Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What was so Great about Slavery?

I don’t really understand why Southern elites hung on to the institution of slavery for so long. They would have had the same cheap labor force to exploit if they had emancipated their slaves and made them free laborers. They would also have gotten more Congressional representation since a freedman would count as an entire person for the purposes of apportionment.

Let’s say it’s 1820 or so, and suddenly all the slaves are "emancipated". "You’re free now," says their former overseer. "So you’ll need to move out of the slave quarters and be on your way immediately. Or, you could stay here and work on the plantation in exchange for room and board and a plot for a kitchen garden. And you’ll need to rent your tools, so that will get deducted from your wages." Where were the slaves going to go? Or work? How would they sustain themselves? By working on plantations or as sharecroppers. For very little change in economic circumstances, Southern elites would have scored a public relations home run. The planters in Barbados pulled this off after emancipation on that island.

Of course, the planters would have had to collude, I mean come to a gentlemen’s agreement, that they wouldn’t poach good workers from each other. Any worker who was a troublemaker would be blackballed, and any planter who paid too well or treated his workers too well would be ostracized. They might have had to impose a salary cap and charge planters who paid too much a kind of tax to be shared by other plantations.

They could have had serfdom, which is almost as good as slavery, and we might have avoided a lot of bloodshed. And the loss of our Constitutional system. Thanks a lot, shortsighted Southern elites!

Many of my ancestors were semi-serf sharecroppers, and this worked out great for their landlords.

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