How the West (Except for the U.S.) Ended Slavery

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When Jim Powell wrote an article for the Web site "History News Network" (HNN) regarding his new book, Greatest Emancipations: How the West Ended Slavery, he was immediately denounced by some of the commentators on the site. One Lewis Bernstein said he was sick and tired of "those like Jim Powell" distorting history and taking it "out of context." John Edward Phillips accused Powell, a senior fellow of the CATO Institute, of being a liar: "You think you can lie . . . and get away with it," he snarled. "Maybe you can at the Cato Institute . . . but not here on HNN." "Does the Cato Institute endorse it [the book]?, he asked in disbelief.

What could Powell, author of FDR’s Folly, Wilson’s War, and Bully Boy have written to solicit such a reaction? Greatest Emancipations is an historical account of how all the nations of the Western world — except for the U.S. — ended slavery peacefully by utilizing multiple strategies. These strategies, implemented by the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Danes, and others, included slave rebellions, abolitionist campaigns to gain public support for abolition, election of antislavery politicians, encouragement and assistance of runaway slaves, raising private funds to purchase the freedom of slaves, and the use of taxpayer funds to buy the freedom of slaves.

There was violence in some cases, but nothing remotely approaching the death and destruction of the War between the States. "Ultimately," Powell argues, "the more violence was involved in the emancipation process, the worse the outcomes were, making a provocative case for peaceful antislavery strategies."

This is why Powell has been denounced by some at HNN. As academic historians, most of them have "invested" their careers in the view that in order to end slavery 620,000 Americans had to die (the equivalent of about 6 million deaths standardizing for today’s population); more than double that number had to be maimed for life; dozens of Southern cities and towns had to be bombed into rubble; tens of thousands of Southern civilians were justifiably murdered by the U.S. Army; the Constitution had to be suspended in the North; tens of thousands of Northern civilian political dissenters were justly imprisoned without due process; hundreds of opposition newspapers were rightly shut down or destroyed; tens of millions of dollars in private property were justifiably looted by Sherman’s army (and others); and although the North’s financial cost of the war alone would have been enough to purchase the freedom of all the slaves, that was not an option.

The fact that the British, Spanish, French and others ended slavery peacefully — as did the Northern states in the U.S., where slavery existed for over 200 years — is perhaps the court historians’ best-kept secret. Most Americans have only heard of how slavery was ended in the Southern states and are unaware of how it was ended peacefully in the Northern states and in the rest of the Western Hemisphere during the 19th century. There were no "wars of emancipation" in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, or Illinois, which were all once slave states. Powell has let the cat out of the bag, and I predict that the history profession will be in a major state of panic if the book becomes too widely read. The more likely response will be to studiously ignore the book. But who needs the history profession? Read Powell’s book!

Greatest Emancipations is written from the perspective of an author who is steeped in the classical liberal tradition and, unlike almost all historians, appreciates the economic way of thinking. Consequently, one gets the impression that he is haunted by thoughts of alternative courses of history — of the opportunity cost, to use the language of economics. That is, he asks the question, what if America had followed the example of the rest of the world and ended slavery peacefully? What if Abe Lincoln had traveled to Europe to consult with the European governments about how they went about ending slavery peacefully, instead of immediately plunging the nation into the bloodiest war in world history only a few weeks after taking office? What if he acted like a statesman, in other words, rather than as a warmonger and a tyrant? (These are not Powell’s words, but they are the gist of what he is saying.)

To make the point that the rest of the world utilized multiple strategies in the struggle to end slavery in a single century, after the institution had prevailed for some three thousand years, Powell begins with a discussion of ideas that inspired abolitionists throughout the world. These included religious ideas, but religion was never enough. All of the major religions at one time or another accepted or endorsed slavery. What was necessary was the natural rights philosophy that man’s rights to life and liberty are God-given rights. "These ideas," most eloquently stated by Jefferson, says Powell, "were to inspire abolitionists in the United States and abroad, and they helped change history."

The story of how Great Britain ended slavery peacefully is one of the highlights of the book. There were once as many as 15,000 slaves in England herself, along with hundreds of thousands of slaves all throughout the British empire. The British abolitionists combined religion, politics, publicity/public education campaigns, and the legal system to put an end to slavery just two decades prior to the War between the States. The story as told by Powell reminded me once again of the greatness of the American abolitionist Lysander Spooner, author of a book entitled The Unconstitutionality of Slavery. Although Spooner questioned the legitimacy of the Constitution on generations succeeding the founders’, he apparently believed that it could be the proper tool with which to peacefully end slavery in America. His case was never refuted; even Southern apologists for slavery admitted as much. But Spooner’s legal/constitutional route to emancipation — similar to the route taken by all the rest of the world — was short-circuited by Lincoln’s war. Once the war began, Spooner condemned Lincoln and his political compatriots, especially William Seward and Senator Charles Sumner, in extraordinarily harsh terms. (He called General Grant "the chief murderer of the war.")

Powell’s chapter on British emancipation is a fascinating read, describing the heroic William Wilberforce, a member of the House of Commons who was as responsible as any one man for the abolition of slavery in the British empire. Once he succeeded in convincing the public that slavery was barbaric, something that is certainly self-evident to modern ears, a Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, and within seven years, some 800,000 slaves were freed.

Powell then tells the story of how the British navy attempted to stop the international slave trade. Among its major antagonists were New England slave shippers, who continued to deliver slaves from Africa to the Caribbean through the mid 1860s. (The big majority of the slave ships in America were built and sailed from New York, Providence, and Boston harbors.) Although the slave trade in America was banned as of 1808, "an estimated 50,000 slaves were [also] brought into the U.S. between 1807 and 1860," writes Powell. New York City "had been a lively slave trading center."

Powell also writes of the development of the American abolitionist movement in the North, largely ignoring the fact that there were also Southern plans to end slavery (the Virginian St. George Tucker presented the Virginia legislature with a plan for peaceful emancipation in the 1790s, for instance). There was originally great resistance to abolition in the Northern states, writes Powell, just as there was everywhere else in the world. The Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island legislatures introduced bills to ban abolitionist literature; mobs wrecked abolitionist printing presses in Massachusetts; a school in New Hampshire that was used to educate black children was dragged into a swamp with oxen; free blacks were prohibited from living in Illinois ("Land of Lincoln"), Iowa, Indiana, and Oregon; abolitionist "agitators" were whipped; and orphanages for black children were burned down in Pennsylvania. The American abolitionists persevered, however, just as their European brethren had done and were doing.

Slavery was also ended peacefully in Cuba, Brazil, and the Congo, and Powell tells how in great detail. But not in the United States. Here is where Powell echoes what I wrote in The Real Lincoln. Namely, the violent way in which slavery was ended in the U.S., with the slaves being used as political pawns in a war that was about consolidating all political power in Washington, D.C., led to incredibly harsh results and delayed the achievement of any semblance of equality for at least another century. After the U.S. government orchestrated the killing of one out of four Southern men of military age and bombed and burned much of the South into rubble, carrying off tens of millions of dollars in private property (everything from jewelry to silverware, musical instruments, furniture, and clothing according to accounts of Sherman’s march), Southerners were hell-bent on revenge.

As though that wasn’t bad enough, during "Reconstruction" the adult male ex-slaves were registered to vote Republican, and helped the Republican Party loot the South with tax increase after tax increase, with little or nothing to show for all the taxes. "Republicans promoted government spending schemes that resulted in skyrocketing taxes," writes Powell. "Tax rates [in the region] in 1870 were three or four times what they had been in 1860."

Powell describes the hideous "black codes" that were put into place after the war, but he fails to mention that many of them were the work of the military dictatorships that were established by the Republican Party, which was the government in the postwar years, even if they found southerners to serve as puppet mayors, governors, etc. Such codes were originally implemented in Northern states like Illinois (where Lincoln supported them wholeheartedly), and were merely transplanted to the South after the war.

Then when the Republican Party finally left the South, after waging total war on it for four years, and "reconstructing" (i.e., politically looting) it for another twelve, the hapless ex-slaves fell victim to a vengeful white majority for the next several generations.

Perhaps the most controversial statement in Great Emancipations is the last paragraph in the chapter entitled "How Did it All Work Out?" "Although the war brought the end of chattel slavery . . . the resulting death and destruction intensified the determination of former slaveholders and their allies to suppress blacks," says Powell. "The military strategy for abolishing slavery was no short cut," as institutionalized discrimination would last for at least another century. "The idea that the federal government would protect blacks was an illusion, because they were a minority, and a minority isn’t likely to control government in a democracy." Indeed, when Lincoln himself was asked by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens near the end for the war what would happen to the former slaves, he sarcastically replied that they would have to "root, hog or die." They would have to dig their sustenance out of the ground like wild hogs.

The economist in Powell comes out in his final chapter where he discusses the possibility that compensated emancipation could have occurred in the U.S., as it had nearly everywhere else in the world where slavery existed in the nineteenth century.

"Some people have objected that the United States couldn’t have bought the freedom of all the slaves, because this would have cost too much. But buying the freedom of slaves was not more expensive than war. Nothing is more costly than war! The costs include people killed or disabled, destroyed property, high taxes, inflation, military expenditures, shortages, war-related famines and epidemics . . . . The billions of dollars of Union military expenditures during the Civil War would have been better spent reducing the number of slaveholders and slaves, accelerating progress toward total emancipation."

Perhaps the one single passage that is Powell’s most incendiary is this one on page 241: "[S]lavery was being eroded throughout the West by political trends and relentless agitation. The process would have continued and perhaps accelerated without the Civil War."

To back up this statement, Powell argues that peaceful secession would have neutered the federal Fugitive Slave Act (which Lincoln strongly supported), creating a flood of runaway slaves that could not have been stopped and would have broken the back of the slave system. Echoing Spooner’s arguments, he also says that the Confederacy would have been politically isolated by the rest of the world so that "there would have come a time, much sooner than most people might expect, when the combined effects of multiple antislavery strategies would have brought about the fairly peaceful collapse of Confederate slavery. If this seems doubtful, just recall how a combination of pressures led the mighty Soviet Union to collapse and vanish from the map — without a (nuclear) war."

Powell concludes that blacks in America would have achieved freedom and justice much sooner had emancipation been peaceful, as it had been in most of the rest of the world in the nineteenth century.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book, Hamilton’s Curse, will be published on October 21.

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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