families owned slaves) so there was a large population to resist abolition efforts and maintain control over the slaves. Contrast this with all the Caribbean islands ruled by the British, French, or the Dutch - on a relative basis, slavery was even more important to the economy and society as the vast majority of the population were slaves. But precisely for this reason, there was no sizeable white population to violently resist abolition. Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, Canada had a large white population, but slavery was rare and not an important part of the economy or society, so there was no reason for the vast majority of them to resist it and the slaveowners had very little power to do so.

  • Calidissident||

    Latin America is more complex, in many ways. Slavery wasn't common in many areas, very common in others. Whereas Southern society was starkly divided into white (free) and black (slave) with about a 60/40 split, Latin American societies were multiracial with a lot of mixed people, and the racial divisions were not as neat as in the South (both in the sense that you had multiple racial categories and people's ancestral mix of those categories generally fell on a spectrum, but also in the sense that not being white didn't necessarily mean you were a slave whereas that was true the vast majority of the time in the antebellum South). The social and economic importance of slavery and the racial divide was thus very different. And as I stated above, the end of slavery was heavily tied to wars in most Latin American countries even if it wasn't as direct as in Haiti or the US.

  • Calidissident||

    The situation of the South led to a culture that viewed slavery as the foundation of society. Abolition was absolutely unthinkable in 1860, and the words of the Southern leaders at the time make that 100% clear. And this brings me to my about about political factors - slaveowners had far more power in the Southern state governments, and the CSA federal government (or even the US federal government pre-war) than they did in the rest of the hemisphere. In the Caribbean colonies, they were subordinate to colonial central governments where they had to compete with a lot of other people for power. In Latin America they not nearly as powerful in the revolutionary governments as they were in the Southern US. In Brazil they had a monarch who abolished it by decree (and was overthrown in large part because of that). In the US, slaveowners had near-total control over Southern state governments and the CSA, and before secession they could block any attempt at abolition due to their power in the Senate and the high threshold for a constitutional amendment. The mere election of a president who opposed the spread of slavery was enough to get the slaveowners to secede and fight a war on the fear that this could one day lead to slavery being abolished. It's extremely difficult to see how you go from that to abolition in a quick timeframe. I'm not saying it would have continued to today, but the notion that it would or could have imminently ended peacefully in 1860 is a fantasy.

  • afk05||

    Spot on. Come to the Deep South and you will see how slavery and racism are still deeply entrenched in the culture. Slavery itself is now illlegal, but there are definitely those that would have no problem owning slaves if the could do so. They have such disdain for blacks, but yet they are not opposed to the history of slavery or to the fact that they were brought here in the first place. If some people prefer whites so much, they should be pissed at their ancestors and at the south fit bringing importing slaves in the first place. Think of how many more poor whites could have been employed if there was no slavery. Without slavery, the south would have embraced capitalism and industrialization much sooner than it did and would have remained competitive with the rest of the country. It's completely illogical.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    One reason slavery started in the Americas was lack of workers. There just were no enought people, so they forced Africans to come to America.

    As European population grew and America was deemed a place to start fresh, millions of immigrants moved to America.

  • afk05||

    Well if they would have just been patient and opened the floodgates of immigration sooner, they could have avoided centuries of stress and turmoil and a civil war.

  • Bubba Jones||

    We rely heavily on migrant farm labor. We have a large prison population.

    I think it's pretty easy to imagine replacing those with slave labor.

  • EscherEnigma||

    We do still have slavery today. It's not as wide spread, and not supported by governments anymore, but it still happens.

    So yeah, I fully expect we would have slavery today if we hadn't fought the Civil War, because we still have it anyway.

    Further, your argument is just silly. "Slavery isn't economical, so folks would have abandoned it over the last 150 years" sounds great... Until you remember the *thousands* of years in which humans routinely enslaved each other (again, still something that happens today).

    The world didn't (mostly) abandon slavery for economic reasons. It (mostly) abandoned slavery because of changes in morality and ethics. Economic concerns are incidental.

  • turco||

    "If the civil war was never fought, does anyone believe that slavery would still exist today?"

    If the North did not attack and conquer the South, the South would have eventually ended up in its own civil war between the slave owning aristocracy and non-slave owning free men

  • Paloma||

    Since every other country in the Americas ended it in the 19th Century with no civil war, I'd say no, it wouldn't exist today in the US.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Slaves weren't imported to the Americas because they were "cheap." They were imported because the European indentured servants all died of malaria and yellow fever.

    By 1860 there was a "seasoned" white population, but that wasn't true in 1660 when the colonies were being established.

    Slaves were crucial for *all* agriculture, not just cotton.

    I think this was covered in one of Robert Kaplan's books, but I don't recall specifically.

    So, no, "slavery" wasn't required but Africans were. At least at the beginning.

    The observation that slavery was obsolete by 1860 just shows that the North wasn't serious about ending slavery until they no longer benefited from it.

  • creech||

    Or it shows how long ridiculous views of which humans deserve liberty and which don't, coupled with destructive economic ideas, can prevail in a culture. Glad nothing like that happens today!

  • Calidissident||

    The North didn't have the power to unilaterally end slavery before the Civil War. It almost surely would have required a constitutional amendment (Lincoln could only justify the EP as a war-time measure, and the 13th was of course passed during Reconstruction and after a few new free states had been admitted) which the South could block. Furthermore, as evident by the Civil War itself, and the fact that the South seceded just because a president who opposed the expansion of slavery was elected, any attempt to do so would have prompted secession.

  • Paloma||

    Slaves were here before indentured servants. They became available because North African Muslims were selling them. They were selling any Europeans they could capture as well, but it became easier and more profitable to sell and capture black Africans especially those defeated in conflicts, so by the time the Americas were being settled, Europeans bought them to work for them in their new colonies.

  • Calidissident||

    American slaves were almost all brought from West Africa. Very few came from the North or East African slave trades. Some of the West African slave traders were Muslim, but not all by any means.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    A gold chain would make an excellent retirement gift, for a very very good slave.

  • SRoach||

    I've been reading this excellent webcomic by some lawyer in New York. Right now, he's doing constitutional law, and has recreated, from period writings, the events that led to our Constitution. It's interesting. It covers the careful compromise that allowed slavery to persist for so long, and planted the seeds of later conflict. All because of something first articulated by Ben Franklin, in his famous drawing that became the Gadsden flag, and later articulated by none other than Abraham Lincoln, when he quoted the bible to say "A house divided against itself cannot stand"-Mark 3:25.

    I encourage you to read it. I'm linking the start of the section, as well as the first comic in the recreation of the events in Pennsylvania, (I think, frankly several pages before this also have some reconstruction on the events leading up to the convention, but this pages LOOKS like the first scene set in Pennsylvania.)
    http://lawcomic.net/guide/?p=4751
    http://lawcomic.net/guide/?p=4920

    Frankly, I think the author may be One Of Us, (minus the freak show chanting,) judging from his replies to comments throughout the comic.

  • Ohio Farmer||

    Great article. I think Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations argued that slavery was inefficient due to slaves not being very invested in the success of the operation. He argued that only wealthy societies, like the South plantation-owner class, due to cotton, could afford to have wide spread slavery. So the wealth "caused" slavery (or permitted it), not the other way around.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Exactly. If slavery was so great and so cheap then every small business owner would have slaves.

    Slaves require massive infrastructure and just a really oppressive personality to own another human.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Economic analysis of Southern slavery has been an intensive field of historical study for many decades. Compared to the best of that, this analysis is second-rate scholarship. To dismiss out of hand the dramatic run up in the price of slaves during decades prior to 1860 requires more than resort to ideology. But McCloskey offers nothing else. Also, her dismissal depends on a non-sequitur—namely that American wealth amassed in that period resulted from innovation, not slavery. The innovation, of course, was the capital intensive project of establishing industrialism. Where did the capital come from? McCloskey's answer seems to be, "From capitalists, stupid. Capitalists who innovated."

    Because of her ideology, it goes without saying for McCloskey that capitalism and industrialism are the same process—so in her own mind she escapes responsibility to probe the extent to which that was true in the antebellum South, or for that matter in New England. She also minimizes the staggering scale of slave-predominant agriculture in American/British commerce, during the era stretching back for more than century prior to the Civil War. When you just assume the conclusion you set out to prove, you are begging the question.

    For an overview of the complexities McCloskey sleights, read Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom. In this instance, the comparison will prove useful as well to show comparative advantages of reasoning from experience, instead of from ideology.

  • Bubba Jones||

    the dramatic run up in the price of slaves during decades prior to 1860

    Wouldn't the end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 explain that?

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Wouldn't the end of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 explain that?

    A lot of things could explain it. And probably at least these all played a role:

    1. Progressive industrialization of cotton cloth production in Britain and the U.S., which notably increased demand.

    2. Expansion of new plantations into the American Southwest, and southern Midwest.

    3. Improvements in agricultural technique to optimize the value of slave labor.

    4. The end of the Atlantic slave trade.

    5. A growing market for slaves as commodities, particularly for exporting slaves raised in Virginia to other regions, in the U.S. and abroad.

    6. Ever-improving ability of plantation owners to get loans and invest, as modern banking became a greater economic factor. The contribution of that to most of the items above.

    I have no doubt historical specialists could draw you a better list, and a longer one.

  • JFree||

    To cast enslavement of some as requisite for the wealth of others is bad economics, then, and bad history.

    That may well be. And yet - the ability to exploit others (chattel slavery re cotton being just one iteration) DOES keep occurring - and it IS highly profitable to those who succeed at it - and the only people who EVER write about it honestly are those with the guts to also speak ill of those who are profiting immensely from the exploiting. And the long-dead or obscure info they are willing to bring out into the light is the basis for GOOD history.

    Just to give one example. I haven't read Beckert's book. Never even heard of it. But just reading a critical review, the reviewer mentions a supposedly critical 'error' - that the Baring who helped finance the Louisiana Purchase was Francis not Thomas. Well so fucking what? I wasn't aware that we, technically, purchased Louisiana territory from British bankers not Napoleon (who was let's not forget at war with Britain at the time). And if anyone thinks Louisiana Purchase was economically irrelevant to the future of the US, then they are clearly an economic ignoramus. So looks like I have to read Beckert now.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "and it IS highly profitable to those who succeed at it"

    It's profitable for those involved in the procurement and sale of slaves. The profitability for those actually using slave labor to do work has not been clearly demonstrated.

  • EscherEnigma||

    I can't speak for whether it is profitable.

    However, I think the thousands of years of history of humans enslaving each other (continuing to today) shows that many folks that are heavily incentivized to think with their pocket books sure believed/believe it was/is.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I wonder. I think one thing that is overvalued is just how much people think economically. Especially beyond a certain point of richness. I think money can be power, but that power takes other forms and is the primary form of prestige sought through most of history.

    And slavery is a very explicit form of power over another. To have a whole plantation of slaves is powerful indeed.

  • JFree||

    The profitability for those actually using slave labor to do work has not been clearly demonstrated.

    Well that's nonsense. The 'plantation' is very easy to discern in census info. It's a very big farm - and unlike smaller yeoman/free farms, it also required going into debt to buy that land too - and back then mortgage-debt was VERY short-term. Which if you want to assume slavery was unprofitable means that it would also be more likely to be first to be foreclosed - and would tend to be sold to yeoman/free/small - rather than yet another presumably unsuccessful slaver.

    IOW - if slavery is unprofitable, the average size of farms or the % of acreage in huge plantations would decline over time. If slavery is profitable, farms will tend to concentrate into plantation scale over time - as yeoman/free farmers lose their ability to compete. That sort of rural concentration also has a huge impact on other stuff too - eg do schools appear in nearby towns to educate yeoman kids - cuz planter kids either get privately tutored or go East for school. or is capital reinvested in ag which can improve the farmland and make it more intensive. All of which in turn affects later industrialization in rural areas.

    Slavery was very profitable in the South. And all the different impacts of it gutted the South's long-term future.

  • Sevo||

    Every free trade means each agent has something more valuable than s/he did prior to the trade. Therefore, mankind's wealth is derived of free trade.
    Given that it's hard to find a system which reduces free exchange more than slavery, it should be obvious that slavery decreases the wealth of mankind in general.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Good point.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Note also, the photograph used to illustrate this article is pretty clearly a post-slavery photo of field hands in the American South—maybe a 20th century picture. Not sure what to make of that, but the fact that someone thinks you can communicate the reality of slavery with a picture of non-slavery presents a many-layered conundrum worth pondering.

  • Zeb||

    Does someone actually think that?

  • Bubba Jones||

    Or it suggests that sharecroppers weren't that different from slaves?

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Yup. One of the layers.

  • Longtobefree||

    There is a rule at Reason that the picture near an article can never,ever, actually be about the article.

  • Benitacanova||

    Nice article, written by a wise man.

  • mtrueman||

    "Taxation is a slavery admired by most of the left and much of the right. Its defenses echo Southern rhetoric in 1860. "

    It's striking how much Americans today like to identify themselves as slaves. I doubt that any other populace so readily dons the mantle of slavery. Perhaps it's related to today's obsession with the importance of being identified as a victim. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote book after book about the worst oppression and I don't think he ever referred to himself or his country-men as slaves.

  • Robert||

    We got sugar & rice now w/o slaves, so how're they unlike cotton in that regard?

    How could anyone think that making some people slaves could enrich a country? Like you could somehow make the country richer by having half the people steal from the other half?

  • mtrueman||

    "How could anyone think that making some people slaves could enrich a country?"

    Do you know anything about malaria? It plagued those Europeans who came to America for centuries. Tobacco was America's biggest money maker and it thrived because it relied on African slaves who were not affected by malaria to the same extent.

  • EscherEnigma||

    "How could anyone think that making some people slaves could enrich a country?"
    Presumably they read history books and notice that slavery is common throughout the world for most of history.

    You can argue that those societies would have been richer without slavery, but it's pretty evident that many quite successful civilizations used slavery for a long time.

    That said, your shouldn't confuse post-1786 American slavery with how it was throughout history. *Breeding* future slaves was kind of a weird thing. The more common practice was to go get them from somewhere else and forcefully relocate them.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    How much of traditional slavery was also done to split up a conquered people into more manageable units. Get them away from their homes where they revolt, and do something with them in the mean time.

  • Stephen Lathrop||

    Like you could somehow make the country richer by having half the people steal from the other half?

    Yeah. It's almost as if history were perversely trying to rehabilitate Marx's theory of surplus value. Put it in a nutshell. Instead of letting the slaves keep what they produced, and then spend it as they would, you force them into the most marginal subsistence necessary to keep them going, steal the rest of the value they produce, and use it to amass capital. Productive use of the capital makes the nation richer.

    By the way, if you don't understand that little narrative as an answer to a nagging question in capitalist theory, a question that remains vexing to this day, then study up. Just as supply and demand bids the value of labor downward toward mere subsistence (the replacement value of the laborer), it's not obvious why the law of supply and demand, in free markets, doesn't bid the value of capital to its own zero-profit replacement value. Stealing is one of the more cogent answers in response. Capital you get at zero cost yields profits even when employed below its replacement rate of return. Sure, there are other answers, but they don't mean that one is not sometimes right.

  • Mark22||

    Yeah. It's almost as if history were perversely trying to rehabilitate Marx's theory of surplus value. Put it in a nutshell. Instead of letting the slaves keep what they produced, and then spend it as they would, you force them into the most marginal subsistence necessary to keep them going, steal the rest of the value they produce, and use it to amass capital.

    Slaves actually could probably keep more of the value of their labor than modern tax payers can.

  • SRoach||

    Your mistake is thinking those involved in the slave trade, as suppliers or consumers, were interested in enriching the country.
    They were interested in enriching themselves.

    How can anyone think that following some drunk into a dark alley, knocking his head against the wall, and stealing his wallet, phone and watch do anything positive for the economy. The mugger doesn't care. He's richer, and that's all that matters.

    I like to compare the working poor of today with the last kings of France. I choose France because of the incredible gilt and other ornament I generally associate with the French court. Todays working poor has better access to plumbing, education, entertainment, news, climate control, clothing, and even, arguably, food, (although that is debatable,) than did those old monarchs, but plenty of people would like to be them. Living as king of the compost heap, while everyone else lies at your feet is a popular fantasy. Just look at all the people who fantasize about surviving the Zombie Apocalypse, but with a lot of tools and ammo.

  • Rossami||

    I'm not sure who you think says any of that. The Lincoln quote was talking about all the wealth of the nation, not just that fraction of wealth that came from slavery.

    Okay, the article provides a cite for the "northern finance" theory but that certainly wasn't part of any of my textbooks. In those texts, cotton extended the period of economic viability of slavery but the market for it was as much or more overseas as it was in the north.

  • buybuydandavis||

    No discussion of Slavery is complete without:

    The Story of Your Enslavement - Stefan Molyneux
    https://youtu.be/Xbp6umQT58A

  • hezamaru||

    I mean... the phrase "wage slave" really isn't a literal manifestation of the left's belief that all employment is unfair exploitation, no. That's... weird.

    The phrase "wage slave" is a hyperbolic commentary on the drudgery of working menial jobs for mediocre pay. That seems like a reach.

  • mtrueman||

    "I mean... the phrase "wage slave" really isn't a literal manifestation of the left's belief that all employment is unfair exploitation, no. "

    Wage slave, chattel slave, they both are positions of subservience. Folks like Adam Smith and Jefferson never envisioned their capitalist order where the bulk of the citizenry spend their entire working lives in positions of subservience.

  • rferris||

    I really like the writing, so when I was at Freedom Fest and had a chance to speak to the author I was very disapointed that barely into my question she called me a Fascist. I was amazed! The next person, a Russian escapee got even less far before being called a Fascist.
    This is NOT so good from a professor in communication, attacking an admirer without even the courtesy of hearing me out.
    I think writing from the ivory tower and not speaking to actual people would be best for poor Deirdre

  • Mark22||

    I had a chance to talk to her. In my opinion, she's a jerk and not much of a economist.

  • Mark22||

    Slavery was of course appalling, a plain theft of labor

    Like taxes are now.

  • mtrueman||

    "Like taxes are now."

    Isn't it great that we are all slaves now, regardless of race? It's so wonderfully American.

  • Deplorable Victor||

    The civil war was not just and it's a shame there is no hell - the people who fomented it should burn there forever.

  • Michael Cook||

    There is a lot to unpack about Southern ag history that is myth and misconception. First of all, cotton slaves were not working their fingers to the bone 365 days a year. Cotton was a seasonal crop. Southern slaves were a lot like the horses on my grandpa's farm--300 days a year they had to be fed but they were no use at all the rest of the time. Slavery was in part a compulsory labor system to keep rural workers rural and not drifting away to higher pay industry developing in the cities or to gold fields out West.

    Some slave owners recognized this and educated their slaves so that they could take city jobs and remit part of their wages to the plantations. Other plantations were actually on a share-cropper basis even before the Civil War as far as the gardens and the food crops and craft goods that had to sustain the slaves and the mansion.

    Keep in mind that to Northerners and Mid-Westerners, ALL Southerners were pretty damn lazy farmers who maybe would do a little work in the cool mornings and hunt or fish in the afternoon, maybe keeping an eye on their hogs foraging in the cool of the woods. Climate before air conditioning was a serious problem for productivity.

    When shells fell on Fort Sumter, slaves were the most valuable property in the South. Land was worthless without them. Emancipation did not compensate for that immense economic loss. Lincoln knew he could not buy slaves their freedom. The North was willing to pay for a war that ultimately enriched itself.

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