March 9, 1865: Abolition will make us like Canada

Sea Island Cotton

The Richmond Daily Dispatch speculates about the consequences of abolition for the American economy. There was considerable discussion throughout this period of the relative merits and productivity of free vs enslaved labor. Poundage of cotton picked per hand peaked in the 1850s at levels near 200 pounds a day, a level never reached by free labor after the war. Despite claims by Northern abolitionists that slavery was a primitive and inefficient economic system, for the extraction of manual labor it was ruthlessly effective.

The editor, while slathering on the snark, has a point — formerly enslaved people might well decide, once freed, to work hard enough to supply their own needs, rather than working at the killing pace enforced by the whip. Of course, to the Dispatch’s editor, this is because of a failure of the character of Africans — though white laborers never picked as much cotton per hand as enslaved black laborers did either. The dire consequence is that America would become like Canada, according to the editor.

The leading commercial and manufacturing men in the North must look with considerable solicitude at the anticipated consummation of abolition triumph in those States whose peculiar products have made the United States one of the first commercial and manufacturing nations of modern times. The probable amount of cotton and rice which will be raised by free labor is a most interesting question to solve. At best, it is not certain that voluntary negro labor will equal the amount produced by slave labor.–Experiments in other countries are not encouraging. St. Domingo and Jamaica are calculated to beget a certain degree of despondency.

There is a possibility that the newly-emancipated. Africans may be of opinion that they have worked enough all their lives, and that the time has come for rest and recreation. We do not know that we have any right to an opinion on the subject, but we have sometimes suspected or imagined that there is a lack of energy and enterprise in the African constitution, taken as a whole, and that, with occasional exceptions, it prefers a contemplative to an active life.

If it should turn out that, after becoming free, they will work no more than is necessary to supply the few wants of man in a fertile country, it would be a sad trial to the commercial and manufacturing interests. The United States would, in that event, be no longer the great cotton and commerce Republic, and would become a very commonplace, Canadian kind of country. Its decline in material power and greatness would be compensated, however, by the elevating consideration of having sacrificed such paltry considerations as national prosperity and individual wealth at the sacred shrine of Philanthropy.

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