What killed slavery?
Here are more emails from tireless correspondents concerning this long-running debate. The first is from "ARC". I must confess that I lost this one for a fortnight, as it arrived just after I had left for my holiday. In it he argues with this earlier email from "JEM."
The second email I am going to quote here is also from JEM, but readers will appreciate that it was written later and independently. And the third is from Jim Miller of Jim Miller on Politics.
OK, so here's the first email. ARC writes:
JEM's history is rather contrary to my own reading.
France and Britain were not the areas worst affected by the black
death even in Europe, still less in the world. Italy and the Byzantine
empire were worse affected in Europe. That they had more and larger
cities at that time may have been a factor. Another was the greater
speed and volume of maritime communications in the Mediterranean; it's
a commonplace of epidemiology that epidemics tend to strike hard along
lines of communication.
All my reading has suggested the die-off was very bad in China, which
was closer to the original outbreak; it's another commonplace that
diseases tend to evolve to less lethal forms over time. (I note that
both statistics and sources may be less well studied for China than for
Europe so there may be more room for speculation.)
If by Eastern Europe, JEM means the relatively sparsely-populated
north east of Europe then he is correct that the black death had less
impact there precisely because of the lower population (rendered still
lower by the Mongol incursion of a century before). However this side
of his argument has problems for him. He's claiming that a reduction in
population caused by the black death assisted the demise of slavery.
Yet the low populations of north-eastern Europe (lowered by the Mongols
in some areas in a fashion the black death could only envy) did not
assist the end of slavery, which persisted there after it had ceased
The figure of 60% die-off is much higher than my reading suggests. The
contemporary remark, "A third of the world died.", seems a good rough
estimate for western Europe. I have read the figure of 60% suggested
for Chinese provinces but only for Constantinople and other large
Mediterranean cities (e.g. Venice) in Europe.
So much for the black death. More fundamentally, I feel that JEM is not
engaging with my argument and not relating his own to his conclusions.
IIUC, JEM is suggesting that the idea of a society without slavery is
a by-product of the industrial revolution in his first argument, of the
black death in his second argument, the stated reasons being in fact
rationalisations, not causes.
1) The industrial revolution is a chronological impossibility as the
cause of ending slavery, and even more as the cause of people
thinking they should. England could not have eliminated both slavery
and serfdom by the middle of the second millenium if the industrial
revolution were necessary for doing it, and still less if it were
necessary for thinking of doing it. Proposed cause and effect are
simply not in a viable chronological order, still less proposed cause
2) On one view, chronology is a difficulty for the black-death-as-cause
argument also since slavery was eliminated in England more than two
centuries before it arrived. Serfdom was still there but serfdom
differs significantly from slavery: serfs in England owned property,
had rights as well as duties, served masters who did not have rights of
high justice over them, etc. However while the distinction is
important, one could rephrase the argument to be about slavery and/or
serfdom, as opposed to a society composed wholly of free citizens; I
will grant that in what follows.
3) I've already noted that the view of the black death as especially bad
in England compared with the areas it reached earlier is, I believe, not
generally held and is certainly unlikely in view of the ordinary
behaviour of epidemics. Plagues are common in the history of the
world; the Roman empire had plagues, and a perceived shortage of
population in its latter years, without appearing to think of freeing
4) One might argue that the Romans should have thought of it - by
which I meaning here not the moral 'should' but an in-their-interests
'should': they 'should' have seen that an empire that functioned as a
slave factory had too few of its inhabitants feeling any interest in its
preservation to survive. However this (to us, obvious) idea did not
sufficiently occur to them, though it is easy to argue that it was the
objective requirement of their economic and political situation.
Likewise, the idea of preserving the profitable slave trade and the
profitable cotton trade until such time as economics made them no longer
needed did not sufficiently occur to the 18th and 19th centuries.
Point (4) is where I part company with JEM on fundamentals. JEM
states that ideas simply rationalise more fundamental causes but I do
not perceive that he makes an argument for this. The industrial revolution fails on
chronology on two counts. The black death, if you stretch the subject
to cover serfdom, is not so impossible as a factor in giving later
generations more choices but still leaves the anti-slavery evangelicals
of the 18th century looking very free to make whatever choices they
The second email is by JEM, but as I said above, was written independently and quite a bit later. JEM writes:
Just a cotton-pickin' minute
Here we go again!
Excepting Blitzkrieg-like situations--Germany's invasions of Poland,
France, etc., Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, and similar events--
what seems to decide the outcome of longer wars--at least
conventional ones--is ultimately the relative economic strength of
the two sides.
In the case of the American Civil War, in these terms the Confederacy
really hadn't a chance against the North. And despite what "Time on
the Cross" may say, an important part of this was due to slavery, as
we can show:
(1) The population of the North was about 22 million, the South 9
million -- and 4 million of these were slaves. Thus the South were
effectively outnumbered in real terms about 4 to one or worse, as
well as harbouring a massive real or potential fifth column in their
midst; a threat that grew exponentially after Lincoln's Emancipation
(2) Less than 10% of US manufactured goods were produced in 1860 from
states that joined the Confederacy. Although in 1860 70% of US
exports came from the South - flour, timber, tobacco, and most of
all, cotton - it was a heavily agrarian economy, while the North was
by this time one of the most industrialised on earth.
(3) However in the middle of the 19th Century the North was not an
export-led economy; it could absorb virtually all it manufactured
itself as the nation, population and economy grew exponentially. The
Northern blockade of Southern ports was pretty effective and their
exports and only hope for economic survival, were cut off.
(4) The Anti-bellum South may have grown faster economically than the
North from 1840 to 1860, but there was scope. Around 1825, the best
estimate now is that for Southern whites only, the average wealth was
only about half of that in the North. If you factor in the slaves,
the Southern average per capita wealth can only fall dramatically,
especially as slaves, by definition, had zero wealth.
(5) Finally, in times of hardship (like the Civil War, with no
cotton, etc. exports to speak of) slavery is a very fragile economic
system. If you can't sell the fruit of their labour, what do you do?
Slaves are not cost free, and unlike hired labour, you can't just let
them go. Or I suppose you could, but then they are no longer slaves--
that's pretty much what happened during the Black Death, I think. (I
assume just shooting them was out of the question!)
Therefore, by seceding and commencing war against the North, the
South effectively sealed the fate of slavery in the United States.
But suppose there had been no war? What would have happened then?
To attempt to answer in detail would be to write science fiction and
I charge extra for that:-) but the broad picture is really quite clear.
In a nutshell, technology would eventually produce machines that
could pick cotton faster and/or cheaper than slaves and the slave
economy would collapse. Or, in the event of a severe recession or a
collapse of the cotton market, the slave system would collapse
sooner-- and severe recession was inevitable, sooner or later. (See
point (5) above.)
There might have been a slave's revolution before then, I suppose.
And I don't know how long it might take technology to make manual
cotton picking uneconomic. But be it by revolution or technology or
recession, slavery was ultimately doomed.
And by the profit motive, not morality.
The third email is from Jim Miller
, being further discussion of the book Time on the Cross
. He writes:
After I sent you that material, I got
interested in the question and found these numbers from pages 150-151:
"Another long-run reward was freedom through manumission. The chance of
achieving this was, of course, quite low. Census data indicate that in
1850 the manumission rate was just 0.45 per thousand slaves.
Manumission could be achieved either through the philanthropy of a
master or through an agreement which permitted a slave to buy himself
out. . . . Some skilled slaves were able to accumulate enough capital to
buy themselves out in a decade."
So it was rare, but not as rare as winning a lottery. And, since it was
cumulative, over 20 years, assuming the 1850 rate is typical, a little
less than one percent would have gained freedom, either through grants
or their own work.
One way many slaves earned money was to sell produce that they raised on
their own plots. So they were both slaves and (semi) independent small
I seem to recall seeing both Fogel and Engerman's names recently, so
they may still be active, may even have web sites you can look at.
A most unpleasant subject, but I assume that you would rather know about
this research than not. As I said, I do think it points us back to the
tremendous influence of the abolitionist churches and pretty much
destroys the argument that economics doomed slavery -- at least in the