Slavery and the Economy
Over the course of history, historians have viewed slavery as an immoral and unjustifiable institution. At the beginning of the antebellum period, around 700,000 slaves were unjustly imported and sold into slavery. New land discovered in America was seen as profitless and pointless without an inexpensive source of labor. By the end of this historical time period, that number increased to over 4,000,000 slaves brought into the United States. The institution of slavery helped boost the economy of the United States because it provided a cheap, but enormous labor force to work on newly acquired, bountiful land.
Over the course of the 19th century, the cultivation of cotton became increasingly important to the economy of the United States. Most slaves during the antebellum period worked cultivating cotton, while the rest worked growing tobacco, sugar, coffee, rice and hemp. There was an abundant source of land in the United States during this time period, which was mostly owned by wealthy plantation owners who bought slaves to work for them. Stuart Bruchey writes about how land in the United States was so plentiful during this historical time period. Through purchase, war, and the peaceful settle of boundary disputes, the nation’s landed area more than tripled, rising in square miles from 864,746 to 2,969,640 between 1790 and 1860. ” While there was an increase in the nation’s land, there was also an increase in population. Bruchey states that gains in population, “…came in the main from natural increase rather than from immigration. ”1 He also goes on to say that “the excess of births over deaths was the main source of population growth,”1 despite a falling white birth rate.
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As the birth rate of whites was diminishing, the population of non-whites (typically African American slaves) was increasing. Society in America during the antebellum period favored plantation owners in the South. Julia Floyd Smith asserts the notion that owning more slaves made your social status significantly more desirable. She states that, “As his ownership of slaves increased, he would identify with wealthier planters. ”2 The more slaves a person owned, then the greater that person’s wealth and social status would be.
Thomas Jefferson, a member of the elite class, was a very influential and powerful political figure. This was most likely because of his ownership of around 200 slaves at his plantation. During this time, if you owned more than 20 slaves than you were considered at the top of society. It would be in a plantation owners best interest to encourage women slaves to have children and emphasize the family core in the slave community. After Eli Whitney’s creation of the cotton gin in 1793 (patented in 1794), the cultivation of cotton was revolutionized. The cotton industry became extremely profitable after this invention.
Short staple cotton could now be grown in all areas of the South, while Sea Island cotton could only be grown in certain areas, typically close to salt waters. Before the invention and implementation of the cotton gin, in the year 1793, the United States produced approximately 10,000 bales of cotton. By the end of the antebellum period, in 1860, the United States produced 4,491,000 bales. This is almost a 450% production increase! The invention of the cotton gin and substantial amount of slaves, combined with a local and international demand for cotton, creates a booming business for plantation owners.
Historian Julia Floyd Smith makes it known that slaves were not the only people employed by the expansion of cotton production. She proclaims that, “The importance of cotton was a natural result of the demand for it at home and abroad from manufacturers who found a ready market for the finished products. Cotton employed ‘millions of the human family in its culture, commerce, and manufacture’ and indirectly employed as many more ‘who produced the articles required for the sustenance of those first so engaged. ”2 Smith reveals the importance of cotton and how more production of cotton creates more jobs for citizens, not just slaves. She also goes on to say that, “In 1850, the consumption of cotton in England and the United States averaged five to six pounds per person, in France about four pounds per person, and in Prussia about three. ”2 She then goes on to say that cotton grown in the United States was “universally preffered” and “more superior to” cotton cultivated in India. As stated earlier, slave owners wanted to increase the amount of slaves they owned. Many did this by motivating the young women slaves to have more children.
In a book about slavery in America, authors Dorothy and Carl Schneider talk about slave-breeding farms. After the United States Congress joined European countries in an effort to end the international slave trade in 1807, slave owners made efforts to increase labor productivity in the fields and create new capital. The authors write that, “American slaveholders realized that they could acquire slaves more easily through breeding than buying. Slaves born in North America were not weakened by the shock of capture…They were born into the American slave world, not abruptly introduced into an alien environment. 3 The authors also emphasize that newly born slaves did not have to be paid for, so this created more profit for them. The most important United States export during the antebellum period was Cotton. Tobacco and cotton together, “ranked as the major cash crops produced by slave field hands in the antebellum South” and “accounted for more than half the value of all American exports during the antebellum decades. ”4 Cotton during this historical time period was undeniably crucial to the United States economy.
Since people all around the world had such a great demand for this export, the United States needed to continue to produce it. The only way America knew how to continue to export such enormous amounts of cotton all around the world, while still gaining incredible profits, was through slave labor. If there were not slaves during this time period, the profits acquired from all the major cash would be significantly less than they were. Slaves not only helped supply the work for growing crops and exports, they also affected the overall wealth of their slave owners and the size of the farmland.
Compared to the North, farms in the South were usually much larger in acres. In Slavery in the South, the authors state that “…slaveholders were substantially wealthier than non-slaveholders because the market value of individual slaves comprised a part of a slave owner’s net worth. ”4 An example of this given in the book says that the average American during this time period had an estate net worth of slightly under $2,500, while the average slave owner had an estimated worth of over $9,000. On top of that, a slave owner that produced cotton had an average net worth of about $25,000. 4