Slavery Enriched White Slave Owners But Robbed America, Not Just African Americans
This horrid institution deprived the ‘land of the free’ of Black talent
By Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
It is scandalous that Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned the immortal declaration of July 4, 1776, that “all men are created equal”(and women, dear!) did not liberate his slaves even at his death, or free even his own slave children by Sally Hemings—who, by the way, was his deceased wife’s half sister. It’s a miserable historical muddle.
But it is every bit as muddled to believe that American prosperity depended on slavery, as some authors of the 1619 project do when they equate the Southern plantation with capitalism. They are not alone. Slavery and wealth are linked in American lore: In his second inaugural address, on March 4, 1865, another great if flawed president, Abraham Lincoln, declared, “If God wills that [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, ... as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
It is a creditable sentiment, nobly expressed by our poet president. Would that he had lived and fulfilled the promise to the freedmen of 40 acres and a mule. Yet Lincoln’s lyricism can mislead. The “piled” plunder of the crime of slavery is dwarfed by the returns of the honest commerce that might have been; Jefferson’s declaration is an economic opportunity sadly missed. Free and equal Black Americans would have generated far more wealth in America than enslaved ones did. Economic history is unequivocal: Jefferson’s slavery wasn’t the basis of America’s prosperity; Jefferson’s liberalism, so beautifully expressed in the document we celebrate today, was.
The Great Enslavement Is Not the Great Enrichment
Let’s take time to settle accounts. Yes, slavery made some Southerners like Jefferson somewhat richer, and some Northerners, too. It enriched slave traders, as well as a number of African kings seizing other Africans and selling them to Europeans waiting on Africa’s West Coast. This is all unmistakably horrible.
But economic history shows decisively and uncontroversially that Americans, whether Black or white, are 20 or 30 times richer than their ancestors were in 1776 or 1865. The Great Enrichment of the past two centuries or so has made us a startling 2,000 or 3,000% better off, and this same enrichment is now spreading to places like China and India.
This has been an utterly unprecedented improvement in merely two centuries over the appalling base at which we Homo sapiens dragged along century after century after our emergence in Southern Africa 3,000 centuries ago. To explain a 2,000 or 3,000% improvement in two centuries, you need to find a source of enrichment a lot more powerful than old-fashioned exploitation. What could be acquired by the disgraceful theft from Americans with African ancestors might account for, say, a 20 or 30 percent gain to the few favored whites. But it can’t possibly account for the 2,000 or 3,000% gain to everyone. After all, on the other, East Coast of Africa, a slave trade into the Middle East went on for longer than on the West Coast, and it was large and horrible in human cost as well. And yet the Middle East is not where the world’s Great Enrichment began. Neither did it begin in Brazil, with its many slaves, nor in the slave economies of Africa itself—nor those of ancient Rome, ancient Greece or any other slaveries.
But it’s hard to dispel the images embedded in Lincoln’s words, and it’s easy to be confused by Jefferson’s contradictions. TeachUSHistory.org states “that Northern finance made the Cotton Kingdom possible” because “Northern factories required that cotton.” The king-cotton notion underlies such recent books as Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History and Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
But the warm indignation of these books, while understandable, isn’t a good substitute for established facts and economic logic. The Enrichment of the modern world did not depend on cotton textiles. Cotton mills, true, pioneered a few industrial techniques, but these techniques were invented also in wool and linen, breaking the supposed link between industrial advances and cotton itself. And numerous other techniques in mining, farming, engineering and iron-making—not to speak of biological and organizational innovations—had nothing to do with cotton. The U.K. in 1830 or the U.S. in 1860 were not giant cotton mills.
New Spirits in the Material World
No, the cause of the Great Enrichment was not materialistic—neither a Marxian tale of sinful exploitation nor a conservative tale of blessed thrift. It was not science, which also did not have material causes, though science was encouraged by the Enrichment. Nor was it even a big dose of engineering ingenuity—which, by the way, had nothing to do with high science, but which did spring from the same source as the Great Enrichment.
No, the 2,000 or 3,000% or more in the U.S. or Japan or Finland was in fact the result of a sharp change in belief systems after 1776. This new system started to treat other humans with a new dignity, unheard of in the long history of agriculture, cotton or not.
It was called liberalism.
In Britain, following the Dutch, the highly aristocratic and illiberal society of Shakespeare became the amiable, liberal and bourgeois society of Jane Austen—the “polite and commercial people” of whom the English lawyer William Blackstone wrote. Dr. Samuel Johnson spoke admiringly in 1783 of the new permission to have a go: “The age is running mad after innovation, and all the business of the world is to be done in a new way; men are to be hanged in a new way”; he himself took an interest in new ways of brewing.
This was a real shift. Decades earlier, Johnson had delivered an encomium on hopeful projectors—an emerging but scorned breed of entrepreneurs:
That the attempts of such men [projectors] will often miscarry, we may reasonably expect; yet from such men, and such only, are we to hope for the cultivation of those parts of nature which lie yet waste, and the invention of those arts which are yet wanting to the felicity of life. ... Whatever is attempted without previous certainty of success, ... amongst narrow minds may ... expose its author to censure and contempt; ... every man will laugh at what he does not understand, ... and every great or new design will be censured as a project.
This was a declaration against unequal hierarchy and in favor of bourgeois dignity and the equal liberty of ordinary people to have a go. Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1755 to the same effect with uncharacteristic bitterness: The attempts of the improver—such as himself, he might have said—”to benefit mankind, ... however well imagined, if they do not succeed, expose him, though very unjustly, to general ridicule and contempt; and if they do succeed, to envy, robbery, and abuse.”
But then it changed, and this was the spring in the watch, the secret sauce. Liberalism, and equality not of outcome or opportunity but of permission to innovate and take risks, made the Great Enrichment that I have written about extensively.
The Impoverishing Effects of Slavery, the Great Anti-Liberalism
Yet sadly, slavery, the utter antithesis of permission, persisted—a particularly ugly iteration of the wider enslavements of human history, whether Russian serfs to boyars, English wives to husbands, Roman children to the pater familias, or other depressing examples in the long, long history of subordination of one human to another. True, in the beginning, humanity’s little bands of hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, and they evolved as equals for hundreds of thousands of years. But after the last ice age, agriculture was invented in nine different parts of the world, from Iraq to Guatemala, and the agricultural society of a landlord on horseback and a peasant at the plow was decidedly not equal in permissions to have a go.
And then in the 18th century in Northwestern Europe and parts of Northern America, before steam and steel and democracy and divided highways and containerization, an equality of permission was reinvented, at first in theory, in the noble declarations like Jefferson’s. As the decades passed, the declarations had more and more meaning. When a Russian tourist in the 1880s had made it to the Powder River Valley of Montana, apparently without having had a lot of experience elsewhere in the U.S., he came up to a cowboy and inquired, “Who is your master?” The cowboy replied, “He ain’t been born yet.”
Liberty had arrived, of course, against resistance. The English radical Richard Rumbold, facing his hanging in 1685 for participating in the Argyll’s Rebellion, declared, “I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.” Few in the crowd gathered in Edinburgh for the entertainment would have agreed. And at his own execution in 1649, when King Charles I declared in his speech from the chopping block—nobles got chopped; commoners, hanged—that “a subject and a sovereign are clean different things,” most agreed with such hierarchy.
But a century later, the more advanced thinkers of Scotland and Pennsylvania and Massachusetts would have agreed with Rumbold, even if many still owned slaves and beat their wives (white men were still little kings). By 1985, virtually everyone claimed to agree with Rumbold against Charles, even if they didn’t always believe fully in the new liberal equality of permission or act on it.
Imagine, then, how much greater the Great Enrichment might have been, how much earlier it might have occurred, and how much more generally it would have spread worldwide if liberalism had taken root sooner and more firmly. Suppose that Jefferson had followed his rhetoric and freed his slaves, as Washington did upon his death, and as another Virginia planter, a young friend of Jefferson’s, did when he moved to Illinois with his slaves, freeing them and giving them that storied 40 acres and a mule. Suppose—unhappily it is an impossible counterfactual—that racism had disappeared in 1776, that lynchings stopped, that the Tulsa race riot never took place, that Blacks had been considered, even by Lincoln, who at one point favored sending them back to Africa, the dignified equals of white Americans in an economy and government of the people, by the people, for the people.
What ‘Yet Must Be’
In 1935, when none of this better America had happened, the African American poet Langston Hughes sang: “O, let America be America again— / The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be—the land where every man is free.” Free to move, to invent, to persuade, to offer a dollar, with no master in charge. A noble sentiment, too. And it would have been fantastically enriching.
Where it existed, liberty, not enslavement, made us rich. More liberty causes more riches, and it embodies a nobility of spirit worthy of a free people.
It is July 4. Let us pray that that noble spirit continues to spread among—and to include in its compass—all Americans.
Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has written on the theme of the Great Enrichment in her three-volume work, The Bourgeois Virtues (2006), Bourgeois Dignity (2010) and Bourgeois Equality (2016), as well as Why Liberalism Works (2018), The Myth of the Entrepreneurial State (2020, with Alberto Mingardi), Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich (2020, with Art Carden), Bettering Humanomics (2021) and Beyond Positivism (2022).
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.
Sometime around 1900, a young PR man who had recently been hired by GE in Schenectady realized that he had a problem. He had gotten his job through glowing promises about all the great press coverage he would get for the company. But his boss had called him in and announced that he had “a terrific front-page story” about a 60,000 kilowatt turbine generator that the company had just sold to Commonwealth Edison…and the PR man accurately realized that this story would get maybe a paragraph on the financial pages. Looking for ideas, he went to see GE’s legendary research genius, Charles Steinmetz.
Steinmetz did a little calculating…and determined that this one machine could do as much physical work as 5.4 million men. The slave population in the US on the eve of the Civil War had been 4.7 million. To the young PR man, Steinmetz said: “I suggest you send out a story that says we are building a single machine that, through the miracle of electricity, will each day do more work than the combined slave population of the nation at the time of the Civil War.”
See my post Of Energy and Slavery:
Lincoln didn’t promise freed slaves forty acres and a mule. The war criminal Sherman did. It was a military field order enforced by bayonet in an area under his command. Of course it unraveled soon after he was gone. His field orders confer no enduring obligation by the nation nor do they override common law and property rights. Meanwhile it had ballooned into a widespread rumor that evolved into a myth of betrayal and entitlement.