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Slavery Matures

Southerners in general felt little guilt about slavery and defended it vehemently. In some seaboard areas, slavery by 1850 was well over 200 years old; it was an integral part of the basic economy of the region. Although the 1860 census showed that there were nearly four million slaves out of a total population of 12.3 million in the 15 slave states, only a minority of Southern whites owned slaves. There were some 385,000 slave owners out of about 1.5 million white families. Fifty percent of these slave owners owned no more than five slaves. Twelve percent owned 20 or more slaves, the number defined as turning a farmer into a planter. Three-quarters of Southern white families, including the "poor whites," those on the lowest rung of Southern society, owned no slaves.

Slavery was essential to the American economy and to the development of American capitalism, especially after Native Americans were driven off their ancestral land in the Deep South in the 1830s to make way for vast cotton plantations. By 1850, enslaved Americans, who were listed in their owners' inventory ledgers alongside cattle and farm equipment, were worth $1.3bn or one-fifth of the nation's wealth. When the first shot of the Civil War was fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, the value of that human collateral exceeded $3bn and was worth more than the nation’s banks, railroads, mills and factories combined. Now numbering four million souls, they were, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, America's "greatest financial asset".

The United States and Great Britain had abolished the African slave trade in 1808, yet it continued unabated until secession in 1861 due to the rising world demand for cotton, the cost of native-born slave labor, and the limited US Naval resources committed to anti-slavery patrols on the West African Station. Britain’s commitment to the cause was disproportionate to its immense wealth and power, and that she continued, in a hypocritical fashion, to benefit economically from close connections to the slave trade and slavery in the Americas.

The refusal of the United States to allow the Royal Navy to intercept and board suspected American-flagged slave ships traveling from New York to West Africa to Spanish Cuba meant that new cargoes of Africans completed the Middle Passage on a regular basis. From Cuba, local slavers would continue the illicit smuggling of slaves all along the southern and gulf coasts. Only the US Naval blockade placed on the South during the Civil War stanched the trade.

New Yorkers even dominated a booming slave trade in the 1850s. Although the importation of slaves into the United States had been prohibited in 1808, the temptation of the astronomical profits of the international slave trade was too strong for many New Yorkers. New York investors financed New York-based slave ships that sailed to West Africa to pick up African captives that were then sold in Cuba and Brazil.

In the Commons debate on the recognitions of the Southern Confederacy on 30 June 1863, John Bright, member from Birmingham [and later President of the Board of Trade 1868 - 1870] noted that "Before the war the whole number of negroes engaged in the production of cotton was about 1,000,000—that is, about one-fourth of the whole of the negroes in the slave States. The annual increase in the number of negroes growing cotton was about 25,000, only 2½ per cent. It was impossible for the Southern States to keep up their growth of sugar, rice, tobacco, and their ordinary slave productions, and at the same time to increase the growth of cotton more than at a rate corresponding with the annual increase of negroes. Therefore you will find that the quantity of cotton grown, taking ten years together, increased at the rate of little more than 100,000 bales a year. But that was nothing like the quantity which the world required. That supply could not be materially increased, because the South did not cultivate more than probably 1831 1½ per cent of the land which was capable of cultivation for cotton. The great bulk of the land in the Southern States is uncultivated. 10,000 square miles are employed in the cultivation of cotton, but there are 600,000 square miles, or sixty times as much land, which is capable of being cultivated for cotton. It was, however, impossible that that land should be so cultivated, because, although you had climate and sun, you had not labour. "If a planter in the Southern States wanted to grow 1,000 bales of cotton a year he would require about 200 negroes. Taking them at 500 dollars, or £100 each, which is not more than half the price of a first-class hand, the cost of the 200 would be £20,000. To grow 1,000 bales of cotton a year, you require not only to get hold of an estate, machinery, tools, and other things necessary to carry on the cotton-growing business, but you must find a capital of £20,000 to buy the actual labourers, by whom the plantation is to be worked; and therefore, as every Gentleman will see at once, this great trade, to a large extent, was shut up in the hands of men who were required to be richer than would be necessary if slavery did not exist." In the early days of slavery in America, emancipation was quite common, but during the later years of slavery the instances of that kind were very rare, in part through repression by law and popular sentiment in the slave States, and in part through the increased value of slave property. Emancipation and even removal from the State for the purpose of emancipation were in some instances forbidden by law.

It was impossible for the isolation of the slave to be accomplished to the extent necessary to maintain the institution by the regular means supplied by government. It was not practicable to embody in laws all the requirements of such isolation, and nothing less than a militia on constant duty, and irregular bands of citizens daily and nightly on watch and guard, with their humanity as the only measure of their authority, could secure the conditions under which the institution could be perpetuated. The necessities of slavery entailed changes upon the political institutons of that section of the country, not only by weakening confidence in the principle of popular government, but by encouraging the use of irregular means of maintaining the domestic police, tending to undermine respect for regular government, and thus to open the door to unrestrained popular violence.

In the early days of slavery in this country it was possible that generation after generation of slaves born in a particular locality might spend their lives in that locality, and thus produce the semblance of domestic stability, but in later years this feature had to yield to commercial necessity, and the slave population was increasingly mobilized from year to year. In early times it was no offence against law or public sentiment to instruct slaves, and especially to teach them to read and write, but in later years that practice was discontinued either as contrary to law or to public opinion. The inability of the slave to hold property underwent no relaxation, but on the contrary there were instances where masters were prevented by the operation of law from making provision for the support of slaves. When it is considered how large is the civilizing influence resulting from the responsibilities attendant upon the ownership of property, it will readily appear that if any amelioration of the system was to be anticipated it would be in the respect just named.

Without going further, it is manifest that slavery in America, although having abundant time to manifest its tendencies, did not give indications of any possibility of reaching a condition in which it would be but a single step for the slave to pass into fair relation with the civilization that surrounded him.

To preserve this system meant to extend and give it at least political equality, if not actual preponderance in the Union; this became the aim and demand of the South; to restrict it became the equally fixed resolve of the North. Failing preponderance in the Union, the only course of the South was to nationalize itself in correspondence with its peculiar social and economic organization, and face the world as a nation whose corner-stone was negro slavery.




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Page last modified: 29-11-2017 19:30:22 ZULU