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Published by EH.NET (March 2004)

James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. xvii + 394 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8078-2804-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jenny B. Wahl, Department of Economics, Carleton College.

Frankly, I am not sure why this book was written. James Huston, a historian at Oklahoma State University, takes up a theme familiar to and well-documented by economic historians: Southern slaves were valuable property, and the Civil War arose in part because Southerners feared the loss of this property. The first part of his book focuses on economic issues having to do with how property is defined; the second turns to the antebellum political realignment that occurred as sectional conflicts over property rights intensified. The two parts are tenuously connected via one appendix that offers a theory of political realignment and another that presents twelve graphs of regional voting behavior between 1840 and 1860.

Huston himself sees his work as bringing an important economic message to the masses. As he puts it, “The root problem is that except for a small coterie of economic historians, no one wishes to believe slavery represented a mountain of wealth” (p. 57). Although Huston gives a nod to a few cliometricians, he declares that “some of their work has not been amenable to historians’ understanding (and some of it has not been amenable to anyone’s understanding), while at other times the basic points have been buried in a host of (highly legitimate) economic questions relating to the economic health of slavery. What has been missing in this fruitful and promising analysis has been an awareness of the role of property rights” (p. 65). Elsewhere, he notes that the empirical work undertaken by economists has led to a “wealth of numbers that … have largely bored or overwhelmed historians” (p. 253).

But let’s leave aside the questions of “amenability” and “awareness” in previous research. What does Huston have to say? He starts by claiming that early Americans believed that civilization rests on property rights, and the labor theory of value underlies those rights. He gives a condensed history of the “3/5 compromise” for slaves. He offers a few simple tables of population, wealth, occupation, and slaveholdings culled from the census. These are intended to support the argument that slaves’ value generated slaveholder aggressiveness in protecting their property rights. He talks of other theories proposed by historians to explain Southern secession.

Starting with chapter 3, Huston draws upon what appears to be one of his primary data sources: rhetoric expressed in speeches, letters, and newspaper articles. In this chapter, he claims that free labor feared competition with slave labor, although I could never quite grasp his argument. For example, he states, “In a market system, the low-priced commodity won; and in the labor market, slave wages were below free wages” (p. 85). Yet, just before that, he says that slave labor was less productive than free labor (p. 84). Huston seems unaware of basic economic theory: I would have liked to see far more evidence about the purported differences in wages and productivity, as well as some understanding of marginal analysis. Other scholars have done substantial work on slave and free labor markets, as well as estimation of the rate of return to owning slave labor, but Huston fails to acknowledge this research.

Chapter 4 offers a condensed discussion of the writings about property rights generally and property rights in slaves specifically; it also alludes to the hazards of majority voting when only a minority of people own slaves. Chapter 5 focuses on the well-known debates about extending slavery into the territories; chapters 6 and 7 continue with the Wilmot Proviso, the Fugitive Slave Law, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This section on political realignment refers to voting records and seems to be part of a completely different book. So does appendix A, which displays a somewhat garbled understanding of the economic literature on transactions costs as well as a foray into such varied topics as antitrust, the New Deal, and workplace downsizing in the 1990s.

What seems to be the main contribution of the book actually doesn’t appear until Appendix B. Here, Huston uses simple graphs to analyze voting patterns between 1840 and 1860. Because this seems to be what is new, I was surprised to see it treated as an afterthought. Warning: here, as well as throughout the rest of the book, few topic sentences and no headings or subheadings appear. The reader has to work hard to decipher the main points and to connect conclusions to evidence. But, if one is willing to accept the last statement of the book, Huston concludes that “what caused the [political] realignment of the 1850s was the issue of property rights in slavery” (p. 281).

Jenny Wahl (Professor and Chair, Economics Department, Carleton College) has recently written “Riches to Riches: The Importance of Intergenerational Transfers on Wealth Distribution,” Social Science Quarterly (June 2003), as well as a manuscript on the economic interpretation of classic fiction.