American Faux History: Could We Have Avoided the Civil War?

Summary:  The campaign of Ron Paul reminds us of two of the three great lies that comprise such a large fraction of American history: slavery, stealing land from the Indians, and the role of government in US economic development.  These not only exacerbate divisions in our society but provide a weak foundation for us — preventing us from clearly understanding our past and charting a course for the future.  Here we take a brief look at slavery, part one.  Tomorrow see why did the South leave the Union?

The American civil war is one of the most intensily studied events in US history, so that a layperson can only touch a small part of it.  But some aspects of its history are so clear we need not read the whole to find the answer.  Such as a reliable guess as to whether we could have avoided the Civil War.

The easy answer is yes.  With perfect foresight anything becomes possible.  Would Russians have supported Lenin in 1918 if they knew what the future held for them?  Would foreknowledge of 1945 have changed the way Germans voted in 1932, when they gave the NAZIs a plurality?  Much of American revisionist history – mythology to support politics — assumes that people can in effect know the future.  With such perfect knowledge we could have avoided the civil war and won in Vietnam.  They believe counter-factuals should guide our actions, not actual history.

Unfortunately history operates differently, so the opeational answer is no.  The civil war had deep historical roots, so only massive tinkering with time could have prevented it.  Here we examine some of those factors.


  1. Two reasons why the Civil War was the only path for America
  2. Paying to buy the slaves
  3. Would slavery have died out soon without the war?
  4. What about the British colonies in the Caribbean?
  5. For More Information

(1)  One reason why the Civil War was the only path for America

To see two reasons why the civil war as unavoidable, see “The Economics of Emancipation” by Claudia Dale Goldin (Prof Economics, Harvard), published in The Journal of Economic History, March 1973.  She looks at US the economics of slavery and emancipation in the US and other western hemisphere nations.  It’s a comprehensive rebuttal to the faux history so eagerly believed by American conservatives, such as Ron Paul.

Here we look at two aspects of Goldin’s paper, slaves as a capital asset and the determination of southern whites to avoid a multi-racial society.  This is only an excerpt from her well-researched article.

This paper illuminates one particular aspect of the theme of this session, property rights in man. It will deal with various emancipation plans: those actually enacted in various slave societies; those discussed by legislators who debated slave and antislave proposals; and those which, being purely fictional, have become part of counterfactual history.

The emancipation schemes outlined above were all effected prior to the American Civil War and all represented possible avenues of solution to the slave problem in the American South. Of Western hemisphere countries only Cuba and Brazil freed their slaves after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. In both, gradual emancipation was institute and was followed about 20 years later by complete abolition {Cuba 1878 – 1886; Brazil 1871 – 1888}.

… Many of the options discussed below may not have been politically feasible in the years preceding the Civil War.

… These issues are difficult to resolve. Nevertheless, a measurement of the effects of various abolition plans and a comparison of them with the realized costs of the Civil War can still provide useful information. In particular, such an exercise might add credence to the hypothesis that the costs of the war were not correctly anticipated and for this reason emancipation was rejected by both sides in favor of what appeared to be a better alternative. This research might also serve to reject or substantiate a completely different thesis, that the North was rational in fighting the Civil War because its net benefits from winning were positive.

The first option which will be considered is that of immediate emancipation with full compensation. Full compensation is required for this and the other schemes because it reflects the view of property rights held by the majority of the populace in 1860. Other than certain radical Republicans, few members of the 37th Congress believed in the expropriation of slave property; most were in agreement that slaveowners must be fully compensated for their losses. Lincoln, for one, felt quite strongly about the issue of compensation, and doubted the constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation because it did not provide compensation.

Under this hypothetical emancipation scheme, the Federal government would issue to the States, and then the states to the slaveowners, bonds whose principal was equal to the value of the slaves. Therefore the initial cost of such a program would be the capital value of the slaves in the US in 1860. I have estimated the capital value of all slaves in 1860 to have been 2.7 billion 1860 dollars. This number was calculated from southern probate records and slave bills of sale.

The financing of so great a venture as the purchase of $2.7 billion worth of capital, when the gross national product was only $4.2 billion, would have required borrowing. In the emancipation schemes which were actually outlined by Congress during the years 1861 – 1863, 30-year bonds, yielding from 5 – 6% were to be offered states fulfilling various criteria. … {assuming} that all persons except ex-slaves pay taxes to finance these bonds {over 30 years} implies a per capita tax of $7.25 in 1860. This represents about 5% of per capita income for that year …

One problem with the hypothetical compensated emancipation schemes developed above is that many northerners and southerners believed that the colonization of ex-slaves was a necessary part of abolition plans. Lincoln in particular “doubted that whites and free negroes could live together in peace, and this led him to advocate colonization.

Colonization never became an issue in the Latin American and Caribbean emancipation debates because pre-abolition race relations in these areas made freedom more acceptable than in the US. One writer has stated that in Cuba, for example, “there was no fear of emancipation .. for the Cubans had long since accepted both racial miscegenation and an open-class system of social stratification. If compensated emancipation in the US were followed by complete colonization of the ex-slaves, the costs of re-settlement would have to be added to the amount of debt created for compensation purposes.

… Southerners, too, viewed colonization as a necessary adjunct to emancipation. The colonization issue arose during debates in the Virginia Legislature from 1831 to 1832. In summarizing the consensus, Thomas R. Dew stated that “all seemed to be perfectly agreed in the necessity of removal in case of emancipation.” … Certainly the speedy removal of these four million ex-slaves would have been virtually impossible.

(2)  Paying to buy the slaves

Wealth was highly concentrated in the South, which had a Gini score of aprox .73 for the Cotton South, vs. .5 – .6 for the rest of the US (and today’s of .45), per The Political Economy of the Cotton South by Gavin Wright (1978).  Also, many believed slavery was evil, tainting the wealth wrung from the oppression of blacks.  Therefore the immense cost of buying the slaves in 1860 would have required northern whites to pay a substantial fraction of their income to reward rich southern slaveholders for their evil bondage of slaves.  Not an easy sell, even before calculating the cost of resettling blacks somewhere (Whites in Mississippi and South Carolina were the minority; they did not consider simple emancipation an option).

While most of today would consider that path preferable to the horrors of the resulting war, that’s not a relevant factor.  History is made by what we know, not by what we cannot know.

(3)  Would slavery have died out soon without the war?

Without a war America might have followed the course of Brazil, who ended slavery in 1888.  Perhaps we would have done so earlier.  Or later.  Would another generation or two of slavery been an acceptable cost to avoid the civil war.  Perhaps it is fortunate our ancestors were not asked that question.

But was slavery economically non-viable in America?  Here’s one cold-blooded analysis:  “The Economics of American Negro Slavery” by Robert Evans, Jr. (Prof Economics, Brandeis U), National Bureau of Economic Research, 1962. Excerpt:

The viability {of slavery} can be estimated by ascertaining whether it exhibited characteristics of a declining industry. Some of these are:

  • A declining demand for the unique capital employed (slaves)
  • A declining rate of production fo the unique capital (slave birth rate), and
  • A declining demand for the specialized capital (female slaves) used to produce the unique capital (slaves) used in the industry

Conclusion of his analysis:

Thus it would appear that the slave industry did not exhibit characteristics of a nonviable industry about to wither and die under the impact of adverse economic forces, but rather fave every indication in its latter years of being a strong and growing industry.

(4)  What about the British colonies in the Caribbean?

Now let’s look at what is in many ways a highly relevant comparison, the emancipation of slaves in the British colonies of Jamaica and Barbados.  They show what might have been if American slavery had been limited to only one State (instead of being the second largest capital asset of the nation) — and slaves were collateral for massive loans made by New York bankers.

From The Economics of Emancipation: Jamaica & Barbados by Kathleen Mary Butler, then assistant professor of history at Rollins College, NC  (1995):

Until the middle of the 18th century the sugar islands of the Caribbean ranked foremost among British colonies. Euphorically described as the brightest “jewels” in the British Crown, they provided the economic springboard for a new aristocracy of planters and merchants. For over a century, owners of West India plantations reaped handsome returns from their slave-grown sugar and coffee.

… Yet from the very beginning the sugar colonies carried the seeds of their own destruction. The entire economic structure operated on credit: credit to meet expenses at home and abroad, credit to buy land and plantation supplies, and credit to replenish the slave labor force. Until the early 18th century, planters who faced unexpected operating expenses simply borrowed from friends and family, but as credit patterns changed in the 1740s, planters became heavily dependent on British credit and services. When sugar prices began their long-term decline in the 1790s, they found it increasingly difficult to meet the liabilities secured against their once-profitable plantations. By 1820 few West India planters owned unencumbered estates. The majority struggled in a complicated web of debts and multiple mortgages as they attempted to continue production.

As British merchants became more deeply involved in the colonial credit structure, their economic power and prestige replaced the social power and prestige of the planters. With less possibility of recouping their original investments, British merchants began withdrawing from the West India trade and turning to more lucrative investments elsewhere. Few planters were prepared to admit that poor management and overproduction might have contributed to their downfall. The reopening of the slavery question in 1823 gave them the scapegoat they needed. Both planters and merchants quickly blamed the abolition movement for their economic problems and made it abundantly clear that they expected to be “adequately” compensated for the inevitable loss of their human property.

After prolonged negotiations the British government officially eliminated slavery in 1834 and agreed to compensate all owners of West Indian slaves. It awarded the slave owners £20 million and apprenticed the ex-slaves to their former masters for at least another four years. Such generous compensation was unprecedented.

… The expectation of compensation offered British creditors a unique opportunity to recoup at least a small part of their capital outlay. The influential merchants, and many private individuals, who had invested heavily in sugar and coffee plantations demanded that their deeply indebted clients use their awards to reduce their long-standing debts. For their part, planters hoped that repaying at least part of their outstanding debts would encourage continued investment and make new working capital available. The extent to which these expectations were met had a direct bearing on the future development of the region.

(5)  For more information

Other valuable sources about slavery and the South:

  • The overthrow of colonial slavery, 1776-1848 By Robin Blackburn (1988)
  • The Culture of Defeat – On Natinoal Trauma, Mournnig, and Recovery by Wolfgang Schivelbusch (2001)

Other posts about slavery:

  1. More propaganda: the eco-fable of Easter Island, 4 February 2010 – Leftists erasing slavery from the record (green fables trump suffering of browns)
  2. It’s Confederate History Month in Virginia!, 8 April 2010
  3. Justice for slavers (esp sex traffickers):  hang them high!, 20 August 2010 — True today just as it was true in 1860
  4. Pain and misery builds discipline!, 12 October 2010 — General Lee explains how slavery helps the slaves

Other posts about America losing touch with its past

  1. The introduction:  Losing touch with our past weakens us, 12 December 2008
  2. We have trouble coping with our present because we’ve lost our past, 23 October 2010
  3. For other posts about this see the History Reference Page

This post originally appeared at Fabius Maximus and is posted with permission.

2 Responses to "American Faux History: Could We Have Avoided the Civil War?"

  1. Richard Turnbull   January 23, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Marvelously succinct and eloquent as always, donna.

  2. Richard Turnbull   January 23, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    And for FabiusMaximus: Historian's Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought by
    David Hackett Fischer is what you want , starting on page 12: `The fallacy of metaphysical
    questions" — "A prime example is the problem which is eternally popular among Civil
    War historians: `Was the War inevitable'?" — but the entire book is great and might save
    you from wasting your time with this sort of endeavor in the future.