Op-ed on slav­ery’s im­pact missed im­por­tant ques­tion

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE -

An­thony O’Brien’s oped (“Your View by Le­high pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus: How in­dis­pens­able was slav­ery to U.S. eco­nomic growth?,” The Morn­ing Call, Sept. 14) on the role of slav­ery in Amer­i­can eco­nomic growth re­ally misses the im­por­tant ques­tion.

I would agree that slav­ery was not “in­dis­pens­able” to Amer­i­can eco­nomic devel­op­ment as O’Brien ar­gues, although with­out slav­ery the U.S. econ­omy in the 19th cen­tury would have grown more slowly. The im­por­tant ques­tion is not ex­actly what per­cent­age did slav­ery con­trib­ute to eco­nomic devel­op­ment. Rather it is: How did slav­ery af­fect Amer­i­can devel­op­ment?

First, O’Brien’s nar­rowly fo­cused anal­y­sis misses key as­pects of the ways in which slav­ery con­trib­uted to Amer­i­can eco­nomic growth. O’Brien points out that most African slaves worked on sugar plan­ta­tions in the Caribbean and Brazil. In the colo­nial pe­riod, the West Indies pro­vided a ma­jor mar­ket for Amer­i­can grains and other pro­duce to feed and clothe those slaves. New Eng­land and Mid-At­lantic farm­ers were among the ma­jor ben­e­fi­cia­ries of that trade. Penn­syl­va­nia and other colonies would not have grown as quickly with­out those mar­kets. The pros­per­ity of colo­nial ports such as Bos­ton, New York and Philadel­phia was based heav­ily on that trade.

Af­ter the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion, the im­por­tance of the West Indies trade de­clined but was re­placed by the ex­plo­sion of cot­ton pro­duc­tion across the South. The cot­ton trade was enor­mously prof­itable for the North as well as the South. The fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal of the South was New York, which fi­nanced most of the in­ter­na­tional trade in cot­ton and other com­modi­ties. It was the prof­its from that trade that were in­vested in build­ing the Erie Canal and later the rail­road net­work that in­te­grated the emerg­ing Mid­west states into the na­tional econ­omy and laid the ba­sis for the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion.

Se­condly, O’Brien’s as­serts that “slav­ery … was fun­da­men­tally an eco­nomic in­sti­tu­tion.” I would ar­gue that it was fun­da­men­tally a so­cial in­sti­tu­tion. As it pro­vided the slave own­ers with great wealth, it be­came deeply en­trenched as a way of life, which in sev­eral di­men­sions re­sem­bled me­dieval feu­dal­ism.

Own­ing slaves gave the own­ers great power and con­trol over other hu­man be­ings. Con­trol­ling other peo­ple, forc­ing oth­ers to do your bid­ding, no mat­ter how ar­bi­trary and cruel, is em­pow­er­ing and, sadly enough, ego en­hanc­ing. The wide­spread rap­ing of slave women by their own­ers is just one ex­am­ple. Where is the eco­nomic di­men­sion of that prac­tice?

O’Brien points out that it was il­le­gal to teach slaves to read and write. This was partly be­cause of fear of slave re­volts, but also re­in­forced the myth that blacks were inferior, which jus­ti­fied slav­ery in the dom­i­nant cul­ture. The per­va­sive slave cul­ture, the ide­ol­ogy of white supremacy, and the elab­o­rate sys­tem of ra­cial con­trol ex­plains the tenac­ity with which the South fought the Civil War, not eco­nom­ics.

O’Brien also points out that af­ter the Civil War, cot­ton was grown on “free farms.” This is highly mis­lead­ing. Most of the “free” farm­ers were for­mer slaves now work­ing as share­crop­pers on land owned by whites.

The own­ers, and lo­cal cot­ton traders, ruth­lessly ex­ploited the share­crop­pers and worked to keep them tied to the soil. Sup­ple­mented with Jim Crow laws, this con­tin­ued ef­forts to keep blacks il­lit­er­ate, and re­peated ter­ror­ism.

Roger D. Si­mon is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­tory at Le­high Univer­sity.


Pre­served plan­ta­tion slave homes in Charleston, South Carolina.

Roger Si­mon

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