The Business of Slavery
The performance of slavery as an economic institution was affected by all kinds of factors--social and racial, moral and personal, political and psychological. There is obviously deep feeling and bitter experience behind the confession of the economic historian Gavin Wright that "in the real world of uncertainty, the attempt to distinguish 'economic' from 'noneconomic' motives was hopeless."1 Slavery was a labor system and the foundation of a distinctive economic system, but it was much else besides.
The obvious yardstick for measuring the economic performance of slavery might seem to be profitability, but initial discussion of the profitability of slavery raises more questions than it answers.2 The first question is simply, profitable for whom? The answer must depend on whether slavery is being assessed as a business or as a system. If as a business, one must ask whether it was profitable for the individuals, groups, and interests involved in it: the slaveholders most conspicuously of all--or perhaps some slaveholders and not others-- but also merchants and middlemen, and less obviously in the post-Time on the Cross debate but necessarily, the slaves themselves. On the second point--slavery as a system--one must ask whether the community or society as a whole benefited from slavery. Did the economy of the South gain or lose by it?
The next crucial distinction is between absolute and relative profitability. On one hand, the question may simply be whether, on average, slave owners made a profit or a loss. In Kenneth Stampp's sensible formulation, did the average antebellum slaveholder over the years earn a reasonably satisfactory return from his investment? 3 On the other hand, the question may be whether he could have made a