Slavery and the ownership of slaves has historically had an interesting linkage to agriculture and their economic contribution particularly to areas of agriculture and commerce in the United States. For a long period of time, the belief was that the small farmers of New England were responsible for the production of several agricultural goods that established America agriculturally and economically as well. The argument was that they were the ones responsible for the establishment of America as a capitalist state. Slavery was created as an institutionalized forum where they would attain slave labor from Africa and use them to work on the farms in both the north and the south of America. Slavery was also practiced in all of the British North American Colonies making it hard to measure the effects of it as all of America was adopted to the use of slaves in agricultural production. The effects of slavery with regards to their contribution to the agricultural economy were hard to measure before the revolutionary war of America. Even harder still where there were blurred lines on which African Americans were free and which ones were still slaves. However, when the distinction was made clearer, the farmers of the south still held on to principles which ensured that they had slave labor while farmers in the north were more inclined to let go of their slave labor. African Americans were exploited severely in the south for their labor. This is what drew a clear distinction of the issue of slavery as a “southern” issue. The contributions of slaves to the American economy can be clearly depicted by making a comparison of the North and the South after the abolition of slavery in the north. However, there were northern states which still firmly entrenched the notion of slavery and still made use of slave labor due to the political climate. It is the effect of usage of slaves in these states and their effect on agriculture in America that remain of principle interest. The question on how they were able to retain slavery in the north and what impact this had on the agricultural economy of the region.
A puzzle that springs to mind that will be handled is on why slaves were required even in farms that produced crops like wheat which were more care intensive crops. There was a distinction between crops considered “care intensive” and those considered “labor intensive” and slaves were more suited to labor intensive crops. It is clear that a lot of labor would be needed for the harvesting period but why would a slave owner have a large group of slaves only to use them during one season? Were they unoccupied for a majority of the season? And if so, would there really be a linkage between their work and the production and subsequent development of crops that were “care intensive”? another puzzle is on the use of slaves in states which had, traditionally, illegalized slavery. Such northern states as Kentucky. The question is why did such farms still use slaves who were considerably unsuitable for the tasks of the farm. From making a comparison of the produce in the north and that in the south, it is easier to draw the distinction as to just how much of the economic development of America, particularly with regards to agriculture, that the use of slave labor had.
The main methods used to address the question of slavery’s contribution to the economy if the United States is by making a comparison of the income per capita for households in the north against that for houses in the south. The wealthy people of the time are also monitored with regards to their use of slavery as a form of labor for their farms. The output of these farms is measured against the output of other farms which did not make a similar reliance on slave labor. By making a comparison of the same the conclusions can be drawn as to the exact effects of slave labor on the economy of the United States. For example, it has been established by historian, Gregg Timmons, (2) that if at the start of the civil war the Confederacy had been a separate nation, it would have ranked as the fourth richest nation in the world at the time. That by the start of the civil war, the South was already producing at least 75% of the world’s cotton. More millionaires were created in the Mississippi River Valley than anywhere else in the states. This was at the time where slave labor was extensively exploited in the south for the production of cotton. A review of literature shows that slave labor did not agree with the crops grown in the northern American states post-revolutionary war.
A review of historical literature on use of slaves shows mostly agreement on the contribution of slaves to the economy of the United States particularly in the south where cash crops requiring intensive labor were grown. According to Goldin and Sokoloff slave labor was particularly suited to the farms of the south where crops like cotton and sugarcane were grown. The argument is that slave labor was best adapted to the growth of cotton and tobacco because these required extensive cultivation (743). Females and children particularly became more productive in such crops because such things as harvesting cotton required people who are small in size. The activities in the north were inclusive of animal husbandry, olive oil production and winery. For these crafts, slaves were not viewed as the most ideal forms of labor as these were activities which were considered care intensive as opposed to effort intensive (Fenoaltea 638). According to Robert Fogel, an analysis of the geographical distribution of slaves had firm roots in the cultivation of crops which have strong beliefs in the use of gang labor (17). This method is only viable for the cultivation of a handful of crops. These included sugar plantations and especially cotton plantations. The relative costs of production were lowered by the usage of cheap labor in large plantations that required the use of gang labor.
The paper selected makes a consideration of the contributions of slavery void of geographical significances. It takes examples of certain states in the North which still retained the use of slaves on their farms. It makes an analysis of the contributions of political decisions about slavery and how these had drastic effects on the productivity of those states in question. In a state like Kentucky, slavery was firmly entrenched even though a majority of farm owners did not have any slaves. The argument made by the paper is that the agricultural history of America would be significantly different had the debate on slaves swung the other way. It looks at regions such as the Kentucky bluegrass, Missouri’s “Little Dixie,” and the wheat production in those areas succinctly contributed to by the use of slave labor. The major argument that the author makes is that there was a clear line of similarity between property ownership rights and the success in growing cash crops in these regions. The fact that slaves were considered as property gave the slave owners affinity over them and their actions. It would allow the slave owners to expand their acreage of cash crops without fear of the harvest peak as they would have enough slaves by then to accommodate for the large labor requirements of this time.
The chosen article is by Gavin Wright and was initially written for Stanford University. It shows how slavery was practiced as a trade. Slaves did not have any property rights. Slaves were not like servants in that they could not sue their masters. There were indentured saves, of course. But through trickery, they would hardly ever get the freedom promised to them by their slave owners. They would end up in a state of half-free and half-slaves. Baptism of the mother did not change the status of the child from that of a slave to anything less. Resultantly, slaves were bought and sold from any part of the states where slavery was legal. They could be assigned to any task and were punished severely for disobedience. They could be bequeathed as gifts or accumulated as a form of wealth. An analysis of the southern plantations reveals that the most important investment for the millionaires was their slaves. Their slaves also featured as the bulk of their wealth. The richest of them had the most numbers of slaves.
The slavery historical paper written by Gavin Wright details that the largest concentrations of slaves was in the areas where the land was most valuable. This means lands in areas of the south. An analysis of the map that reveals slave populations depicts that the richest alluvial lands in the bottom of the Mississippi Valley, the base-rich limestone lands that surround the Nashville Basin as well as the stiff calcareous soils that atone the Central Alabama-Mississippi “black belt”. The principle presented by the high numbers of slaves in these regions is pretty obvious. Slave labor was in its highest demands in regions where land was most valuable. This meant that such land-owners had the ability to outbid others in a quest for more slaves.
The measurement of the types of soils is irrelevant because there were other factors that came into place that caused the requirements for more slaves in those areas. Climate was a relevant factor as well. The 210-220 frostless growing season for cotton and the 20-25 inches of rainfall that were a requirement for the growth of cotton meant more labor was to be used in these regions. Regardless of the land having ultisols as opposed to alfisols was not an impediment for its value as it could still be used for the growth of cotton (Wright 12). The conjecture made herein is that there is a direct correlation between the value of the land and the degree of slave ownership. People who held land that was considerably valuable were the same people who held the highest numbers of slaves. Regions like Little Dixie were very profitable because the slave farms had a variety of cash-crops grown such as cotton, tobacco, hemp, oats, corn and commercial wheat; which grew in popularity later on. This is regardless of the fact that they were in the Northern region.
Perhaps the clearest connection between slavery and the advancement of the American Economy is best depicted in the growth of wheat as a cash crop. Initially, wheat was only grown as a substitute to tobacco. With an increase in slave purchase and a need for diversification of slave duties, wheat started being grown as a mainstream product. It was grown as a cash crop in Kentucky, which was a northern state that retained their slaves, and in Missouri. However, to make the clearest linkage between the growth of wheat and slavery, antebellum Virginia is the best example. The wheat produced from farms who owned eleven slaves or more was sharply higher than in farms which had less slaves or no slaves at all. There is the argument that wheat is a more care intensive crop that is unsuited for slave labor. The puzzle raised is whether a slave owner would keep a hoard of slaves just to use them during the harvesting season. However, it is proven that slaves did not lack tasks throughout the year and regardless of the season. It is these duties that were in complement of the growth of wheat on the farms that made them indispensable to the actual growth and development of the crops.
With this regard, the paper digresses from the traditional way of looking at slavery and the economic development of America. It digresses from the path of considering slavery as merely a south problem by making evaluations of how slavery was practiced in both the north and the south. From here, and by looking at the effects of the same on the northern farms such as those in Kentucky, Missouri and Little Dixie, it paints a better picture of the effects of slavery with relation to production of cash crops, it solves the puzzles of how slaves were used in the production of crops that initially they were regarded as unsuitable for such as wheat. It also shows how the slaves ended up causing farmers to extend their growth of crops beyond others who had few to slaves by adopting them in other relevant tasks before the boom during the harvest.
My opinion on the literature is that it is effective and I applaud it for being such. The writer does not dwell on matters he cannot ascertain but uses evidence to show the claims that he can fully ascertain. It is also effective in that it solves several puzzles. Initially, slave labor was no considered care intensive as it was forced and slaves would only perform tasks because of the treat of beating or due to their indentured nature. However, the paper shows how the slaves were able to digress into other fields and excel at them. It also agrees with the fact that slaves were never underutilized in the farms regardless of the season. It is an effective answer to the puzzles that were posed to begin with and declassifies the traditional approach to slavery and their agricultural contribution by crossing geographical boundaries.
Fenoaltea, Stefano. “Slavery and supervision in comparative perspective: a model.” The Journal of Economic History 44.3 (1984): 635-668.
Fogel, Robert William, and Stanley L. Engerman. Time on the cross: The economics of American Negro slavery. Vol. 1. WW Norton & Company, 1995.
Goldin, Claudia, and Kenneth Sokoloff. “Women, children, and industrialization in the early republic: Evidence from the manufacturing censuses.” The Journal of Economic History 42.4 (1982): 741-774.
Irwin, James R. “Exploring the affinity of wheat and slavery in the Virginia Piedmont.” Explorations in Economic History 25.3 (1988): 295-322. Timmons, Greg. “How Slavery Became the Economic Engine of the South”. History. Sourced from https://www.history.com/news/slavery-profitable-southern-economy