In an earlier post, the historian Henry Wiencek argued against the proposition that emancipation in 1865 was “an economic calamity” for Southern slaveholders. But this would only be true, Wiencek wrote, if the planters had bought each one of their slaves. Losing such a significant investment might, indeed, be calamitous. Except that they hadn’t needed to make such an investment because many of their slaves represented the pure profit of slaves born to slaves, or what the planters called “the increase.” “So at the end of the war,” Wiencek pointed out, “[the planter] ‘lost’ an enormous amount of value in slave property, but he hadn’t lost any ‘investment’ because he never bought any slaves.”
Somebody did lose their shirt with emancipation, however, and you know who it was? The Commonwealth. The Evening Sentinel of Alexandria, Virginia [pdf], on April 2, 1861, reprinted an article from the Richmond Dispatch that attempted to make this very point. “To show the productive value of this slave system to Virginia,” the paper contrasted the taxable property values in western counties (i.e., counties with few slaves) with those in eastern counties (i.e., counties with many slaves).*
The editors directly compared counties with approximately the same number of whites, so with Harrison County (in the west), you have 13,182 whites with a taxable value of $15,192. Compare that to Halifax County, with 11,066 whites but a taxable value of $51,617, or a difference, “paid by slave labor,” of $36,425.
“Could there be a more striking illustration of the productive power of slave labor than the foregoing figures afford?” the article asks. “Could there be more conclusive proof of their value to the State, and to every interest in the State? … And yet the submissionists of Virginia propose to fix her in a condition to be abruptly robbed of this labor. Worse than Abolitionists, they are willing to be parricides.”
Of course, there are some things unstated in this argument. Assuming emancipation, Virginia is only “robbed of this labor” if, in fact, she refuses to allow the formerly enslaved to work. Or if she refuses to create an economic climate that allows them to be productive citizens whose labors are worthy of being taxed. More generously, the slaveholders of 1861 may have had difficulty even imagining emancipation, let alone fully considering its many implications.
* It goes without saying that the paper should be interested in defending slavery. To defend slavery was to defend the Confederacy’s raison d’être.
IMAGE: Slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia