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Civil War Chronicles

The Emancipation Question

May 2024
4min read

A lively dialogue over the economics of slavery played out in newspapers and magazines on the eve of the Civil War

 One hundred fifty years ago on a “frigid and repulsive” January day in New York, 30-year-old William G. Sewell departed on a steamer for Barbados, the first stop on a tour of the Caribbean island colonies of the British West Indies. Doctors had recommended that the New York Times editor travel south because of tuberculosis. While recuperating, he would file a series of articles on a topic that would prove of enormous interest to Americans: how had the colony’s islands been affected by the abolition of slavery 25 years earlier? The British West Indies had suffered its fair share of economic difficulties, and argument ensued over whether abolition had helped or harmed. The relevance to America’s situation was obvious: the United States held 4 million people in bondage, and the debate over the peculiar institution’s future threatened to tear the nation apart.

Sewell, a native of British Quebec, must have encountered the antislavery sentiments of his homeland, and perhaps shared them. But, as a former attorney, he used logic rather than emotion for his arguments. In an article published on April 20, 1859, he claimed that he would address fiduciary, not moral, issues. “I consider the question to be a commercial one—to be judged favorably or unfavorably by commercial rules,” he wrote. He had “no sympathy with the argument of the Abolitionists, that the question of emancipation is one in which the black race are to be only considered, or that ‘depreciation of property is as nothing compared with a depreciation of morality.’”

The British Empire had outlawed slavery in 1834 and phased it out over the next four years in a surprisingly peaceful transition. “Let us look at the facts,” wrote Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in 1843: “the abolition of slavery in the nineteen English colonies has thus far not given rise to a single insurrection; it has not cost the life of a single man, and yet in the English colonies there are twelve times as many blacks as there are whites.” However, the production of sugar, one of the staple crops of the West Indies, had fallen off since emancipation, and advocates on both sides of the debate argued over whether the end of slavery had caused the decline.

The Times started publishing Sewell’s examination of these issues in March and continued them through the spring, summer, and fall as he reported from Barbados, St. Vincent, Grenada, Jamaica, Trinidad, and other islands. (In 1861 Sewell published an expanded version as a book titled The Ordeal of Free Labor in the British West Indies.)

In Barbados Sewell acknowledged that sugar exports had declined, but he reported that exports had been decreasing even under slavery, with many plantations being sold for debt or abandoned. As Sewell asserted, “[N]o Barbadian planter would hesitate in 1859 to select free labor in preference to slave labor, as in his belief the more economical system of the two.”

Nor did Sewell notice that the island’s black population was suffering from a surfeit of freedom. “The masses are certainly no worse than they were under Slavery; while those who had the intelligence, industry and energy to rise, have risen to positions of competence, independence and wealth, which they never could have enjoyed under any other than a free system,” he wrote. “Poor whites,” however, suffered the most under the new conditions. “Incapable themselves of undergoing the hardships of field labor beneath a tropical sun, they employed, before emancipation, one or two slaves, upon whose services they lived. Deprived of this species of maintenance and having no resources of their own, they became such a burden to the community, that the Government has been called upon to adopt some measures for their relief.”

Sewell noted changes that emancipation had brought to the islands, including the arrival of indentured servants from Asia: “coolies” intended to replace the black laborers freed by emancipation. “The law provides for their free return after they have completed the term of industrial residence for which they were indentured,” wrote Sewell, who approved of the practice.

In another article Sewell quoted a letter he had received from the British governor of the West Indies. The total cost of producing a hogshead of sugar with slaves, the governor wrote, had been more than 10 pounds. With free labor, the cost dropped to less than four. “There is very little doubt—and it cannot be intelligently questioned—that Barbados, under the régime of Slavery, never approached her present prosperous condition; and, in comparing the present with the past, whether that comparison be made in her commercial, mechanical, agricultural, industrial or educational status, I can come to no other conclusion than that the island offers a striking example of the superior economy of the free system,” Sewell concluded. His verdict: while racial tensions were high on some of the islands, and Jamaica in particular was suffering from an economic decline, emancipation was not responsible for their struggles.

The popular Harper’s Weekly jumped into the fray on September 3 with an editorial expressing uncertainty and anxiety over the issues Sewell had raised in his articles, including a somewhat panicky account of racial unrest in Barbados that the Times had published on June 29. “This is the destiny of the British West Indies,” the editorial ran. “This is the result of emancipation. Impoverishment and decay were the first fruits; extermination of the whites will be the ripe harvest.”

Papers in the South nurtured little sentiment for emancipation. In July the editor of the Register in Mobile even advocated the repeal of federal laws passed in 1808 that ended the African slave trade. Proslavery sentiment was a regular feature in DeBow’s Review, an agricultural journal published in New Orleans. In June 1859 the journal ran an article by noted Virginia agriculturist Edmund Ruffin about the effects on Southern farmers of the high prices for black slaves. Every step made to end slavery in Virginia, Ruffin declared, would “be more and more calamitous to the economical, social, and political interests of this commonwealth; and the complete consummation will be one of the greatest evils to the whole of the Southern States.” Ruffin believed that slavery was “one of our chief blessings, and that its removal, by any means whatever, would be an unmixed evil and a curse to the whole community.”

The views in DeBow’s stood in marked contrast to what appeared in the New York Times, but both publications agreed on one thing: slaves were expensive. On August 26 the Times listed the results of a slave auction that had taken place in Bowling Green, Missouri. “The prices were good,” an editorial writer reported. “A man verging upon three score brought about $800; a girl of six upwards of $500, and a girl of thirteen nearly $1,200.

“Such statements grate harshly on Northern ears, as well they may,” the editorialist continued. “An auction sale of human beings is a specially hideous spectacle when witnessed in a country which boasts of its freedom and civilization.” The writer acknowledged that such sales had once taken place in New York City. “Slavery must fall in the South as it has fallen in the North; but what state of society shall succeed Slavery in the South is a grave question, not to be determined by the rash and angry agitations of partisan politics.”

When war finally came, Edmund Ruffin helped usher it in. The agriculturist and Confederate “fire-eater” traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, as hostilities appeared imminent. On April 12, 1861, when Confederate cannon took aim at the Union stronghold of Fort Sumter out in the harbor, a Southern artillery battery gave Ruffin the honor of firing one of the first shots of the Civil War.

Sewell died of his illness the following year. Ruffin survived the war, but on June 17, 1865, after hearing news of the Confederate defeat, he penned a note in which he lambasted “the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race,” and then killed himself with a pistol shot to the head.


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