RETURN The Civil War 

The war between the states was a long and bloody conflict. During its four-year duration a million or more Americans were killed or mutilated. Materially the odds strongly favored the North, which had a population of some 22 million compared to the 9 million in the south, of which a third were slaves. Perhaps 90 per cent of the country’s manufacturing plant was located in the north, giving it an overwhelming advantage in producing armaments. 

The economic aspects of the war have been extensively studied, both in relation to its causes and its effects. So far as the latter are concerned, much of the attention has been focused on the question of how the war affected American industrialization. Some authorities have argued that the war retarded American economic development, others that it stimulated it. What seems clear is that the end of the war marked the beginning of a great surge of growth which propelled the United States into its 20th century position of world dominance. As for the economic background to the war, the picture is less clear than casual speculation might suggest. The traditional explanations of the war between the southern and northern states usually characterized it as a conflict between two opposing economic systems: the old-fashioned and corrupt feudal agriculture of the south with its reliance on a repressive system of slavery and the vigorous new industrial capitalism based on free markets and free workers emerging in the north. Particularly influential was the work done in the 1920’s by the great American historian, Charles Beard, who had argued persuasively that the development of American capitalism in the years preceding the Civil War was being retarded by the influence of the backward-looking agricultural interests of the south. Associated with this was a long-standing disagreement over tariff policy. Mill owners and skilled workers in the north stood to benefit from a high protective tariff on manufactured goods, notably cotton textiles, because such a tariff would enable them to gain higher profits and higher wages. Producers of non-protected goods (i.e., most of the raw materials produced in the south) would suffer: they would pay higher prices for manufactured goods whether imported or domestically produced. 

Other popular interpretations of the war have emphasized the issue of slavery. Many southern plantation owners believed it was necessary for the cotton industry — and the institution of slavery — to be extended into the new western territories if their way of life was to remain economically viable. This brought them into direct conflict with free farmers moving into the western lands from the non-slave states of the north. The implied logic for expanding the slave economy was that access to more extensive land resources would increase the productivity of slave labor and create a market for the surplus slaves produced on the existing plantations. Alternatively, restricting the quantity of such land would cause diminishing returns to slave labor and the profitability of slave ownership would decline. While plausible, this analysis is now not given much weight by a new generation of scholars who have challenged the assumption that slave owners experienced a "shortage" of land in the established slave states. It is also worth noting that most northerners had no interest in abolishing slavery in the south —the "abolitionist" faction in the north was vocal, but it was only a small and not very influential political minority. Nor is there evidence that the north had much reason to be concerned with the economic effects of slavery. Feelings on the subject were of course much stronger in the south, and it is possible that the willingness of southerners to go to war over the issue was rooted in a perception that in the long term, opposition to slavery would grow, rendering the future value of their investments in slaves uncertain. There is also evidence, to be found mainly in the analysis of American slavery carried out by a new school of American economic historians who use statistical and formal theoretical methods to study the past, that the southern system, far from being corrupt and obsolescent, was profitable enough for all concerned to think it was worth fighting to preserve. 

In 1958 Alfred Conrad and John Myers published a controversial article, "The Economics of Slavery in the Antibellum South," in the Journal of Political Economy. They asked a simple question, "Was slavery profitable?’ Earlier investigators, working in the older tradition of conventional "narrative" and "non-analytical" history had tried to answer this question by investigating the records of particular slave owners, studying contemporary accounts, and, by exercising judgement as to the reliability of such evidence, they arrived at the conclusion that slavery had not been particularly profitable and would probably have been abandoned even without the political and other developments associated with the Civil War. 

Conrad and Myers thought a better way of answering the question would be simply to determine the profitability of making investments in slaves. Was the return on such investment as high as could be obtained from alternative forms of investment? This, they thought, could be determined using techniques any well-trained modern economist could handle. Unlike the ill-defined and impressionistic methods of traditional historians, these techniques were supposed to be essentially value-free and objective. Using such a cool-headed approach to so emotionally-charged a topic as slavery was, of course, highly provocative and it is not difficult to understand why the Conrad and Myers article attracted so much attention. 

Traditional American history had tended to accept the abolitionist depiction of slavery as a corrupt, degrading, and economically flawed institution. Plantation owners in the conventional view were seen as cruel, degenerate backwoods aristocrats clinging to an outmoded economic and social system which had little future in a progressive capitalistic America. Slaves themselves were represented as miserable, inefficient, hopeless creatures who either debased themselves by collaborating with their masters or withdrew sullenly into a torpid, lazy life of doing only what they were forced to do. Thus, in the conventional view, American slavery was ugly: the masters mistreated their slaves, beatings, mutilations and sexual abuse were common practices. Surely, then, it is unlikely that such a system was profitable. Was it possible to verify this by actually determining what the owners of slaves got out of the business? 

Conrad and Myers found that the average return on male slaves was about six percent and on female slaves between 7 and 8 percent (depending on their fertility). Given the market price of slaves, they concluded that slavery, whatever other faults it had, was indeed profitable. 

These findings were immediately attacked by critics who questioned the morality of treating slavery as just another kind of investment. The reliability of the data used in the study was questioned. The estimates made of life expectancy and fertility in the slave population were also challenged. Other critics raised even more fundamental issues. Even if some elements of society could be shown to have benefited from the institution of slavery, what about the slaves? Was it possible that the costs borne by the slave population exceeded the benefits to everyone else? 

This challenging question was taken up by Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel in a book, Time on the Cross, published in 1974. Despite its rather misleading title, Time on the Cross demonstrated that the actual institution of slavery in America was entirely unlike the familiar conventional depiction of it. In fact, most plantation owners were shrewd and capable business people intent on making their enterprises as efficient as possible. Their employment practices were in fact progressive for the time, and most slaves were treated at least as well as free workers in other forms of agriculture and probably better than the urban proletariat in the industrial centres of America and Europe. Even field workers on the cotton plantations were strongly motivated and well compensated for their efforts. Most probably received something like 90 per cent of the value they produced and an elaborate system of incentives and rewards encouraged them to work hard. Instead of being debauched and demoralised, the slave labour force of the American South is depicted in Time on the Cross as a surprisingly prosperous and contented lot, displaying many modern middle class virtues while enjoying stable family and community relationships. The southern slave economy, by the middle of the 19th century, was consequently stable and prosperous. Fogel and Engerman estimated that, over-all, the standard of living in the American south was higher than in any European country of the time, with the exception of England. In comparison with the American north, the businesslike plantation owners of the south were richer and more numerous than the entrepreneurs of the north, their relations with their workers were better, and the well-organised gangs of slaves were more efficient and productive than the free workers of the north. It is consistent with this evidence that slave uprisings in the US were relatively few and infrequent compared with the experience in slave societies elsewhere. (Slavery was extensively practised in the British, Dutch, French, and Danish possessions in the Caribbean and in Brazil and rebellions were common in all these areas. The British government abolished slavery in the British West Indies in 1838 and subsequently in other British colonies including India. Slavery was illegal in Portuguese colonies after 1878, although it persisted in Brazil until at least 1888. The Dutch began to emancipate their slaves in 1863. In Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, slavery ended only after the conclusion of the Spanish American War in 1898.) 

Thus, the evidence offered by Fogel and Engerman suggests that in the mid-19th century, the southern slave economy was growing and becoming more rather than less prosperous. Per capita income was rising at a rate one-third faster in the south than in the north. 

As might be expected, Time on the Cross provoked an enormous amount of controversy and criticism. Traditional historians were enraged by its strident style and sneering tone. Liberals were outraged by its apparent lack of any moral perspective on the issue of slavery. Even some fellow practitioners of the new approach to writing history found fault with it on grounds of technique and the use of evidence. 

In 1989 Fogel published a sequel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (Norton, New York, 1989), in which he answered some of these criticisms, modified his rhetoric, but generally reasserted the position of the earlier work. The new book displays the mellowing of the attitudes taken by the new technically oriented analysts who have begun to show some willingness to find a place for more traditional methods of understanding the past. In the new book Fogel makes reference to the paradox of a system being politically, socially and ideologically "horribly retrogressive" while at the same time efficient and prosperous. 

In addition to dealing with the response to Time on the Cross, much of Without Consent or Contract is devoted to analysing the abolitionist movement and the events leading up to the Civil War. What comes out of this is a further paradox. Fogel suggests that much of the success of the abolitionists can be attributed to their willingness to falsify the facts about slavery in the south. But, in the process, they became opponents of reform in the north, complicit with those intent on defending the "brutal and exploitative" practices of the free capitalistic labour market which had become established there. This, Fogel appears to believe, makes it difficult to accept the abolitionist case against slavery as the needed "moral dimension" to the issue. In its place he proposes a more appropriate "indictment" of slavery for the effective, but deception-ridden, abolitionist position. He suggests that slavery was wrong because it gave one group unrestricted power over another, it denied slaves economic opportunity, it deprived them of the rights of citizenship, and it denied them the rights of cultural autonomy and self-identification. The problem with this, as he admits, however, is that critics of the free capitalistic labour market might make essentially the same arguments. 

Fogel also addresses the question of whether the Civil War was necessary. He considers the counterfactual: what if there had been no Civil War? He guesses that the south would have seceded, slavery would have continued, and an independent Confederacy would have gone on to become a major world power. The Civil War was consequently necessary to end slavery and, if it had not occurred, Fogel implies, slavery and serfdom would have persisted elsewhere and the development of liberal democracy in the western world would have been much retarded. Thus, in this view, it appears that at a cost of some 600,000 young lives, the US Civil War was ultimately necessary and beneficial.