American Exceptionalism and our “Peculiar Institution”: An Ethical and Statistical Problem With American Historians Whitewashing the Illegal Importation of African Slaves

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American Exceptionalism and our “Peculiar Institution”: An Ethical and Statistical Problem With American Historians Whitewashing the Illegal Importation of African Slaves


In his pious accolade reviewing two posthumous volumes of the late great George Fredrickson (New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008), the preeminent American academic historian of the Civil War, James MacPherson, of Princeton University, summed up succinctly, with his customary flair, the hegemonic view concerning the unexampled and implausible expansion of the African-American population in the U.S. until 1860. He failed to mention any smuggling at all after 1808. This error in African-American demography, arising from a consensus of neglectful studies based on tangible evidence and easily available records, leaves out what should be an obvious and crucial source for the incredibly rapid expansion of the slave population, namely the illegal and mostly undocumented importation of slaves. Instead, the squirrel scholars and bean counters have postulated a preposterous fertility and life expectancy of the slaves brought in, mostly by Yankees, before 1808.

In fact, more slaves may have been imported after 1808 than before. The extent of slave smuggling until the 8th U.S. Census of 1860, has been de-emphasized and virtually denied since the 1920’s, because of deliberately forgotten culpability on the part of the abolitionist North, their supposed altruistic motives stressed while denying Yankee mercantile relationships with Southern planters, based on the advantage to both of African slave labor. So close was the connection between New York City and Southern cotton planters, that the city itself seriously considered seceding with the South.

Both Northerners and Southerners have obscured the link between the financiers and merchants of northern cities and their plantation-owner counterparts in the South, who flourished both before and after the War- at least after the corrupt bargain that ended Reconstruction and occupation in 1876.

We cite three credible sources to support our theory: Senator Stephen Douglas, W.E.B. Dubois, and William Alexander Percy I. Douglas, one of the most astute and informed politicians of the time, opined that more slaves were imported in both 1859 and in 1860 than in any previous year. The greatest and earliest professional scholar on the subject, W.E.B. Dubois, the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, concurred with Douglas's judgment and further regretted towards the end of his life that he himself hadn't spent more time documenting it. Undoubtedly, Dubois had personally known a number of these illegal imports and knew many others within the black and white community who were familiar with illegally imported freed people.

In 1891, Dubois calculated that 250,000 slaves were smuggled into the U.S. from 1808 to 1860. Because of the illegal nature of that slave trade, there is scant documentation to refute the downplaying and minimization of it. But increasing evidence is coming to light even while the old evidence continues to be disregarded. In 1839, during the antebellum era, indeed when King Cotton was beginning to reign in the Deep South, the abolitionist Theodore D. Weld published American Slavery As It Is, in which he clearly details the methods by which the illegal slave trade into the U.S. was conducted:

"The fact that thousands of slaves, generally in the prime of life, are annually smuggled into the United States from Africa, Cuba, and elsewhere, makes it manifest that all inferences drawn from the increase of the slave population, which do not make large deductions, for constant importations, must be fallacious…the African slave-trade adds ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND SLAVES TO EACH UNITED STATES' CENSUS. These are in the prime of life, and their children would swell the slave population many thousands annually--thus making a great addition to each census.”

Weld’s figures, about 15,000 slaves annually, are much higher estimates than postulated by Stephen Douglas in 1860, and later by W.E.B. Dubois. A mean average for the period 1808 to 1860, however, can not be a reliable barometer of the illicit smuggling of slaves, as many annually variable factors influenced the trade including the dramatic rise of the cotton trade, European wars, and British Navy attempts to stop the trade.

In the spirit of mutual forgiveness, deciding to draw a curtain of oblivion on the hatreds and tragedies of the Civil War, historians from the North and South began to develop a new consensus after 1876. U.B. Phillips consolidated this consensus in his classic work, American Negro Slavery (1918), the first major work to marginalize the significance of the illegal slave trade,

“As to the dimensions of the illicit importations between 1808 and 1860, conjectures have placed the gross as high as 270,000. Most of the documents in the premises, however, bear palpable marks of unreliability. It may suffice to say that these importations were never great enough to affect the labor supply in appreciable degree. So far as the general economic regime was concerned, the foreign slave trade was effectually closed in 1808…At that time, however, there were already in the United States about one million slaves to serve as stock from which other millions were to be born to replenish the plantations in the east and to aid in peopling the west. These were ample to maintain a chronic racial problem, and had no man invented a cotton gin their natural increase might well have glutted the plantation labor market.”

Phillips’ trivialization of the illegal slave trade supports his theory that the slaves were well cared for, thus their reproduction, facilitated with relative ease due to an alleged atmosphere of congeniality, rose to the staggering number counted in 1860. His explanation:

“It is clear that for a variety of reasons American slaves had both higher birth rates and lower mortality rates than those elsewhere in the Americas…This growth was entirely the result of natural increase, for the small number of slaves smuggled into the United States was probably exceeded by the number who escaped from slavery.” (Slavery, 23, 94,147-148)

In 1950, Noel Deere had dared to suggest the possibility of over a million illegal slave imports to the U.S., but Curtin "demolished" him. Not one of the leading historians go above the figures carefully derived from the easily available documents cited by Philip Curtin, 54,000 (The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, 1969), who "proved" U.B. Philips' opinion. Few if any historians have been willing to question Phillips.

Influenced by the growing civil rights movement, Kenneth Stampp laid the foundation for undermining the consensus in The Peculiar Institution (1956), but he ultimately failed to make the connection between the exploding slave population and his meticulous research on the low birth rates and high mortality rates of the slaves (in clear contrast to Philip's presumptions of paternalistic care facilitating high birth rates and low mortality rates). Since Stampp, this conundrum has been puzzled over by many scholars: Fogel and Engerman, Genovese, Fredrickson, among others.

Obadele Starks, in Freebooters and Smugglers (2007), projecting what he thought Dubois implied, states that over 700,000 slaves were smuggled in. David Eltis (Kent State University) considered by many as the highest authority on the subject, countered Starks and other revisionists, by stubbornly relying on the same sources used by Curtin. Eltis minimizes the numbers even further, suggesting that even Curtin's estimates are too high. Other "reputable" scholars such as Michael Tadman from the University of Liverpool also concur with this old consensus. We believe between 400,000 and 500,000 African slaves were smuggled into the U.S. during the fifty-three year span of the illegal trade. If we are right, about as many or more were illegally imported in to the U.S. afterwards as before 1808.

In addition to Douglas and Dubois, we have a third unique source, a most reliable oral tradition because it comes from a very literate Southern planter. My great-grandfather William Alexander Percy (Princeton, 1853) was one of the largest and most successful planters in the Mississippi Delta, and knew about the vast number of slaves smuggled in. He told this to his oldest son Leroy Percy, U.S. Senator from Mississippi, who in turn told his nephew and ward, my own father William Armstrong Percy II. Daddy finally confided to me, at age 15 when I was at Middlesex, after I’d asked him how late the Yankees had sold slaves to Southerners, to which he responded that vast numbers of slaves were still being imported in the 1850's from Africa via Cuba, where they were "broken in" before being smuggled into the States. This "breaking in" phase, Daddy contended, included disciplining the slaves, teaching them to plow, and familiarizing them with some words of English. I sincerely hope, but cannot prove that my great-grandfather didn't buy any of these illegal imports.

Almost three score years ago when I was fourteen, I went from “deep in the heart of Dixie”, Memphis, Tennessee, where your social rank depended on how many slaves your ancestors had owned and what rank they had in the Confederate Army, to Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, the stronghold of Yankeedom, proud station on the Underground Railroad, home of Thoreau, Emerson and the Alcotts, where what mattered most socially was how many ancestors you had on the Mayflower and what books they had written., The Yankee boys (I was the only southerner, recruited for diversity, in my entering class of 1933) quickly taught me that the Negroes, as they called them, were just as good as we. They confidently asserted that it was the Irish, their predominant servant class, not the “negras” as I still called them, who were inferior. I, of course, was well aware of how awful the rednecks were. After all they had tossed out my father’s Uncle LeRoy as United States senator in 1912 -- the first direct election to the senate in Mississippi. Theodore Bilbo had been the campaign manager for their candidate Vardaman, and even my louche father recognized that his Uncle LeRoy’s greatest achievement during the 1920’s had been keeping the Klan out of Washington county, Mississippi, where the county seat Greenville was the center of the Delta. (See Revolt of the Rednecks, 1964) All gentlefolk knew how horrid lynchings were and how stupid, brutal, and corrupt the poor whites, on top since 1912, were. As my Uncle Will wrote in Lanterns on the Levee (1941), from that time forward the bottom rail (the rednecks whom he considered inferior to the blacks) was on top and was going to stay there. The upper class Southerners which included all my family (except my paternal grandmother who came from Scottish yeoman stock), didn’t protest segregation or the Democratic white primary. Nor did I know how brutal and lethal slavery had been, nor even how unfair and humiliating sharecropping was, until I came to study amongst the Damn Yankees in the frozen North.

When I went home on vacations, I began investigations into these northern boys’ claims. "Perfessah" Falls, as everyone dutifully called him, ran the rural school for blacks near my grandmother’s plantation. He told me that it was hard to keep the students in school, even though classes were suspended for the most intensive periods of cotton labor, planting and hoeing from spring until the fourth July and picking in fall. Their parents, without education themselves, saw little need for their children to receive schooling. Besides, children became useful on the farm at about age six when they could gather eggs, water cattle, and most importantly, pick cotton. In such hard times, as in the Depression, and even early, post-WW II South – especially on such poor soil as we had near Memphis – every hand was needed. Many didn’t attend school, "Perfessah" Falls claimed, to my astonishment, because they lacked clothes. That reminded me that during the summers I had seen on many plantations, many children totally nude up to puberty, as had also been common, as I later learned, in the days of slavery and reconstruction. But that was in the late 30’s, towards the end of the depression and when rural electrification was only beginning, courtesy of the T.V.A.

During these discussions my father, who saw nothing wrong with segregation except that it was enforced by rednecks instead of Bourbons (as upper class Southerners were called after The War), related how his uncle and guardian the Senator, who had died in 1929, had told him that his father Col. Percy, (Princeton, 1853) had related how slaves were being imported in great numbers up until the outbreak of the Civil War. Colonel Percy, like General Robert E. Lee, and other reasonable Southerners, opposed secession before most of them joined the Confederate ranks after the fact.

I thought that this claim about illegally importing slaves was dubious, but I never forgot it. Over the years I have worked on demography in medieval Sicily, Renaissance Europe, and more recently in ancient Greece and Rome. Such work and passing acquaintance with comparative studies of slavery convinced me that the extraordinarily rapid increase in the number of African slaves in the antebellum south, though doubtless undercounted, could not possibly have come about by natural increase – even if all the slaves had been treated as paternalistically and benevolently, as I had been taught to believe before I set foot in Concord and began to learn otherwise, as Fitzhugh, the greatest antebellum apologist asserted, who claimed most Southerners treated slaves better than the Yankees did the Irish mill hands who could be replaced at no cost. This dramatic increase could not even have been accounted for had all the slaveholders in the Old Dominion and other lesser states with worn out land had concentrated exclusively on breeding, which they rarely did. Fitzhugh stated that “[n]o man in the South, we are sure, ever bred slaves for sale.” While this may be somewhat discredited as the dubious claims of an ardent apologist, the existence of slave breeding between 1808 and 1860, infrequent as it was, cannot explain the anomaly of the increase of the American slave population. Never in all recorded history has a slave population grown so exponentially except, if one accepts the standard account, in the antebellum U.S. South and in Bermuda, an island with an idyllic climate, no harsh labor, and few germs or viruses.

Slave Population.jpg

In some West Indian islands, slaves were, in some periods, worked to death on average in seven years. Because they were so cheap before 1808, they didn’t need to be preserved much less bred, as was the case in late Republican Rome when Cato in De Agricultura, copying Carthaginian manuals, recommended brutal exploitation and no breeding for maximum profit. Slaves always had a longer life expectation in the U.S. and on the rest of the non-tropical North American mainland than in the Caribbean, Brazil or Late Republican Rome, but they weren’t superhuman breeders. Those who thought that slaves were mistreated in the same manner we have just described, working them to death with no special emphasis on breeding, are simply incorrect, if only because how expensive slaves became, especially between 1808 and 1860. It was not feasible to spend so much capital on slave labor and not protect in some considerable measure the health and care of the slave. This observation lends some credence to the notion that slave-owners were more humane than has been allowed, especially since Stampp’s denunciation (1956), but we do not exonerate those who did indeed treat their slaves brutally.

During the five decades of illegal importation virtually as many slaves were slipped to Cuba as to Brazil, in each of which harsh conditions occasioned low birth rates and high mortality rates, but so many more survived in Brazil than in Cuba. Obviously, a large portion of the slaves in Cuba were re-exported to the U.S. The tome by Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (1997), has gathered more data about this trade than other previous works but he hasn't digested it or related it properly to that re-exportation. Both before and after the War for American Independence, and before the prohibition of slave importation twenty years after the ratification of the Constitution, slave breeding was usually encouraged in British North America, which already had a more normal ratio between males and females than in Brazil or the Caribbean. Cultivating cotton, the main crop after 1820, was less lethal than tobacco planting and tobacco less dangerous than sugar cane or rice. The threat to ship recalcitrant slaves down the Mississippi River from cotton to cane cultivation was often enough to get more cooperation from the victim, but some were actually shipped “down the River”. Treatment by masters as well as type of work and climate caused variations in life expectations and reproduction rates. For various reasons the censuses doubtless undercounted slaves, likely due to lack of diligence or the hiding of newly imported Blacks, but nothing legal can explain the extraordinary increase recorded by the census takers. “The policy of pretence that prevailed in connection with the [illegal] slave-trade was infinitely disgraceful to the nation.” U.S. authorities didn’t want to admit that they could not or would not stop the massive importation that may have peaked in 1859 and 1860, when no less than two slave ships was embarking from New York every month. Among others both W.E. Du Bois, and Senator Stephen Douglas, both made this claim. Du Bois claimed that between 1808 and 1860, approximately 250,000 illegal slaves were imported. (Gray, p.649) In 1861, the largest cotton crop ever would support the theory of Du Bois and Douglas that the illegal imports surged again along with their prices in 1859 and 1860.

(Spears, Gray, 649, IX)

Du Bois and even Lewis Gray, who estimated that the number of illegal imports slightly higher than Du Bois, at 270,000 in his History of Agriculture in Southern United States to 1860 (1933, p.649), may have both underestimated rather considerably. Cotton production increased at staggering rates throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, more than quadrupling between 1838 and 1859, and increasing over fifty percent in only five years between 1850 and 1855. A fifty percent increase in production would have required nearly the same increase in the work force. Such estimates could easily bring the number closer to 500,000. Even if the planters had had mechanical cotton harvesters roaring across their field, as one historian recently claimed in Wolf-Shenk’s generally well-received Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, natural increase and shipments from the Upper South together could never have supplied nearly enough hands to plant and chop all that cotton, no matter how good the weather or soil!

Cotton Production.jpg

No published scholar has until now heard Colonel Percy’s tales. The Colonel was one of the greatest planters in the Mississippi Delta – the flood plain between the bluffs on which Memphis and Vicksburg were erected – 220 miles apart as the crow flies. It was the richest cotton producing area in the world in 1860, still being cleared and in desperate need of slave labor. Natchez, just south of Vicksburg, became the richest per capita city in the country. Where there is such a demand, a supply will almost always materialize. It is a law of economics. See how much liquor was consumed during prohibition? How much dope today? How many illegal immigrants do we have today? Much of the commodities and many of those people were smuggled in just as slaves were up to 1860, into the bayou lagoons and swamps along our porous gulf coast, and also across the Rio Grande into Texas.

Patrolling Africa, the American Navy proved ineffectual or disinterested in squelching the illegal activity. Until 1839, navy ships were not on regular patrol off the African coast, but rather drifted out sporadically with little result. Until 1842, other foreign powers policing the seas were unable to search any ship flying the American flag. In August of that year, America and Britain signed the Ashburton treaty to, “maintain in service, on the coast of Africa, a sufficient and adequate squadron or naval force of vessels, of suitable numbers and descriptions, to carry in all not less than eighty guns, to enforce, separately and respectively, the laws, rights, and obligations of each of the two countries for the suppression of the slave-trade.” (Article 8) The American Squadron was thereupon assigned to regular patrols along the coast of Liberia, yet it took the U.S. eight months from the signing of the treaty to get its first command in place. British ships were still forbidden to search American ships, but the idea of “joint cruising”, a British and an American ship patrolling together as a pair, had been strongly advocated in response. It came to pass, however, that this suggestion was rarely heeded. Furthermore, Commodore M.C. Perry, the first command officer for the Americans under the treaty, though he had received information of at least two ships actively transporting slaves to and from the coast, wrote in a letter six months after taking command, “I cannot hear of any American vessels being engaged in the transportation of slaves; nor do I believe there has been one so engaged for several years.” Worst of all, the Americans never managed to muster anywhere near as many ships as the English, and certainly not enough to be called “sufficient and adequate” to patrol the roughly 3,000 miles of coast to which they had been assigned.

Employed ships.jpg

Anecdotal evidence abounds from the records of revolts on ships bringing slaves directly from Africa (the Amistad) or indirectly from Cuba, where many were “broken in” as Colonel Percy said, before being transported to the states. In Texas a law gave “found slaves” to the finder if the true owner didn’t claim them. They were smuggled in like today’s “undocumented aliens” from Mexico and “found” bound in the woods. So lucrative was the trade that Georgia governor David B. Mitchell resigned his post to engage in the illicit practice, operating a smuggling business while serving as United States agent of the Creek Indians, an office more amenable to the trade, nestled in a remote landscape awash with rarely traveled paths seemingly perfect for the clandestine business. (Shively,Spears, 125)

There is no way that the vast increase in the slave population in Alabama, Mississippi and those parts of Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas, and Texas, growing cotton could have come down the Natchez trail on foot or been shipped around from Baltimore, Newport News, Charleston or Savannah to Mobile and New Orleans. Nor could they have increased naturally so much on the cotton plantations of the Deep South – expanding exponentially as the fields were to keep up with the demand from textile factories in Great Britain, Europe and the North. Cotton was indeed king, and the labor supply had to be secured, as is the agricultural proletariat today, by illegal aliens coming in.

Cotton Prices001 01.jpg
(Fogel & Engerman, p.91)

The price of slaves, especially in the Deep South, moved up much more than in the Upper South because the Deep South grew cotton and the soil in the Upper South became exhausted from overplanting tobacco.

Slave prices.jpg

In his old age, “ [W.E.B.] Du Bois wrote that he wished he’d looked more closely at the economics driving the slave trade rather than the laws governing it. Laws codify morality; economics ignore both.” A recent book, The Last Victims, pointed out that the importation of slaves accelerated in the last two or three years before the trade became illegal in 1808. Of course it did, because already in that short time since Eli Whitney had invented the cotton gin in 1794, one could see the need for more slaves, as they stole his ideas and disregarded his patents.

True, prices sagged from 1815 to 1830, but the demand increased much more after Andrew Jackson had more or less succeeded in emptying the South east of the Mississippi of Native Americans by the late 1830’s. He and two other speculators founded Memphis in 1819, which became rich from selling mules, slaves and cotton (it only became a major emporium for hard-wood after the end of slavery). The demand for cotton escalated most every year thereafter until 1860, and with it the demand for slaves. There may have been a slight decline in demand for imported slaves from 1808, when the importation became illegal, until the end of the war in 1815, in part because of the increase in imports just before 1810 and because of the wars. (Farrow, Lang, Frank, p.133)

With the Trail of Tears (1831), and other removals and massacres of Native Americans, and with the rapid spread of the textile factories in Great Britain and from it to France, Belgium and New England, the demand outstripped the supply of cotton, accelerating with each improvement in textile manufacture, from spinning jennies and flying shuttles, to power looms, etc., not to mention each improvement in financing, marketing, shipping and distribution. In 1859 and 1860 the plantation economy reached its fastest and most lucrative expansion and hence illegally imported more slaves than ever before.

Another recent book Complicity, by three journalists from Hartford, Connecticut is aware of Du Bois’ claim and regrets, but fails to investigate it properly. Fitzhugh’s classic antebellum tract that southern masters treated their slaves better than Yankee textile manufacturers treated their Irish immigrant workers, because slaves were valuable chattels, while Irish immigrants could starve and be replaced by others at no cost to the hard-hearted Yankees, was revived with extensive statistical “proof” by Fogel and Engelman in the much criticized Time on the Cross (Little, Brown & co., 1974). That work was upstaged and nuanced by Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll, which however didn’t bother with statistics, saying that “400,000 grew to 4,500,000.” With or without statistics, the thesis about the benevolence of the masters and the well being of the slaves has its critics, but the most telling criticism is that illegal importation rather than natural increase explains the extraordinary growth in the slave population from 1808, to 1860.

Chapter I



Under their Tudor and Stuart monarchs, the English had become the chief textile manufacturers in Europe; fulling, spinning, and weaving at home the wool they had formerly exported to the Low Countries and increasingly using efficient watermills to do so, instead of putting out the raw materials to be worked by country folk in their idle hours and seasons at the cottage. Likewise, in commerce of the 16th and 17th centuries, the English had laid the basis of their overseas empire, replacing the Dutch, as the Dutch themselves had earlier replaced the Spanish and Portuguese as the chief carriers of world trade. Much of the capital that the English acquired was plowed back into intensive agriculture at home, imitating earlier Dutch methods in making their agriculture very profitable in both the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Finally, in 1796, during the first true world war, the English allied with their former rivals, the Dutch--against Le Grande Monarch, Louis XIV. They founded the bank of England, which soon eclipsed its model, that of Amsterdam. So, at the conclusion of the war of the Spanish Succession in 1713-1714, the Treaty of Utrecht gained two thrones for the Bourbons but debilitated France in the bargain. Meanwhile, England had become Great Britain, united with Scotland by the Act of 1707, and emerged as the greatest manufacturer, commercial and financial power in the world, consolidating its position after a long contest with France for empire and trade by 1763.

During the 18th century and the Napoleonic Wars that followed it, England pioneered what we call the Industrial Revolution, a concatenation of inventions; the spinning jenny, the flying shuttle, and the power loom—all three continually improved—and transformed the textile industry. In time, factories replaced the cottages and small water barrels with ever-upgraded coal-powered machines. Thus, endless demand for cotton surged—cotton boll fiber being much better than wool for the new machines. It wasn't until the 1820's that cotton replaced sugar as the leading commodity in world trade. But Napoleon, when he queried indignantly, " does the destiny of the world turn on a barrel of sugar" as his embargo of British goods faltered, blamed it on Russian taste for sugar as he failed to grasp that the main new export from Britain was cloth. Even his own quartermasters, desperate to save money, bought machine-made smuggled cloth from the British for uniforms.

African slaves were essential both for sugar and cotton. During the war, the British, having established a virtual monopoly of the slave trade, suddenly prohibited the exportation of slaves from Africa just when cotton production was beginning to escalate not only in British factories, but after 1820 in northern France and Belgium. There, excess British capital could be invested with much higher rates of return than in Britain itself, where factory sites, wages, government regulations, and taxation were driving up costs.

Furthermore the application of steam power moved from the mines that had supplied the megalopolis of London with coal for heating, because they had exhausted all the wood. While it was first used in the 17th century to pump water out of the mines, as it became more efficient it was applied to transport, especially river-boats and trains, and to power the textile factories.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made that commodity cheaper than wool. After Andrew Jackson removed the Indians west of the Mississippi, the Deep South along the Gulf Coast saw the greatest agricultural boom in history, the Cotton Kingdom that fed Europe's ever more voracious and efficient factories, which spread to Germany, Austria, Northern Italy and Northern Spain, as well as to New England, by the 1840's; and all of which employed the latest devices so that some mills outpaced those of England.

This chapter traces the unparalleled expansion of the Cotton Kingdom which devoured slaves almost as voraciously as the far less salubrious and more demanding sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil, which continued to expand as the prosperous European bourgeoisie, and even some of the more well-placed factory workers demanded sugar for their tea, coffee, and biscuits. The demand for slaves from the plantations in the New World was met with an ever-increasing supply, eagerly shipped to the African coast by kingdoms and tribes whose prosperity and even existence depended upon it.

First, we document the expansion of cotton and sugar production in this chapter. Then in the next, we discuss the slave labor force that worked them. About the production, exports and prices of those commodities, there is not much doubt. About slave demographics there is no consensus whatsoever, because that trade unlike the others, was illegal and therefore lacks documentation. There are however, many detailed price lists for slaves.

The iron and steel industries, like textiles, premiered in Great Britain and grew apace with the steam engines for factories and the metal needed for railroads and steamships, at first on rivers and canals, and later to supplement ocean-going vessels. It wasn't until that iron and steel overtook textiles in value, production and world trade. The expansion of iron, steel, and coal, increased demand for sugar and cotton because that phase of the Industrial Revolution exploded before 1860. The Secessionists made their worst mistake in thinking that England and France would be forced into supporting the Confederacy to keep their factories from shutting down, not realizing that iron and coal had supplanted cotton, just as cotton had supplanted sugar by 1820.

Chapter I

Slave Intensive Commodities of the American South 1808-1861

From the advent of Arkwright's factory system at Derbyshire in 1771, until well into the 20th century, Great Britain produced most of the world's cotton cloth. After the War of 1812, plantations of the Deep South became the premier suppliers of raw cotton for the ever more efficient mills of Manchester, otherwise known as "Cottonopolis", until interrupted by the American Civil War. Previously, no other cotton exporters, India, Egypt, Brazil, or the West Indies, ever contended with the seemingly inexhaustible supply of burlap covered cotton bales streaming out of southern ports. As bales of cotton, becoming more standardized in weight from 400 to 500 pounds, crossed the ocean to Liverpool from New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, and Savannah, another commodity essential to southern cotton culture was dispatched from West Africa to Cuba and then onto the American mainland via the Gulf of Mexico; black slaves by the tens of thousands were increasingly smuggled in every year (1808-1861) mostly from Spanish Cuba to supply labor on cotton plantations spreading across the American South. While cotton is foremost in any discussion about American slavery after 1820, other crops were important too. The other four staples of the south, in order of importance were, tobacco, sugar, rice, and hemp.

During the antebellum years, the cotton exchange between the United States and Great Britain, as well as the traffic in African slaves, fostered the development of transatlantic shipping on an unprecedented scale, setting the stage for the international finance capitalism we recognize today. In his landmark scholarly work, Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Eric Eustace Williams claimed that the enslavement of Africans provided the impetus for Britain's imperial wealth during the Industrial Revolution. While this situation was obvious in antebellum America, a similar claim can be made for the role Northern interests played in illegally procuring slaves for the South after 1808, and the enormous wealth that was created because of it in the five odd decades before the Civil War.

Almost without exception, from 1814 until 1861, at least 2/3rds of the entire American cotton crop was annually exported to Liverpool, billions of bales then traveling by rail (after 1831) to the mills of Manchester. In fact, until 1843, more cotton was exported to mills in France, mainly in Lille, than was kept in the U.S. for production in New England mills. 

By 1860, Britain could boast nearly 3,000 cotton factories while the U.S. had in operation just over 900. From 1800 to 1860, British demand for cotton rose an astounding 1000%, the greater bulk of this supplied from the slave-worked plantations of the Deep South. Thus, during the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, the role of the United States was mainly as a supplier of raw material, namely cotton, of which hundreds of millions of bales of were shipped with increasing frequency to Liverpool until the outbreak of war between the States in 1861. Liverpool, formerly Europe's focal point for the Atlantic slave trade, became the epicenter of the exploding cotton industry, often re-exporting raw American cotton to mills in Russia, Belgium, and Prussia, while Britain's own mills in Lancashire County produced cotton goods for the majority of the world. (Hammond, 252; Ellison, Cohn, 22)

From 1780 to 1820, as British factories utilized new spinning and weaving technologies, raw cotton was primarily imported from the West Indies and Brazil. For almost two centuries, from the inception of cotton cultivation at Jamestown in 1607, cotton exports from the North American colonies were insignificant, preempted by Maryland and Virginia tobacco, and rice and indigo from Georgia and the Carolinas, Southern commodities satisfactorily profitable for British merchants and investors.

The piddling few thousand bales of cotton exported from South Carolina and Georgia to London and Liverpool before 1786, was of negligible quality, as separating the seeds from rough short-staple variety of American "uplands" cotton fiber was too labor intensive and costly. After "sea-island", or "long-staple" cotton with its longer, finer, less enmeshed fibers, was introduced to coastal South Carolina in the late 1780's by way of the West Indies. British merchants soon fastened onto this higher quality American cotton and the American export market for cotton began to bloom. However, cultivating Sea Island cotton necessitated technical skill few planters possessed and the geographical limitations of this staple compounded its inadequacies in meeting the demand for raw cotton as technology in the mills improved and manufacturing output soared. The success of the coastal plantations and newly found profitability of Sea Island cotton was not lost on farmers in the hills of Carolina and Georgia, who began to plant short-staple, or "uplands" cotton, rightly predicting the volume of the cotton trade to increase.

The young Yankee quick-study named Eli Whitney invented the saw-gin at the Georgia home of General Nathaniel Green's widow--the lady herself suggesting a crucial component for the machine--during the spring of 1793. Whitney's cotton gin effectively removed the sticky seeds from the short-staple fiber, and operation of the new machine performed by a single slave replicated the amount of work that fifty slaves by hand could achieve in a day. Since the cultivation of long-staple Sea Island cotton was problematic, production of that crop fell sharply thereafter, thus inaugurating short-staple uplands cotton as the main crop destined to feed the mills. The U.S. exported less than a half million pounds of raw cotton to Liverpool in 1793, even as word of Whitney's cotton gin radiated excitedly outward from Georgia. A year later, the gin now patented and widely imitated, over one and a half million pounds was shipped. By 1812, the adaptation of southern cotton supplied a sharp rise in demand from the Lancashire mills. Many farmers and planters, gentry and yeomen alike, abandoned their corn, wheat, or tobacco crops and turned to uplands cotton. Cotton culture migrated west to the hills of South Carolina and Georgia, spreading north to North Carolina and Virginia. By 1804, the Louisiana Purchase had conclusively established the Mississippi River as the central artery for American commerce, and settlements in the Deep South of the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama territories followed soon after.

Coincident with the transformation wrought by technology on the demand for cotton, was the steady ruination of arable land in the South by the widespread practice of tobacco farming without manuring or rotating fields. A"one-field" system, though ruinous to the soil, was practiced almost without exception by 17th and 18th century tobacco planters, rotation on plantations foregone in the interest of speedier profits, a model type of outland cultivation with African slave labor integral to its application, as the cotton planters of the 19th century were soon to imitate. Though the institution of plantation slavery was widely perceived as a counterproductive anachronism by1800, the appearance of Whitney's gin quickly convinced planters to decide otherwise. The same soil-eroding methods of cultivation used by tobacco planters was carried on by cotton planters, who, if successful, moved their plantation operations further south and west when the deleterious effects of their planting methods depleted the soil. By the late 1840's, the one-field system practiced by cotton planters had exhausted much of the soil in the coastal states of Virginia and Georgia. This tendency spurred a constant migration of slaves for the plowing of virgin fields on new plantations. From 1830 to 1860, Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Georgia, each exported annually an average of 25,000 slaves to the Deep South, including Texas and Arkansas. Agriculture in the south moved and expanded, coinciding with a constant demand for new slaves to meet the contingencies occasioned by the spread of new plantations and the ever-present demand for cotton from Great Britain.

(Stampp, 238)

Beginning in the 1840's, overstock of American cotton in British warehouses led to depreciation of prices, even while the prices for African slaves steadily rose in the same period. Of course, the wealthiest within the southern planter caste could more readily afford the rising price of slaves than yeoman farmers, and gentry. In the 1840's, consolidation occurring within the plantation system became more noticeable, as smaller farmers found it increasingly difficult to make profits for a few reasons: rising prices for slaves, an inability to compete with the purchasing power of the planter elite in buying land, the increasing efficiency of the larger plantations, and a reliance of the lower caste or white yeoman farmer on the larger plantations for supplies and operational necessities. Stampp succinctly states, " the yeoman labored in competition with the slaves." As a result, many of the smaller cotton farms and their slaves, especially in the Deep South, became extensions of vast cotton holdings under new ownership by a minority of aristocratic planters. This tendency, reflective of the advantages held by the planter elite, was nonetheless an anomaly. Most of the slave-holders in the antebellum south owned fewer than ten slaves and theses planters held the majority of the slaves.

(Stampp, 238,428; Hammond)

Before 1793, most U.S. states had curtailed the importation of African slaves, and many of the Northern states had abolished slavery altogether. However, the expectations of profits from cotton, freed by Whitney's invention, created an instant and uproarious demand for African slaves that didn't cease until the cannons boomed at Fort Sumter in 1861. In 1807, a year before the U.S. officially ended participation in the transatlantic slave trade, nearly 2/3rds of the American cotton crop, almost 95 million pounds, was exported to England. 1808 was a dire year for maritime commerce, especially for American merchants, north and south. Contemporary opinions expressed incredulity at Jefferson's strangulation of the economic life-blood of the country, forbidding trade with England and Napoleonic France while simultaneously abolishing the slave trade to southern ports. After Jefferson's Embargo, less than 15% of American raw cotton was squeezed through to Liverpool. The cotton merchants fought back in 1809, with much of the cotton smuggled overseas in disregard of the Embargo. Future scrutiny into transatlantic smuggling on the part of American merchants in these years (1807-1814), may unearth the beginnings of maritime and mercantile collaboration that connect illicit smuggling of cotton (and other goods) to Britain, with the routine trafficking of slaves into the U.S from Africa via Cuba.

The irresolute lifting of Jeffersonian embargoes saw sales of stockpiled surplus cotton; 111% of the crop was exported in 1810. The New York market index for cotton prices fell annually from 22.5¢ a pound in 1806 to 10.5¢ in 1811; conversely Liverpool prices leaped from 14.5 shillings in 1807, to 22 shillings the next year, falling to 12.5 shillings by 1811. Sporadic sales of cotton to England in these years, notwithstanding the official prohibition of the transatlantic slave trade, nonetheless inspired still more American investment in the cultivation of cotton. By 1821, cotton had become the leading U.S. export, winning out over both tobacco and wheat.

In 1815, Congress declared the importation of slaves into the U.S. an act of piracy punishable by death. Regardless of the laws, illegal slaves continued to pour into the country from the virtually un-policed waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Slaves were marched overland in coffles, headed north from the shoals and bayous of the Gulf towards fenced cotton fields on hundreds of majestic manorial estates and thousands of smaller farms. These slaves were often assimilated into the legal interstate traffic in domestic slaves that meandered southward from Virginia and Maryland, by land, or shipped by river or sea around Florida.

Both circuits converged in the Deep South, the majority of slaves were installed in the largest cotton operations there, while a smaller percentage were taken to work on tobacco, sugar, rice, and hemp plantations. The greatest concentration of slaves worked the largest cotton plantations that sat on the fertile alluvial soils of lush river valleys coursing through Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas. The slave traffic to the Deep South, legal or otherwise, was kept in perpetuity not only because new plantations created the demand, but also to replace those slaves who had perished from malaria and yellow fever in the humid mosquito-infested watersheds. The cotton bonanzas of the 1850's made painfully apparent the widening gap between British, European, and Yankee demand for cotton and the supply of African slaves to work the cotton fields. Despite the constant influx of slaves, by legal or illegal means, the Southern plantation system was beleaguered by labor shortages, a testament to the incredible proliferation of cotton culture in the decade before the war.

(Stampp, 298)

Before the cotton trade began to boom in conjunction with mass cultivation of the Mississippi Valley in the early 1830's, bales of cotton moved slowly along rivers, the inland traffic terminating in the central coastal ports of Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans. This wayward river traffic, mostly carried on flatboats, was sluggish and expensive although a handful of steamships had begun service between inland ports in South Carolina and Georgia by 1826. After 1830, cotton production in the western states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, nearly equaled that of the Atlantic coast states. Five years later, these states surpassed the production of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, producing 6/11ths of the entire U.S. crop. By 1835, over a hundred Lancashire mills housing nearly 100,000 power looms, processed at least 350 million pounds of American cotton, manufacturing about 83,000 pounds of yarn and almost 2 million ft. of finished textile products from all of their imported cotton.

(Jeremy, 103;Hammond, 247; Clough, Cole, 407; Ellison, Table II)

President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal policy greatly affected the spread of cotton culture in the Deep South. Choctaws vacated the upper valleys of the Pearl River in 1830, the Chickasaws left the northern Mississippi Delta in 1832, Creeks left Alabama the same year, and finally the Cherokee's sad exodus in 1835 opened a large portion of the Tennessee River Valley for cotton cultivation. During the years of Indian Removal, land speculation varied wildly as future deeds were contingent on the exit of the natives. This situation was further exacerbated by fluctuating, unpredictable cotton harvests, an annual cause of worry especially for British recipients. These developments, accompanied by the continual progress of technological innovation in the textile industry, resulted in growing popular demand for cotton manufactures as prices steadily fell, factors that contributed in no small measure to the Panic of 1837, an economic meltdown usually blamed on general market uncertainties caused by Jackson's war against Nicholas Biddle and the 2nd Bank of the United States. Much of the uncertainty this episode created can be traced directly to the unprecedented expanding infrastructure of the cotton industry, and all of its peripheral industries.


In the 1840's, cotton created definite prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic, even as complications arose through the decade regarding supply and demand. British merchants and industrialists chafed at their reliance on America as virtually their only supplier of raw cotton. British investors were perennially risking their money blindly, never knowing if whether the cotton crops across the pond would be blighted by parasites, scorched by heat-waves, or washed out by downpours. The Panic of 1837 had motivated British merchants to seek alternative sources for cotton imports but the raw cotton Britain received from India was deemed inferior to American, and from 1840 to 1845, close to three billion pounds of southern-grown cotton crammed the Liverpool harbors and Manchester warehouses. In fact, by 1845, the British bought up so much cotton that their overstock equaled nearly nine months of extra consumption. The rate of American cotton production was beginning to outpace British demand. As a result, cotton prices dropped to their absolute historical nadir in 1845, 5.63 cents and 4 pence a pound respectively. Another contributing factor to depreciating prices of cloth was the expansion of cotton mills in continental Europe, due to the 1843 British Parliamentary repeal of laws prohibiting mill machinery exportation.

(Hammond, 248-249)

From 1833 to 1842, about 19,000,000 acres of land were sold mostly to plantation owners across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. In the same decade those states yielded nearly 10,000,000 bales of cotton, nearly 3/5ths of the total U.S. crop. Cotton culture spread like wildfire, creating an insatiable demand for African slaves. In 1836 alone, over 250,000 shackled slaves were marched to their new owners overland down from the Natchez Trace, and from Virginia and Maryland; many of these were continuously parceled out from barracoons along the Gulf Coast in which the slaves were corralled after being legally shipped to Cuba and illegally re-exported thereafter to Florida or elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. Rising clamor for more African slaves to work on new plantations in the Deep South dramatically increased the value of these slaves on the auction blocks. Slavery in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee, rose almost 90% between 1830 and 1840. The annexation of Texas in 1845 added to the swelling African population. By 1850, the average cotton plantation was about 400 acres, while many covered an area well over 1,000, and a few over 10,000. Between 1850 and 1860, the area of cotton cultivation in the foremost cotton producing states increased 16.4%. The total cotton crop itself increased more than 100% in the same decade. The reciprocal demand for slaves to meet this frenzied production caused slave prices to skyrocket. Prices and demographics in regard to the slaves for the period 1808 to 1862 are analyzed in greater detail in Chapter II.

(Hammond, 50,60,72,84,102)

The Revolutionary War, and to a lesser extent the War of 1812 and the Seminole Wars, caused Southern agriculture to decline, crippling rice, tobacco, and sugar, indigo and flax. After Whitney's gin introduced the rapid spread of cotton culture, the production of tobacco, sugar, and rice languished somewhat, bowing before King Cotton in 1821. Nevertheless, though not as prosperous as it was before 1775, tobacco cultivation spread from Virginia's coastal plains to North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and even Georgia. Tobacco production spiked dramatically in the 1850's due to the discovery of Bright yellow tobacco and tobacco output overall made a profitable comeback in the last antebellum decade. Even so, tobacco export profits for the decade were about 5% of cotton's. The 1850 U.S. census estimated that about 350,000 slaves were involved in tobacco production on plantations and in factories. By 1860, tobacco plantations large and small held a median average of 20 slaves compared to 37 slaves per cotton plantation.

(Goodman 194, 1960; Eliot, 254, 1860)

Cotton plantations shared the rich alluvial soil of the Mississippi River and its bayou country with an increasing number of sugar operations that ranged along the river over a hundred miles north of New Orleans. About 95% of antebellum sugar production took place in Louisiana. Sugarcane culture advanced north into the watershed of the Red River in the 1840's after King Cotton's prices tumbled with the Panic of 1837. Many sugar planters of the time wrongly predicted that sugar would displace cotton in domestic and export value, thus its cultivation spread despite the fact that cotton continued to dominate the market. Nevertheless, the Red River demarcated the limit of sugar production. Some of the more affluent cotton planters in the Deep South grew both staples. Sugar production was much more labor intensive and unhealthy than cotton and the unfortunate slaves engaged in sugar cane culture had higher mortality rates. Slaves who expired from disease or heat exhaustion were often replaced by the circuit of illegally smuggled slaves taken upriver from New Orleans, or further south from Galveston, Texas. While slaves were imported into the sugar parishes, a significant number of them were exported from them to cotton plantations as the value of slaves continued to increase through the antebellum era. About 150,000 slaves were laboring in the cane fields as reported by the U.S. census of 1850. Sugar attained its highest productivity and profitability in the first half of the 1850's, when over 1.5 million hogsheads, each with about 50 gallons of sugar, rolled off the docks of the Mississippi into waiting steamboats. [Stampp, 46, 1956; Schmitz, 14-15, 1977]

In contrast with relatively profitable tobacco and sugar plantations was the struggling rice industry in the low country of South Carolina and Georgia, which hosted the lion's share of rice production for the nation. By 1850 about 125,000 slaves were knee-deep in its cultivation. At about the same time, steam power encouraged rice culture along the Mississippi river, but Louisiana's role as a rice producer declined rapidly after 1861. On the whole, rice farming was unprofitable until the very cusp of the Civil War. Rice farmers rarely earned over 6% profits against their operating costs though this percentage would increase upwards until a halt in 1861. Its mosquito-infested paddies were as deadly as the sugar plantations.

(Swan, 322, 1973)

Along the Missouri River, in a region known as Little Dixie, an often overlooked staple, hemp, was produced steadily throughout the antebellum period. Hemp was used mainly for rope-making and for the burlap that covered bales of cotton. Its production involved about 60,000 slaves by 1850, as compared to nearly 2 million slaves working in the cotton fields.

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