Historical Context: The Economics of Slavery
by Steven Mintz
Like other slave societies, the South did not produce urban centers on a scale equal with those in the North. Virginia's largest city, Richmond, had a population of just 15,274 in 1850. That same year, Wilmington, North Carolina's largest city, had just 7,264 inhabitants. Southern cities were small because they failed to develop diversified economies. Unlike the cities of the North, southern cities rarely became centers of commerce, finance, or processing and manufacturing and Southern ports rarely engaged in international trade. By northern standards, the South's transportation network was primitive. Traveling the 1,460 miles from Baltimore to New Orleans in 1850 meant riding five different railroads, two stagecoaches, and two steamboats. Its educational system also lagged far behind the North's. In 1850, 20 percent of adult white southerners could not read or write, compared to a national figure of 8 percent.
Nevertheless, there is no reason to think that slavery was doomed for economic reasons. Slavery was adaptable to a variety of occupations, ranging from agriculture and mining to factory work. During the decades before the Civil War, slave grown cotton accounted for over half the value of all United States exports, and provided virtually all the cotton used in the northern textile industry and 70 percent of the cotton used in British mills.
Nevertheless, the South's political leaders had good reason for concern. Within the South, slave ownership was becoming concentrated into a smaller number of hands. The proportion of southern families owning slaves declined from 36 percent in 1830 to 25 percent in 1860. At the same time, slavery was sharply declining in the upper South. Between 1830 and 1860, the proportion of slaves in Missouri's population fell from 18 to 10 percent; in Kentucky, from 24 to 19 percent; in Maryland, from 23 to 13 percent. By the middle of the nineteenth century, slavery was becoming an exception in the New World, confined to Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rice, a number of small Dutch colonies, and the American South. But the most important threat to slavery came from abolitionists, who denounced slavery as immoral.