The irony of a free market economy built on slavery is one of the key contradictions in American history. This hypocrisy remains so painful that many people flee from the idea of discussing the economics of racial enslavement. Worse, the confrontation with the fact that basic principles like value, negotiation, and assessment took their most potent and lasting meanings from the auction blocks of the South overwhelms nearly all Americans. Privately held wealth is the enduring, material hallmark of this experiment in democracy. The initial and fundamental expression of this principle remains the bondage of human beings as chattel.
The New England and Mid-Atlantic states adopted provisions for gradual emancipation of African and African-American slaves in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Historical research on the topic has emphasized that these laws marked the shift towards free labor as the basis of commercial markets and early industrial workplaces. The contention has been that, despite some reservations, gradual emancipation created the foundations of the first communities of free African Americans in the nation’s history.
However, these developments have obscured another important facet of this process in the early Republic. Gradual emancipation did not mean that all enslaved African Americans achieved their freedom after their time of service passed. Scholars like Joan Pope Melish have noted the widespread fraud and abuse that occurred throughout the North to prevent many African Americans from achieving liberty. With the onset of the 1808 ban on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the demand for available slave labor in the domestic market surged. Each slave sold for 200 USD (on average; nearly 3000 USD in 2010), and there was a tremendous motive for northern slave owners to make some money from their human property.
The most recent historical research on this topic briefly states that enslaved African Americans remained ‘salable’ under gradual emancipation laws. Auction blocks in Philadelphia, Trenton, New York, and Boston facilitated these transactions into the early nineteenth century. In terms of scalable, economic importance, the sales of Northern slaves between 1770 and 1810 constituted 10 per cent of New Jersey’s commercial market (nearly 14 million USD, adjusted for inflation). In Massachusetts, these sales were 50 per cent of the state’s economy (approximately 53 million USD). In Pennsylvania, slave sales matched the total output of other commercial activities (over 8 million USD). Most startling, though, is the case of Virginia. Had Virginia adopted an institutional plan for gradual emancipation, as it considered in 1831, it could have grown its commercial market by more than 2500 per cent, or 277 million USD in today’s terms.
The immediate finding about the profit Northern states derived from the sale of slaves after 1790 is not the most important conclusion to draw from this information. While it is a reminder of how race, commerce, and wealth continue to shape each other throughout the nation’s existence, the economic lesson about systemic adaptation is even more valuable. Northern legislatures voluntarily contracted a valuable sector of their economies in the belief that the resulting capital could finance the transition to the free commerce they envisioned. The decision made the entire region dependent on the revenue from Southern agriculture for a century.
Yet it also laid the foundation for the market and industrial revolutions. This transformation enriched the Steel Belt from Pittsburgh to Detroit and bankrupted the King Cotton region from Little Rock to Atlanta. In a similar fashion, the Federal Reserve has financed the contraction of the industrial Midwest since 1970. The managed series of regional recessions culminated in the financial crisis of the last five years and the movement of heavy industry to China, India, and eastern Europe. As a result, cities from Minneapolis to Chicago to Pittsburgh are now in a position to attract new investment and grow rapidly as innovators in the twenty-first century, STEM-based world economy. Modeled on smaller success stories like New York City, northern California, and the Third Coast, Tech Belt innovation in the Midwest reflects the calculated pain of salable assets across the long scale of American economic history.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Executive Director of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).