In the current political and social climate, race is being pushed more and more to the forefront. There is much discussion about just how far-reaching the effects of slavery have been to African American people but also, to the United States of America and their economy.
In history, an astonishing amount of technological progress was achieved by societies that employed slavery. This is not a coincidence, because advancements in medicine, construction, art, and engineering to name a few, will prosper when a human does not have to do hard labor tasks and instead has the time to take great pain in technology and creativity.
This fact leads to the assumption that slavery is crucial for a country’s economy and wealth to be established. Many do believe this assumption and think despite the fact, that in today’s modern society where there is no slavery anymore, it has been vital for the United States economy, that African American slavery existed in the past. Consequently, it is more than substantive to read this essay.
Despite the fact that the U.S. grew to an economic world power through enslaved African Americans, that were forced to work in the cotton industry, the United States as a country would have been massively more successful economically, if African American slavery never existed, because the focus and dependence on agriculture and slave economy, led to the lag in industrialization, historic dependent racism against black people led to a significant disparity of wealth, and the North and the South may have settled their differences over slavery more amicably, so the Civil War which caused hundreds of thousands of lives, may not have happened at all.
When looking at the United States of America’s economical standing as one or even the leading economic power in the world today and their historical background involving the trade and use of African American slaves for hard labor work in the U.S.’s successful economy, slaves must have been necessary, some say. If so, would this country still be one of the leading economic powers, if African American slavery never existed? Or would this country be more successful without it than with it? Is America's overwhelming success despite slavery rather than because of it?
To answer this important question, I am going to analyze the lag in industrialization, the effects of historic dependent racism against black people, and the effects of the Civil War. Furthermore, I will reveal how big the impact was, slavery had on the American economy. Lastly, I will illustrate whether the United States of America would be a leading economic power today, without enslaving African people for years.
Now the term “America” can mean a few things. It can refer to the Americas, which would include North and South America, and therefore the slavery of the West Indies. However, in this essay I will be looking at a world where slavery did not exist in the United States of America, so the rest of the world will remain unaffected, at least directly.
Furthermore, it should be noted that even if American slavery never existed, slavery would still have been an incredibly prevalent occurrence throughout the world. Americans did not have a monopoly on African slaves. Even if the whole United States remained slave-free, much of the Western slave trade would still have taken place.
The United States as a country would have been massively more successful economically if African American slavery never existed, because the focus and dependence on agriculture and the slave economy, led to the lag in industrialization. According to Baptist, the United States was the second largest economy in the world, before the civil war started. Without doubt, the United States was on a good path of becoming the leading industrial superpower by 1900. Although, being in the middle of an industrial revolution, there has been a region, hindering the US economy to expand. This region was the south, with its focus on agriculture and slave trade.
It is hard to predict, whether the US made it to the first place in the world’s economy by that time if African American slavery never existed. However, how the economy of the United States could proceed by that time, can somewhat be seen in the U.S. itself. At least when comparing the economic progress of the southern slave holding states and the northern free states.
Between 1815 and 1861 the economy of the Union was changing quickly to a modern industrial one without the use of slave labor. A sense of morality, as an ethical reason or to protect free labor work, as an economical purpose made the southerners come to the belief, that abolishing slavery and bondage would be the right way to go. In the south, on the other hand, the idea of limited or even abolition of slavery, resulted in great fear, knowing about the dependence on slaves for their successful agricultural economy.
Northerners had invested heavily in an expansive and varied transportation system that included roads, steamboats, railroads, and canals. Moreover, in manufacturing, financial industries, and a large communications network. By 1860, the free, non-slaveholding states invested 84 percent in manufacturing of all the investments in the US.
Meanwhile, the southerners only focused on their agriculture and kept almost only investing in slave labor to work the fields. “Only about 40 percent of the Northern population was still engaged in agriculture by 1860, as compared to 84 percent of the South”.
While the demand in the world for cotton was still high the south benefited from their cotton industry, making their fertile land and their slaves extremely valuable. The demand on slaves became even greater. Since the work was that cheap, it was used to a large extent and the slaves were exploited to the fullest. Rather than focus and invest in other parts of the economy and the infrastructure as northerners had done, the south invested in slaves. Because of the fact the South had been extremely successful with its concept, they did not see any reasonable matter to change it, restructure the economy, or invest in infrastructure or the education and healthcare of the slaves. It seemed to work out for the south’s economy though, at least in the short term.
However, it had far-reaching negative effects on the future of its economy. Whether the society was modernizing or a transformation to industrial production happened. Without real knowledge and in critical health conditions, because of the unlimited hard work the slaves had to fulfill, it was no wonder that they could not help the economy of the south elsewhere than the fields.
Nobody in the South believed, that the successful cotton industry would not have long-lasting positive effects on the economy. However, they were all quickly disabused of these illusions. As industrialization in the north has taken place, even the agricultural sector became increasingly mechanized. The farm machinery per acre and per farm the north had, was almost twice the value of the souths, as stated by Arrington. Machines are faster and stronger than any human workforce could be. Hence, the northerners were out producing their southern counterparts, producing half of all the corn, four-fifth of all the wheat, and seven-eighths of all the oats in the US in 1860. However, the south still rested on one’s laurels with its cotton industry and the slave economy. Industrialization in the South stayed away.
The lag in industrial development was not any inherent economic disadvantages or missing wealth. There was great wealth in the south, but all of it was tied up in the slave economy. Those years show how big the impact of African American slavery on the economic success of the South and therefore the United States, as a whole was and if it never existed, the country would have been massively more successful economically.
In the mid-1800s, cotton quickly became the world´s most popular resource. And a huge portion of this cotton came from the southern US. This, however, required large numbers of people to work the fields, and the African slaves did more work for far less than could have been done with paid workers.
Edward Baptist states, that the forced migration and subsequent harsh treatment of slaves in the cotton fields were integral to establishing the United States as a world economic power (2004).
The cotton textile factories were the first factories of the industrial system and they changed the way of the textile industry. In Great Britain, this industry was exploding, creating enormous international demand for cotton clothing. With the invention of the cotton gin, making it easy to separate cotton fiber from its seeds, the cotton industry experienced an enormous boom. The cotton gin was merely a motor with slavery being its fuel. Productivity and efficiency of cotton picking increased to four times faster than at the beginning, without the slaves as free labor work. America was well aware of the fact that the price of a slave generally correlated to the price of cotton. Thus, the cotton economy controlled the destiny of African slaves.
They could deliver cotton So cheaply and to such a massive extend, that the US was able to put all the other cotton producers out of business by the 1830s.
75 percent, according to Baptist, of the cotton that supplied Great Britain’s cotton demand came from the American South, and the labor that produced that cotton came from slaves.
The perfect tropical climate in the South of the U.S. offered the cotton plants optimal conditions to grow. Besides growing them on their huge farms and forcing African American people to harvest them and making the cotton ready for processing, the South made little much for any further steps for the process of cotton. In the end, they just had a raw material, that nature provided.
Despite the fact, that the South was producing two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton limitless and rapidly, they had almost no manufacturing capability to process the produced cotton to further products, because of the lag in industrial development as previously mentioned. Almost all the manufactured products came from the northern states. 90% of the outputs and 17 times more cotton and woolen textiles are produced in the North according to Arrington.
Cotton became the dominant driver of US economic growth, being the most valuable export of the US. 42% accounted of the value of all the US exports.
From 1820 to 1860, over half of all the money earned by US products overseas was cotton. Without African American slave trade and the slaves, hard work on the cotton fields, the enormous source of income for the US would have taken a massive hit, which would likely hindered America’s expansion and economic gains by that time and there is a good chance that the United States as a country would be somewhat less well-off economically.
However, these losses could be offset by social gains.
This brings us to the next argument, regarding historic dependent racism. Whatever side of the political spectrum you are on, it´s undeniable that there is a significant racial discrepancy when it comes to overall wellbeing. This is an incredibly complicated issue with countless factors influencing it, but historic dependent racism against black people, has certainly negatively impacted the success of the group as a whole. Without slavery, there would likely be a more even playing field and maybe fewer discriminations against people of different descent in the United States than there are now. The vast majority of African immigrants to the U.S. came from the slave trade. This brings us to some serious implications with regards to racism in the United States. Some wonder whether racism would exist in the US if slavery hadn´t happened there. This assumption seems rather naïve, because humans are very tribal by nature, and often feel fear or distrust towards those different from them. One need only look at the treatment of Muslims and Jewish people by certain people of the population to see that racism will find a way into society, whether or not the people had been enslaved.
However, it is more or less undeniable that without slavery, racism towards black people would be significantly less. It was no accident that slaves were viewed and treated particularly poorly by the population. This was done to dehumanize them, so the citizens wouldn´t feel as bad about using them in such a brutal way.
In the South, slaves made up one-third of the total population and despite the fact, that four million of them were in the United States by 1860, most white people in the South were too poor to own slaves at all. However, slavery was supported even by those self-sufficient farmers, because legal and social status was given to the poorest whites by this racism-based system.
Almost every person in the South either supported slavery or was getting convinced to support it.
Especially the intellectuals, that had a great influence on the white farmers, worked hard to encourage these ideas of white solidarity and to promote slavery. One of those is Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote: “But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation on the other”.
With the wolf, he is referring to slavery and saying that holding on to it is not ideal but letting it go is not an option as well. Moreover, they believe that justice and self-preservation could not stand side by side, which was really against the American idea, and would make the Civil War inevitable.
As political equality became important to more and more people, they started to argue, that slaves benefited from slavery, because their masters fed them, clothed them, and took care of them in their old age. Or that the institution was actually good for the social order. Criticism against slavery still rose. Especially in the North. However, the southerners saw themselves as benevolent. As an example, in 1837, John C. Calhoun, who was one of the best-known proponents of slavery, once said in a speech:
“I hold that, in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin and distinguished by color and other physical differences as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slave-holding states between the two is, instead of an evil, a good. A positive good.”
Calhoun and other Americans who preached a universal religion and who had long ago outlawed enslaving fellow Christians needed justification for a practice so obviously opposed to their ideals of equality. So, they used biblical passages, Greeks, and Romans as a comparison, or most of all they claimed that black people were biologically inferior to whites. Furthermore, for slaves, those beliefs made attaining equal status in society almost impossible and for their future descendants’ life in the U.S. became by far not easy.
The cruel way to treat the slaves, by branding, whipping, and raping was done intentionally. That the population could live with this brutality right next to them or masters could treat the slaves the way they did, slaves had to be dehumanized. Thus, they were viewed as animals and not as humans and the idea was, that the slaves.
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