The Low Productivity of Southern Slave Labor: Causes and Effects
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THE LOW PRODUCTIVITY OF SOUTHERN SLAVE LABOR: CAUSES AND EFFECTS Eugene D. Genovese The economic backwardness that condemned the slaveholding South to defeat in 1861-1865 had at its root the low productivity of labor. This factor expressed itself in several ways. Perhaps most significant was the carelessness and wastefulness of slaves. Bondage forced the Negro to give his labor grudgingly and badly, and his poor work habits retarded those social and economic advances that could have raised the general level of productivity. Less direct, as we shall presently see, were limitations imposed on the free work force, on technological development, and on the division of labor. Although the debate on slave productivity is an old one, few arguments have appeared during the last hundred years to supplement those of contemporaries like John Elliott Cairnes and Edmund Ruffin. Cairnes made the much-assailed assertion that the slave was so defective in versatility that his labor could be exploited profitably only if he were taught one task and kept at it. If we allow for some exaggeration, Cairnes's thesis is sound. Most competent observers agreed that slaves worked badly, without interest or effort. Edmund Ruffin (although sometimes arguing otherwise) pointed out that whereas at one time cheap, fertile farmland required little skill, soil exhaustion had finally created conditions demanding the intelligent participation of the labor force.1 Ruffin neither developed his idea nor drew the appropriate conclusions. The systematic education and training of the slaves would have been politically dangerous. Furthermore, the use of skilled workers would have made a smaller labor force desirable. This, in turn, reMu . Genovese, the author of a number of recent articles on Southern slavery, is assistant professor of history at Rutgers, ? Cairnes, The Sfcce Power ( London, 1863), p. 46; Ruffin, The Political Economy of Shvery (Washington, 1857), p. 4; Farmers' Register, III (1863), 748-749. The best introduction to the literature is still Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Shvery (New York, 1918), chap, xviii. 365 366EUGENE D. GENOVESE quired extensive markets for surplus slaves and therefore could not be realized in the South as a whole. Other Southerners simply dropped the whole matter with the observation that the difference in productivity between free and slave labor only illustrated how well the Negroes were treated.2 Ample evidence indicates that slaves worked well below their capabilities . In several instances in Mississippi, when cotton picking was carefully supervised in local experiments, slaves picked two or three times their normal output. The records of the Barrow plantation in Louisiana reveal that inefficiency and negligence were the cause of two-thirds of the punishments inflicted on slaves, and other contemporary sources are full of corroborative data.3 However much the slaves may have worked below their capacity, the limitations placed on that capacity were probably even more important in undermining productivity. In particular, the diet to which slaves were subjected must be judged immensely damaging, despite assurances from contemporaries and later historians that the slave was well-fed. The slave usually got enough to eat, but the starchy, high-energy diet of corn meal, pork, and molasses produced specific hungers, dangerous deficiencies, and that unidentified form of malnutrition to which the medical historian, Richard H. Shryock, draws attention.4 Occasional additions of sweet potatoes or beans could do little to supplement the narrow diet. Planters did try to provide vegetables and fruits, but not much land could be spared from the staples, and output was minimal.5 Protein hunger alone—cereals in general and corn in particular cannot provide adequate protein—greatly reduces the ability of an organism to resist infectious diseases. Even increased consumption of vegetables probably would not have corrected the deficiency, for as a rule the indispensable amino acids are found only in such foods as lean meat, milk, and eggs. The abundant pork provided was, however, 2 See the Southern Quarterly Review, XIX (1851), 221. Ruffin also sometimes argued this way. 3 Charles Sackett Sydnor, Shvery in Mississippi ( New York, 1933 ), p. 16; E. A. Davis (ed.), Phntation Life in the Florida Parishes of Louisiana: The Diary of B. H. Barrow (New York, 1943), pp. 86 ff.«"Medical Practice in the Old South," South...