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My amazing colleague, Stan Engerman, famous for his work Time on the Cross, just shared with me a short retrospective now that 40 years has passed since the publication of that book. Here are some tidbits from that work. Stan actually does get invited to dinner parties despite this, demonstrating that I have much to learn about the world still.

  • According to Frederick Douglass, what is the worst part of being a slave? It wasn’t necessarily the deprivation and physical treatment but rather, “it was the loss of freedom of action that was the primary evil of enslavement.” Gee, I’d like to see that sentiment more widely appreciated when it comes to all institutions.
  • Slavery has obviously existed in many societies, in many times, from ancient societies into the 20th century, in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa. … The U.S. South was not the first British or European New World settlements to have slavery, nor was it the last area to end it (that was Brazil in 1888).
  • “The interest in the slave trade has also shown us more about the nature of slavery and the slave trade in Africa — and the role of wars, kidnapping, and other means of acquiring slaves within Africa, with the sending of slaves to the coast by Africans for sale to Europeans, or else northward to North Africa or the Middle East, eastward to the Indian Ocean areas, and also the large number traded with elsewhere in Africa. African traders gained from the rising slave prices due to the increase demands from these sources. Slavery played a significant role in Africa before, during, and after the transatlantic trade. Slavery was generally ended by European colonizers, since there was a limited indigenous African anti-slavery movement.
  • In regard to economics and demography, views have shifted from seeing slavery as the cause of a backward and a declining economy to now describe slavery as a system that was often booming economically and quite productive.
  • Brazil was the largest recipient of African slaves, over 40% of the total … the U.S. received only about 5% of the transatlantic slave trade. Yet the US had more than 1/3 of all New World Blacks in 1830. This growth reflected a very high rate of natural increase, based on unusually high level of fertility and relatively lower mortality than for slaves elsewhere … it was the high southern slave fertility — as high as that of northern and southern whites at the time…
  • This might mean that the slave trade and slavery had then become relatively inexpensive to give up. Or, as Adam Smith suggested concerning the Pennsylvania Quakers, the fact that they ended slavery indicated that it was unprofitable to them — that the demand for morality is downward sloping. It is easier for individuals and societies to behave morally when the costs of morality are considered low.
  • Prices, both male and female, in the U.S. rose through the 1850s, reflecting expectations that slavery would continue. The same upward price pattern in the 1850s existed for slaves elsewhere. Even late in the slave era it was clear that slavery was still profitable and planters did not expect decline to be immediate.
  • Easterlin’s findings indicated that from 1840 to 1860 the South grew about as rapidly as did the North, and although its income was below that of the Northeast it was above that of the agricultural Midwest.
  • And although it is not clear exactly what this proves, cotton became more important to the south in 1880 than it was in 1860.
  • In no major case in modern times did slavery simply grind to a halt due to unprofitability.
  • There had seemed little objection by scholars when these indicated that the North was more productive than was the South. It was only when the result seemed possibly to go in a different direction that attention was drawn to the difficulties of measurement.
  • Since planters wanted to (and dud) make money from their operations, it is possible that they were not as frequently cruel and harsh as often argued.
  • Thus, the higher fertility of U.S. slaves reflects considerations such as health, available foodstuffs in the U.S., a higher stability of cohabiting, and an adaptation away from African patterns of nursing.
  • There were also dramatic changes in southern laws, politics, and education after 1870, but then there was a sharp reversal of many conditions after 1890. Was this 1890s change in U.S. ex-slave conditions related to economic or to other factors?
  • If the current U.S. conditions are a legacy of slavery, why was it so long deferred, and on what did it depend on to take place? Also to be noted is the differential success of West Indian ex-slaves in contrast with those from the southern states when both began to move to the northern U.S. in the 20th century.
  • At times it was argued that the slaves, not the owners, should be compensated for the theft of their labor, but this argument was infrequently made, and never carried out. … In the U.S. and elsewhere there was no major calling for what came to be called reparations until the 1960s.

One Response to “Forty Years of Slavery Studies”

  1. chuck martel says:

    Yeah, OK, slavery was bad, especially for the slaves. At the same time, slaves were valuable pieces of property and it was in the interest of their owners to maintain them well. It was very different for the native Americans, many of whom were victims of policies of genuine genocide. It was US government policy over the course of many years to exterminate native Americans that refused to go along with the desires of the nation/state. http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2013/07/orders-of-george-washington-to-general.html Native Americans weren’t conceded citizenship in their own land until 1924, although many probably found the change ridiculous.

    Of course the never-ending clamor over a situation that the Great Emancipator brought to an end 160 years ago is based on political considerations, there are probably more whites in the US descended from slaves than there are blacks but those whites don’t display the servitude of their ancestors by their own complexions.

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