An Overview of Slavery In The Southern United States:—
Economics And The Comparison With Rome

by Joe Keenan

To approach an understanding of the ramifications of the simple, and simply appalling, fact of negro slavery as it existed in the Southern States of the USA before the Civil War, or rather before the 13th Amendment which followed it and was very quickly reconfigured to facilitate The Birth Of A Nation, it is instructive to compare the institution as it existed in those States with the historical circumstances to which it looked for justification.
Calhoun and Douglas looked to Rome as a civilised model that generalised the details of their "peculiar institution" and made it appear really neither so barbaric nor so peculiar at all. But Calhoun and Douglas were looking in the wrong place.

A comparison of Roman slavery and slavery in the Southern States of America is essentially an examination of the functioning of fundamentally similar institutions within two fundamentally dissimilar social and economic contexts. Most immediately, there was nothing at all peculiar about slavery in the ancient world. Antique slavery was a common institution which was accepted, even by slaves driven by utter desperation to foredoomed rebellion, as a given fact of the natural world. It was unremarkable and non-contentious; calling for little in the way of explanation and absolutely nothing in the way of justification. Chattel slavery in the Southern States was however, while still not unique, a very eccentric survival in the new world of social forms which the old, European, world had by and large outgrown. It was remarkable and contentious. A great deal of justification was called for. And its apologists thought that justification was to be found in the Roman example (and isn't Rome eternal, and don't the parameters of Rome forever delineate the paradigm?).

But the common ground which underlies all the attempts at justification produced by the pre-war Southern States highlights one very striking difference with slavery in the Roman world. Slavery in the Southern States was a frankly racist phenomenon which its apologists attempted to justify on the basis of the supposed inferiority of negroes who had to be gradually weaned away from savagery and who would be a positive danger to the broader society if the necessary social controls of slavery were relaxed prematurely to unleash black hordes against white civilization (and, god help us, the gracious but timid, god bless them, females thereof).

Rome knew nothing of it, but in America the identification of negro and slave was virtually absolute. Except in Delaware anyone with a black mother, even though she herself may have had only one black grand-parent (ie, an "octaroon") was presumed at law to be a slave unless he had papers to prove that he had been freed.

So, all slaves were black; but not all slave-owners were white.

In 1830, 3,600 free negroes and persons of mixed race owned slaves in America.

This was, however, a negligible proportion, and the general principle was championed by the Arkansas Supreme Court which ruled that one negro could not own another as the racial inferiority which alone justified slavery was obviously not present in such a case.

Given the paternalism underlying the attempted justifications of its apologists one would expect slavery to have been used in the Southern States as a means of raising the cultural level of primitive African "immigrants", imbuing them with the habits and reflexes necessary to engage in the civilised routines of American social life. Nothing could be further from the truth; and here again a striking difference with the social function of Roman slavery is highlighted.

Roman slavery provided a mechanism for the progressive integration into Roman society of new personnel the previous basis of whose social existence was destroyed by enslavement, remoulded in the network of associations generated in his owner's household, and finally re-established on a new basis through recognised manumission procedures. This was the characteristic of a specifically urban form of Roman slavery which was made possible in the first instance and further facilitated by the extent to which slavery permeated (urban Roman) society at all levels: slaves worked side by side with free men, engaged in the same occupations as free men and entered into commercial relations with free men (both on their owners', and on their own, behalf).

That situation was not paralleled to any extent at all in the Southern States. In The Peculiar Institution (by Kenneth M. Stampp, New York, 1956) Stampp lays proper emphasis upon the central fact that, while slavery was economically important in the South, it was not socially typical. He quotes census statistics to the effect that "…nearly 3/4 of all free Southerners had no connection with slavery through either family ties or direct ownership". There was virtually no mixing of free and slave populations: slaves were legally disbarred from occupations practised by free whites and the vast majority of them laboured, in an exclusively rural context, on plantations given over to the cultivation of the five staples of Southern agriculture—cotton, tobacco, sugar, rice and hemp.

There was some provision enabling the very few urban slaves, under very stringent conditions, to engage in financial transactions on their owners' behalf, but no concept of "peculium" (in Southern conditions this Roman term, meaning money, even capital, that a slave could accumulate for himself to which his owner had no title, is, for obvious reasons, untranslatable) developed from this.

Only a handful of slaves involved in skilled trades in the upper South were able to purchase their own freedom. Which is all in all a very far cry from the situation in the ancient world where slaves were employed as "cooks, butlers, nannies, 'pedagogues', spinners, weavers, bookkeepers, administrators and imperial civil servants" (slight paraphrase of the passage in M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, London, 1973, p. 73) within a society which was both willing and able to absorb them after their manumission.

Before going on to consider the extent and nature of such manumission as occurred in the South I should point out that, despite the paternalist pretensions of pro-slavery apologists no attempt at all was made to remould the slave population (savage, primititive and pre-Christian as it was) in the cultural habits and reflexes of white civilisation. The Louisiana State Code expressed the realities of the situation in laying down that "No person, not even the master, was to teach a slave to read or write, employ him in setting type in a printing office, or give him books or pamphlets". (And wasn't the Louisiana Code simply preternaturally prescient in its wisdom, keep pamphlets away from niggers, now say we all!)

In striking contrast to Roman practice manumission was virtually unheard of in the Southern States of America. Stampp illustrates its very limited extent by quoting the following figures: in 1859 only 3,000 slaves were freed in the entire South; in Virginia where the slave population was 1/2 million, 277 were freed by means of a last will and testament; in Kentucky which held some 1/4 million slaves only 177 were freed by similar testamentary means. And even those figures were too much for the general run of slave owners— in South Carolina in 1841, then in Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama, testamentary emancipation was forbidden.

And then again, even where manumission occurred, it was not intended to result in the assimilation of ex-slaves who had, presumably, been "civilised" by their experience. In Louisiana in 1830 a freed slave was required to leave the state within 30 days; in 1852 he was required to leave the USA within a year; in 1857 all forms of emancipation were prohibited. Earlier than this, while free negroes were still allowed to breathe aristocratic Southern air, they were forbidden to move from one state to another and, while they could make contracts and own property, their civil rights were otherwise non-existent.

And so, the social context within which slavery existed and was legislated for in the Southern States of America, differed radically from that which determined the general character of Roman slavery. There was an economic correspondence (pre-industrial dependence on agricultural staples) but no social or even cultural convergence. And even economically the South was looking for justification to an antique paradise which had never existed.

In The Ancient Economy Finley stresses that chattel slavery was only one, albeit the most important, of the forms of dependent labour available to the ruling classes of antiquity. In their provinces the Romans adopted the form of organisation of labour which they found there, and that was not always chattel slavery.

In what we call the Near East this consisted of a vigorous independent peasantry, coexisting with "a large dependent labour force on the land" (ibid. p.70). The consequence, he says, "was that in Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt, slavery never became an important factor on the land." In North Africa, however, thanks to the original Carthiginian settlement, slavery was the prevalent form of labour organisation. In Italy:—"One stimulus for chattel slaver came from the growth of urban production, for which the traditional forms of dependent labour were unsuitable" (ibid. p.70).

The point is that when seeking the most profitable form of organisation of labour the choice facing the Roman upper classes was not between slavery and wage labour (which, because of the impossibility of distinguishing between labour-power and the object embodying it, was inconceivable) but was, rather, a choice between different forms of more or less immediate and detailed control of the labour involved (I wouldn't care to be a serf, but sooner be tied to the land than to the plough that tills it!).

In the Southern States, however, in the run up to them firing on Fort Sumter, the choice appeared to be precisely between chattel slavery and wage labour. Their large scale production of agricultural staples was only profitable to the extent that it maintained itself outside of any market for the labour that was required to produce the commodities that they brought to market. Free labour, freely available on the market, could not be worked to death, and only a form of dependent labour that could be worked to death was profitable. The end of slavery was the end of a society which existed on what had become an economic margin—the margin by that time being the price of the reproduction of labour, its means of subsistence.

Which is only to say that when slavery became an issue for the industrialising North it was only because the peculiar institution had at that point become a tax on capital generally. And the issue was settled for the North when the South accepted share-cropping as the mechanism by which its margin was made amenable to the accounting procedures of a free market. Share cropping was still economically inefficient, but by the beneficent god of double entry bookkeeping it had freed itself from grits and molasses and become morally defensible, indeed praiseworthy!

So, while Roman slavery was at least individually capable of social development (individually former slaves, having become freedmen, ran the imperial civil service), American slavery never really ended. The slaves whose marginal subsistence and the lack of it built Georgian mansions in Atlanta became sharecroppers whose marginal subsistence and the lack of it built Georgia, to say nothing of the White House and the Pentagon.

Gone with the wind, Scarlett? No, Rhett, tomorrow is another day. And another day. Really, always another dawn but the same damned day!




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