A Labor Day question: What would the South – and America – have been like without slave labor?

Planting Rice in the South. From Harper’s Monthly Magazine (1859), vol. 19, p. 726; accompanies article by T. Addison Richards, “The Rice Lands of the South” (pp. 721-38).
Image Source: From the website “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record”; Image Reference NW0078, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

Here’s a Labor Day question: What would the South have looked like, economically, if not for the labor provided by its enslaved population? Do you believe that enslaved people get enough credit for the role they played in building the southern and American economies?

Any thoughts?

As you think about that question, consider the following statements. They are from southerners, who spoke about slavery and its role in US and global commerce, before and during the slave state secessions that preceded the American Civil War. These are excerpts from various speeches, books, and documents from the persons noted; links to the full text for the excerpts are provided. The view of these men is quite clear: the future of commerce in the South, the United States, and the world – indeed, the future of civilization itself – depended on the existence and continuation of slave labor in their section.
A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.
January, 1861

In January 1861, the state of Mississippi announced that it was “dissolving” its bonds with the federal Union. The state released a declaration, akin to the Declaration of Independence issued during the Revolutionary War by the American colonists, which explained why Mississippi was seceding from the United States:

“In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

“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. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

Cotton Is King, And Pro-Slavery Arguments: Comprising The Writings Of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, And Cartwright, on This Important Subject
Edited by E. N. Elliott, 1860

E. N. Elliott, L.L.D., was the president of Planters’ College in Mississippi. In response to heightened sectional tension – which culminated in the secession of Mississippi and other states – Elliott wrote this book using content from several southern writers. The text contains an extensive defense of slavery on various social, economic, political, and biblical grounds. (One of the writers cited by Elliott, James Henry Hammond, made a speech that is often referred to as his “Cotton is King” oration; text from that speech is noted further below.)

“The institution of slavery, at this moment, gives indications of a vitality that was never anticipated by its friends or foes. Its enemies often supposed it about ready to expire, from the wounds they had inflicted, when in truth it had taken two steps in advance, while they had taken twice the number in an opposite direction. In each successive conflict, its assailants have been weakened, while its dominion has been extended.

“This has arisen from causes too generally overlooked. Slavery is not an isolated system, but is so mingled with the business of the world, that it derives facilities from the most innocent transactions. Capital and labor, in Europe and America, are largely employed in the manufacture of cotton. These goods, to a great extent, may be seen freighting every vessel, from Christian nations, that traverses the seas of the globe; and filling the warehouses and shelves of the merchants over two-thirds of the world. By the industry, skill, and enterprise employed in the manufacture of cotton, mankind are better clothed; their comfort better promoted; general industry more highly stimulated; commerce more widely extended; and civilization more rapidly advanced than in any preceding age.

“To the superficial observer, all the agencies, based upon the sale and manufacture of cotton, seem to be legitimately engaged in promoting human happiness; and he, doubtless, feels like invoking Heaven’s choicest blessings upon them. When he sees the stockholders in the cotton corporations receiving their dividends, the operatives their wages, the merchants their profits, and civilized people everywhere clothed comfortably in cottons, he can not refrain from exclaiming: The lines have fallen unto them in pleasant places; yea, they have a goodly heritage!

“But turn a moment to the source whence the raw cotton, the basis of these operations, is obtained, and observe the aspect of things in that direction. When the statistics on the subject are examined, it appears that nine-tenths of the cotton consumed in the Christian world is the product of the slave labor of the United States. It is this monopoly that has given to slavery its commercial value; and, while this monopoly is retained, the institution will continue to extend itself wherever it can find room to spread. He who looks for any other result, must expect that nations, which, for centuries, have waged war to extend their commerce, will now abandon that means of aggrandizement, and bankrupt themselves to force the abolition of American slavery!”

Benjamin Morgan Palmer’s “Thanksgiving Sermon”
November 29, 1860

The Reverend Dr. Benjamin Morgan Palmer was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, and regarded as “one of the few greatest preachers of the first nineteen centuries of the Christian era.” His 1960 “Thanksgiving Sermon,” which gave his justification for Louisiana’s secession from the Union, was widely published in newspapers and pamphlets throughout the South. Leaving the Union was vital in fulfilling the South’s God-given trust to preserve slavery, which, he said, was essential for world commerce:

“(preserving and maintaining slavery) is a duty which we owe, further, to the civilized world. It is a remarkable fact that during these thirty years of unceasing warfare against slavery, and while a lying spirit has inflamed the world against us, that world has grown more and more dependent upon it for sustenance and wealth. Every tyro knows that all branches of industry fall back upon the soil. We must come, every one of us, to the bosom of this great mother for nourishment.

“In the happy partnership which has grown up in providence between the tribes of this confederacy, our industry has been concentrated upon agriculture. To the North we have cheerfully resigned all the profits arising from manufacture and commerce. Those profits they have, for the most part, fairly earned, and we have never begrudged them. We have sent them our sugar and bought it back when refined; we have sent them our cotton and bought it back when spun into thread or woven into cloth. Almost every article we use, from the shoe lachet to the most elaborate and costly article of luxury, they have made and we have bought; and both sections have thriven by the partnership, as no people ever thrived before since the first shining of the sun.

“So literally true are the words of the text, addressed by Obadiah to Edom, “All the men of our confederacy, the men that were at peace with us, have eaten our bread at the very time they have deceived and laid a wound under us.” Even beyond this the enriching commerce which has built the splendid cities and marble palaces of England, as well as of America, has been largely established upon the products of our soil; and the blooms upon Southern fields gathered by black hands have fed the spindles and looms of Manchester and Birmingham not less than of Lawrence and Lowell.

“Strike now a blow at this system of labor and the world itself totters at the stroke. Shall we permit that blow to fall? Do we not owe it to civilized man to stand in the breach and stay the uplifted arm? If the blind Samson lays hold of the pillars which support the arch of the world’s industry, how many more will be buried beneath its ruins than the lords of the Philistines? “Who knoweth whether we are not come to the kingdom for such a time as this.”


James Henry Hammond, “Cotton is King”/”Mud-sill” Speech
March 4, 1858

In March 1858, James H. Hammond, a US senator from South Carolina, gave a speech concerning the admission of Kansas to the Union. In addition to his comments on the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict, Hammond also spoke about the social, political and economic differences between the free sates and the slave states. The speech is referred to as the “Cotton is King” speech, and also the “Mudsill” speech.

“If we never acquire another foot of territory for the South, look at her. Eight hundred and fifty thousand square miles. As large as Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia and Spain. Is not that territory enough to make an empire that shall rule the world? With the finest soil, the most delightful climate, whose staple productions none of those great countries can grow…

“…in this territory lies the great valley of the Mississippi, now the real, and soon to be the acknowledged seat of the empire of the world. The sway of that valley will be as great as ever the Nile knew in the earlier ages of mankind. We own the most of it. The most valuable part of it belongs to us now; and although those who have settled above us are now opposed to us, another generation will tell a different tale. They are ours by all the laws of nature; slave-labor will go over every foot of this great valley where it will be found profitable to use it…

“But the strength of a nation depends in a great measure upon its wealth, and the wealth of a nation, like that of a man, is to be estimated by its surplus production… last year the United States exported in round numbers $279,000,000 worth of domestic produce, excluding gold and foreign merchandise re-exported. Of this amount $158,000,000 worth is the clear produce of the South; articles that are not and cannot be made at the North. There are then $80,000,000 worth of exports of products of the forest, provisions and breadstuffs. If we assume that the South made but one third of these, and I think that is a low calculation, our exports were $185,000,000…

“In addition to this, we sent to the North $30,000,000 worth of cotton, which is not counted in the exports. We sent to her $7 or $8,000,000 worth of tobacco, which is not counted in the exports. We sent naval stores, lumber, rice, and many other minor articles. There is no doubt that we sent to the North $40,000,000 in addition; but suppose the amount to be $35,000,000, it will give us a surplus production of $220,000,000.

“If I am right in my calculations as to $220,000,000 of surplus produce, there is not a nation on the face of the earth, with any numerous population, that can compete with us in produce per capita.

“But, sir, the greatest strength of the South arises from the harmony of her political and social institutions. This harmony gives her a frame of society, the best in the world, and an extent of political freedom, combined with entire security, such as no other people ever enjoyed upon the face of the earth.

“…how… have we succeeded?

“In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.

“Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.”


2 thoughts on “A Labor Day question: What would the South – and America – have been like without slave labor?

  1. Hi Alan – I couldn’t resist your question. I comment because I cannot be right (or wrong). It is a question we hear – and I never read a good answer. Your question: What would the South have looked like, economically, if not for the labor provided by its enslaved population?

    If we think about historic populations, Charleston SC in 1800 was the same population as NYC: about 60,000 people. By 1860, NYC was 800,000 people, while Charleston was still less than 100,000 people. Why the differences in population growth? Free ideas and thoughts and the freedom to act on them by creating new businesses. The slave type economy slowed down any incentive to create. it can be argued that an economic disservice was done by stealing another person’s labor. If southern states had implemented gradual emancipation as was done by the northern states in the late 18th century, the southern economy would have done better. The addition of consumers drives the world (to its peril perhaps) and can only be maintained if people spend money. America’s greatness comes from creating this middle class in which all people are consumers and pay taxes.

    We reference king cotton, but the north was the bread basket and industry of the nation. The northern infrastructure and free labor allowed clever men like Vanderbilt and Rockefeller to flourish (to name a few). Of course, Americans, like all people were prejudice, so the full benefit of gradual emancipation in creating additional consumers may not be realistic. How would we have treated the Chinese in the early 19th century if we had been that liberal in our history? Who knows how the nation would have formed. There would have been no Lincoln – his greatness would not have been revealed without opportunity. African American population was only 1 million people in 1800, and 4.4 million in 1860. That is a 2.5% annual population growth rate. Did enslaving people slow down the growth rate of the African American population? A larger African American population would have added additional growth to the southern economy. So there is an argument that America shot itself in the foot by not implementing freedom sooner.

    Your next question: Do you believe that enslaved people get enough credit for the role they played in building the southern and American economies? How do we provide credit in creating this Western Civilization? There is an argument that through enslavement of people, we made the south an economic backwater. The north prospered – with ideas and industry. All we can do is try to honor these people that our culture enslaved – that is their credit. There are no answers to these questions. Ed

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