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How Slavery Became the Economic Engine of the South

March 6, 2018 in History

By Greg Timmons

Slaves leaving the fields with baskets of cotton. (Credit: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)

With cash crops of tobacco, cotton and sugar cane, America’s southern states became the economic engine of the burgeoning nation. Their fuel of choice? Human slavery.

If the Confederacy had been a separate nation, it would have ranked as the fourth richest in the world at the start of the Civil War. The slave economy had been very good to American prosperity. By the start of the war, the South was producing 75 percent of the world’s cotton and creating more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi River valley than anywhere in the nation. Slaves represented Southern planters’ most significant investment—and the bulk of their wealth.

Slaves leaving the fields with baskets of cotton. (Credit: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)

An Economy Built on Slavery
Building a commercial enterprise out of the wilderness required labor and lots of it. For much of the 1600s, the American colonies operated as agricultural economies, driven largely by indentured servitude. Most workers were poor, unemployed laborers from Europe who, like others, had traveled to North America for a new life. In exchange for their work, they received food and shelter, a rudimentary education and sometimes a trade.

By 1680, the British economy improved and more jobs became available in Britain. During this time, slavery had become a morally, legally and socially acceptable institution in the colonies. As the number of European laborers coming to the colonies dwindled, enslaving Africans became a commercial necessity—and more widely acceptable.

With ideal climate and available land, property owners in the southern colonies began establishing plantation farms for cash crops like rice, tobacco and sugar cane—enterprises that required increasing amounts of labor. To meet the need, wealthy planters turned to slave traders, who imported ever more human chattel to the colonies, the vast majority from West Africa. As more slaves were imported and an upsurge in slave fertility rates expanded the “inventory,” a new industry was born: the slave auction. These open markets where humans were inspected like animals and bought and sold to the highest bidder proved an increasingly lucrative enterprise. In the 17th century, slaves would fetch between five and ten dollars. But by the mid-19th century, an able-bodied slave fetched an average price between $1,200-$1,500.

Slave auction circa 1861. (Credit: API/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

Economic Necessity Trumps Morality

Slave labor had become so entrenched in the Southern economy that nothing—not even the belief that all …read more


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