Activism and the End of Slavery

In the United States, a common argument surrounding the Civil War is that it was unnecessary because slavery was dying out on its own. Economically unviable in the face of industrialization, it would have gone extinct on its own. But is this true?

In short: no. The notion that slavery would have eventually vanished without government intervention due to fundamental economic concerns originates from both misunderstandings and deliberate distortions of history.

One of the major misunderstandings is that, because slavery had briefly lost some of its profitability (and thus popularity) prior to the American Revolution, it was on its way to dying out. This might have happened if not for the South’s dependence on cotton and the invention which revolutionized its production: the cotton gin. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made slavery dramatically more efficient. Most Southerners did not own slaves, but the sheer profitability of slave-produced cotton ensured the institution’s future. Cotton was central to the Southern economy and, without a slave-oriented production process, it would not have been an attractive business proposition.

Al Mackey cites some particularly salient research:

Sutch has calculated the value of slaves appreciated at a rate of about 7.56% annually [p. 520].  Conrad quotes Douglas North, another economic historian, as saying, “there is no possibility that slavery was economically not viable.”  [p. 523]  Conrad and Meyer say, “Although profitability cannot be offered as a sufficient guarantee of the continuity of southern slavery, the converse argument that slavery must have destroyed itself can no longer rest upon allegations of unprofitability or upon assumptions about the impossibility of maintaining and allocating a slave labor force.  To the extent, moreover, that profitability is a necessary condition for the continuation of a private business institution in a free-enterprise society, slavery was not untenable in the ante-bellum American South.”  [p. 527] Dowd says, “For the American South, it surely was good business sense that led planters to emphasize cotton cultivation, slaveholding, and slave breeding.”  [p. 532]  Dowd further says, “Of course slavery was profitable.” [p. 536]  and “If one looks at the history of the American South, one finds that it was a very prosperous region relative to the rest of the world in the pre-Civil War period, and that it was at that time reasonably prosperous relative to the rest of the United States.”  [p. 552]

Robert Fogel, of the University of Chicago, said, “It turns out the relative profitability of slavery [had there not been a Civil War and emancipation] between 1860 and 1890 would have increased.  Whether we like it or not, the demand for American cotton continued to grow down to the early 1920s more rapidly than the South was able to respond and supply.  It is quite wrong to say the price of cotton fell.  The real price of cotton rose over time.  It is clear, then, that cotton over this period faced a booming market.”  [p. 553]

Engerman said, “The white population [of the South] probably had a per capita income which exceeded that of the North and the West averaged together; even if you include the Negro population, per capita income in the South was reasonably high in comparison to the West.”  [p. 558]

This is damning, to say the least. Why, then, does this idea persist in the face of so much contrary evidence?

I propose two separate but related motives. One is the “Lost Cause” mythology that is popular in Southern historiography and which has endured to the point of being nestled deep in the public consciousness. Today, the Civil War is viewed as an unfortunate, perhaps unnecessary bout of violence–a tragic waste of lives that didn’t have to happen. The “Lost Cause” myth portrays the Confederacy as not all that different from the Union, led by honorable men who stood up for their country. Perhaps they were misguided, but they did their duty, as any good soldier or citizen ought. This narrative is put forth by various books and films, such as Gone with the Wind and CopperheadsEssentially, the purpose of this story is to assuage the guilt of Southerners who may feel sympathetic to the fallen Confederacy, while at the same time scolding Yankees who might feel the war was justified.

There is another motive, however. Crucial to the destruction of slavery was the abolitionist movement, which came in waves throughout Colonial and early American history. Slavery remained a constant political issue–every time new territory was added to the United States, the question of whether it would be permitted to practice slavery was pivotal. In the north, the anti-slavery Republican Party tried to end slavery through economic means, efforts to make it unprofitable. These efforts, by and large, failed.

This did not stop private citizens from fighting slavery on their own, however. The Underground Railroad, groups like the American Anti-Slavery Society, and radicals like John Brown sought to end the institution by any means necessary–including violence. Over time, abolitionist ideas permeated the public consciousness. The treatment of slaves, the unjust laws that kept them in bondage and forced northern jurisdictions to comply with Southern standards, and the escalating debate over the future of new territories kept the issue of slavery alive into the 1860s. Abolitionist ideas had, over time, come to crowd out support for slavery throughout the north. When President Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation, he was not taking a bold, unanticipated stand against slavery–he was employing a largely symbolic gesture that enjoyed wide public support.

That support existed almost entirely due to the work of abolitionists in the prior decades, illustrating the cruelty, inhumanity, and sin of slavery.

It makes sense, then, to forward the narrative that slavery would’ve eventually extinguished itself, if one’s goal is to denigrate activism more generally. If we can propagate the belief that activism doesn’t work, that society will turn toward justice over the natural course of events rather than due to activism and growing pressure, we can thwart activist movements. We can make the case that those movements simply don’t work. But history tells us a contrary story. Activism did work. The fundamental repugnance of slavery was, in time, taken into the hearts and minds of enough people that half the country was willing to engage in a terrible, bloody war to end it.

While it’s not the central point here, I think we can put the question of slavery’s inevitable extinction to rest. The South, as it existed in the 1860s, was in no way on a trajectory toward ending slavery. Indeed, it would’ve been expanded if not for political resistance. But the system was perfectly economically viable for its time. Does that mean the Civil War was ultimately necessary? I would hope that war is never “necessary,” but the reality is that peace requires parties on all sides be willing to negotiate and compromise to reach a settlement. Slavery, by its very nature, is not an institution that can be removed in half-measures, or compromised away. It can only be destroyed, dismantled from top to bottom. Southerners laid down their lives to defend it.

So, don’t take stories about the “Lost Cause” or slavery’s inevitable decline at face value. People who spread those tales are trying to deceive, either to rehabilitate the memory of a racist, inhumane society, or to undermine the value of activism. Don’t be deceived.

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James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Activism and the End of Slavery

by James time to read: 5 min
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