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Securing Human Property: Slavery, Life Insurance, and Industrialization in the Upper South

From: Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 25, Number 4, Winter 2005
pp. 615-652 | 10.1353/jer.2005.0081


Beginning in the 1830s and continuing throughout the antebellum period, life insurance expanded rapidly among the urban middle class of the Northeast as a means of protecting families against the loss of their primary breadwinner. As life insurance spread to the South, it was most strongly embraced by slaveholders. Creative southerners of both races adopted insurance to alleviate some of the most evil consequences of the slave trade, while urbanites of the South promoted insurance as a means of mitigating the untimely loss of their slave property. By the 1850s, the industry was firmly established in Richmond–underwriting the lives of slaves engaged in dangerous occupations, valued as artisans or house slaves, or hired out for work in factories and railroads–and was expanding rapidly into the other industrialized areas of Virginia. Indeed, life insurance was fast becoming a key component of industrialization in the Upper South. With the purchase of insurance, urban slaveholders demonstrated their confidence in both the longevity of the slave system itself and the value of slavery for the future of southern industrialization.

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