How did slavery cause the Civil War? In order to discuss this question, we must examine the nature of slavery in 1861 and determine if it was in fact a dying institution, as some claim.

How Did Slavery Cause the Civil War? The Myth

By 1860 Southerners had convinced themselves that slavery, far from being an evil practice, benefitted both master and slave. This position was a far cry from the one that prevailed in the days of the American Revolution and its immediate aftermath when abolition and manumission enjoyed popularity and resulted in the gradual abolishment of slavery in many Northern states. The myth holds that slavery was Bible- sanctioned, benevolent, and a boon to all involved in it.

This myth began long before the Civil War. Michael C. C. Adams observes, “even before the abolitionist attack from the North, Southerners began the defense of slavery as a social system that provided unique benefits, both for the slaves whom it placed under the fatherly care of a superior race and for the master who was given the freedom from toil necessary to the creation of a superior culture.”

When abolitionists, especially after 1830, began seriously attacking slavery, Southerners tried even harder to justify the institution. In the 1830s, “[p]rominent southern politicians, clergymen, and academics presented a more positive view of slavery, as something not only necessary but also good for African Americans and for the entire society.” Justifications for it were found in the Bible and scientific studies. Masters were supposedly benevolent patriarchs. In 1853, the Georgian Robert Toombs explained that “whenever the two races co-exist a state of slavery is best for [the African] and society. And under it in our country, he is in a better condition than he has ever attained in any other age and country, either in bondage or freedom.”

As the Civil War drew to a close, the myth continued and seems to have been embellished. In 1865, an Atlanta editor wrote that slaves’ position was “an enviable one” and contended that “they constitute a privileged class in the community.” He mused, “how happy we should be we the slave of some good and provident owner” because “simple daily toil would fill the measure of duty, and comfortable food and clothing would be the assured reward.”

Edward A. Pollard of Richmond, an editor and author, wrote this analysis in 1866: “The occasion of that conflict was what the Yankees called—by one of their convenient libels in political nomenclature—slavery; but what was, in fact, nothing more than a system of Negro servitude in the South… one of the mildest and most beneficent systems of servitude in the world.” Interestingly, in his haste to disclaim the term “slavery,” Pollard conceded that it was the “occasion of that conflict”—contrary to the Myth’s tenet that slavery was not the cause of the war.

A prominent Southern journalist, J. D. B. DeBow, writing in 1867, explained the alleged loyalty and contentment of blacks during the war. They had, he said, “adhered in general with great fidelity to the cause of their masters during the struggle. . . . They followed their masters to the field without desertion and were proud of the service. They worked cheerfully upon the fortifications and earth-works in sight of the enemy, and without thought of desertion. They … maintained obedience, docility, and respect.” All of this supposed loyalty was “evidence of the mild, paternal and patriarchal nature of the institution of slavery as it existed at the South.” DeBow overlooked the nine hundred “contrabands” who fled in three months in mid-1861 to General Benjamin Butler’s Union lines at Fort Monroe, Virginia, 7 the two hundred thousand blacks (about three quarters being defecting ex-slaves) 8 who served in the Union military, and the hundreds of thousands of slaves who fled to Union lines as Union armies moved deeper and deeper into the Confederacy.

The mass exodus of slaves to Union lines exposed the myth of loyalty and contentment. As early as summer 1862, a Natchez provost marshal reported to Mississippi’s governor, “There is a great disposition among the negroes to be insubordinate and to run away to the federals. Within the last 12 months, we have had to hang some 40 for plotting an insurrection, and there has been about that number put in irons.” That fall, after the Battle of Corinth (Mississippi), Union chaplain John Eaton reported that as cotton planters fled, their slaves “flocked in vast numbers— an army in themselves—to the camps of the Yankees.”

Before, during, and after the war, promoters of the Myth used words like “happy,” “content,” “faithful,” “amiable,” and “cheerful” to describe slaves’ attitudes about their condition. Opposing the Emancipation Proclamation, Jefferson Davis called the slaves “peaceful and contented laborers.”

Davis and his brother Joseph must have been shocked, therefore, when their families’ slaves refused to accompany Joseph when he fled home, fleeing instead into the countryside. Perhaps the president himself was surprised when his personal servant and his wife’s maid, both slaves, escaped from the executive mansion in Richmond in January 1864 and when, later that month, another slave tried to burn the mansion.

J. Cash, in his brilliant The Mind of the South, noted that the vast majority of early abolition societies were Southern and that evangelical religions first denounced slavery before their Southern congregations changed their minds. He added, “And, worst of all, there was the fact that the South itself definitely shared in these moral notions—in its secret heart always carried a powerful and uneasy sense of the essential rightness of the nineteenth century’s position on slavery. . . . The Old South . . . was a society beset by the specters of defeat, of shame, of guilt . . . [and] a large part—in a way, the very largest part—of its history from the day that [William Lloyd] Garrison began to thunder in Boston is the history of its efforts to [justify itself] and characteristically by means of romantic fictions.”

Ultimately, however, this myth was not confined to the South. Alan Nolan explains: “This revisionism in regard to the role of slavery and the character of the slaves could have remained an entirely Southern theme. The revision could not become part of the Civil War legend without Northern acceptance, and the North, including its academic historians, did accept the South’s rewriting of the record. The North let the South substitute a war for liberty for the war for slavery, and the North ceased to think of slaves and freedmen as serious persons. Exported to the North, the happy darky stereotype was widely embraced, prevailing well into the twentieth century and pervading the popular imagination from novels and the press to Walt Disney movies.”

The myth concludes that, whatever the merits of slavery, the Civil War was unnecessary to end it because the institution was economically doomed and would have died a natural death within a reasonable time. The argument is essentially that the war was unnecessary or could not have been about slavery because slavery was on the cusp of extinction without a war.

One might ask how slavery could have been on the verge of extinction if it was of such great benefit to whites and blacks alike. How could it have been so successful yet so likely to have been terminated within a few years? I will ignore the apparent inconsistency of those two contentions and focus on each separately.

How Did Slavery Cause the Civil War: Reality of the Institution

Margaret Mitchell captured the “mint julep school” of antebellum Southern history—happy, indolent, and ignorant slaves protected by their kind and benevolent masters—in her novel Gone with the Wind, published in 1936, and the epic film version of 1939 engraved it on the popular imagination. This picture was first painted by antebellum Southerners: “Seeing the tide of history turning against them, Southerners went on the offensive. Their ‘peculiar institution’ morphed from a ‘necessary evil’ to a ‘positive good,’ a ‘practical and moral necessity,’ and the ‘will of Almighty God.’” The historian U. B. Phillips, a Georgian, promoted this benign view of slavery in the early twentieth century. “His portrayal of blacks as passive, inferior people, whose African origins made them uncivilized, seemed to provide historical evidence for the theories of racial inferiority that supported racial segregation. Drawing evidence exclusively from plantation records, letters, southern newspapers, and other sources reflecting the slaveholder’s point of view, Phillips depicted slave masters who provided for the welfare of their slaves and contended that true affection existed between slave and master.” Phillips’s interpretation had a lasting effect and influenced Mitchell’s novel.

A different and likely more accurate view of slavery emerged in 1956 with Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. Stampp used many of the same sources as Phillips but “relied more heavily on diaries, journals, newspaper runaway-slave ads, and even a few slave narratives.” Stampp found that non-slaveholding whites supported slavery as “a means of controlling the social and economic competition of Negroes, concrete evidence of membership in a superior caste, a chance perhaps to rise into the planter class.”

James and Lois Horton offer a matter-of-fact depiction of Revolutionary-era slavery:

Planters required both men and women to engage in hard physical labor, and they worked in marshy rice fields, hot and humid tobacco fields, dusty wheat fields, and dangerous backbreaking lumbering camps. Workers on rice plantations spent days standing in the water of the rice field, prey to insects and disease, with a minimal diet to sustain them. Children were expected to work as soon as they were deemed old enough to be useful. Pregnant women worked, and after childbirth women returned to the fields quickly, with little time lost. All worked under the compulsion of the overseer’s or slave driver’s lash, and they were liable to be lashed for working too slowly. . . . [W]omen working in the owner’s house were especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Frederick Law Olmsted was dismayed by what he saw in Mississippi: “[T]he stupid, plodding, machine-like manner in which they labor is painful to witness. This was especially true with the hoe-gangs. One of them numbered nearly two hundred hands . . . moving across the field in parallel lines, with a considerable degree of precision. I repeatedly rode through the lines at a canter, without producing the smallest change or interruption in the dogged action of the laborers, or causing one of them, so far as I could see, to lift an eye from the ground. . . . I think it told a more painful story than any I have ever heard, of the cruelty of slavery.”

During harvesting season on sugar plantations, slaves worked sixteen-to-eighteen-hour days, seven days a week. Sunstroke killed many slaves overworked on all types of plantations. Their harsh working conditions, minimal food and clothing; abominable housing, lack of freedom to move about, and vulnerability to sale and family dispersion led many slaves, not surprisingly, to become what Stampp called “troublesome property.” They tried to sabotage production, challenge overseers, fight back when provoked, flee for their freedom, or even (rarely kill their overseers or plan or participate in slave revolts. Owners, aware that blacks were not natural-born slaves, tried to control them by a series of steps: “establish and maintain strict discipline,” “implant a consciousness of personal inferiority,” “awe them with a sense of the master’s power,” and persuade them to support the owner’s enterprise and standard of conduct.”

In a generally successful effort to maintain discipline among the supposedly satisfied slaves, each slave state had a slave code. Because the states copied each other’s codes, their provisions were generally uniform throughout the South. Among many other restrictions, they required slaves to submit to masters and respect all whites, forbade them to travel without passes, limited their preaching and religious services, forbade anyone from teaching them to read or write, limited their independent economic activities, and forbade them to possess firearms or liquor.

Slave-owners’ ultimate weapon was virtually unlimited force. In Holly Springs, Mississippi, one planter punished his slaves by slashing the soles of their feet with a Bowie knife. In that state’s Rankin County, Colonel Easterling threw a woman over a barrel and beat her, beat her “husband” to a pulp when he visited from another plantation, and killed a man by hitching him to a plow and “plowin [sic] him till one day he died.” In nearby Jones County, Bryant Craft beat his slave Jessie so severely that his shirt was embedded in his back and left him to die; when a neighbor nursed Jessie back to health and brought him back to reconcile with the master, a furious Craft killed the slave on the spot and told the “interfering” neighbor, “Let that be an example to you.”

J. Cash pointed out that slavery rested on force: the lash, chains and shackles, hounds and pistols to chase runaways, and mutilations and brandings (reflected in runaway slave advertisements). It was brutalizing to white men—releasing sadism and cruelty in masters and breeding in the “common whites”savage hate for blacks in response to the “white trash” epithets they endured.

Southern whites remained constantly in fear of revolts by their “happy and contented” slaves. “The panic of the slaveholders at the slightest hint of slave insurrection revealed what lay beneath their endless self-congratulation over the supposed docility, contentment, and loyalty of their slaves.” One of the few actual revolts was Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. He and his band of sixty insurgents roamed the countryside killing most whites they encountered—a total of sixty-one. In response, there was a frenzy of whites’ killing blacks on sight—most of them uninvolved in the uprising. Whites from Richmond rode through the county killing all blacks they saw—one hundred and twenty in one day. Innocent slaves were “tortured, burned to death, shot or otherwise horribly murdered.” Turner himself was hanged and his body skinned and dissected to create souvenirs of the event. Revenge spread to other states. From then until the Civil War, Southern whites did all they could to prevent similar uprisings by tightening legal restrictions on slaves and free blacks.30 The massacre of blacks following this revolt discouraged further insurrections.

The more one studies antebellum slavery, the clearer it becomes that “[h]olding millions of African people in bondage required a virtual police state, and southern society came to tolerate, and even honor, a military social climate that accepted violence as a necessity.”32 Southern slave patrols and militias provided the South with a head start on military preparation for the Civil War.

Two justice systems developed side by side in the South: a formal one and an extralegal system of plantation justice. Whips and switches were used on the spot in the Upper South while more formal weekly “settlements” were used in the Lower South. All of a plantation’s slaves, “for their moral improvement,” were gathered to watch their peers whipped while hung by the thumbs, have an ear nailed to a post before severing, or be “tomcatted” (having a tomcat dragged across their bare backs and thighs). Those punishments were for minor offenses.

The most extreme punishments (all without benefit of judge, jury, or trial) were reserved for alleged sex-related offenses. A North Carolina slave who boasted that he preferred white women was castrated. Another there was burned alive for suspected rape. Such burnings occurred throughout the South; two thousand slaves were compelled to attend one in Mississippi, and another in Alabama was justified by an editor as consistent with “the law of self-protection. . . . The whole subject was disposed of with the coolest deliberation and with regard only to interest of the public.” In South Carolina, two slaves suspected of kidnapping and rape were stripped, tied to forked poles, had their mouths bound, and were left to be eaten by crows and buzzards. The French traveler Hector St. John Crèvecoeur discovered a similar scene: a slave accused of slaying a white overseer was suspended in a cage to be devoured by birds and insects. The Frenchman’s hosts explained that “the laws of self-preservation rendered such executions necessary.”

The reality was that slavery often involved beating, killing, and raping slaves, as well as breaking up slave families for economic or disciplinary reasons. Slave marriages were not recognized under state laws. If slaves were so happy, why do we see photographs of them with backs scarred from beatings? Owners’ and overseers’ beatings, rapes, and even murders of slaves rarely, if ever, resulted in legal prosecution, let alone conviction or meaningful punishment.

The best evidence of the frequency of masters’ raping their female slaves was the widespread appearance of “mulattoes” or light-skinned blacks throughout the South—many of them with facial and physical characteristics similar to those of their masters. The masters’ wives had to ignore the mixed-race children and dared not confront their husbands about the obvious sexual misconduct.36 Masters seemed to compensate for their sexual relations with slaves by elevating their wives onto a high pedestal honoring Pure Southern Womanhood.

This elevation became a component of the myth. “[E]ven more brave and constant” than Southern soldiers, wrote Thomas Nelson Page, “were the women who stayed at home. Gentle and simple, they gave their husbands, their brothers and their sons to the cause of the South, sorrowing chiefly that they themselves were too feeble to stand at their side. Hungering in body and heart they bore with more than a soldier’s courage, more than a soldier’s hardship, and to the last, undaunted and dauntless, gave them new courage as with tear-dimmed eyes they sustained them in the darkest hours of their despondency and defeat.”

Page’s tribute was a perfect example of what W. J. Cash described as the cover-up for master-slave sexual relations:

And the only really satisfactory escape here . . . would be fiction. On the one hand, the convention must be set up that the thing simply did not exist, and enforced under penalty of being shot; and on the other, the [white] woman must be compensated, the revolting suspicion in the male that he might be slipping into bestiality got rid of, by glorifying her; the Yankee must be answered by proclaiming from the housetops that Southern Virtue, so far from being inferior, was superior, not alone to the North’s but to any on earth, and adducing Southern Womanhood in proof.

The fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs reported that she was constantly sexually threatened by her master and added that white men preyed on female slaves so often that “if God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse.” The ex-slave Henry Bibb observed the sexual activities of slave-owners: “I have long thought from what has fallen under my own observation while a slave, that the strongest reason why southerners stick with such tenacity to their ‘peculiar institution,’ is because licentious white men could not carry out their wicked purposes among the defenseless colored population as they now do, without being exposed and punished by law, if slavery was abolished. Female virtue could not be trampled under foot with impunity, and marriage among the people of color kept in utter obscurity.”

Glorification of Southern women often took the form of harsh penalties for blacks who raped, tried to rape, or even ogled white women. The possibility of such actions by blacks became a favorite argument of those opposing emancipation, including the proposals to arm and free slaves to prevent loss of the Civil War. Southern critics contended that emancipation meant equality and that blacks with equality “would soon aspire to be the husbands of our daughters and sisters.” A Virginian was more vivid: “The [black] conscript must be sometimes furloughed and I forbear to depict the state of things which will exist when the furloughed conscripts return to the home” and encounter young white women whose father is still in camp.

Cash provides an example of the heights which the worship of Southern womanhood could reach: “‘Woman!!! The center and circumference, diameter and periphery, sine, tangent and secant of all our affections!’ Such was the toast which brought twenty great cheers from the audience at the celebration of Georgia’s one-hundredth anniversary in the 1830’s.”

Plantation and slave-trader records are replete with instances of family separations. Children were separated from their parents and grandparents, spouses were separated from each other, and numerous other relatives were separated from their kin. To facilitate perhaps a million of these heartless and usually economically motivated transactions, Southerners did not recognize slave “marriages” or encourage black family relationships. Slaves generally had no last names.

Eugene Genovese describes the psychological hardships imposed on slaves by the forced separation of family members: “But the pain remained, and the slaveholders knew as much. Is it possible that no slaveholder noticed the grief of the woman who [said] that she had had six children, three of whom had died and three of whom had been sold: ‘When they took from me the last little girl, oh, I believed I never should have got over it! It almost broke my heart.’ Could any white southerner pretend not to know from direct observation the meaning of Sojourner Truth’s statement: ‘I have borne thirteen chillun and seen em’ mos’ all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard.’ . . . A black woman . . . recalled her first husband’s being sold away from her: ‘White folks got a heap to answer for the way they’ve done to colored folks! So much they won’t ever pray it away.’”

Southerners’ violent opposition to criticism of slavery may have betrayed their fear that the true nature of the institution would be revealed. Cash stated that Southerners questioning the institution were hanged, tarred, horsewhipped, or assaulted in other ways. Newspaper editors were a favorite target; five editors of the Vicksburg Journal were killed in thirteen years.

Some advocates of the Lost Cause have contended that Southerners, aware that slavery’s disappearance was inevitable, would not have fought a war to save the dying institution. Yet Southern lawmakers and citizens had gone to great lengths to protect slavery from any criticism, denying freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of the mails, and, in Virginia at least, the right to say that owners had no property rights in their slaves. Why protect a dying institution?

Allan Nevins examined the late antebellum period and concluded, “The South, as a whole, in 1846–61 was not moving toward emancipation but away from it. It was not relaxing the laws which guarded the system but reinforcing tfhem. It was not ameliorating slavery, but making it harsher and more implacable. The South was further from a just solution of the slavery problem in 1830 than it had been in 1789. It was further from tenable solution in 1860 than it had been in 1830.”

There is much evidence that slavery was strong and thriving on the eve of the Civil War. James and Lois Horton conclude that “by the late 1850s, the South seemed stronger than ever. Its economic power had become so great that it could not be ignored.” Its cotton exports were more valuable than all other U.S. exports combined. “The worth of slaves increased correspondingly so that on the eve of the Civil War it was greater than the total dollar value of all the nation’s banks, railroads, and manufacturing.”

Edward Ayers observes, “White Southerners hardly lashed out in desperation over a dying institution. If anything, they were too confident in the future of slavery, too certain that the nation’s economy depended on the vast profits of the cotton and other goods produced by slavery, too sure that the industrialized world would stumble and fall without the bounty produced by the slave people of the South.” In fact, there was great interest in annexing the slavery-dominated island of Cuba.

In 1860 Richmond had dozens of slave traders, about six major slave auction houses, and at least nineteen slave auctioneers. One auction house alone had more than $1,773,000 in sales in 1858. At that time, according to Charles Dew, the rental of slaves from their owners was “a very, very important part of the Virginia economy. Richmond’s industry really depend[ed] on it. The tobacco factories hire[d] hundreds of slaves. Tredegar [Iron Works] hire[d] slaves every year.”50 Many Southerners envisioned the large-scale use of slaves in factories that could be built or expanded. “They believed that industrialization and slavery could proceed hand in hand.”

Slaves were so valuable that there was even talk about changing or overriding the 1807 congressional ban on the international slave trade. South Carolina’s 1860–61 commissioners to Florida, Leonidas W. Spratt, was an advocate of reopening that trade. A Charleston lawyer, he defended the crew of the brig Echo, an American slaving vessel brought into Charleston harbor in 1858 after its capture off Cuba by the U.S. Navy, and as the editor of the Charleston Southern Standard after 1852 he argued in favor of resuming the importation of slaves from Africa.

From 1853 to 1863, Britain’s consul in Charleston, Robert Bunch, reported to his superiors on a continuing, high-level interest among influential South Carolinians in reviving the slave trade to the United States. In 1856, Governor James Hopkins Adams told the legislature, “To maintain our present position [of cotton dominance], we must have cheap labor also. This can be obtained in but one way—by re-opening the African slave trade.” In March 1857, Bunch secretly wrote that increasing slave prices and cotton production would force the South to reopen the African slave trade: “Such is the evil which is rapidly developing.” In fact, there were instances of slave importations with minimal, if any, legal repercussions. In 1861, Bunch encouraged the new Confederate government to abolish the slave trade. He and the British minister to the United States, Richard Lyons, advised London that the Confederate Constitution’s ban on the slave trade was primarily to encourage Virginia and Maryland to secede and would not preclude African imports if economically beneficial. In late 1862, Confederate officials were reluctant to assure the British that the African slave trade would not be revived. This continuing interest in reviving the slave trade suggested that slavery was not going away anytime soon.

The value of slaves to the Southern economy was reflected in the warning by the South Carolina planter John Townsend that Lincoln’s election would mean “the annihilation and end of all Negro labor (agricultural especially) over the whole South. It means a loss to the planters of the South of, at least, FOUR BILLION dollars, by having this labor taken from them; and a loss, in addition, of FIVE BILLION dollars more, in lands, mills, machinery, and other great interests, which will be rendered valueless by the want of slave labor to cultivate the lands, and the loss of the crops which give to those interests life and prosperity.”

A sampling of antebellum slave prices reveals the economic health of slavery. The following table shows the estimated average prices of prime eighteen-to-twenty-year-old male and female field hands in Georgia between 1828 and 1860:

Year Price
1828 $ 700
1835 $ 900
1837 $ 1,300
1839 $ 1,000
1840 $ 700
1844 $ 600
1848 $ 900
1851 $ 1,050
1853 $ 1,200
1859 $ 1,650
1860 $ 1,855

Other statistics shed light on the value of slaves throughout the South in 1859 and 1860. The following are the 1859–1860 price ranges for male and female slaves between the ages of eight and twenty-one in the states indicated:

Virginia $1,275 to $1,425
South Carolina $1,283 to $1,325
Georgia $1,250 to $1,900
Alabama $1,193 to $1,635
Mississippi $1,450 to $1,625
Texas $1,403 to $2,015

Both sets of numbers become more meaningful when placed in the context of even longer-term slave values. The following are the New Orleans prices of prime field hands at five-year intervals throughout the nineteenth century:

Year Price
1805 $600
1810 $900
1815 $765
1820 $970
1825 $800
1830 $810
1835 $1,150
1840 $1,020
1845 $700
1850 $1,100
1855 $1,350
1860 $1,857

All of these prices would have been affected by a wide variety of factors, including cotton and tobacco prices, financial crises, depressions, demand for slaves, the opening of lands in the old Southwest for cultivation, and general economic prosperity.58 Nevertheless, the long-term trend of slave values seems to indicate a thriving institution.

Charles Sydnor’s study of slavery in Mississippi reveals that the value in 1860 of the state’s 436,691 slaves, at eight hundred dollars each, was over $349 million, while the total cash value of its farmland, farming implements, and livestock was only about $241 million.60 Well-to-do Mississippians’ financial stake in slavery as of 1860 is obvious.

More money could be made on female than male slaves because the children of female slaves became the property of the mothers’ owners. This aspect of slavery was not publicized, however, because “[s]lavebreeding and slave-trading were not generally considered to be high or noble types of activity for a southern gentleman.”

In 1860, slaves were still a reasonable capital investment. In his extensive economic study of slavery, Harold Woodman concludes:

[S]lavery was apparently about as remunerative as alternative employments to which slave capital might have been put….This general sharing in the prosperity was more or less guaranteed, moreover, if proper market mechanisms existed so that slaves could be bred and reared on the poorest of land and then be sold to those owning the best. Slavery in the immediate ante bellum years was, therefore, an economically viable institution in virtually all areas of the South as long as slaves could be expeditiously and economically transferred from one sector to another.

That qualification—regarding the economic importance of slaves’ mobility—sheds light on Southerners’ concerns about Republican opposition to slavery’s expansion into U.S. territories. “With the natural increase in slave population,” writes Sydnor, “the price must have declined unless a market for the surplus could be found. . . . [W]hen Texas and the rest of the new Southwest were supplied, slave prices would fall unless more territory suited to slave labor could be discovered. As there was little probability of finding this within the Union, economics demanded that the slave-owner be an expansionist, for without a market slave prices must soon have declined.”

Woodman’s studies convinced him, however, that the slave market had room to grow within the existing slave states:

The belief, however, that in 1860 slavery in the South was on the point of being “strangled for lack of room to expand” is a wholly mistaken interpretation of actual conditions. The plantation system was not seriously limited by a scarcity of land. It had utilized only a small fraction of the available land area. The most fertile and easily accessible soils may have been occupied, but there was an extensive area remaining, a considerable part of which has been brought into cultivation since 1860. Before the Civil War railways were rapidly opening up new fertile areas to plantation agriculture. Far from being a decrepit institution, the economic motives for the continuance of slavery from the standpoint of the employer were never so strong as in the years just preceding the Civil War.

A recent study of land usage, slavery, and other agricultural phenomena in the United States and Britain concludes that in fourteen slave states (all but small Delaware) in 1860 there were a total of 73.769 million developed acres and 170.644 million undeveloped acres on 755,209 farms. The scope of undeveloped land on existing farms alone indicates that there was, as Woodman contends, room for expansion of slavery in the existing slave states. Actual experience confirms that analysis; the “land devoted to cotton nearly doubled between 1860 and 1890; it more than doubled between 1890 and 1925.”

B. Phillips, as Woodman explains, concluded that cotton prices had dropped in price, slavery had become unprofitable just prior to the Civil War, and that it was a dying institution. Phillips argued that speculation had raised slave prices to the point of unprofitability except in the most favorable circumstances. Woodman responds that slave prices, like cotton prices, varied over time and the cost of producing cotton had diminished considerably between 1794 and 1860. He concludes, “There is no apparent reason why high market values of slaves should be a permanent cause for unprofitable plantation economy. . . . [T]he active demand which tended to enhance the prices of slaves came from those planters who were making large profits and who sought to expand their slaveholdings on the basis of these profits.” And, therefore:

It was the fact that slavery tended to be profitable in new regions, while unprofitable in regions in the wake of expansion, that resulted so generally in the mistaken conclusions that slavery can thrive only on the basis of geographical expansion and a migratory economy, that slavery is adapted only to extensive agriculture, that it inevitably results in soil exhaustion, and that it cannot be profitable in general farming; none of which conclusions… appears to be justified in the absolute sense in which it has been asserted…. If the prices of all Southern products had fallen so low that it was impossible in any industry or region to earn more than a few dollars a year as the net return for slave labor, it would still have been advantageous to employ it.

Kenneth Stampp concurred in this analysis. After noting that slave hiring rates and sales prices in the 1850s had a solid economic foundation, he concluded that “the slave was earning for his owner a substantial, though varying, surplus above the cost of maintenance. For this reason, the critics of slavery who urged that the institution was an economic burden to the master were using the weakest weapon in their arsenal. There was no evidence in 1860 that bondage was a ‘decrepit institution tottering toward a decline’—and, indeed, if the slave-holder’s economic self-interest alone were to be consulted, the institution should have been preserved.”

Stampp’s view is reinforced by Fogel and Engerman in a discussion they entitle “The Sanguinity of the Slaveholding Class on Economic Prospects.” They use an index of sanguinity that compares the short-term value of slaves (based on current annual hire rates) with the long-term value of slaves (based on purchase prices). After examining the 1830–1860 data, they conclude that “[d]uring the decade of the fifties sanguinity was increasing quite rapidly, accounting for 40 percent of the rise in slave prices in the Old South and 75 percent of the rise in the New South. Slaveholders not only expected their social order to endure but foresaw an era of prosperity.”

The twentieth-century historian Charles W. Ramsdell made a different argument for the alleged impending doom of slavery. He contended that slave owners were being driven to an unhealthy overproduction of cotton that would soon lead to slavery’s demise because of the inevitable decline in the price of cotton. Ramsdell claimed that “those who wished [slavery] destroyed had only to wait a little while—perhaps a generation, probably less.” Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman contest that analysis by arguing that cotton production had become more efficient, that worldwide demand for it had increased, and that Southern planters actually had responded too slowly in increasing their 1850s cotton production in an effort to meet demands. They conclude, “the tale about the uncommercial planter who was gripped by an irresistible tendency to the overproduction of cotton is sheer fantasy.”

Although slavery was therefore proving to be of continuing economic benefit to those who engaged in it, it probably had a deleterious long-term effect on the Southern economy as a whole. Woodman cites the antislavery Kentucky politician Cassius Clay’s analysis that because slaves could not participate as buyers of products in the marketplace, “A home market cannot exist in a slave state.” Woodman himself then concludes, “Plantation slavery, then, so limited the purchasing power of the South that it could not sustain much industry. . . . Whatever other factors need to be considered in a complete analysis, the low level of demand in this plantation-based slave society was sufficient to retard the economic development of the South.” Despite slavery’s harmful effects on the South generally, no change to it was imminent because gerrymandering of state legislative districts, property requirements for voting, and the traditional political power structure of the South kept crucial political and governmental decision-making in the hands of the slaveholding elite, who individually were reaping large financial benefits from the practice. The abolition of slavery or meaningful reform was therefore unlikely. In addition, the racial underpinning of slavery ensured its widespread support among whites who were not slave-owners. In summary, “There is simply no evidence tending to show that the South would have voluntarily abandoned slavery.”


Aside from the huge economic value of black slaves, their subservience was critical to Southern culture. As the South Carolina planter and state senator John Townsend acknowledged in late 1864, “The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility in his relations as to the negro. He may be poor, it is true; but there is no point upon which he is so justly proud and sensitive as his privilege of caste; and there is nothing which he would resent with more fierce indignation than the attempt of the Abolitionist to emancipate the slaves and elevate the Negros [sic] to an equality with himself and his family.”

This fear of Negro equality had a long history. After the Revolution, Virginians, inspired by some Founding Fathers, considered some emancipation and colonization proposals. Winthrop Jordan concludes these had no realistic chance for adoption. They raised issues of social equality among blacks and whites, and there was pervasive and profound “thought and feeling about social intermixture.” “As time went on in the nineteenth century,” writes Jordan, “Virginians, realizing that colonization was utterly impractical and hating themselves as slave owners, turned more and more to the self-solacing thought that realities of ‘prejudice’ were inevitable, innate and right. Indeed they came to think that their opinions about Negroes were not prejudices at all but merely objective assessments of the realities of Negro inferiority.” Prospects for ending slavery in Virginia were increasingly bleak.

Racism of this sort would have kept the institution of slavery alive and well for a long time if not for the Civil War. It is clear, therefore, that the “benefits” of slavery extended far beyond the slave-owning minority of white Southerners. Describing antebellum Southern society, Dew says, “The average Southern farmer is a yeoman who owns his own land and works it with the help of his family; he might own a slave. But [the yeoman and the 25 percent of whites who were slave-owners] have something in common, which is white skin. If you are white in the antebellum South, there is a floor below which you cannot go. You have a whole population of four million people whom you consider, and your society considers, inferior to you. You don’t have to be actively involved in the system to derive at least the psychological benefits of the system.”

Confirmation of this situation was provided in Hinton Rowan Helper’s The Impending Crisis of the South, a critical analysis of slavery written on the cusp of the Civil War. Helper explained:

Every white man who is under the necessity of earning his bread, by the sweat of his brow, or by manual labor, in any capacity, no matter how unassuming in deportment, or exemplary in morals, is treated as if he was a loathsome beast, and shunned with the utmost disdain. His soul may be the very seat of honor and integrity, yet without slaves—himself a slave—he is accounted as nobody. . . . It is expected that the stupid and sequacious masses, the white victims of slavery, will believe, and as a general thing, they do believe, whatever the slaveholders tell them; and thus it is that they are cajoled into the notion that they are the freest, happiest and most intelligent people in the world….

In The Mind of the South, W. J. Cash provided an even more forthright analysis of the role of non-slaveholding whites (“common whites”) in the institution of slavery: “And in this loyalty [to slavery] the common white participated as fully as any other Southerner. If he had no worthwhile interest at stake in slavery, if his real interest ran the other way about, he did nevertheless have that, to him, dear treasure of his superiority as a white man, which had been conferred on him by slavery; and so was as determined to keep the black man in chains, saw in the offensive of the Yankee [abolitionism] as great a danger to himself, as the angriest planter.”

Southern repression of black economic, civil, voting, and other rights during the hundred years following the Civil War further demonstrated the lack of motivation to terminate the slavery or subordination of African Americans.

In summary, antebellum slavery in America was not a benevolent institution benefitting whites and blacks alike. It benefitted whites economically and socially and did the reverse for African Americans. Only by using as much force as was necessary did whites compel blacks to remain in a sub-human condition. The profits slavery provided to white slave-owners and the social superiority it provided to non-slaveholding whites gave the peculiar institution a firm hold on the South. One of the cruelest ramifications of slavery was its destruction of the black family unit; slaves could not legally marry, and their families were subject to permanent dissolution at the whim of the slave-owner or his estate.

An institution that was so profitable and accounted for such a huge portion of Southern wealth was unlikely to disappear without some outside compulsion. There was room for slavery to expand in Texas and in many bypassed sections of the South, and slavery would have provided a ready workforce in the industries that the South needed to develop. As the following chapter demonstrates, Southern opposition to the possible end of slavery was so violent that voluntary abolition was simply unforeseeable.