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The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation

Author(s):Drescher, Seymour
Reviewer(s):Levy, David M.

Published by EH.NET (November 2003)

Seymour Drescher, The Mighty Experiment: Free Labor versus Slavery in British Emancipation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. x + 307 pp. $50 (hardback), ISBN: 0-19-509346-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David M. Levy, Department of Economics and Center for the Study of Public Choice, George Mason University.

Seymour Drescher’s magnificent book on the British Act of Emancipation of 1833, and many other things besides, explains the role of the eighteenth-century science of political economy in the anti-slavery movement. Political economy qua science gave to the old debates over slavery an external, disinterested vantage from which this all-too-human institution might be viewed in judgment (p. 6) The Act of Emancipation can be viewed — thus the title of the book taken from a contemporary discussion (p. viii) — as a “Mighty Experiment” — in political economy. The two strands which Drescher stresses from this political economy are found (first) in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and (second) in T. R. Malthus’s economics of population. Smith contributed two things to the debate. He focused on the well-being of ordinary people (p. 20) and the consequential “sacred” (Smith’s word) right of an individual to dispose of his time as he sees fit. And Smith summarized the testimony of universal experience that slavery is more expensive than free labor. This Drescher describes as the central tenet of “free labor ideology.” After Malthus’s explanation of the deleterious effect of slavery on population as evidence of its dreadful consequences on human well-being, the important contributions of political economy to the debate were complete. Drescher tells how Malthus hurried to explain to William Wilberforce, the moral center of the firestorm which would burn slavery from the world, that the proslavery “consequences” drawn from his work were perverted (p. 45). Wilberforce had then the occasion in Parliament to juxtapose “implications” from Malthus’s work with Malthus’s words.

In his marvelous history Drescher tells of how the contending parties selectively quoted evidence to buttress their case. If one experiment worked “right,” it was trumpeted by one side; if not, it was ignored by that side as best as could be. The science may be external to the world but the scientists assuredly were not, preferring one outcome to another. Thus, Drescher’s term “free labor ideology” is totally appropriate.

As it is no fun whatsoever to go on and on about matters of agreement — as one might about Drescher’s scattered discussion of how racism played no interesting role in the debates over emancipation (pp. 79-81) but that it entered British discussion in an important way with Thomas Carlyle’s (1849) “Negro Question” (p. 219) — let us pick two themes in his larger work for discussion. First, Drescher finds that Smith’s nineteenth-century descendants were either silent on the matter of slavery — he names James Mill in particular (p. 55) — or rather less hostile — E. G. Wakefield (pp. 56-58) and J. B. Say (p. 64-68). As a consequence, he finds the view that the Act of Emancipation was a triumph of political economy (the “dismal science”) and political evangelicalism (Exeter Hall) either the result of a selectively chosen vantage (p. 142) or evidence of a naive faith in the testimony of Carlyle’s “Negro Question” (Drescher, 2003). The reader who looks at that reference will discover as Exhibit A of those gulled by Carlyle’s historical reporting, a certain David Levy. Perhaps the reader now understands why this review took rather a long time to complete! A re-reading was in order. The second topic to discuss is whether or not we expect the transition to freedom to be self-financing.

First, let’s consider Smith’s heirs. Anti-slavery takes many forms and one of the more intriguing is James Mill’s use of the slave master as a model of extractive government. What we might call Mill’s “worst case” account of government is instantiated anti-slavery. Given the status of Mill’s Government amongst the Utilitarians, this suggests that they simply took from eighteenth-century discussions and common observation claims upon which to found their work. Smith’s anti-slavery theorems become Mill’s anti-slavery axiom.

Drescher is, of course, right about Wakefield, a fact which gives some additional reason to attend to Wakefield’s quarrel with Smith’s strong distinction between people and animals. As both of those are discussed in Levy (2001), let us move to new material.

When we think of economists around the time of emancipation to whom should we direct our attention? On February 28, 1833 Richard Whately, formerly professor of economics at Oxford, then Archbishop of Dublin, wrote a letter to the Anti-Slavery Society in which many themes which Drescher discusses are encountered. As this has not been widely discussed, I quote large extracts. Whately begins with a moral claim and the illusion of freedom from culpability of those who are not personally owners of slaves: I perfectly concur with you in thinking the existence of slavery in our empire a national sin, and that justice demands, therefore, that we should be ready to bear our fair proportion of the evils consequent upon it.

Though this, however, is the case really, the persons most closely connected with the sinful act will often appear the chief or the sole perpetrators. One who has planned, for instance, and authorised a murder, will often fancy himself innocent, compared with him whose hands were actually imbrued with blood (1866, p. 183).

Drescher reports discussions of the importance of habitual behavior (p. 108). Whately stresses this at the outset: Most of those who swell the cry for immediate emancipation are ignorant of the chief evil of slavery — viz., its making and keeping the slave unfit for freedom, by completely separating in his mind the two ideas habitually associated in the minds of free labourers, properly so called (not parish paupers), of labour and maintenance (1866, p. 184).

Whately, as is common in classical economics, appeals to proverbial wisdom (Peart and Levy, 2004): The greatest of the ancient moralists lays it down, that a man is naturally a slave as long, and only as long, as he is unfit for freedom — i.e., incapable of taking care of himself, and requiring to be guided like a child.

Then Whately brings into account his teaching on fallacies from Logic (Whately 1827:145-56) in which he explains how difficulty it is to separate inference from desire: Unhappily for the application of this excellent principle, the person who alone is well qualified both to know when a slave is fit for freedom, and to train him to that fitness, is the very person who is interested in keeping him as slave (1866, p. 184).

Then leaping a century ahead to discussions of self-assessed taxation, Whately proposes a truth-revealing process: If any way can be devised which can make it the master’s interest to free his slaves, that, it appears to me, and that alone, will solve the difficulty. And the only way I can conceive in which this can be effected is, to take off a portion of the duties on colonial produce, to be replaced by an equivalent tax on slaves; that the tax to be ad valorem, the price of each slave to be fixed by the master, and slave to be redeemable at the price fixed.

Let us pause to acknowledge the breathtaking elegance of Whately’s move. One can trust homeowners to truthfully access their own home’s value for tax purposes — “Why my tiny Georgetown town house couldn’t possibly be worth more than $5,000!” — if and only if that assessment is an offer to sell — “Oh, never mind.” Thus the slaves best qualified to become independent labourers for wages, being the most costly, would be those the master would, for his own interest, be the most anxious to set free; and it is probable he would be ready himself to lend such a slave the price of his freedom, allowing him to work out the debt at a stipulated rate of wages. Such an intermediate state between slavery and freedom would, I think, prove the best preparatory to an independence advantageous to both parties (1866, p. 185).

Now, to the self-financing question. Emancipation will not be self-financing: Of course, in proportion as this plan succeeded, the revenue from the West Indian Islands would for the present diminish. This I would reckon as one of its advantages, as relief would thus be afforded to a class peculiarly in need of it. And if the English people grudged a trifling and temporary defalcation of revenue for the accomplishment of such an object as the gradual extinction of slavery, in the only way in which it can be effected without cruelty to the negroes themselves, it is plain their clamour in the cause of humanity must be the grossest hypocrisy (1866, p. 185).

Thus, it is clear in the argument of perhaps the greatest economist then active, who developed the idea of government as exchange, that the compensation paid in exchange for freedom was from the spectator/consumer who benefited from slavery past. The slave was not supposed to provide compensation from his freedom. This principle would later become embodied in John Stuart Mill’s Principles as the doctrine of compensation for reform (Peart and Levy, 2004). It is also clear why Whately is such an admirer of Bernard Mandeville who proposed that we consider how much people are willing to pay as a guide to their real beliefs.

Whately’s point considers a movement from freedom to slavery in some abstract context. Now to the second topic — about what to make of claims of the inefficiency of slavery and the consequences of British emancipation. We need two facts to make the case that efficiency is neither here nor there. The first fact is that only British slaves were emancipated and slave-produced products remained on the market. The second fact is that plantation production depended upon a gang production and that no one would volunteer to work in a gang without compensation. Here we quote from Drescher’s report of Robert Torrens’ argument which predicts how black people will behave by examining the behavior of white people in kindred circumstances. This makes the technical point (fact two) of interest and simultaneously illustrates in a wonderful way the race-blind teachings of the classical economists (Peart and Levy, 2004): Torrens drew his [evidence] from the new experiments in colonization by Britons in the South Pacific. He asked the House of Commons to base its expectations on the actual behavior of “men of the British race,” already placed in circumstances quite similar to those in which Buxton contended, freed Africans would work for wages. On any frontier, Englishmen “immediately ceased to work for wages” and sought to cultivate on their own (p. 134).

One of the most widely accepted of all of Adam Smith’s teachings in the nineteenth-century discussions was the claim that workers have preferences for occupation and as a consequence certain disagreeable professions, those imposing disgrace or requiring regularity, need pecuniary compensation as equalizing advantages in a competitive labor market. In a slave labor system such a compensation would not be forthcoming.

Thus, the advantage of slavery in the product market comes independently of technical efficiency issues. In modern terms slavery extracts a rent from the slave. This rent is shared between the producer and the consumers in terms of lower prices of slave-produced products. Thus, it is to the consumer/spectator that the slave needs to look for compensation and this Whately acknowledges in his analysis.

This long review has touched only on fragments of Drescher’s masterpiece. Setting aside the questions he has settled, so many questions are raised. Public choice and trade theorists might well wonder whether British tariff policy post-emancipation was an attempt to impose a compensation duty on slavery’s subsidy of Cuban sugar. Scholars interested in the role of religion and “scientific racism” will note how the Biblical claim of human homogeneity was unchallenged in the emancipation debates (pp. 75-6). Can we think about “racial science” in terms of the demand for hierarchy? Workers in the now emergent field of Eugenic Studies will note with some interest the role of the Economist and its owner James Wilson (pp. 193-94) in the debates. Walter Bagehot, the editor of the Economist who introduced considerations of “Natural Selection” into political science, obtained that position through the good offices of W. R. Greg, one of the co-founders of the “science” of eugenics (Peart and Levy, 2004).

(I thank Nic Tideman and A.M.C Waterman for discussions. The citation to our joint work is an insufficient acknowledgment of my debt to Sandra Peart. The errors in this review are, of course, mine alone.)


[Carlyle, Thomas.] (1849) “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 40: 670 679.

Drescher, Seymour. (2003) Review of David M. Levy How the Dismal Science Got Its Name. Journal of Economic History

Levy, David M. (2001) How the Dismal Science Got Its Name. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Peart, Sandra J. and David M. Levy. (2004) Classical Economics and the Cattle Herders: From the “Vanity of the Philosopher” to Eugenic Central Planning. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. [Available from the authors on CD.]

Whately, E. J. (1866) Life and Correspondence of Richard Whately, D.D. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Whately, R. (1827) Elements of Logic. Second edition. Introduction by Ray E. McKerrow. Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1975.

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