AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum
Re: Growth in Slave Population, 1810-1860
In Response To: Growth in Slave Population, 1810-1860 ()
Have you considered the rate of increase for the total population?
"After 1833 the demography of West Indian slavery largely disappeared from British politics because the emancipation of slaves throughout its empire made the question moot. In the United States, however, demographic issues that had previously played only a small role in abolitionist campaigns became increasingly important during the three decades preceeding the Civil War.
Population issues were used in a new way in 1832 when antislavery representatives in the Virginia legislature introduced a bill for the gradual emancipation of slaves that nearly won (the last time that any southern legislature entertained such a measure). But it was the publication of Theodore Weld's pamphlet American Slavery as It Is in 1839 that pushed population issues to the center of the antislavery struggle in America and also provided the crucial link that unified the moral and the economic indictments of slavery. 13
Since British abolitionists used the high rate of natural increase of U.S. slaves as the standard for measuring the harshness of West Indian slavery, it might appear that this issue provided little room for an attack on American slavery. Weld, however, articulated three lines of argument that converted the high rate of natural increase into evidence of the maltreatment of slaves. First, he attributed the high rate of natural increase to the deliberate practice of "slave breeding," by which hemeant the application of practices employed in animal husbandry in order to obtain the greatest number of slaves for sale on the market.
He supported the charge by quoting Southerners and others who said that slaveowners "keep a stock for the purpose of rearing slaves" for sale; who said that just as "the owner of brood mares" had "a reasonable right" to "their product," so "the owner of female slaves" had a right "to their increase who said that for many planters, "the only profit their masters derive from them [slaves] is, repulsive as the idea may justly seem, in breeding them like other live-stock"; and who said that some masters "took pains to breed from" their "best stock—the whiter the progeny the higher they would sell for house servants."
Second, Weld argued that it was "absurd" to say that a high rate of natural increase constituted 'proof' that slaves were "well-clothed, wellhoused, abundantly fed, and very comfortable." He argued that "privations and inflictions," if carried far enough, as was the case in the West Indies and "in certain portions of the southern states," would cause natural decrease, but he also pointed out that the "Israelites multiplied with astonishing rapidity, under the task-masters and burdens of Egypt." Consequently, it was possible for U.S. slaves to "suffer much hardship and great cruelties without experiencing so great a derangement of the vital functions as to prevent childbearing."
To prove thaf this was the case in the South, Weld cited page after page of testimony accusing masters of feeding slaves so poorly that they habitually suffered "the pain of hunger"; of supplying slaves with clothing "by day, and . . . covering by night" that was "inadequate, either for comfort or decency"; of treating slaves with "inhuman neglect when sick"; and of keeping slaves in wretched dwellings that were "a shelter from neither the wind, the rain, nor the snow."
Third, Weld cited evidence that showed not only that the internal slave trade "has become a large business" but that the continuation of that trade was essential to the continuation of slavery. The high rate of natural increase in the original slave states had made the pressure on land so great that "the value of slaves" depended "on the state of the market abroad," that is, on the market for slaves in the western states and territories.
Consequently, slaveowners were "alarmed lest the markets of other states be closed against the introduction of our slaves" and pursued expansionist policies, such as the acquisition of Texas, so that the price of slaves "will rise again." The doctrine thus expounded was a direct extension of the population theory of Thomas Malthus, who held that the tendency of the growth of population to outstrip the supply of land was the ultimate source of the decline in the price of labor. Although it was far from a universally accepted doctrine in either the South or the North during the antebellum era, there were enough converts to Malthuian doctrine among slaveholders to make Weld's case credible. 14
The demographic arguments adumbrated by Weld in 1839 were increasingly emphasized and elaborated by antislavery critics during the next two decades. One of the major aspects of the new approach was an increased emphasis on the destructive effects of slave trading on the integrity of slave families, an issue poignantly elaborated by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Another thesis later developed with great effectiveness asserted that the rapid growth of the slave population reduced the rate of growth of the white population of the South, partly because the corrupting effects of slavery sapped the vigor of white masters, partly because non-slaveholding whites who were repelled by the system were migrating to the North, and partly because slavery was so distasteful to foreign immigrants that they shunned the South. Still another variation in argument, and ultimately perhaps the most politically effective of all the abolitionist arguments, was the contention that the growth of the slave population and its spread into non-slave states and territories constituted an imminent threat to the living standards of free workers and farmers. "
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