Could America Have Thrived Without Slavery?


October 3, 2013
by Editors Also by this Author


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Could the new nation have thrived economically if slavery had been abolished when the colonies won independence?


Probably would have thrived even more.  Tobacco economy was bust by the 1770s, Virginia and Maryland had too many slaves, freeing them would have pushed Virginians into other economic fields, led more into the Ohio territory (where slavery was abolished by the Northwest Ordinance) rather than into Kentucky and southward; the back-country of the Carolinas already was developing with free farmers in the late 18th-century, would have developed in the same way the back-countries of Pennsylvania and later the Ohio valley developed.

Robert J. Allison


Yes, they could have thrived economically but they would have had to develop manufacturing much more rapidly than they did.  The southern slave-produced staples sent to Britain paid for the American imports of British manufactured goods.  Even if slavery had been abolished at the time of the Revolution probably some sort of share-cropping system of agriculture would have replaced the slave system similar to what happened after the Civil War.

Gordon S. Wood


Such a question prompts two more questions.  First, how would slaveholders have been compensated for their property losses?  It was one thing to emancipate northern slaves, but in the South we’re talking about a much larger investment in the slave system.  It’s hard to imagine the South Carolina grandees walking away quietly.  Second, what would have happened to the suddenly free black population?  Would white society have accepted them as paid laborers working alongside whites?  Would someone have paid for mass colonization in Africa?  Would freedmen and freedwomen have chosen to stay with their families in the locales where they were, or would massive migration have resulted? To me the interesting question isn’t whether Americans could have profitably grown tobacco, rice, and later cotton with a free labor force (the answer is probably yes): it’s how society weighed a moral obscenity against the challenges of reform.

Benjamin L. Carp


There would have been no single “nation” had slavery been abolished. We would have two confederacies, and from there all American history would have taken a different course.

Ray Raphael


The question is unhistorical or antihistorical. Any attempt to abolish slavery would have destroyed the union and handed the British an easy victory.

Thomas Fleming


The only unassailable answer is “Not so far as we know.” But the parts of the early U.S. of A. that ended slavery or depended on it least had the most productive industrialization, trade, and population growth in the early republic. Many of those enterprises were economically intertwined with regions of the country that contained many slaves, of course. But they also developed other industries and trade routes. Even as the slave-labor plantation system spread west, it didn’t develop. That rigid economy lagged further and further behind what was happening in other portions of the U.S.

J. L. Bell


Yes. The labor would have still been there, but instead of being forced it would have been working for wages.  Productivity would have gone up. The former slaves would have had an interest in the new country as citizens and been working to increase their own stake in it. As a result, the economy would have been a free economy and expanded from everyone participating in it. The failure to end slavery retarded economic growth in the South in an industrial capacity.

Jimmy Dick


Absolutely. From the early seventeenth century to the Emancipation Proclamation, southerners insisted that slavery was essential for their colonies’/states’ economic success, and by extension, the economic health of the nation. Yet as states shifted from staple crop production to more diversified forms of agriculture such as raising wheat, slavery became less important and those states did not suffer economically. In fact, those states that abolished slavery outright or gradually after the Revolution experienced faster and greater economic growth than did slave states in the decades before the Civil War. The economic strength of the Union was crucial to the defeat of the Confederacy. After 1865, southern leaders’ insistence of maintaining an agricultural society based on the caste system of sharecropping continued to impede the region’s economic growth. The abolition of slavery during the Revolution or in the Constitution would have saved the nation much conflict and human misery.

Jim Piecuch


The Middle Colonies were the most prosperous, and these were place where slavery was limited. These colonies gradually abolished slavery following independence and were not adversely impacted by abolition. Even in the southern colonies, with the exception of South Carolina and Chesapeake Tidewater areas, prosperity was not tied to slavery until the rise of “King Cotton” in the 1800s. Therefore, it is probably fair to say that in most of the thirteen colonies, slavery was not crucial to prosperity. Coastal South Carolina and the Tidewater were the exceptions.

Michael Adelberg


Yes, and for that matter in a less deformed, unequal and immoral way.

Scott Syfert


I believe the opportunity was there to reinvent the economy of the southern states without slavery as the primary labor source.  Because the plantations were already in a shambles and so many slaves had taken advantage of the chaos to vacate their masters, the existing system no longer functioned and the wealthy class could have invested in manufacturing or simply developed a different method of compensating the African-Americans for their labor.  Very similar to the reconstruction period after the Civil War except without the mandate of freedom for all.  If only.

Wayne Lynch


After 1785, the U.S. economy foundered until the mid-to-late 1790s because the Americans had little specie on hand to pay for goods and rising taxes, European nations curbed the ability of American merchants to trade in the West Indies with prohibitive laws, and the price of Southern cash crops declined with the rise of cheaper, non-American alternatives. Between 1785 and 1796, nearly all Americans searched for new ways to prosper outside of Great Britain’s imperial economy. If the United States had abolished slavery when it won its independence in 1783, then Americans would have applied this innovative way of thinking to a search for alternatives to slave labor and the United States would have developed a non-slave-based cotton economy (cotton production began to thrive after 1794 and caused a dramatic increase in the number of slaves).

Elizabeth M. Covart


The fledgling Unites States would have thrived, but likely would not have grown and prospered as fast. Slavery made large scale plantation crops viable and generated capital not only benefitting slave holders directly but indirectly by industry, trade and tax revenues intertwined with the slave economy. Agrarian and industrial expansion in free states demonstrates that both sectors could rise robustly without the need for a foundation of enslaved labor.

Samuel A. Forman


  • As was adopted in some northern states, emancipation could have taken place in steps. First the children of slaves would be freed as they reached adulthood (16 or so). Then as the slave population aged they would also be freed. This was the process in New York.

  • If one could use magic fairy dust to destroy racism along with slavery, then yes the US economy would have done far better; if for no other reason than salaried field hands having money to spend.

    So the primary question, in my mind, isn’t whether freed slaves would benefit the US, but instead, would whites give up their entrenched superior social position to work with, and for, freed slaves?

    Given how that has worked out since the Civil War, I guess the answer is, “not at all.”

  • No, solely because of the question, “Where would the resources that helped breed the affluent have come from had slavery not existed?”
    Who would have done the labor? Had it not been for slavery, and the time and money for research and learning that it afforded them, most of the “engineers” and rich, educated types would have been nothing more than field hands, most likely.

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