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The South Should Have Freed The Slaves

At The American Interest we’ve been commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with a series of on line and print articles.  The September/October print issue is now out and features an article on the consequences of the war by Allen C. Guelzo at Gettysburg College.  It’s a great read; as a native South Carolinian this paragraph caught my eye (numbers are in Civil War era dollars when gold cost $16 an ounce]:

[T]he war cost the South $5-$8 billion. If the slave-holding states had agreed to a slave buyout plan instead of going to war, then those billions could have freed every slave at market value, funded the purchase of forty acres and a mule for every slave family, with $3.5 billion left over.

The horrendous quality of the South’s political leadership in the decades following the Missouri Compromise (as opposed to the talents of its military elite) is one of the untold stories of American history.  The calamitous record of Southern diplomacy during the war, the disastrously written Confederate Constitution, Jefferson Davis’ poor wartime leadership, the sniping among the states: it takes a lot of stupidity to wreck a section as well endowed by nature as the American South.  The Confederate generation and their fathers were up to the task; the South hasn’t quite finished digging itself out of the ruins even today.

Anyway, read the whole piece here.

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  • gubbish

    The criminal Cavaliers never should have imported slaves in the first place. Talk about the ultimate in privatizing profits and socializing losses.

  • David hoffman

    A very good argument could have been, and maybe was, made against slavery on economic grounds as being terribly inefficient compared to free labor. The plantation owners would not have listened since their position in society depended on keeping slaves.

  • Gene

    Further proof of just how much damage can be wrought by bad ideas.

  • Whit

    The only reason the north was against Slavery is because there was no juice for them in it once the importing of slaves was prohibited. Cut into their shipping profits. It seems unfair to assign the total blame of political ham-handedness to the south when its clear there was plenty of that on the high side of the Mason-Dixon Line during that same period. Both sides botched the political compromises wrought in the post Revolution period leading up to the Constitution. Those compromises set in stone the natural death of slavery but the abolitionists insisted on flexing their political muscle at the expense of the rest of the nation by prematurely shorting that political cycle set in place 80 years before and by insisting on viewing the Constitution as a suicide pact.

  • Gabriel

    It would be interesting to break this down on a state by state basis since the political and economic importance of slavery varied widely between bottom-land states that seceded early versus mountain states that seceded late (and of course, border states that stayed loyal). Such a comparison would probably make it even more clear how the rest of the CSA was not only immoral but also stupid to follow South Carolina’s lead in seceding in reaction to a Republican victory (which lest we forget, didn’t demand immediate abolition but only free territories).

  • Anthony

    Excellent piece by Allen C. Guelzo; full of background and anecdotes rarely publicized or read (very useful to any respondents to above brief).

    This said it all for me: “On the side of the union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men – to lift artificial weights from all shoulders – to clear paths of laudable pursuits for all – to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life.” Democracy’s foundation could not have been better articulated.

  • dearieme

    Would I be right to assume that the Civil War was the most expensive, destructive and stupid way to abolish slavery to be adopted anywhere in the world?

  • Fat Man

    Interestingly, Lincoln’s 1862 SoU message, the one that contains the phrase: “We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.” contains an offer of compromise on a buyout and abolition of slavery by 1900.

  • John A

    “The South Should Have Freed The Slaves” – yes, but that is barely mentioned in passing by the article.

    Indeed, some of the South was actually proceeding in that direction, if haltingly amd with not much in the way of leading to equality. The nation of Liberia was a pre-Civil-War land purchase to which freed slaves, but especially born-free non-whites (a law had been passed by that State which would eventually have eliminated being born into slavery), were offered free transport and land.

  • Westie

    I always chuckle when I see this bumper sticker; ‘If we had known the cost, we’d have picked our own dang cotton!’

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @westie: not sure everyone one the road finds that equally amusing.

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