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Never Forget Part 3: Slave Labor Supports U.S. Economy


By 1856, there were 3,580,023 slaves, according to an average of the 1850 and 1860 census counts.  Bear in mind that in 1813, Congress laid a direct tax on property, including “houses, lands and slaves”. This meant that thereimage was now an economic motivation to under-count this part of the owner’s property – the fewer slaves reported, the less taxes paid; slaves were easier to hide than houses or lands.

By 1856, the advertised prices for African-Americans on one document ranged from a high of $2,700 for Anderson, a “No.1 bricklayer and mason”, and $1,900 for George, a “No.1 blacksmith”, to $750 for Rueben, even though he was labeled “unsound”. (See Railroad Contractor’s Credit Sale document of a choice gang of 41 slaves.) The average cost for this lot of people, including “mechanics and laborers”, was $1,488. As a second reference for this number, we can look at the chart for the cost of Prime Field Hands, and find that it is pretty accurate. By multiplying the census count of slaves by the average advertised price, we arrive at a value of $5.3 billion ($5,327,079,968). This may not look like a lot of money now, but compare it to other figures of the day. The National Wealth Estimate for the entire nation in 1856 was only $12.3 billion ($12,396,000,000).  [Note: All figures come from tables in the cited U.S. Bureau of the Census publication.] Total Bank Savings Deposits in 1856 was $95.6 million. “Manhattan Island, Land and Buildings” was worth only $900 million dollars, less than one-fifth of the value invested in African-Americans. The 1855 total capital and property investment in railroads was only $763.6 million dollars. Why the $5 billion dollar investment in slaves?  In 1859, the total private production income was $4 billion dollars. Of this total, labor-intensive industries like “agriculture” and “transportation and communication” accounted for $1.9 billion dollars, almost one-half of all total private income. This explains why “a good field hand and laborer” would run you $1,550 for Big Fred, aged 24, and $1,900 for George, a “No. 1 blacksmith”. Men like these gave a good return on the dollar.


imageThe money earned from this investment found its way into a variety of banking institutions, which increased from 506 in 1834 to 1,643 in 1865. Many of the names remain familiar to this day: The Bank of New York Company, Inc. – founded 1784, Fleet National Bank – 1791, Chase Manhattan Corporation – 1799, Citicorp/Citibank NA-1812, The Dime Savings Bank – 1859. As banks in King Cottons’ “Chief American market, that of New York”, it is inconceivable that these institutions, and through them the nation, did not benefit from the profits made’ on a slaves’ wages. Their business then, as it is now, was to be a source of funds to build empires in a variety of industries, across the continent, to make land purchases, upgrade equipment, save to send children to college, etc. Railroads could be built using a combination of slave labor and loans taken at banks that held money on deposits from the cotton/slave industry.
Money was also paid to a variety of people who, while not slave owners themselves, were “in the loop” of payments for goods and services. Thus, there were assets being used to develop the country for the benefit of Europeans and their heirs.

Slavery is often looked at as a blot upon humanity rather than the business decision it was.  Africans have been presented as lazy, shiftless, good for nothing, when the exact opposite was true. We were a vital necessity to this nation. Africans were the most valuable resource, our value on the open market dwarfed all other industries and values except for the land itself. Historians talk about the Industrial Revolution starting in 18th century England, and the computer Information Age of today. Left out is the Slave Age, that period of the dark days of the golden age of white supremacy. This was when the United States, an emerging nation at the time, used slavery as a tool of a white supremacist/capitalist culture to deal most efficiently with a formidable problem: the supply and cost of manual labor.

At $865 billion a year, information technology represents about 12% of the 1997 Gross Domestic Product ($7,214 billion).


In 1805, slave labor represented as much as 20% of the national wealth. By the 1850’s- ‘60’s, that figure rose to as high as 40%. If a 12% industry such as information technology can affect the entire nation, how much impact does a 20-40% industry have? Let’s take a look at the 1850’s and the effect of slave labor on the economy.

WheatCuttersWebIn his work, History of American Business & Industry, Alex Groner observes, “In the sense that they were large and complex producing units, the big plantations were the South’s factories. The hundreds of slaves included large numbers of production workers -the field hands- as well as such specialists and skilled artisans as carpenters, drovers, watchmen, coopers, tailors, millers, butchers, shipwrights, engineers, dentists and nurses …

“Because virtually entire families could be put to work in the fields for most of the year, the slave economy proved ideal for cotton culture. . . .It was not, only the plantations of the South but also the factories, shipping merchants and banks of the North whose economies. became tied more and more closely to cotton. What North and South had in common was the prosperity resulting from the growth of cotton production. The size of the crop climbed steadily from 80 million pounds in 1815 to 460 million, or more than half the world’s output by 1834, and to more than a billion pounds by l850…From 1830 until the Civil War, cotton provided approximately half of the’ nation’s total exports.”

At an average of 400 man-hours per 400-pound ginned bale of cotton (based on census averages), these billion pounds required a billion hours .of unpaid man-hours. . These were supplied by African-American men, women and children, working as slave labor, under threat of torture and death.

Thus produced, the cotton crop traded hands on exchanges like the largest one in New York. Banks and other businesses participated in cotton transactions that were all handled for fees. And so the brokers, traders, lenders, etc. all profited first. Then came the employees of the firms, the landlords, the ‘washerwomen, the street vendors, messengers, haberdashers, milliners and all of their families, mortgage holders and service providers in an ever-widening circle.

Pg5CottonManufacturerswebNow traded, the cotton found its way to 25 of the 35 states and territories for manufacturing. We don’t have to assume how the product was distributed, we can look at the 1850 list of cotton manufacturers. (See U.S. Census Table CXCVL) Here, we see there were 1,064 businesses directly employing over 92,000 people across the country. Leading the way is Massachusetts, using 223,607 bales of cotton while employing over 29,000 people. It is also interesting to note that the export of slave crops like cotton, tobacco and rice totaled over 60% of all the nations’ exports. This meant that the shipping industry, the dockworkers and the factories on both sides of the Atlantic all made a living from the peculiar institution of African-Americans working as slaves.

It was possible for people throughout Europe to work in cotton factories or peripheral industries in their home countries, save their money and book passage to America. Here, the newly arrived immigrant could get off the boat and work selling apples on Wall Street to the employees of the Cotton Exchange. A seamstress from English mills could come and find work making dresses for the wives and mending the coats of the men who worked in the financial district. Maybe you’ve heard stories like these before. When an industry produces over 60% of the national exports, it reaches farther than can be seen from the docks or from the fields. And there were other crops as well.


There were 2,681 sugar plantations and 8,327 hemp planters. In 1850, there were over 20 million bushels of sweet potatoes, 3 million bushels of Irish potatoes, 7 million bushels of peas and beans, and 8 million pounds of wool, all produced in slave-holding states. The African-Americans that Europeans called “ne’er-do-well”, helped clothe and feed this nation when it needed it most.


Government Profits Most

imageThe government profited most of all. The export of slave-produced crops allowed this emerging nation to import from more industrialized countries. Also, slave-intensive industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and transportation comprised over 60% of the total private production income at the time. In one way or another, this money was taxed. The slaves themselves were taxable as property beginning in 1815. The federal government profited by first placing a tax on the slave as a unit of property, and again when taxes were paid on the land the slaves improved. Taxing authorities, whether federal or local, made their money at some point in the trading of cotton and again when salaries found their way into taxable areas. The government uses a myriad of ways to raise the money it needs to do what it has to do – to build the infrastructure of the nation. To build the roads, forts and pay the federal marshals. This was done, in large part, with slave dollars flowing like an irrigating stream, watering national, state and local governments at various stops along the way.
And now today, the United States stands as a money pump with $7 trillion worth of pressure, creating jobs and millionaires and billionaires with fortunes that span the globe. But it is a pump that was primed with the blood of African and indigenous people.

By David Mark Greaves

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