This is a supplementary website for Natalie Solent's blog, where I put longer articles of my own or emails from readers that are too long for the main blog.

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Tuesday, February 28th, 2006

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 further west.

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 and rationalisation.

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 everyone.

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 pleased.

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 Proclamation.

(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 farmers.

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 short run.

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