Do We Really Care Whether the Profits from American Slavery Were Reinvested to Spur Faster American Economic Growth or Not?

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Do We Really Care Whether the Profits from American Slavery Were Reinvested to Spur Faster American Economic Growth or Not?

Brian Fennesey: "Gavin Wright keeping the slave-capitalism debate lively: Slavery was profitable to slaveholders but it kept the region underdeveloped and claims about its centrality to US economic growth are exaggerated! #DukeMonumentsSymposium...

...James DeWolf Perry: A tough argument to make. Slavery brought enormous wealth to the South. And slavery's centrality to the U.S. economy is hard to deny: its products were a substantial fraction of U.S. economic output, and were vital to northern industrialization.

Slavery brought enormous wealth to white slaveholders. But they did not invest it in their country—they spent it. Thus slaveholder profits were not essential to boosting U.S. economic growth.

Slavery also brought substantial comfort to purchasers of cotton textiles and other slave-grown products. But here, again, most of this wealth went to boost the standard of living of those who directly benefitted, not to fuel faster economic growth.

The place where American slavery mattered for economic growth in Britain, New England, and the rest of the North Atlantic is indeed in the spur it provided to boosting investment in cotton textile technologies, and in the subsequent spillovers of the technologies developed from that experience elsewhere: practice making machine tools to make textile machinery meant that down the road the machine shops could make better machines, etc. But cotton textiles were only 1 of the Big Four sectors of the Industrial Revolution. The others were:

  • wool textiles,
  • locomotives and other uses of steampower, and
  • rails and other uses of iron were the others.

Plus there were important innovative sectors outside the Big Four as well.

Figure that 1/5 of the upward leap of the Industrial Revolution came from slavery. Hobsbawm said: "He who says industrialization says 'cotton'", but that it is only 1/5 of the word cloud—he who says "industrialization" says many other things too.

Perhaps the brutalization of American slaves turned a 50-year process into a 40-year process.

That said, cutting 10 years off of the time for industrialization ain't chickenfeed.

And that said, that slavery was not "essential" to the Industrial Revolution makes the murder, torture, and torment of persons enslaved on the plantations look not better but worse. You can plead "but this horrible process created a brighter future for everyone" as a partial mitigation before the Bar of History. To plead "but it did not make that much difference in the long run—we lived high and the hog and did not pass any of the benefits down the generations" makes the slaveholder (and slave labor consumer) generations look worse, not better at all.

It mattered a lot for persons enslaved. It matters a lot for their descendants. It matters a lot because of their additional descendants who never got the chance to exist but would have otherwise. It does not matter less in any sense because people alive today are not principal profiteers from the peculiar institution of plantation slavery.