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Slavery and American Economic Development

by Gavin Wright

152 pages / 5.50 x 8.50 inches / 21 figures, 4 maps

ebook available

Southern History

  Hardcover / 9780807131831 / October 2006
  Paperback / 9780807152287 / February 2013

Through an original analysis of slavery as an economic institution, Gavin Wright presents a fresh look at the economic divergence between North and South in the antebellum era.

Wright draws a distinction between slavery as a form of work organization (the aspect that has dominated historical debates) and slavery as a set of property rights. Slaves could be purchased and carried to any location where slavery was legal; they could be assigned to any task regardless of gender or age; the could be punished for disobedience, with no effective recourse to the law; they could be accumulated as a form of wealth; they could be sold or bequeathed. Wright argues that slave-based commerce was central to the eighteenth-century rise of the Atlantic economy, not because slave plantations were superior as a method of organizing production, but because slaves could be put to work on sugar plantations that could not have attracted free labor on economically viable terms.

On the mainland, Wright suggests that the decisive steps in regional divergence came with the abolition of slavery in the northern states and the exclusion of slavery from the Northwest Territory, measures whose economic impact has been underappreciated. He portrays the seventy years between the Constitution and southern secession as an economic cold war between two fundamentally different systems of property rights. Paradoxically, both sides had reason to claim victory in this contest, if each were allowed to use an economic scoreboard appropriate to its property-rights regime. Rather than seeing the slave South as a flourishing economy that subsequently declined, Wright maintains that the roots of postbellum backwardness were evident in the antebellum era.

Startling, insightful, rigorously argued yet accessible to a broad readership, Slavery and American Economic Development is certain to become a classic. 

Gavin Wright is William Robertson Coe Professor in American Economic History at Stanford University and the author of The Political Economy of the Cotton South and Old South, New South: Revolutions in the Southern Economy Since the Civil War, winner of the Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award of the Southern Historical Association. He is a past president of the Economic History Association and the Agricultural History Society.

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