The Economics of Slave Labor Part I


A Philosophic View of Slave Labor, 1860 by J.E. Cairnes

Slavery discussions just before the Civil War centered largely around the question of the advantages and disadvantages of slave labor. Those friendly to the system contended that the employment of negro slaves in the south was not only necessary but also desirable. Opponents of the system could not deny that the nature of the southern crops demanded a large supply of permanent, -unskilled, hand labor, and that the negro slave possessed those characteristics, but they claimed that the same economic ends could be attained under free competition, among both whites and blacks. Some writers on the question attempted to be fair in their examinations, but even they oftentimes appear to be trying to prove points rather than to discover facts. The large majority, however, was biased, either for nr against slavery, and each one selected arguments to suit his particular needs. Of those who attempted to examine the economics of slavery from a purely impersonal viewpoint, the English economist, J. E. Cairncs, was perhaps the best known. His views were as follows:

A circumstance more influential in determining the history of slavery in America than either origin or climate is pointed at by Tocquevillein his remark, that the soil of New England "was entirely opposed to a territorial aristocracy." "To bring that refractory land into cultivation, the constant and interested exertions of the owner himself were necessary; and, when the ground was prepared, its produce was found to be insufficient to enrich a master and a farmer at the same time. The land was then naturally broken up into small portions which the proprietor cultivated for himself." Such a country, for reasons which will presently be more fully indicated, was entirely unsuited to cultivation by slave labour; but what I wish here to remark is, that this fact, important as it is with reference to our subject, is yet insufficient in itself to afford the solution which we seek; for, though it would account for the disappearance of slavery from the New England States, it fails entirely when applied to the country west and south of the Hudson, which is for the most part exceedingly fertile, but in which, nevertheless, slavery, though extensively introduced, has not been able to maintain itself. To understand, therefore, the conditions on which the success of a slave regime depends, we must advert to other considerations than any which have yet been adduced.

The true causes of the phenomenon will appear, if we reflect on the characteristic advantages and disadvantages which attach respectively to slavery and free labour, as productive instruments, in connection with the external conditions under which these forms of industry came into competition in North America.

The economic advantages of slavery are easily stated: they are all comprised in the fact that the employer of slaves has absolute power over his workmen, and enjoys the disposal of the whole fruit of their labour. Slave labour, therefore, admits of the most complete organization, that is to say, it may be combined on an extensive scale, and directed by a controlling mind to a single end, and its cost can never rise above that which is necessary to maintain the slave in health and strength.

On the other hand, the economical defects of slave labour are very serious. They may be summed up under the three following heads: it is given reluctantly; it is unskillful; it is wanting in versatility. It is given reluctantly, and consequently the industry of the slave can only be depended on so long as he is watched. The moment the master's eye is withdrawn, the slave relaxes his efforts. The cost of slave labour will therefore, in great measure, depend on the degree in which the work to be performed admits of the workmen being employed in close proximity to each other. If the work be such that a large gang can be employed with efficiency within a small space, and be thus brought under the eye of a single overseer, the expense of superintendence will be slight; if, on the other hand, the nature of the work requires that the workmen should be dispersed over an extended area, the number of overseers, and therefore, the cost of the labour which requires this supervision, will be proportionately increased. (The cost of slave labour thus varies directly with the degree in which the work to be done requires dispersion of the labourers, and inversely as it admits of their concentration.) Further, the work being performed reluctantly, fear, is substituted for hope, as the stimulus to exertion. But fear is ill calculated to draw from a labourer all the industry of which he is capable. "Fear," says Bentham, " leads the labourer to hide his powers, rather than to show them; to remain below, rather than to surpass himself. . . . By displaying superior capacity, the slave would only raise the measure of his ordinary duties; by a work of supererogation he would only prepare punishment for himself." He therefore seeks, by concealing his powers, to reduce to the lowest the standard of requisition. "His ambition is the reverse of that of the free man; he seeks to descend in the scale of industry, rather than to ascend."

Secondly, slave labour is unskillful, and this, not only because the slave, having no interest in his work, has no inducement to exert his higher faculties, but because, from the ignorance to which he is of necessity condemned, he is incapable of doing so. In the Slave States of North America, the education of slaves, even in the most rudimentary form, is proscribed by law, and consequently their intelligence is kept uniformly and constantly at the very lowest point. "n its merits and defects, the exact reverse of that with which it was called upon to compete. Thus, the great and almost the sole excellence of slave labour is, as we have seen, its capacity for organization; and this is precisely the circumstance with respect to which the labour of peasant proprietors is especially defective. In a community of peasant proprietors, each workman labours on his own account, without much reference to what his fellow-workmen are doing. There is no commanding mind to whose guidance the whole labour force You can make a nigger work," said an interlocutor in one of Mr. Olmsted's dialogues, "but you cannot make him think." He is therefore unsuited for all branches of industry which require the slightest care, forethought, or dexterity. He cannot be made to co-operate with machinery; he can only be trusted with the coarsest implements; he is incapable of all but the rudest forms of labour. But further, slave labour is eminently defective in point of versatility. The difficulty of teaching the slave anything is so great, that the only chance of turning his labour to profit is, when he has once learned a lesson, to keep him to that lesson for life. Where slaves, therefore, are employed there can be no variety of production. If tobacco be cultivated, tobacco becomes the sole staple, and tobacco is produced, whatever be the state of the market, and whatever be the condition of the soil. This peculiarity of slave labour, as we shall see, involves some very important consequences. Such being the character of slave-labour, as an industrial instrument, let us now consider the qualities of the agency with which, in the colonization of North America, it was brought into competition.

This was the labour of peasant proprietors, a productive instrument, in its merits and defects, the exact reverse of that with which it was called upon to compete. Thus, the great and almost the sole excellence of slave labour is, as we have seen, its capacity for organization; and this is precisely the circumstance with respect to which the labour of peasant proprietors is especially defective. In a community of peasant proprietors, each workman labours on his own account, without much reference to what his fellow-workmen are doing. There is no commanding mind to whose guidance the whole labour force will yield obedience, and under whose control it may be directed by skilful combinations to the result which is desired. Nor does this system afford room for classification and economical distribution of a labour force in the same degree as the system of slavery. Under the latter, for example, occupation may be found for a whole family of slaves, according to the capacity of each member, in performing the different operations connected with certain branches of industry. Thus, in the culture of tobacco, the women and children may be employed in picking the worms off the plants, or gathering the leaves as they become ripe, while the men are engaged in the more laborious tasks. But it is otherwise when the cultivator is a small proprietor. His children are at school, and his wife finds enough to occupy her in her domestic duties: he can, therefore, command for all operations, however important or however insignificant, no other labour than his own, or that of his grown-up sons labour which would be greatly misapplied in performing such manual operations as I have described. His team of horses might be standing idle in the stable, while he was gathering tobacco leaves or picking worms, an arrangement which would render his work exceedingly costly. The system of peasant proprietorship, therefore, does not admit of combination and classification of labour in the same degree as that of slavery put if in this respect it lies under a disadvantage as compared with its rival, in every other respect it enjoys an immense superiority. The peasant proprietor, appropriating the whole produce of his toil, needs no other stimulus to exertion. Superintendence is here completely dispensed with. The labourer is under the strongest conceivable inducement to put forth, in the furtherance of his task, the full powers of his mind and body; and his mind, instead of being purposely stinted and stupefied, is enlightened by education, and aroused by the prospect of reward.

Such are the two productive agencies which came into competition on the soil of North America. If we now turn to the external conditions under which the competition took place, we shall, I think, have no difficulty in understanding the success of each respectively in that portion of the Continent in which it did in fact succeed.

The line dividing the Slave from the Free States marks also an important division in the agricultural capabilities of North America. North of this line, the products for which the soil and climate are best adapted are cereal crops, while south of it the prevailing crops are tobacco, rice, cotton, and sugar; and these two classes of crops are broadly distinguished in the methods of culture suitable to each.

The cultivation of the one class, of which cotton may be taken as the type, requires for its efficient conduct that labour should be combined and organized on an extensive scale. On the other hand, for the raising of cereal crops this condition is not so essential. Even where labour is abundant and that labour free, the large capitalist does not in this mode of farming appear on the whole to have any preponderating advantage over the small proprietor, who, with his family, cultivates his own farm, as the example of the best cultivated states in Europe proves. Whatever superiority he may have in the power of combining and directing labour seems to be compensated by the greater energy and spirit which the sense of property gives to the exertions of the small proprietor. But there is another essential circumstance in which these two classes of crops differ. A single labourer, Mr. Russell tells us, can cultivate twenty acres of wheat or Indian corn, while he cannot manage more than two of tobacco, or three of cotton. It appears from this that tobacco and cotton fulfill that condition which we saw was essential to the economical employment of slaves the possibility of working large numbers within a limited space; while wheat and Indian corn, in the cultivation of which the labourers are dispersed over a wide surface, fail in this respect. (We thus find that cotton, and the class of crops of which cotton may be taken as the type, favour the employment of slaves in the competition with peasant proprietors in two leading ways: first, they need extensive combination and organization of labour requirements which slavery is eminently calculated to supply, but in respect to which the labour of peasant proprietors is defective; and secondly, they allow of labour being concentrated, and thus minimize the cardinal evil of slave labour the reluctance with which it is yielded. On the other hand, the cultivation of cereal crops, in which extensive combination of labour is not important, and in which the operations of industry are widely diffused, offers none of these advantages for the employment of slaves, while it is remarkably fitted to bring out in the highest degree the especial excellencies of the industry of free proprietors. Owing to these causes it has happened that slavery has been maintained in the Southern States, which favour the growth of tobacco, cotton, and analogous products, while, in the Northern States, of which cereal crops are the great staple, it from an early period declined and has ultimately died out. And, in confirmation of this view, it may be added that wherever in the Southern States the external conditions are especially favourable to cereal crops, as in parts of Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri, and along the slopes of the Alleghanies, there slavery has always failed to maintain itself. It is owing to this cause that there now exists in some parts of the South a considerable element of free labouring population.

These considerations appear to explain the permanence of slavery in one division of North America, and its disappearance from the other; but there are other conditions essential to the economic success of the institution besides those which have been brought into view in the above comparison, to which it is necessary to advert in order to a right understanding of its true basis. / These are high fertility of the soil, and a practically unlimited extent of it.) The necessity of these conditions to slavery will be apparent by reflecting on the unskillfulness and want of versatility in slave labour to which we have already referred.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Economics of Slave Labor Part I
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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