Would Slavery Have Survived without the Civil War? Economic Factors in the American South during the Antebellum and Postbellum Eras

By Coclanis, Peter A.; Engerman, Stanley L. | Southern Cultures, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Would Slavery Have Survived without the Civil War? Economic Factors in the American South during the Antebellum and Postbellum Eras


Coclanis, Peter A., Engerman, Stanley L., Southern Cultures


The debate that follows was sponsored by the University of South Carolina Institute for Southern Studies and the Watson-Brown Foundation and first aired as part of South Carolina ETV's "Take on the South" series. Peter Coclanis and Stanley Engerman kindly have modified their discussion for our pages.

Peter A. Coclanis: Slavery, an Impediment to Development, Would Have Ended Even Without the Civil War

Although some obscurantist southerners, a century and a half after secession, still believe slavery tangential, if not incidental, to the coming of the Civil War, almost all professional historians place the so-called peculiar institution front and center. That said, even today many questions relating to the economics of slavery on the eve of war are open to debate. The lack of consensus is understandable, for the subject is as multifaceted as it is complex, and it is possible for scholars to mount and sustain robust arguments that are different, even antithetical, as this debate will demonstrate. Nonetheless, slavery was so important to the South and economic factors so central to slavery that it behooves all students of southern history, even in the early twenty-first century, closely to consider the material issues at hand in 1860 and 1861.

My argument here is two-fold: (1) slavery, though generally profitable, had a harmful, long-term developmental impact on the southern economy; and (2) that the institution would gradually have evolved into something else in the late nineteenth century even without the Civil War. Before moving on, however, a necessary disclaimer: I well recognize the moral enormity that was slavery, and my comments here pertain only to the economic aspects of the peculiar institution, and, even delimited to the economic realm, should be seen as an attempt to analyze "what was" rather than "what ought to have been." (1)

DEFINITIONAL CONCERNS

Even trying to understand "what was" is an exacting task. For starters, there are definitional concerns. If the past is a foreign country, as geographer David Lowenthal famously put it back in 1985, we visit the economic history of the antebellum South with a very restricted visa indeed. (2) What South are we talking about? As William Freehling, among many others, has told us, there were actually many "Souths," and the importance of slavery differed dramatically across the region. There were parts of the region--East Tennessee, for example--where slavery was unimportant, and, by the late antebellum period, its importance in much of the Border South and Upper South as a whole was on the wane. To be sure, slavery, and, more to the point, plantation slavery informed economic life in some parts of the Deep South--the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, the sugar parishes of southern Louisiana, places such as Adams County, Mississippi, and Tensas Parish, Louisiana, for example--but even in the Deep South, there were places such as northeastern Mississippi and the wiregrass area of south Georgia where slavery wasn't nearly as entrenched. Indeed, rice planters and, for that matter, rice producers of any sort were distinct minorities even in a quintessential plantation district such as the South Carolina/Georgia Lowcountry in 1860. Thus, examining the role of slavery in the antebellum "South" is no simple thing. (3)

Nor do our definitional problems regarding the economic place of slavery in the U.S. South end with matters of geography. One always has to keep in mind, for example, that although slaves constituted 35-40 percent of the South's population in 1860, three quarters of free households held no slaves; that among those households that did hold slaves, only 15 or 20 percent held twenty or more slaves--the lower-bound threshold for planter status--which means that planter households constituted only about 3.5-5 percent of free households in the region. Moreover, the median number of slaves held in 1850 was between about 4 and 6, and the modal number (the number of slaves the largest number of slaveholding households held) was not, as we might expect, 15 or 10 or even 5, but 1. …

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