Wright’s Slavery and American Economic Development is a small book with a big interpretive punch. It is one of those rare books about a familiar subject that manages to seem fresh and new. Wright returns to first causes in measuring the impact of human bondage on the economic history of antebellum America: Slaves were, first and foremost, legal property.
Wright’s basic point is that almost everything responsible for the Old South’s economy sprang from what he terms the masters’ “property rights” in their slaves (ix). Other recent historians, most notably students of the domestic slave trade, have referred to this set of legal concepts as the “chattel principle.”1 According to Wright, “These legal aspects of slavery and their economic implications are where we should look in trying to understand the place of slavery in American economic development” (7).
How so? Wright makes the persuasive argument that the slaves’ status as human chattel had profound economic consequences. It was much more determinative than the efficiencies of scale and organization that masters supposedly achieved by gang labor—as Fogel argued.2 Planters, by and large, could direct their slave workers however they saw fit; they determined crop choice, work regimen, and hours in the field, despite the slaves’ best efforts to demand some control in such matters. Masters could also increase their workforce during the critical planting and harvesting seasons by forcing women and older children into the fields. Slave women often picked more cotton than slave men.
Equally important, slave owners could use their human chattel as rock-solid collateral for the credit needed to sustain and expand their operations and to open up rich southwestern areas for staple-crop production. Echoing a point forcefully made by Berlin recently, Wright notes, “Distasteful as it may seem to modern readers, slave economics functioned through elaborate legal and financial channels, as fully developed [End Page 445] and in some ways more fully developed than their counterparts in the free-labor states” (12).3 The Cotton Kingdom spread west with extraordinary speed. Migrating slave owners, whom Wright aptly labels “pioneers with means,” could avoid shortages of labor and capital that might have delayed or even prevented them from riding the wave of prosperity created by the burgeoning worldwide demand for cotton during the decades before the Civil War (68).
Wright’s comparison of the economic development of the free-labor North with that of the slave-labor South arrives at some striking conclusions. For one thing, southerners “held their wealth mainly in the form of human property rather than land values” (61). He might have added that this condition had a direct bearing on the Deep South’s embrace of secession in 1860–61. Indeed, “slaveowners were justified in feeling that they were fully as successful as their northern counterparts in the game of wealth accumulation, if not more so,” but their success came at a heavy price (61). “The South also lagged the North by such criteria as urbanization, banking facilities, and transportation improvements” (62). Nor did southerners feel the need “to attract and retain a labor force through positive economic and political incentives” (126). Why build schools and towns to draw immigrants when “property rights in slaves” made such investments unnecessary? The roots of southern postwar “backwardness” were thus planted “firmly in the antebellum era” (124).
Wright, as always, has given students of American economic history a great deal to ponder. “Property rights in slaves” is a concept that historians of the South will ignore henceforth at their peril.
1. Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); Johnson (ed.), The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas (New Haven, 2004).
2. Robert W. Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York, 1989).
3. Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge, Mass., 2003).