During the 19th and 20th centuries there were numerous works contributed on American Negro slavery. Most of the books on the subject include in one form or another a section on economics. In the early 19th Century a historian named William Chambers wrote his book Slavery and Colour. In this, Chambers examines the economic view of slavery in a single chapter. Using statistics from slave trading between the states and census reports he is able to identify slave-producing states versus slave consuming states. Chambers noted the real profit from slavery was not I the Deep South but in those states that were selling slaves such as Maryland, Delaware, and Virgins 147. Because of those facts Chambers believes that slavery was no only prolonged by those large plantation owners in the South but also by the slave breeders in the North. Chambers believes this practice was a stain on the American image. Chamber’s book, which was originally published in 1857, would be one of the many testaments to the inefficiency of the American slave system in the 19th century. Chamber’s view was a portrait of what was to come only eight years later. The rift in the country was also present in his book as he often referred to the North as the Union. With the change of politics came a change of theories and the 20th century would bring many changes.
A late 19th century historian known as Albert Bushnell Hart published Slavery and Abolition in 1960. Hart devoted the first three chapters of this book on economic and social aspects of American Negro slavery. Hart was a Harvard professor. He was a well-known historian and published numerous works on slavery during his time. When examining the economics of slavery, Hart’s evidence revealed that “out of 9,000,000 whites in 1860, certainly not more than 500,000 persons made a substantial profit out of slave-keeping; within that privileged number a body of about ten thousand was the ruling families in the South”68. Certainly this fact was a testament of the profitability of slavery. He also notes that in slave holding communities only one out of thirty theses actually owned slaves. 67. This factor brings Hart to conclude that slavery was desirable to the poor whites because of the “social and political prestige of the slave holder” 66. When witnessing how historians correlate economics to understand the past it shows how important the facts are in finding an explanation. Hart like many other Historians of this era drew similar conclusions based upon the information they had available to them. But overtime-new information is discovered causing historians to re-evaluate their theories. The end result is numerous publications on the same topics with totally opposite conclusions.
During the 20th century historians took a deep look into the economics using new data. One historian from the 20th century that published a book on the subject is Eugene D. Genovese. The book is titled The Political Economy of Slavery. Genovese and Marxist from New York take a different approach is examining the economics of slavery. Genovese use facts from farming and herding profits and weighing them against the cost of practicing slavery and paying for equipment and miscellaneous expenses. Genovese came to the realization that despite the Southerners desire to “develop a sound agricultural economy within the slave system [they] were yielding meager results and had little hope of success” 4. Based on his findings and his Marxist background he concludes that slavery served as a social tool to regulate the classes. He states ” Slavery gave the South a special way of life because it provided the basis for a regional social order?” By looking at the figures Genovese realized that the controlling class which was the minority, benefited from slavery as long as possible. The powerful slaveholders resisted growth in manufacturing transportation and agriculture development. Genovese credits those Southerners with laying the foundation for future economic hardships. Genovese like Chambers and Hart observed the figures and statistics from the period and drew three different theories. This is a testament of how personal opinion and experiences influence how people think. Undoubtedly, with the addition of new information new ideas about slavery will be introduced and disputed.
Economics is the key in evaluating any institution. By gathering facts and statistics historians are able to understand why people made decisions in the past. In order to give history meaning the facts have to be combined with a theory that explains them. These three historians derived their theories on the economics of North American Slavery and there will be many more to come.