Civil War Delayed is a series written by Rosemary Jenkins that presents an alternate future had the U.S. Civil War not been fought in 1861. This is the third of six essays. Click here to read the first essay. Click here to read the second essay. Click here to read the fourth essay. Click here to read the fifth essay. Click here to read the sixth essay.
Contrary to Douglas' contention about popular sovereignty, Lincoln was well aware of the fact that inhabitants of such new land south of the border would be allowed little voice in determining for themselves a slave policy. The South could go as far as demanding Southern trusteeship of these new territories. "Historians have pointed to various projects for annexations or protectorates to the south of the United States as further evidence of a dangerous program for the extension of the slave power."
There was also the additional important issue over Congressional representation (the balance of power). Near the conclusion of Buchanan's term in 1861, Congress admitted Colorado, Nevada, and Dakota (later divided in 1889) without provisions regarding slavery. Had there been a clause prohibiting the institution in those territories, it was sure that Buchanan would have vetoed the bills in their entirety.
Lincoln, as President-elect, expressly reiterated the purpose of the Republican Party: to restore the Missouri Compromise prohibitions and to forbid slavery anywhere that the authority of Congress extended except where the institution already existed. Lincoln would not be compromised on this vital point. While President, he saw in June 1862 a Congress prohibit slavery in United States territory then existing or acquired later.
Yet, as Congress had so many times before contradicted itself on the slave issue, it could have opted to do so again, and a future could have witnessed the South with a more powerful and influential representation in the Legislature. The South might have insisted on additional measures similar to the Three-Fifths Clause in the Constitution to secure this for them. There had already been a movement to split Texas into several smaller states to achieve added Senatorial seats for the South.
Lincoln, as President-elect, expressly reiterated the purpose of the Republican Party: to restore the Missouri Compromise prohibitions and to forbidslavery anywhere that the authority of Congress extended except where the institution already existed.
Charles Ramsdell, among other historians, has strongly suggested that slavery had reached its natural geographical limits, that there would have been no desire on the part of slaveowners to migrate westward and thereby perpetuate what has been called the peculiar institution. It was he who is noted for saying:
There can be little doubt that the institution of chattel slavery had reached its peak by 1860 and that within a comparatively short time it would have been abolished by the Southerners themselves.
He proceeded to contradict himself, however, when he noted that inexpensive lands made it possible for the planter to expand his lands and invest in further slaves to work them. Cotton obtained high sale prices and the cost of land had been reduced. If trade in slavery had been legalized, the drain of slaves from the border states would have been stopped or at least diminished while the Deep South and West could have acquired an ample supply of Negro slaves.
As to profitability, there can be little doubt that slavery brought more than adequate gains to the owners. There was at least a 5-8% return on slaves as opposed to 6-7% on other investments and, besides, slavery could be a self-perpetuating institution, if managed "properly" (let alone considering the new generations of slaves that were born within the institution).
With proper use, a master found his investment in slaves (sometimes in land too), unlike his investment in tools and buildings, appreciating rather than depreciating. This natural increase was a significant part of his profit. . . . The price of a slave, together with maintenance was the cost of a lifetime claim to his labor; it was part of the wage an employer could have paid a free laborer. . . . (T)he average slaveholder earned a reasonably satisfactory return upon his investment in slaves. . . . Figured on an annual basis, five dollars would easily cover the expense of housing a bondsman. . . . (t)he yearly charge for the support of an adult seldom exceeded $35.00, and was often considerably less than this.
[A note in passing, Jon Batiste (the prominent musician and band leader, recently learned that his third great-grandfather at the age of 3 was worth $200 to his "owner" prior to the Civil War. What would that be worth in today's dollars?! Actually, about $6,643.62.]
Even the expense associated with the old and disabled as well as the time spent rearing an unproductive young slave proved but a minute cost. Young slaves gained in value as they matured; at puberty, they could begin the procreating process which added slaves to the owner's retinue (a word reference from that time) and cost him nothing or an infinitesimal amount. Those who became senile had already (over their lifetime) accrued for their master a sufficient profit over the cost of their purchase and "maintenance."
Demand for slaves in non-agrarian occupations caused slave labor shortages and drove up prices but this factor was frequently offset by low land prices. Slave "stock" could be replenished through the reopening of the slave trade. Though the land of the Upper South was being drained of its fertility from constant use, if the planter utilized the most advanced farming procedures, his land could be revitalized and prove once again very profitable. It is true that the owner of a large slave "gang" earned a proportionately higher return on his investment than the owner of a small slave holding, the owner of few slaves, nevertheless, produced a significant proportion of Southern staples along with a great variety of other products, much of which was used to sustain his household:
In short, on both large and small estates, none but the most hopelessly inefficient masters failed to profit from the ownership of slaves. . . . (I)n agriculture the rates for hired slaves ranged from twenty to fifty per cent less than the wages of free labor. Here was striking evidence of the competitive advantage of the slave system.
"When the demand for agricultural labor shall be fully supplied, "predicted a South Carolinian, "then of course the labor of slaves will be directed to other employments and enterprises."
There is sufficient evidence to substantiate a migration of many enslavers with the people they've enslaved out West. Already, New Mexico had passed a Black Code in 1859. The Secretary of the Territory of New Mexico stated just prior to the Code's passage:
It is generally believed here that the territorial legislature will pass some kind of a slave code for the territory at the next session. . . . (I)f New Mexico expects any favors from Washington (i.e. from the Buchanan Administration) a slave code would be a wise move. The governor and most of the other officials are favorable to it. . . . We have assured the Mexicans that it will protect their own system of peonage.
Slavery, then, could exist alongside Mexican peonage and oust free labor at the same time. The Associate Justice of the New Mexican Territory added in a letter to the Attorney General on February of 1859:
This body has passed a law for the protection of slave property in the territory. This was necessary, for the truth is I do not see how Americans are going to get on here without slavery. . . . The Peons are not worth their salt.
Looking back, one can perceive a gradual evolution and transformation on the part of Lincoln regarding his thoughts about the Negro, from his semi-racist attitude expressed in the Charleston Debate to his growing awareness that the Negro was capable of performing any kind of labor and could therefore be exploited in various and sundry occupations at the expense of free labor. He further developed a definite recognition of the moral evil of the institution and the necessity for its abolition. In his House Divided speech during the Great Debates, Lincoln indicated not only that America could not remain half slave and half free but was also concerned that being all one or the other, slavery, upon taking the ascendency, could spread to the North and West as well as remain entrenched in the South.
There is strong reason to believe that slavery was not a dying system during that period. It is likely that Southerners would not have rallied around such a "cause" if it were on the decline (although it must be considered that Southern support might also have been for psychological reasons--a reassuring rationale and emotional comfort ). Ramsdell avoids in his essay the possibility of slavery's entering other than agricultural occupations and fails to point out that restrictions of any kind at the time had no real permanence. Similarly, contrary to Christopher Brook's cotton-gin thesis (which stated in his book, Cotton Gin and the Expansion of Slavery, that the invention of the cotton gin made it economically mandatory in this country to maintain slavery), if one ingenious invention could strike down the natural barriers idea, what could further inventions do to revolutionize the economy into one of indentured servitude?
Besides, America at length needed to make a moral commitment before any real inroads could be made into ending slavery. Even Webster and Clay had not overruled the possibility of slavery expansion if legal barriers were removed. Webster relied on the rather vague and weak idea that God and Nature would prevent the diffusion of this controversial system throughout the continental United States.
If, therefore, the Civil War of 1861 had been fought at a later date, history would have recorded a very different set of events. Quite possibly the three possibilities to be discussed next (as referred to in the introduction) might have emerged as reality:
If slave labor, upon being utilized and exploited in non-agricultural pursuits, proved to usurp the majority of positions formerly held by free labor, the latter, under the hard yoke of unemployment and poverty, might have yielded to pressures exerted by the Socialist Labor Movement (from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs) present in the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There would be bitter resentment by the whites because of job displacement by Negro laborers; a new avenue by which to alleviate their plight would be sought.
Already by "1860, probably half a million bondsmen lived in Southern cities and towns, or were engaged in work not directly or indirectly connected with agriculture." They cut wood, worked in sawmills and gristmills, quarries, and fisheries; they were often responsible for the construction of internal improvements and the maintenance thereof. In 1858, a Louisiana newspaper stated "Negro labor is fast taking the place of white labor in the construction of Southern railroads" (the railroads so important later to conducting the Civil War). Earnest Sevier Cox described town slaves as follows:
mechanics, draymen, hostlers, laborers, hucksters, and washwomen, and the heterogeneous multitude of every other occupation, who fill the streets of a busy city--for slaves are trained to every kind of manual labor. . . . The negro is a third arm to every working man, who can possibly save money enough to purchase one. He is enthusiastically the right-hand man of every [white] man.