One of my readers was kind enough to recommend this free series of lectures by historian David Blight at Yale. Pretty fascinating stuff, and great listening material for those hours when you're, like me, leveling up a Warlock alt.
This one on Southern antebellum culture and slavery gets really good about halfway through when it shifts to the economics of slavery, especially in the cotton states. It culminates in this bracing quote:
By 1860 there were approximately four million slaves in the united states, the second largest slave society/slave population in the world. The only one larger was Russian serfdom...But in 1860, American slaves a s a financial asset were worth approximately 3.5 billion dollars...in today's dollars that would be approximately 75 billion dollars. In 1860 slaves as an asset were worth more than all of American manufacturing, all of the railroads all of the productive capacity of the United States, put together. slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset in the American economy.
I think, for me, that quote really puts exposes the whole "The Civil War wasn't about slavery" notion. You think about what men--any man--would do to protect that kind of investment. It was not a small group--Blight estimates that one third of all Southern white families had their hands in the business of slavery. You think about not just those who have a direct investment in that kind of resource, but those who have an indirect investment--whites, who we talked about yesterday, who didn't own any slaves, but derived social capitol from the class of black serfs. You think about the price of cotton doubling and tripling at shocking rates.
I don't say this to be provocative, but there is no way to get around this--Slavery was big business. The antebellum Southern economy didn't have slavery as an unfortunate appendage--it was it's trunk, not a branch. We're not even talking about the damage done to the slaves themselves.
We have never grappled with this. We tend to think about America as a country, like all other countries of that era, where slavery was legal. This is a vast understatement, it would seem. More accurately, we were a country in which half the society, the antebellum South, was a slave society.
We have never publicly grappled with that. And I don't think we ever will. The damage is done, and we don't have the will--or maybe even the ability--to repair it. My greatest fear is that Obama isn't the end of something, but that he's just a small respite before a horrible reckoning.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.