Were the Civil War and abolition a surprise?

More than I had thought.  And Lincoln really was the difference maker:

…prior to 1860, few political events seemed to affect slave prices, and even the Dred Scott decision had only a small and temporary effect. After Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency, slave prices fell, and they continued to fall once the war commenced. The overall decline in slave prices was large (more than one-third from their 1860 peak) and occurred prior to any battle losses by the South.

That is from the new AER piece by Calomiris and Pritchett.  There is an ungated version here (pdf).


Man, that must have really hurt Alexandria, VA, which had laready been so pro-active - after all, they 'seceded' from the District of Columbia just to keep their slave market free from federal interference. 'Alexandria was also an important port and market in the slave trade, and there were increasing talk of the abolition of slavery in the national capital. Alexandria's economy would suffer greatly if slavery were outlawed. After a referendum, voters petitioned Congress and Virginia to return the area to Virginia. Congress retroceded the area to Virginia on July 9, 1846.' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandria,_Virginia#History

Lincoln and his war hurt many things. Slavery was in major decline well before Lincoln. The threat/reality of war also tends to be economically disruptive.

During the 19th century, more than 20 Western societies abolished slavery without the kind of civil war that devastated the United States under Lincoln dictate.

Among these, Argentina (1813), Colombia (1814), Chile (1823), Central America (1824), Mexico (1829), Bolivia (1831), British colonies (1840), Uruguay (1842), French colonies (1848), Danish colonies (1848), Ecuador (1851), Peru (1854), Venezuela (1854), Dutch colonies (1863), Puerto Rico (1873), Brazil (1878) and Cuba (1886). Vast bulk of the Western slave trade was in South America, not the U.S.
Slavery was a far secondary issue in our Civil War.

Lincoln's infamous statement of war aims in a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune stated: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

The South was the only region of the U.S. to ever challenge the authority of the American central state, and for that the central Federal government killed some 300,000 Southerners, one-fourth of the adult male population, and destroyed its economy. Slave prices didn't do well either. Lincoln drafted and enlisted over 180,000 blacks, including many ex-slaves into the Union Army.

Lincoln was an outspoken white supremicist, strongly favoring recolonization of American blacks back to Africa.

You assert slavery was in major decline before Lincoln. By what measure? Not census figures and not average price of slaves. I'm doubting rate of manumission as well. Please be so kind as to elaborate.

I think Ron is talking about slavery worldwide when he refers to it as a declining institution. Hence the references to nations that ended slavery.

If slavery was such a far secondary issue for the South they would have freed slaves to fight for the far more important issues. There would not have been such reactions as “What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?” and “If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” to General Cleburne's proposal to free slaves to fight six months after Vicksburg and Gettysburg showed how serious the Confederate position was. They finally relented in March 1865 as a desperation measure when the war was already lost and they surrendered one month later.


Around the same period Brazil freed slaves to fight in a war with Paraguay when they were not in such desperate straights.

"The South was the only region of the U.S. to ever challenge the authority of the American central state, and for that the central Federal government killed some 300,000 Southerners, one-fourth of the adult male population,"
It tells you something that the "only region of the U.S. to ever challenge the authority of the American central state" did so to keep Slvery alive. It tells something about people like you, too.

Slavery was not in major decline before Lincoln. There were more slaves in the US in 1860 than at any previous census point. And the collective value of all those slaves exceeded the combined assets of the nations excepting the real estate only. That's why there's was no way to pay off the slave owners even if they had been willing: there wasn't enough wealth in the country to do so.

Roger Ransom puts the value of the stock of slaves was about 3 billion dollars. The Union spent about 3 billion dollars in military operations in the civil war not including veterans benefits which were still being paid out in the 21st century to a few children of veterans. There was enough wealth to pay off the slave owners if they were willing.


I would also say that the slaves didn't produce the value of 3 billion dollars since the South with all its slaves was so economically outclassed by the North.

The price of slaves dropped but that doesn't mean they weren't purchased. There was, after all, a buyer for every seller. Those with large slave holdings, important people, probably needed money to retain their importance in other ways than slave ownership.

On the other hand, no price was established at all for native Americans, since they were regarded as human vermin.

A price was established for their scalps.

Anyway, not sure of your point. Tyler's point (or the paper's) is the market prices suddenly shifted after the nomination of Lincoln, suggesting that this nomination was a surprise and was believed to increase (though not guarantee) the chances of abolition.

Lincoln's election by the Electoral College (his mandate amounted to 40% of the popular vote) cleared up many uncertainties. In addition to surprise we also see hysteria and/or irrationality. Who in the North or South believed that the South could militarily stand against the North's advantages in agriculture, natural resources, industrial power, transportation, population, finances etc.?

The economics of the run-up to the Civil War, I think, involved the fact that the South's cash economy, especially among its elites, revolved around cotton which was dependent on free labor. Assuming the elites in the South could not accept the end of the cotton economy, one may understand the drive to secede and to fight a prolonged, bloody civil war. Of course, the Confederate rank and file held states' rights as the motivation.

The radical Republicans' and abolitionists' vicious rhetoric, the shelling of Charleston and the invasion of Virginia hugely helped raise recruits for the Confederate Army. Hey, similar bullshit works for Hillary!

Anonymous US Cavalry officer during the Plains Indian Wars, "The only good Indian I ever saw was dead." We eventually beat the Indians. That won't happen with Hillary's refusing to anger terrorists and their sympathizers.

Looking at the global wars for independence:

Did the Philippines fight a bloody war against the US for independence for their coconut oil industry?
Did the Mau Mau fight for Kenyan independence from Britain for their tea industry?

Of course not! These people saw themselves as a distinctly different demographic and wanted to rule themselves. Why would the US south be an exception to this?

Sure, the southern elites had deep interests in cotton and maintaining slavery. Mexican elites like Carlos Slim have deep interests in maintaining the phone industry monopoly. But do you think the Mexican masses really care about that or would go to war over that?

The Philippines was a colony of Spain that the US conquered. The South was an integral part of the nation- -Southerners were Americans. The Civil War was not a war for independence-- it was a rebellion, pure and simple.

In that case, would you also say the American Revolution was not a war for independence, but a rebellion, pure and simple?

Won`t making people angry just lead to more radicalization and more terrorists?

"Who in the North or South believed that the South could militarily stand against the North’s advantages in agriculture, natural resources, industrial power, transportation, population, finances etc.?"

Apparently, the vast majority of the Southern elites, since they seceded in the face of all the evidence you marshal. When I was learning this stuff back in school, the received wisdom of the day was that the South discounted the North's material advantages by assuming that Northerners lacked the vigor and martial qualities of Southerners. See, e.g., the exchange in the movie Gone With The Wind between Rhett Butler and some other paragon of Southern virtue when war is imminent (yes, I am aware it is purest fiction, but like all cultural artifacts, it reflects the viewpoint of the era).

Whether or not that is true, I expect the South believed they would stay the course longer than the North, as they were defending their homes and their way of life (however opprobrious it may seem to us today) from "foreign" aggression (see, e.g., the dialogue between Chamberlain and the 20th Maine in the movie Gettysburg...and again, I am aware it's a movie, but the incident happened in real life, though perhaps with less drama). And the Southern elites were almost proven right on more than one occasion: had the South ever won the kind of spectacular victory that we had at Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War, the British and French might have come into the war...as things were, the Mason and Slidell business almost brought them in anyhow. And had the "Little Napoleon" been either more energetic or less loyal when he was relieved for the second time in 1862, there might have been a military coup, after which it's clear that Supreme Maximum Leader McClellan would have negotiated a peace settlement; and had McClellan won another state or two in the 1864 elections, he would certainly have done so as President.

P.S. The "[a]nonymous US Cavalry officer during the Plains Indian Wars" whom you quote was alleged to have been Sherman himself, again, back when I was first learning all this stuff in school.

A great majority of Native Americans died prior to the established Slave Trade, and of those that were 'eligible' a great many a) resisted and fled [as would a large number of people given the circumstance*] and b) the trans-Atlantic trade of people, plants, animals, goods and microbes introduced malaria and yellow fever. Native Americans and a large number of people of European descent died of malaria and to a lesser degree, yellow fever, rendering the practice of using Natives as forced labour and of Indentured Servitude too costly.

Thus, given their higher levels of immunal protection against the parasite, people of African descent became the bulk of the Slave trade.

Oh, Chuck, a price would've been established if the forced labour force was there to be had (and there were Native American slaves).

*This fleeing is a natural human impulse to forced servitude; in Brazil this was common, with a mixing of African slaves and Amazonian peoples. Indeed, until well into the 19th century, there were more people of African descent than European in the Americas.

Too costly for large plantations, but individual farms could and did work without slaves. The issue was not that cotton required slave labor-- it plainly did not as cotton production did not cease after emancipation. The issue was that the vast fortunes of the Southern elite depended on slavery.

Even if the slave owners believed the South would win there are reasons for the price of slaves to have dropped:
1) the embargo on Southern exports of cotton would have reduced the market demand for cotton and hence of slaves;
2) the upheaval of the war increased the risk of a slave owner being murdered by his slaves - a good incentive to cut back on the number you had on the property.

I don't think the South winning the war is the relevant counterfactual.
The question at hand is whether the writing was already on the wall for slavery before Lincoln. If so, it seems slave-owners didn't know it. I wonder if there was nonetheless a slow slide in slave prices before Lincoln, as political risk got priced in (though not sufficiently it seems!).

I'm interested in the comparison to Brazil. They eventually banned it in 1888, without war. But it had already been in decline before that. Was the USA on a similar course?

"I wonder if there was nonetheless a slow slide in slave prices before Lincoln." No, slave prices had been rising since 1857 according to the study and stopped about the time Lincoln received his party's nomination. The first chart in this link shows the value of slavery in the United States had approximated exponential growth from around 1820 to 1860.

Somebody has written a thesis that the Paraguayan war with Brazil around the same time period help lead to abolition in Brazil. I note the the South didn't allow slaves to fight until the war was just about over as a desperation measure whereas Brazil compensated owners who freed slaves to fight without being in such desperate straights.

Thus I would say it would not have gone away without war.

Re: Was the USA on a similar course?

No. And Brazil was a very different country in many respects (Roman Catholic, a monarchy with strong ties to Europe, etc.). It's grotesque to imagine American slavery surviving into the 20th century. But it's also hard to find any path by which it would have ended that did not involve coercive force.

Lincoln was nominated by Republicans as a swing-state moderate, though generally vilified by non-Republicans as an abolitionist through-and-through. For his nomination to deflate slave prices, it seems like slave-owners would think that he is at least somewhat likely (i) to win the election and (ii) to enact policies that harm the market for slaves.

The immediate confounding factor is that it was probably just as momentous that the Democratic Party collapsed into two factions. The Party's nominating process required a 2/3rds vote to guarantee a pro-slave nominee, and Douglas was seen as not friendly to slave interests after the positions he took in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

At some point though, it appears likely that the Union blockade (ordered 4/16/61) and the Confederate embargo on cotton exports (1861) probably take over as the most important factors.

As to (ii), the fact that nearly all the secessions were enacted before Lincoln ever assumed office should answer that.

Seven out of 11 is a solid majority but I wouldn't call it nearly all.

Your point is taken while mine still stands -- with just a slight wobble.

Slave prices started to decline before Lincoln was elected. They fell 19% btw/ June of 1860 and November of 1860. The coming election appears to be depressing prices.

On further reflection though, slaveowners could have become increasingly pessimistic about the election, and EITHER what Lincoln would do, OR what the South would do. The South had a long-standing view originating with Jefferson that thought self-imposed embargoes were a good tool of foreign relations. In 1861, Southerners would voluntarily prevent cotton from going to market with the hope that Great Britain would have no choice but to intervene. Moderately foreseeable in 1860.

I wonder if the slave sales were by small yeoman farmers with just one or two slaves. For them, selling a major investment might be the least risky option. They wouldn't be as dependent on slavery for their basic livelihood, and losing a single slave as a runaway might be a real risk during war time. Selling out of slavery might be a way to better prepare for the war. It would bring them money, hedge against the possibility of the asset being completely devalued.

For years, these small yeoman farmers were practically unknown to historians, in large part because their concerns were never mentioned in contemporaneous news reports. Yet while they owned few slaves individually, collectively their ownership accounted for a significant number of slaves.

Another possible explanation might be the fact that slave imports from Africa had been banned by the US government, but in a Confederate government perhaps those bans wouldn't be immediately translated into legislation. Southern slaveholders--the big ones in the upper south--strongly supported ending the slave trade in order to increase the value of their own holdings. By this time (early 1800s) their properties were largely farmed out, and trading slaves down the river comprised a good chunk of their incomes. So maybe there was a fear that a Confederacy in which the cotton hungry deep southern states, rather than the slave asset holding upper southern states, acted as equal players might end the slave trade ban and drive down the cost of slaves. This would be advantageous not only to the deep south but the aforementioned small farmers.

Just speculating. But there's really not much evidence that the South expected the North to stop them from leaving, or that they expected a long war. The great surprise of the Civil War is not that the South left over slavery, but that the North fought them over union.

Interesting point. A victorious Confederacy would have absolutely reintroduced the transatlantic slave trade, which would have lowered slave prices.

So pessimists would have sold against a Northern victory, and optimists sold against a Southern one, driving prices down regardless.

A victorious CSA would not have been able to reintroduce the African Slave Trade, because
A) It was banned in the Confederate Constitution
B) Britain and France had shut the trade down and the CSA would not have been able to challenge to reopen it.
C) Reopening the African trade would have depressed the price of slaves, which was the last thing the major slave-owners wanted. A large fraction of their wealth depended on slaves being expensive. Slaves were valuable as assets.

I believe cotton prices peaked in 1859.

Southern "King Cotton" bloodymindedness was driven in part by assuming high cotton prices were forever, but the global market was already working to find other sources of supply than the American South.

In 1860 the South had a record cotton crop, which depressed prices. In 1861 the Confederacy stopped exporting Cotton with the certain belief that that Britain would be forced to decisively intervene (as France intervened in the American Revolution). But Britain had stockpiles of cotton from an 1860 surplus and was able to look to Egypt and other producers to meet their needs.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from that observation of the market-price of slaves is: "The civil war and abolition were a surprise **for slave-traders**".

Indeed, the only actors for the market of slaves were living in the slave states (since slave trade was forbidden elsewhere),
and they were people not morally opposed to slavery (otherwise they would refuse to trade them). There was no way people
out of this restrained group could participate into this market and put prices down: there were no "shorting" of slaves, nor any derived product that an abolitionist could buy in order to make money from his/her notion that slavery was an abomination bound to disappear soon.

Now, reduced to its true domain of validity, the conclusion that "civil war and abolition came as a surprise for slave-traders in the south" is a banality. Remember the scene in "Gone with the wind" where all rich planters party without worrying about the looming war, and even less about their possible defeat.

Lincoln did not support abolition until late into the war. Rather, he had campaigned on the idea of preventing the spread of slavery to new states. Containing slavery to existing slave states would substantially limit expected demand. This seems sufficient to account for the drop in slave prices in 1960, without appealing to an anticipation of war or abolition.

1860, not 1960.

September of 1862 was not "late" in the war

Comments for this post are closed