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Slavery and American Economic Development

Author(s):Wright, Gavin
Reviewer(s):Atack, Jeremy

Published by EH.NET (May 2007)

Gavin Wright, Slavery and American Economic Development. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. x + 162 pp. $25 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8071-3183-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jeremy Atack, Department of Economics, Vanderbilt University.

My mother always told me that “good things come in small packages.” This slender volume, which began its life as the Fleming public lecture series delivered at Louisiana State University in 1997, is a case in point. Wright returns to the subject ? American slavery ? that marked his professional debut and which has punctuated much of his distinguished career. Despite, or perhaps because of, his long association with the topic, this work is far more than a simple synopsis of past research. While the book is not path-breaking and innovative in the ways that The Political Economy of the Cotton South (Wright 1978) or Old South, New South (Wright 1986) were, it reflects new insights and research (such as the work by Olmstead and Rhode (2005) on cotton picking rates) and restates past arguments more forcefully, more eloquently, and more persuasively as well. Nowhere is this clearer than in the lengthy third chapter which expands and elaborates upon Wright’s 1979 invited American Economic Review critique of Fogel and Engerman’s work on the relative efficiency of slavery (Wright 1979).

The book’s pervasive theme is that of slavery as a set of property rights which vested the slave’s human capital in the slave owner rather than the slave. This made the slave a highly portable resource that could be employed in any way that best served the slave owner’s interests. Property rights, not personhood, defined the system and it was the rejection of the former in favor of the latter that ultimately distinguished the North from the South with respect to labor. A defining moment in the philosophical switch was the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision in Mary Clark, a Woman of Color whereby the court denied specific performance as a remedy to the claim that Mary Clark had voluntarily agreed to a long-term labor contract with her putative master, General Johnson, noting that “such performance … would produce a state of servitude as degrading and demoralizing … as a state of absolute slavery” (Indiana 1821; Williams 1997).

The first substantive chapter, “Slavery, Geography and Commerce,” is the least focused of the three. About two-thirds of the chapter is devoted to linking the rise of the Atlantic slave trade to the development of the Atlantic Economy and the growth of European demand for Caribbean sugar. Wright’s argument is that sugar production was so unpleasant and arduous yet demand for it was so strong that it could only be satisfied through the involuntary reallocation of labor as profit overcame moral scruples. The balance of the chapter addresses the disappearance of northern slavery from collective consciousness in the years following the Revolution so that the “Peculiar Institution” became a peculiarly southern institution despite persistent but failed efforts to extend slavery to the rich bottomlands of southern Illinois and other areas covered by the Northwest Ordinances.

Chapter 2 examines the pace of economic progress in the North and South in the decade prior to the Civil War. It concludes that the illusion of southern progress depended critically upon the accounting convention of treating the human capital of a portion of the population – slaves ? as the personal property of the slave-owning classes. The result of this was to raise southern wealth far above that in the North where the rate of population growth was 80 percent higher. While people were voting with their feet moving into the northern states which also invested more in general public education, thus beating the South on both the quantity and quality dimension, southerners hoarded a specific form of labor instead of investing in land and infrastructure. The resulting differences at the county-level are vividly shown in maps: the percentage of slaves in the total population correlates highly with the value of personal property per capita and inversely with the value of farms per acre. One paradox of this was that slave labor became expensive labor which owners sought to protect from injury and death by means of more complete contracts and life insurance, while free labor bore all the vicissitudes of workplace dangers. Meanwhile, the lack of effective demand from the enslaved population limited and skewed southern economic development (Russel 1938; Linden 1940; Genovese 1961, 1962).

In “The Efficiency of Slavery: Another Interpretation,” Wright (1979) focused upon just two factors ? the exceptionalism of the 1859-60 crop year and effects which the crop mix had upon the apparent efficiency of slavery ? in attacking Fogel and Engerman’s position on the relative efficiency of slave agriculture (Fogel and Engerman 1971, 1977). Here, in Chapter Three, he elaborates on his earlier critique. Wright also follows up on some “alternatives lines of interpretation” he did not follow then and also makes new points. Specifically, Wright supplements the customary total factor productivity (TFP) estimates from the Parker-Gallman sample for 1860 with new estimates from the much less well-known Foust and Swan sample for 1850, revealing quite different patterns in the two years and between the Southeast and the Southwest. Even without these contradictory data, those who have not followed the debate especially closely and those who are unfamiliar with the underlying data will find the scatter plots of average TFP by number of slaves (Figure 3.4) damning of the simple relative efficiency histograms in Time on the Cross (Fogel and Engerman 1974) and elsewhere. One more or one less slave turns out to be associated with very large variations in average TFP especially among the bigger plantations.

Among the alternative lines of interpretation for the relative efficiency story which Wright explores is the role played by Fogel and Engerman’s weights in reducing male and female labor to “hand equivalents.” Men and women often performed different tasks throughout the year and their relative contributions to revenue were not synonymous to physical productivity differences. This latter point is particularly important since TFP is measured in dollar rather than physical terms. Among the new issues raised by Wright is the role played by land value. The census only reports the “cash value of land and buildings” but by regressing farm value on improved and unimproved acres, Wright shows that slave owners consistently farmed more valuable land (unimproved as well as improved) than those who relied upon free labor. Wright attributes this to the slave owners’ high degree of mobility which enabled them, as first comers, to claim the most fertile and best situated land at the most favorable prices.

Although Slavery and American Economic Development is not expressly couched as a critique of Time on the Cross and Without Consent or Contract (Fogel 1989; Fogel, Engerman et al. 1992; fogel, Galantine et al. 1992), make no mistake: it is. As Wright remarks in his Epilogue “Contrary to depictions of the slave South as a prosperous economy devastated by war and abolition, these essays locate the roots of postbellum regional backwardness firmly in the antebellum period. This era was prosperous indeed for the slaveowners [but] … the antebellum South is [more] appropriately grouped with the middling countries of that era, such as Spain, Austria, Norway or Portugal” (p. 123-24).


Fogel, R. W. (1989). Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York, Norton.

Fogel, R. W. and S. L. Engerman (1971). “The Relative Efficiency of Slavery: A Comparison of Northern and Southern Agriculture in 1860.” Explorations in Economic History 8(3): 353-67.

Fogel, R. W. and S. L. Engerman (1974). Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston,, Little Brown.

Fogel, R. W. and S. L. Engerman (1977). “Explaining the Relative Efficiency of Slave Agriculture in the Antebellum South,” American Economic Review 67(3): 275-96.

Fogel, R. W., S. L. Engerman, et al. (1992). Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (Technical Papers). New York, Norton.

Fogel, R. W., R. A. Galantine, et al. (1992). Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery: Evidence and Methods. New York, Norton.

Genovese, E. D. (1961). The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South. New York: Pantheon.

Genovese, E. D. (1962). “The Significance of the Slave Plantation for Southern Economic Development.” Journal of Southern History 28(4): 422-37.

Indiana (1821). In re Clark, 1 Blackf. 124-5

Linden, F. (1940). “Repercussions of Manufacturing in the Antebellum South.” North Carolina Historical Review 17: 313-31.

Olmstead, A. and P. W. Rhode (2005). “Wait a Cotton Pickin’ Minute! A New View of Slave Productivity.” NBER Summer Institute: Development of the American Economy.

Russel, R. R. (1938). “The General Effects of Slavery upon Southern Economic Progress.” Journal of Southern History 4(1): 34-54.

Williams, S. B. (1997). “The Indiana Supreme Court and the Struggle against Slavery.” Indiana Law Review 30: 305-17.

Wright, G. (1978). The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century. New York, Norton.

Wright, G. (1979). “The Efficiency of Slavery: Another Interpretation.” American Economic Review 69(1): 219-26.

Wright, G. (1986). Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War. New York: Basic Books.

Jeremy Atack is editor of the Journal of Economic History.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century