Adam Rothman's Slave Country is an informative and highly readable account of slavery's role in the American settlements of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi before 1820. It vividly portrays the costs of slaveryfor the slaves, for the native Americans, and for the slaveholders. Slaves endured the often forced relocation to a hostile climate, the breakup of families caused by the slave trade, and the almost complete absence of legal protection that could result in often brutal treatment at the hands of the master or his hirelings. Native Americans were often forced into another kind of relocation by white Americans hungry for the fertile lands perfect for growing the sugar and cotton that European markets demanded.
But as Rothman, an assistant professor of History at Georgetown University, documents, slavery also imposed substantial costs on the slaveholder. Some were psychological. In the revolutionary period, many questioned the morality of slavery at a time when Americans were accusing the British of treating their subjects like slaves. Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, wrestled with the contradictions of slavery in a free society all of his life. Northern states, which in general had never heavily relied on slaves for labor anyway, concluded that slavery was not consistent with their revolutionary ideals and provided for gradual emancipation, either in their state constitutions or by legislation enacted early in the 19th century. Many slaveholders in the Upper South also concluded that slavery was inconsistent with American ideals and voluntarily manumitted their slaves. However, in the Deep South that Rothman describes, widespread manumission or even gradual emancipation was impossible because the cotton and sugar plantations that made up the local economies were too dependent on slave labor. As Rothman puts it, "planters assumed that they needed slave labor just as they needed soil and rain." As such, they went to extraordinary lengths to defend slavery, not only politically but also on moral grounds.
It is ironic that Thomas Jefferson had initially looked at the newly acquired Western territories as a means of mitigating the effects of slavery. He was an advocate of diffusionism, the belief that by opening new territories, the existing slave population would be spread over a greater area, making slave insurrection less likely and possibly setting the stage for gradual emancipation. Instead, slavery was so profitable in the new territories that slaveholders would go to any lengths, including civil war, to maintain it. One unintended consequence of Jefferson's policy was that the new territories actually became less democratic towards whites. Rothman explains that the 1812 state constitution for Louisiana, for example, skewed representation in the legislature in favor of plantation districts at the expense of New Orleans and the rural districts, placed steep property qualifications for office holding, limited suffrage to white males paying a state tax, and called for the selection of the governor by the state legislature. This occurred at a time when most of the North and the new Western states without slavery were becoming more democratic, moving towards universal white male suffrage.
Another cost of slavery to slaveholders was the tremendous fear of potential slave rebellion, which Rothman documents well. This was particularly true in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, where in many counties slaves greatly outnumbered whites. The largest such rebellion in U.S. history occurred in the sugar parishes above New Orleans in January 1811. During the War of 1812, many whites in the Deep South feared that the British would combine with native Americans, slaves, and free people of color to overwhelm them. As a result, severe restraints were placed on all three groups, and any hint of resistance was crushed.
In Louisiana, an attempt was also made to control the import of slaves from the rest of the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa. These measures were ineffective, however, because slaveholders seeking more slaves provided a ready market for smugglers. The state could not even keep out slaves from St. Domingue, who were particularly feared because of the slave rebellion on that island, which they might have participated in it. The result was what is known in economics as a free rider problem. Slaveholders as a group feared slave rebellions and wanted to make them less likely. They realized that they could do this collectively if they reduced their slaveholdings by obeying legal restrictions on slave imports. However, individual slaveholders knew that their own decisions about how many slaves to hold would have no effect on the probability of a general slave insurrection, and that choosing to hold fewer slaves would result in lower profits for them. Thus, no individual slaveholder was willing to limit the number of slaves he possessed (i.e., obey restrictions on slave imports) in order to limit the chance of a general slave insurrection. Laws attempting to reduce the danger were ineffective as compliance was relatively low.
In lieu of the high costs that slavery imposed on everyone involved, we might ask why slavery found such a firm foothold in the new territories. Rothman concludes that "there were alternatives to the expansion of slavery," citing, for example, a plan that Tom Paine conveyed to Jefferson to encourage the immigration of American and European whites to Louisiana. Paine argued that under this scheme, Louisiana "would become strong by the increase of citizens," rather than weakened by the increase of slaves.
However, such a plan could never have coexisted with slave systems on the cotton and sugar plantations that dominated the Deep South. Regardless of what modern readers may have thought of their practices, slaveholders were good businessmen. As Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman pointed out in Time on the Cross (1974), slaveholders took advantage of the best technologies of the day, such as steam power, the railroad, and the telegraph, and whenever possible used the best techniques to maximize their profits. This included the "gang system," an early version of the assembly line that divided complex activities into a series of relatively simple tasks that could be monitored closely. It was highly productive, but in the preindustrial era, when workers were unaccustomed to such rigid labor discipline, coercion was often necessary for compliance. Useless for a fragile plant such as tobacco, the gang system was ideal for cotton and especially sugar, the two crops that dominated the Deep South that Rothman examines. With sugar, in virtually every case in which slavery and free labor were simultaneously available, slavery drove out free labor. Thus, a plan such as Paine's, which might have been possible for the tobacco farms of Virginia, would not have been economically feasible in the Deep South so long as slavery was legal. The profitability of slavery was such that slaveholders would not have given it up voluntarily despite its enormous costs. The Civil War would be required for that.