Academic journal article Atlantic Economic Journal

A New Perspective on Antebellum Slavery: Public Policy and Slave Prices

Academic journal article Atlantic Economic Journal

A New Perspective on Antebellum Slavery: Public Policy and Slave Prices

Article excerpt


Modern economic historians have focused their attention on the supervision and productivity of slavery and have largely ignored the roles that public policy and slave security played in the profitability of antebellum slavery. Other scholars have focused on the public security policy in the slave codes, but only as a determinant of the legal status of slaves, not their economic value. This paper investigates the relationship between slave prices and two public policies that enhanced slave security: manumission laws and slave patrol statutes. The evidence suggests that these policies were associated with slave prices and that public policy did play a significant role in the security of slave property and, thus, the viability and profitability of slavery in the Antebellum South. (JEL N31)


Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman [1974] revolutionized the economics of slavery and established the "capitalistic character" of antebellum slavery. They showed that the price of slaves and the profitability and long-run viability of slavery in the American South were based on economic factors such as the demand for plantation output, capital markets, and the entrepreneurial ability to organize slave labor and increase productivity. Fogel [1989, p. 11] recognized that "the slave economy did not operate in a vacuum. Both its original economic successes and its ultimate collapse were heavily influenced by the legal and political conditions." However, while Fogel [pp. 11, 201-417] places great emphasis on political forces in the destruction of slavery, he maintains that economic conditions were the overriding factors for explaining the success of the institution [pp. 60-80]. Many scholars have recognized the importance of the slave codes for determining the legal character of American slavery and the treatment t hat slaves received from their owners, but public policy and the slave codes continue to be ignored as a factor in the economics of slavery. [1]

The relationship between public policy and the profitability of antebellum slavery is explored here with an empirical investigation of the impact of manumission laws and slave patrol statutes on the market value of slaves. Empirical testing confirms that these public policies did have a statistically significant relationship with slave prices. These results provide a new perspective [2] on antebellum slavery: the profitability of slavery and the political institutions of slavery--the slave codes--were dependent on public choice. [3]

The Political Economy of Slave Security

Economists John S. Mill [1987] and John Cairnes [1863] identified public policy and other institutions as important constraints on the value of slaves. They also recognized that monitoring slaves was the important variable in determining the efficiency and profitability of slave labor. Combining these insights, this paper investigates the role that public policy played in the monitoring of slaves and, thus, the economic viability of slavery in the Antebellum South.

Monitoring slave labor consists of both supervision and security. Productivity supervision is common to both free and slave labor and is necessary to prevent shirking and increase labor productivity. This type of monitoring includes direct supervision, the threat of punishment, output incentives, and other advanced management techniques. A central contribution of the new economic historians was to identify the supervision of labor in the gang system as the key to the productivity and efficiency of slave labor in the Antebellum South.

Security monitoring or policing was necessary to prevent slave labor from escaping and was unique to slave management. [4] Security monitoring to prevent the loss of slave capital has both internal and external functions. Internal security involved the use of lookouts, armed guards, spies, natural and artificial barriers to escape, as well as intimidation of slaves with guns and whips. …

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