Economic and Political Role of Slavery in the United States

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Behind the cruel, unjust representation of slavery lies a transgressing business that was profitable to the nation. Slavery in the united states significantly contributed to the economic standards of the 1800s. The economy of the South was completely dependent on labor-intensive tasks completed by slaves. The labor that slaves completed increased the growth of the cotton industry. Without the labor that slaves provided, the economy of the United States would have collapsed abruptly. Slavery was the foundation and the economic engine of America’s southern states; industries were completely reliant on the institution of slavery. Enslaved individuals catalyzed the cotton industry with their backbreaking labor, demonstrating the economic profit that resulted from their toil.

During the colonial period in the United States, tobacco was the dominant slave-produced commodity. However, the American Revolution cost the states of Maryland and Virginia their tobacco market which put the future of slavery in jeopardy. The invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793 revitalized the slave market in the United States. Cotton-based slavery strengthened the economic downfall of tobacco. The impact of slavery’s outcomings provided opportunities for the nation of America to grow. By 1850, 1.8 million of the 2.5 million enslaved Africans employed in agriculture in the United States were working on cotton plantations. Once the projected growth of slavery occurred, cotton labor was regarded as a necessity. Servitude was inexpensive labor, the only cost of slaves was the initial fee and the cost of keeping them alive. Through the country’s geographic growth after the American Revolution, enslavers created a system aimed at maximizing and monetizing the labor of the enslaved.

During the 19th century, slaves served as America’s largest financial asset, as they were forced to maintain the nation’s most exported commodity. According to Edward E. Baptists' article, “In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent,” (Vox, Baptist). The profits from cotton propelled the United States into a position as one of the leading global economies and made the South the most buoyant/flourishing region. The ownership of slaves increased wealth for plantation owners to the point where the South had many more millionaires per capita in comparison to other regions. Plantation owners managed a forced-labor system that aimed at maximizing efficiency by interacting with a network of financial associations to manage America’s empire of cotton.

The economic institution of slavery was profitable to the nation. Although the institution of slavery was very profitable to the nation, it did come at a cost. Slaves required expenses from planters for clothing, housing, and feeding slaves. The expenses for providing necessities to slaves were considerably less than the value they produced. Expenses that were associated with the maintenance of a slave were roughly half of the value of the revenue the master received from the slave’s labor. In the first half of the nineteenth century, profitability increased steadily, as prices for cash crops rose and the cost of keeping slaves remained at a consistent rate. Enslaved individuals themselves became a quality investment that plantation owners could profit from. As historian Robert Starobin explains: 'The cost of free labor … totaled about $355 per annum, including supervision. The annual average maintenance cost per industrial slave was … less than one-third the annual cost of wages and supervision of free common labors [sic]' (Starobin, 149). As cotton production expanded and the demand for slaves increased, the nation’s economy rose accordingly.

With the increased demand for slavery also came the demand for the nation’s most valuable commercial crop. Enslavers would use slaves to be able to increase output and their income, allowing them to buy more land of higher quality and purchase more slaves to increase production even further. As a result, slaves grew the majority of the cotton, along with other southern staple crops. Purchasing a slave was ultimately a highly profitable investment that yielded rates of return that compared favorably with the most outstanding investment opportunities in manufacturing. According to Hughes and Cain’s literary work, “For 250 years, Southern agriculture revolved around the labor of slaves, causing a ripple effect on the level of its industrialization, its cultural norms, and the distribution of wealth amongst its citizens (Hughes and Cain, 255). In comparison to free agriculture, slave agriculture was not inefficient. Economies of large-scale operation and intensive utilization of labor and capital made southern slave agriculture 35 percent more efficient than the northern system of family farming.

The use of enslaved labor impacted the rapid growth of the cotton industry and allowed America to become a leading global economy. Virtually all cotton used in industrial production was made by enslaved workers in the southern region of the United States. Slavery thus played a significant role in supplying an essential raw material for industrial production. The slave economy of the southern states had ripple effects throughout the entire United States economy. Plenty of merchants were acquired to organize the trade of slave-grown agricultural commodities and leading to a state of affluence.

 Overall, the institution of slavery in the United States was a national system that affected the very core of its economic and political life.  

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