Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A thought about Slavery in the United States

Did you ever wonder how long slavery would have endured in the United States if the federal government had not opposed it or if the Confederate States of America had been allowed to secede?  When in 1865, the United States outlawed all slavery in all states, without exception, freeing its last 40,000 slaves, most nations and most of their colonies had already banned slavery, some about 100 years earlier than the U.S.  In case a Bulgarian history buff is reading this,  Bulgaria did not ban slavery until 1879, however, Bulgaria was not a free nation until 1879 and banned slavery in its first constitution.

The success of the agricultural economy of our Southern states depended on slavery.  When the Southern states were forced out of slavery, the plantations failed.  They could not exist without slave labor.  The slave states' governments knew that their economies would collapse without slavery.  Thus secession and the Civil War.

But let's assume that secession had been accepted by the United States and there had been no Civil War.  How long would slavery have existed in the Confederacy?  The Confederacy would not have voluntarily banned slavery at least until its economy no longer depended on it; until the rich plantation owners found an equally profitable business that did not depend on slavery or a technology that significantly reduced the need for labor on the plantation.

The first technological impact on agriculture in the South was the cotton gin, which, instead of reducing slave labor, significantly increased it.  The gin was invented in 1794, after which the production of cotton in the South exploded.  Between 1830 and 1850 it quadrupled.  Before the gin there were 700,000 slaves in the South.  By 1850, the slave population had swelled to 3.2 million.  So, technology wouldn't have brought an end to slavery.

Perhaps enlightenment!  The Southern slave states would have voluntarily ended slavery when the majority of its citizens decided that it was morally wrong in spite of the negative impact to their economy.  How might we consider moral enlightenment as the cause to end slavery?

How has the black population been treated in the South since they were freed?  They were segregated and oppressed in every way until the enactment of the Civil Rights laws of the 1960's.  Blacks were routinely lynched in the South for acting equal to a white person even after the 1960's.  Public lynching of blacks in the South were condoned through the 1920's.  By 1910, all the Southern states had modified their constitutions to disenfranchise blacks.  In 1920, the Republican Party promised to enact a federal anti-lynching law.  However, the Southern white Democrats in the U.S. Senate used a filibuster to prevent its passage.

Organized labor regardless of color, was not accepted in the South.  In the 1930's, Southern local and state governments, in support of industry owners, used deadly force to prevent unionization.

So, obviously, self-enlightenment would not have ended slavery.  Could external economic pressure on the South have caused Southerners to quit slavery?  Perhaps apartheid in South Africa is an example of how and when the world would have dealt with slavery in the Southern States.  All sanctions against South Africa intended to end apartheid were weak and half-hearted.  Not all countries supported the sanctions and not all companies complied with it.  Thus, South Africa did not end apartheid until the 1990's.  Since the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, less than 20 years ago, there has been some progress toward educating, employing and raising the standard of living of all black citizens.  However, the effort has been costly and slow and, today, it still has many critics who believe that ending apartheid and the political disenfranchisement of blacks and other citizens of color destroyed South Africa.

So, the world wasn't quick to free the black "citizens" of South Africa, and would not have done more to end slavery in our Southern states.

When, then, would slavery have ended in the Southern slave states or the Confederate States of America?  Surely, not before the early 20th century even if the Southern states had not seceded.  Had the Southern states seceded and formed the independent nation of the Confederate States of America, I think slavery would have persisted beyond the mid-20th century.  Had slavery ended then, there is no reason to expect that the blacks of the Confederacy would have obtained political equality sooner than the blacks of South Africa.

If Southern slavery had not been forcibly ended in 1865, it could easily have continued unchanged until the 1950's with some form of disenfranchisement still persisting today.