What Slavery Cost

As I head off to a rally for Trayvon Martin, I notice a column by Bob Koehler in which he says the unpaid work of slaves in the United States is now estimated at $1.4 trillion.  Oddly, that’s not terribly far from the $1.2 trillion or so, possibly more now, that we spend each year preparing for and fighting wars.  If we abolished war we could perhaps afford to compensate descendants of those victimized by slavery.  If we abolished prisons, we’d have at least another $100 billion.  And, of course, we’d have all those savings again the next year and the next year and the next year.

I wrote a review recently of a film called Copperhead, and I brought up the idea of compensated emancipation.  Wouldn’t it have been wiser, I asked, to have compensated the slave owners than to have fought the Civil War.  Since then, a number of readers have been sending me information on the extent to which compensated emancipation was discussed, proposed, or attempted — some of which I was unaware of. 

I want to try to make this point clearly if I can.  When I say that slave owners and everybody else would have been better off with compensated emancipation than with war, I don’t mean that they agreed with this at the time.  I don’t even mean that they agreed in retrospect, after the war — although many very well might have.  I mean that they would have been better off as we see things — obviously better off, with less dying and suffering and burning and looting and bitter resentment left behind for decades to come.  That compensated emancipation was proposed in various ways and rejected doesn’t contradict this point. 

In Washington, D.C., compensated emancipation was enacted by the federal government, and it worked.  It is the focus of an annual celebration on April 16th to this day in our nation’s capital.  Congressman Abraham Lincoln had introduced a bill for compensated emancipation in Washington, D.C., in 1849.  Such a bill was not passed until 1862, when President Lincoln signed it.  The terms were of course outrageous.  Slave owners were not punished but rewarded with $300 per freed person.  And those freed persons were given $100, but only if they agreed to leave the country.  But this was an alternative to something far worse: five years of hellish war.  And it was an alternative that had worked in British colonies, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, most of South America and the Caribbean, and would go on to work well in Brazil and Cuba.

President Lincoln seems to have made a big push for compensated emancipation only once the war had begun and the war fever long since taken hold.  Racism and ignorance might have required that those freed leave the country — an enormous injustice that would have had to be weighed against the injustice of war.  But the governments of the border states and the rebel states rejected compensated emancipation, opting instead for ongoing war.  The Delaware legislature came close to passage, but failed.  Once again, my contention is not that they didn’t do this, but that they shouldn’t have — and even more so that we shouldn’t make a similar decision in the future.  If we decide to abolish prisons or address global warming or make any other big change, we shouldn’t kill each other in large numbers first.  And if we do, we shouldn’t claim that we had to.

If the North had made an all-out and timely effort for a compensated emancipation plan, and if the South had refused, the South could have been allowed to leave.  There would have been no returning of fugitives escaped to the North.  The global trend toward the abolition of slavery would have continued, and would have reached the South.  So, the choices were not limited to emancipation or war.  But, assuming that they were, President Lincoln wrote to California Senator James McDougall making a remarkable case for emancipation in financial terms, a comparison familiar to the opponents of all kinds of wars and military spending down through the ages, including those lobbying Congress this week against another gargantuan appropriations bill.  Lincoln wrote:

“As to the expensiveness of the plan of gradual emancipation with compensation, proposed in the late Message, please allow me one or two brief suggestions.

“Less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at four hundred dollars per head:

Thus, all the slaves in Delaware,
by the Census of 1860, are 1798
Cost of the slaves, $ 719,200.
One day’s cost of the war…………………. $ 2,000,000.
Again, less than eighty seven days cost of this war would, at the same price, pay for all in Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Kentucky, and Missouri.
Thus, slaves in Delaware…………………. 1798
” ” Maryland…………………. 87,188
” ” Dis. of Col…………………. 3,181
” ” Kentucky…………………. 225,490
” ” Missouri…………………. 114,965
Cost of the slaves…………………. $173,048,800
Eightyseven days’ cost of the war $174,000,000

“Do you doubt that taking the initiatory steps on the part of those states and this District, would shorten the war more than eight-seven days, and thus be an actual saving of expenses?

“A word as to the time and manner of incurring the expence. Suppose, for instance, a State devises and adopts a system by which the institution absolutely ceases therein by a named day – say January 1st. 1882. Then, let the sum to be paid to such state by the United States, be ascertained by taking from the Census of 1860, the number of slaves within the state, and multiplying that number by four hundred – the United States to pay such sum to the state in twenty equal annual instalments, in six per cent. bonds of the United States.

“The sum thus given, as to time and manner, I think would not be half as onerous, as would be an equal sum, raised now, for the indefinite prossecution [sic] of the war; but of this you can judge as well as I.


The proposed date of 1882 sounds very late.  Surely, one might think, it was preferable to destroy the nation with war for five years and end slavery more quickly.  Except that slavery ended only in name.  Racism and poverty were compounded by bitterness and a new taste for violence.  One must wonder whether racism would have ended more quickly if ended nonviolently.  It may be that we’re still dealing with slavery today because, unlike other countries, we ended it with war.  I’m off to pay my respects to Trayvon Martin.


UPDATE: Now I’m hearing that compensation would have been too high, the government never could have paid it — in fact as high as $2.7 billion.  The U.S. government “couldn’t afford” that.  But here’s what the Civil War cost the North: $9.5 billion.  Or $7.8 billion.  Or $3.2 billion.  The estimates are all higher than the unaffordable cost of avoiding war.  (And we’re not adding in the other-than-financial costs, which were rather significant.)  This was paid for with taxes and printing money. That would have been a crazy thing to do for mere liberty for the enslaved.  For a war, on the other hand, for the stupid mass-slaughter of a giant pile of humanity, it was simply what had to be done.  Here’s an excerpt of a review I wrote of a book on taxes:


The North began an income tax in 1862, and the Confederacy in 1863. This was after the routine promises of a cheap and easy war had worn out their welcome. Both sides were forcing men to leave their homes to kill and risk death, but effectively excusing the wealthy from that duty. Thus arose popular pressure to compel the rich to “sacrifice” financially. Both sides enacted progressive, graduated income taxes, and other taxes as well. The North taxed everything in sight, including inheritances and especially corporations. The financial cost of the Civil War was astronomical, and the veterans’ pension program was our first major social welfare program. It required massive funding.

But with the end of war came the end of support for taxes, and the income tax and the inheritance tax lapsed temporarily in 1872. Taxation returned to primarily regressive forms, taxing consumption rather than taxing incomes at various levels. Advocacy remained strong in the country, its newspapers, and in Congress in the following years to restore the income and inheritance taxes. Major change would not come, however, until World War I and its army of patriotic propagandists:

“The transition from an almost exclusive reliance on customs duties to a substantial reliance on internal revenues, such as the income tax, the estate tax, and excise taxes, could not have occurred without the demand for fiscal sacrifice that accompanied wartime politics.”

What a bargain: we stop taxing foreign goods in order to tax ourselves, and we do that in order to go kill the people who make the foreign goods — unless they kill us first. What’s not to like?







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