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America’s Economic Colossus Was Built On The Back Of African Slaves

"Auction & Negro Sales," Whitehall Street, 1860.George N. Barnard, 1819-1902/Public Domain

By 1860, the estimated market value of America’s enslaved population was 7 times the value of currency in circulation.

Tasha Williams, writing for the Pacific Standard, laments the grave disservice America has done to the memory and humanity of African slaves and understanding of its own history in failing to give the "subject proper airtime in our national conversations and classrooms" -- as though slavery was part of the story and not central to America's success.

An excerpt follows, but a reading of the full article is encouraged.

Silence and half-truths work to protect a national secret and a false image. And, like all horrible secrets, the power to perpetuate shame and guilt is diminished with release of the truth.

The real story — the one we Americans don’t advertise — is that we didn’t emerge from the ashes of the early 20th-century conflicts as a superpower. Nor did we build our might solely from the muscles of Ellis Island. By the beginning of the 19th century, enslaved labor had systematically both directly and indirectly turned the United States into one of the top two economic powers in the world. Later, despite the ravages of the Civil War, the capital and infrastructure extracted from the souls, sweat, and blood of enslaved African Americans positioned a former backwater colony to navigate the Industrial Revolution. In 1880 — not 1917 or 1945 — the U.S. began to supersede its much older and more established rival, Great Britain. The shores of the U.S., in the following decades, became a global beacon for economic opportunity and freedom to over 12 million new arrivals.

U.S. slavery was not a Southern gentlemen’s perk. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his article “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, “by 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports.” The economic contribution of enslaved Americans, nonetheless, did not begin and end with King Cotton in the South. Northern colonies benefited from the slave trade, too, beginning with the Puritans. Slavery and the commerce activity brought by the slave ships passing through New England ports in early America grew the region’s nascent economy and, ultimately, advanced the spread of North American colonization beyond the earliest settlements.

There is another rarely discussed aspect of slavery that helped form our nation’s global economic footprint. The estimated market value of the enslaved population by 1860 had reached seven times the value of currency in circulation. When a slaveholder needed cash, he had three options: 1) rent out the labor of a person he held in bondage; 2) sell that enslaved person to someone else; or 3) maximize profits by leveraging the enslaved person as highly liquid collateral against loans to finance wealth-increasing activities. Enslaved humans, therefore, boosted the economy not only with their labor, but by living and breathing as relatively liquid assets. Businesses were established and goods were made using people in bondage as collateral. So even when Great Emancipation came, the formerly enslaved still maintained a stake in the economy that was purchased with their very lives.

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