Was there any truth in the Southern claim that slavery was both a benign and profitable institution in Mid-19th Century America?

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Sarah Ritchie                11th September 2002

Was there any truth in the Southern claim that slavery was both a benign and profitable institution in Mid-19th Century America?

Despite the abolition of slavery in the Northern states by 1820, it continued to grow in the South. By 1860 over 50% of all American slaves were employed on Southern cotton plantations, and there were nearly 4,000,000 slaves in the Southern slave states. The majority of White Southerners had no conflict of confidence in slavery; they only became more determined to maintain it as an institution after the rise of militant abolitionism in the North in the 1830s, claiming that slavery was an effective method of controlling the slave population.

Throughout the last century, and before, historians have been disputing the merits of slavery as an institution; its success as an economic tool and the treatment of those it utilised. It is easier to judge the economic success of slavery than its effects on the slaves themselves for several reasons. Any comment about the treatment of slaves can only be a generalisation – there were fair slave owners, cruel slave owners and slave owners who fell somewhere in the middle. Most records are only from large plantations; there are very few from families who owned only a handful of slaves. Even the accounts of former slaves are unreliable since by the time they were taken any freed slaves still living would have experienced slave life as children only, and memories are liable to alter over time.

When considering whether or not slavery was a profitable institution, we must ask the question ‘Who for?’ It was certainly not profitable for the slaves themselves, who after all received no wages and were forced to rely on their owners for clothing, food and housing. The competition provided by slave labour also caused decreased wages for white indentured servants or freed slaves. It is debatable whether or not slavery was profitable for the Southern economy as a whole.

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Initially, slaves gave better labour on rice, indigo and tobacco plantations than white indentured servants did, making the growth of slavery valuable for plantation owners looking for maximum profit with the minimum input. Due to soil depletion in the upper South towards the end of the eighteenth century necessitating the change from labour-intensive tobacco production to crops like fruit, vegetables and grain, it became economically sound for the planters to free their slaves. It was just at this time, however, that cotton production - requiring a large amount of unskilled labour - in the lower South began to rise, ...

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