Monday, January 21, 2013

An Issue Resolved by a Great Republican President

Frederick Law Olmsted (author). Arthur M. Schlesinger (editor). The Cotton Kingdom. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1970.(originally published in book form in 1860)

This book is an important resource as of one of the few journalistic observations of slavery conducted and written before the Civil War. While descriptions of slavery in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” swept the nation, it described life on one slave farm. These writings were an effort to provide a broader observation of numerous farms in several Southern states.

Readers find interviews and descriptions of farms, slaves, slave owners, and farmers using labor methods other than slavery in Southern states. These bring forth many compelling details of 1850s Southern farm lives, without knowledge of the impending war and its outcome that slavery would be abolished. While the descriptions are provided with journalistic integrity, the results helped enrage readers against slavery. While there are slaves expressing varying degrees of satisfaction and misery, and there were slave owners who cared more about their slaves than others (most often in the smaller farms), the brutalities reported about cruel masters and overseers shocked sensibilities. Even Olmsted broke observation neutrality in reporting a debate with a slave owner who noted the law then permitted him to beat both his wife and his slave, so he sees no difference, to which Olmsted felt compelled to reply that the law will act to protect the abused wife but no Southern laws then acted to protect the abused slaves.

Olmsted delivered an an mathematically descriptive analysis that slavery was not economically efficient. Paying slave labor low incomes for life produced workers little motivated to work hard. Using violence as a motivation only produced workers who worked at levels just enough to avoid punishment. Slaves farms were further inefficient as owners provided housing and care to slaves for life meant that only a portion of the slave population was economically productive. One farm, rather than risk their life investment in slaves, hired Irish itinerant workers for dangerous work, The author provided examples and data showing that farms that had higher paid non-slave workers were far more productive and more profitable. In addition, the existence of a large number of low income employees was a damper on the Southern economy as they had little purchasing power to purchase goods.

The book editor Arthur Schlesinger notes Olmsted hoped the Southern states would recognize the inefficiency of their slave system and end it on their own accord. He observes some abolitionists denounced these writings for not taking a moral stance against slavery. These were meant as depictions as to what was observed without commentary. They remain as a great collection of slave life descriptions published before the Civil War.


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