Historians can’t quite make up their mind about abolition. Nobody wants slavery to return, and historians initially tended to praise abolitionists as moral visionaries. In England William Wilberforce is a hero for helping convince England to end slavery in 1833. In the US, Wilberforce was more recently the inspiration for political-thug-turned-moral-crusader Chuck Colson’s crusade agains the sex trade.
Unlike the US, England abolished slavery by legislative enactment. They agreed to compensate slaveowners for their lost property, and raised billions of dollars, in modern terms, for that purpose. In the US, ending slavery took a violent and bloody Civil War; England is often held up as a better alternative. A recent study makes clear just how much slaveowners benefited fromt he purchase of their property. More on that below
Starting in the 1940s, historians like Eric Williams began attacking abolitionists as self interested hypocrites. Wage labor is more efficient than slave labor. You get more output with less input. Slavery’s not really contemplated that much today (yes, I know about the human trafficing issue) because it doesn’t pay. It’s cheaper to hire migrant workers to harvest your crop than it is to buy the laborers and have to pay for their upkeep to protect your investment. In this argument, abolition was the entering wedge of a wage economy, which made it possible to get more work from people while paying them less. In the US, abolitionists themselves often made exactly that argument: it’s a moral horror, and it doesn’t pay. It was no coincidence, David Brion Davis wrote, that so many American abolitionists were factory owners.
Re-revisionists argued that in fact, slavery was exgtremely profitable, and that England did itself enormous damage when it abolished slavery. The profits from the sugar trade fell off dramatically after 1833: so dramatically that Seymour Drescher called called it “econocide.” Davis, quoted above, came to endorse that view: abolition was a costly moment of genuine moral virtue
More recently Christopher Brown has argued that emancipation cost England money, but gave it the “moral capital” required to subdue India. Having abolished slavery, England could view itself as noble and enlightened while it extracted far more money and resources from India than it ever got from the Caribbean.
It’s important to note again how England emancipated its slaves; it bought them from their owners, then gradually set them free over a period of about a decade. British taxpayers bore the cost of this reimbursement, a massive transfer of wealth to a class of already rich men who then invested the mnoney in railroads, steam, and the east india trade, building in many cases family dynasties which still rule England today.
Just this week historians at University College London made clear how much money the abolition of slavery made for some English families. The great great grandfather of the writer George Orwell received about 4.4 million in dollars for his more than 200 slaves. Prime Minister William Gladstone’s family received more than 126 million dollars for their roughly 2500 slaves. The family of Prime Minister David Cameron walked away from slavery with three million current british pounds, or about 4.6 million dollars. Cameron is currently the leader of the political forces imposing “austerity” on England’s ordinary citizens, because they have too much. But Cameron’s family money depended on the massive debts England incured to buy out his great grandfather’s slaves.
Cameron’s ancestors were already rich. They were masters of a vastly profitable enterprise and holders of human capital on a large scale. They kept their land, and access to a cheap labor force with few political rights, and got huge infusions of liquid capital they could invest elsewhere. British taxpayers supplied this capital, while the slaves themselves got nothing, except their freedom and a chance to work for low wages for the same men who previously owned them.
Only one US citizen owned more than 1000 slaves, Joshua Ward of South Carolina, and only 18 men owned more than 500. But by 1860, there were many times more slaves in the US and they were worth much much more. By 1860, historians estimate the total value of slave property at three billion dollars, “roughly three times greater than the total amount of all capital, North and South combined, invested in manufacturing, almost three times the amount invested in railroads, and seven times the amount invested in banks.” The value of slaves amounted to “seven times the value of all currency in circulation.” Americans had floated many schemes for “compensated emancipation;” it was a pet idea of Lincoln’s. Slaveowners never considered the idea for even a moment. Ending slavery in the US took a violent Civil War and at least 600, 000 dead.
The two examples point to the intractable moral evil of slavery. There was no way to root it out without extraordinary cost. In England the cost was extracted from ordinary people, and perpetuated an upper class which now has the temerity to impose “austerity” on the people who created it. In the US it cost 600, 000 lives to end slavery, but abolition failed to overturn the regime of white supremacy, a legacy we are still grappling with. There’s every reason to celebrate the end of slavery as a moral good, but the taint of slavery pervades even that triumph.