Free Labor vs Slaves
Estimates of the cost of culture by free labor, compared to slave labor, were necessarily conjectural, and therefore, uncertain, and usually of but little exactness. By one pre-war estimate slave labor was totally unprofitable when used for cultivating grain crops. By one estimate the average first-class laborer in Louisiana in the 1870s would earn $400 a year in some sections of the State. The cost of that man before the war to the planter was not over $100 a year. Therefore the planter was paying four times the cost of the former slave labor.
In all standard works upon political economy, the institution of slavery has been considered from this narrow point of view, and, for the most part, they concur in maintaining the negative, that under all circumstances it is less advantageous to employ slave than free labor. The folly of this notion is demonstrated by the fact that throughout the entire south there was no instance of a large plantation cultivated by hired free labor. Wherever agriculture was sufficiently profitable to induce large investments of capital the labor of slaves was preferred, and it was only the small farms in the south which were worked by free labor, generally by that of the owner and his sons. The universal preference given to slave labor in agricultural enterprises was due to several causes.
In the first place, it was on hand, and from generation to generation the habit of cultivating the earth by servile labor had become invincible. The slaves could not be employed conveniently and extensively in other pursuits, which require more intelligence, and which make it necessary to collect them together in dangerously large numbers; and there was, besides, little demand for slave labor except on the plantations.
Following the abolition of compulsory labor in British colonies in the West Indies and the Mauritius, much of the continental sugar-market as those colonies were wont to supply were furnished from the cheaper labor of the foreign slave-plantations. the English measure of emancipation was attended with the disadvantage of making room for a great deal of slave-grown sugar. The necessary tendency of emancipation was to produce one or other of two effects, either a great augmentation in the cost of production, or an abandonment of cultivation.
The imperious manners of the slaveholders, who were the great capitalists of the south, were little suited to the direction of free labor. It was felt, and not without reason, that freemen would revolt and abandon the fields at the most critical periods of the crops rather than submit to the tyrannical driving process which was applied to slaves, and which was regarded as essential by those who had never witnessed anything else.
The very existence of slavery had thus produced a condition of things, and generated manners and habits, which made it more profitable to employ slaves than free laborers. The few sickly manufacturing enterprises which had begun to spring up in the southern States, and to employ free labor, were, for the most part, under the management of northern men, or, at any rate, of men reared in those parts of the south where there were few slaves.
Slaves were at all times, up to the commencement of the rebellion, the most valuable property in the south. They were always in demand at increasing prices, and the demand was always growing greater. Lands were soon worn out and abandoned, railroads and other stocks might prove worthless, but it was always safe to invest in slaves. Pigs and cattle were worth only a few cents per pound, negroes readily commanded almost as many dollars. The mere mention of these notorious facts is sufficient to refute the assumption that the individual could always more safely employ free than slave labor.
In the 1850s there were spread extensively before the agricultural public, careful estimates, from different-sources, of particular cases of the costs and returns of farming, (and of exclusive grain culture for market) which had shown very large and regular profits for farming capital; and which would compare well with, and perhaps surpass the profits of any other pursuit of regular industry or investment of capital in regular business.
Improving farmers derived and continued to derive profits which surpassed any purely agricultural profits that can be made in the Northern States, from free labor. There was, truly, in all the old States of the South, among the agricultural class, a great and lamentable amount of indolence, apathy, heedlessness, improvidence and wastefulness, all of which serve to detract very largely from the great available benefits of their position — and the indulgence in which errors would speedily bring to want and ruin any people whose advantages were not very great — or if no greater than those of the Northern farmers.
It by no means followed that because the man belongs to the master, that, therefore, his labor came cheaper than if teh master hired either a slave or a free laborer at eight or ten dollars a month — because, for every slave laborer, the master may be incumbered with a woman whose labor was not worth her expenses, and with several children — consumers of much and producers of nothing. Moreover, the interest on the value of the slave is to be considered — what it would cost to insure his life and to insure him against running away? While the capital is at best wearing and tearing onwards towards total loss.
With even but a moderate share of good management and economy, is certainly more profitable than on any lands of the old States north of Mason's and Dixon's line. And among the several elements which constitute this capacity for higher profits for this farming, one of the three most important was the employment of slave labor. The other two elements, of great importance, were the low price of land, (a great evil to agricultural progress, it is true, but not less a benefit to a purchaser and new possessor) and the facility and cheapness of enriching the land by mineral manure.
In the Southern States, where there was an average of only about twelve persons to the square mile, the average value of land is about six dollars per acre. In Northern States, where there are one hundred to the square mile, the average value is about 850 to the acre. In England, where there are 333 to the square mile, the average value was about $175 to the acre. In towns where there are 1,000 to the square mile, the value was not far from $500 to the acre. And in cities where there are 50,000 to the square mile, the average was not far from $25,000 to the acre. And so it is that with an increase of population there is a necessary increase in the value of lands; and so also to a greater or a less extent, is the value of every other thing.
If slave labor was no cheaper than free labor, then lands in the two sections North and South, will rate in proportion to their relative destiny of population; but if slave labor was cheaper than free labor, then another element will be introduced. Investments in agriculture, for instance, are compounded of land and labor. If an investment will yield $1,000 clear, it may fairly be estimated to be worth $10,000; and if the slaves cost $7,000 the lands can only be worth $3,000; but if the slaves cost only $3,000 the lands will be worth $7,000 — and so with every other subject upon which it is proposed to employ slave labor — what is saved in the cost of working, will be added to the value of the machine.
If cheaper labor will give increased value to lands, so also will it give increased value to timber, mines, water-power, factories, establishments for industry and art, and to every other thing in fact which can become the subject of its employment; and lands will rise, and swamps will be drained and rendered property — timber, mines, ways, powers and privileges will come to market. Values will swell around us. He who owns one hundred acres of land will have a comfortable support. He who owns one thousand can retire from business, and while enriched in ways he never could have dreamed of, he will have the further satisfaction of being regarded as the most enterprising, prosperous and progressive people upon all the contiment.
If all this is true, why did not southern men cultivate cotton and tobacco with free labor? If with a capital of six thousand dollars, a man could make as much cotton or tobacco by the employment of free labor as another could make with slave labor, on a capital of twenty thousand dollars, why was not free labor thus used in preference?
The motives of convenience which caused the preference to be given to slave over free labor, and the profit on the excess of capital employed by the slaveholder was made up to him by appropriating the wages due to the laborers. The free-labor farmer is under the necessity of dividing his profits with the men employed by him to make the crop. The slaveholder fed and clothed his slaves in the coarsest and cheapest way.
The cost of feeding and clothing a slave was thirty dollars per annum-fifteen dollars for food, and fifteen dollars for clothing per annum; children half price. The profits per hand to the master varied from $150 to near $500. In the free States wages for farm laborers ranged from $8 to $12 per month, with board in each case. Toward the close of the career of slavery, there was probably an increase in the cost of feeding and clothing slaves, and if the champions of the institution are to be relied on, the disposition to feed and clothe better increased with the value of the slaves.
By one calculation, the cost of 10 laborer to cultivate 100 acres of land could be had for $1000 to pay free laborers, or $15,000 to purchase 10 prime field hands.
At a moderate estimate, the value of the slaves of the south to their owners, in December, 1860, when South Carolina commenced the work of abolition by making war upon the general government, was $3,000,000,000. The title of the owners has been destroyed, and the negroes, formerly slaves, have come into possession of it. There has simply been a transfer of title from one class of owners to another, but nothing valuable has been destroyed. The strong arms and the skilled labor still exist, and new incitements to industry have been added to four millions of the southern population who, hitherto, were only impelled by the fear of punishment.
In many sections of the South there was free labor in competition with slave labor — free sentiment in conflict with slave sentiment—free society with slave society — and this was a condition dangerous, if not to the South, at least to slavery as a living system at the South. This was a truth about which it were madness to be mistaken.
In Missouri there was a Free-soil party to contend for power, and there is the disposition to transport their slaves to regions farther South. In Tennessee it was not so popular to speak of slavery as of equality and fraternity. In Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, there were more whites than blacks; and there, also, while all parties would whip the North, it was abundantly evident that many of them even there would strike rather for the South than for Slavery at the South.
In South Carolina alone, of all the Southern States, there was an excess of slaves, and in that State only was the slave sentiment composed and steady. Every representative, is not only a slave owner but the representative of slave owners; and there is no party, for that reason, or the fraction of a party, which is not in perfect fidelity, not only to the South, but to the peculiar institutions of the South.
With slaves in excess of whites, there would be none excluded from a chance of sharing in the system, and with slaves at prices approaching to the costs of import. ation, there is no laboring man who could not raise the fund, and scarce a man who would not make the purchase. It is thus that the differences at the South will be harmonized. Every white man of capacity will own his slave. Every man of enterprise will own his labor.
All of the ruling race would come to the same social stand point; all will cast their votes from the same position; as well at home as abroad, they will have a common interest, and a common cause; the institution of American slavery would become reintegrated and erect and so compact and firm, will stand not only to sustain itself, but to sustain the South, sublime and composed among all the storms that rage among other nations of the earth.
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