The Economics of Slave Labor Part II


Cheapness of Slave Labor, 1852 By C.F. McCay

The friends of the system argued that slave labor was not only more permanent than free labor, but also that it was cheaper. The following is typical of the more moderate claims of the time for the cheapness of slave labor: Probably, however, the greatest advantage we have over the Indian producers is in the cheapness of our labor. It is true that wages are very low in India, but the labor is also inefficient. We have the cheapest and most efficient labor in the world.

The African slave in the southern states is well fed with good and substantial food, that gives him strength, endurance, and health. He is well clad in winter, and well lodged, to protect him from the inclemencies of the season. He is cheerful, able to work, and he works faithfully. As the whole cost of this labor to the state is made up of the simplest necessaries of life, the support of the young, and the old, and the feeble, it is evident that the south has the cheapest labor that is possible. It was the doctrine of Malthus, that in every country there is a constant tendency to reduce the wages of labor down to the mere support of the laborer. That limit, however approximated to elsewhere, has never been reached but in the south.

The slave is supplied with all he wants of meal, and with as much meat as is needed for his health and strength. This meal is prepared in many ways, and makes a most palatable bread. His master generally feeds on it in preference to flour. He has a garden, where he can raise potatoes, cabbages, collards, greens, turnips, beans, and such other vegetables as the taste and industry of the family may desire. He has clothing  cheap, it is true, but. warm and substantial. There is a separate dwelling for each family, and an unlimited supply of fuel for the winter. The old, who are unable to labor in the field, find some slight work about the house the men in the garden, the women in the care of young children whose mothers are out on the usual plantation work. . . .Another element of the cheapness of this labor is that nothing is wasted in vicious indulgences. In other countries, a large part of the wages of labor is expended in strong drink; but the most stringent laws are everywhere passed against selling spirits to slaves; the Maine liquor law is enforced with the most severe penalties, and with the utmost certainty of conviction for the guilty.

Much time is lost in free countries in holidays and shows; in idleness and neglect of work; in seeking employment; in change from one place to another; but all this is saved in the south, for there are no idle hands about the plantation, and, excepting the week between Christmas and New Year's day, when there is 'a general holiday, there is no lost time, except from sickness, in any part of the year.

The children are all put at work at eleven or twelve years of age, as soon as they are able to guide a plough or pick cotton in the fields. The women and men are both efficient workers, and the division of labor is so complete that the children of many mothers are watched over and cared for by one, and the cooking for many families attended to by a single cook.

This system of labor is thus the cheapest possible. The corn and the meat being, in most cases, raised on the plantation, and not burdened with the cost of transportation, are supplied at the cheapest prices; the work is all light and easy, so that women and boys, as well as men, can engage in it efficiently. Every thing is arranged so that labor is secured at the lowest possible rate. . . .

The culture of cotton is specially suited for slave labor, because of its giving full employment for the whole year. January is devoted to f1tting up the fences, clearing off the decayed trees that have fallen in the fields, and putting in order the cultivators and all the implements of the farm. The ploughs are also started, and some of the ground broken up for spring planting. February is the main time for ploughing, and in the more southern part of the cotton country, corn is planted in this month. In latitude 31 the time for corn is the 20th of February; above this line it gradually becomes later.

About a month after the corn, cotton is planted. In every locality it is desired to have the cotton up as soon as the fear of frost is gone. The season for planting begins as early as the 15th of March in the most southern latitudes, is delayed to the 1st of April at the parallel of 32, to the 15th in latitude 34, and later still above this line. As the seed are planted close together in drills, the hands pass along the rows and chop down the weakest and smallest plants, leaving them in bunches, fifteen to twenty inches apart. The ploughs follow or precede the hoes, both being necessary to kill the grass and soften the ground about the plants. The hoes follow again, and thin out the bunches to one or two stalks, and finally they are reduced to one, the rest having perished from the cutworm or insects, or the blows of the plough and the hoe. For two or three months this hoeing and ploughing, to soften the ground and destroy the grass, gives full employment to the hands. The corn has also to be treated in the same way, and the work is continued on both until the summer has come and the fruit begins to appear on the cotton. There is a little leisure now to the hands before the picking is begun, and this gives time to harvest the wheat that has been sown; to cut the oats, and gather the fodder from the corn. This work fills up the time until the picking begins.

At first, but few of the pods are open. The hands pass between the rows which are from three to four feet wide on the poor lands, and from six to seven on the richest and as the branches stretch out so as to reach each other, they each gather from two rows as they pass through the field. By September the fields are white with the opening cotton, and every hand, young and old, male and female, that can be of any service, is busied in gathering the cotton, lest the rain should come and beat it out, and scatter it on the ground. In October this picking continues undiminished. At the close of this month, frost usually appears, and stops the growth of the plant and ills the leaves, but the pods keep opening, and new cotton offering itself to the hands until December. The fields are picked over two or three times if the season is favorable and the crop large, and five or six times if the opening cotton does not hurry the planter. The gathered cotton has now to be sunned, and dried, and ginned, and packed, and delivered at the nearest railway station or river landing, or sold in the neighboring town. Thus is the year completed with unremitting toil, from Christmas to Christmas.

The distribution of labor between the white and black races, so that the former shall have the selection of the products and of the place of labor, of the seeds and the mode of cultivation, and of all the plans and management of the plantation, is another great aid
to the cheapness and the efficiency of the labor.

Some political economists have supposed that free is cheaper than slave labor; but though there are pursuits where the watchfulness, foresight, intelligence, and energy of a free man will make his labor so much more productive than that of a slave as to pay the superior cost of his support, it is certain that the want of these qualities in the slave is but a slight drawback to the value of his labor in the production of cottony The work is so regular, and simple, and easy, that the free man performs it no better than the slave, and as the direction, and management, and skill are in the master, the work is well directed, and wisely managed. The slave works enough, though he does not work as hard as some free men. In fact, it is very doubtful if a free white man, impelled by necessity or the desire of accumulation, would be more efficient in the cotton field than the slave. Certain it is that in the south, where the hot sun breeds disease, and the malarious air brings fevers, the white freeman could not produce as much as the slave, much less could he labor as cheaply. His expenditures being more, his wife and children not working at all, or but little, his waste of time and money in vicious practices and holidays, would require larger wages, and for these he has nothing more to give than the slave.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Economics of Slave Labor Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Readings In The Economic History of the United States by Ernest Ludlow Bogart, P h.D. and Charles Manfred Thompson, Ph.D.of the Department of Economics University of Illinois; Publishers: Longmans, Green and Co.-New York 1916
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