History has shown that slavery is an extremely profitable venture until it isn’t. New technological developments are a double edged sword for slave masters, as the increased productivity machines allow for is offset by their slaves own lack of education and inability to effectively utilize new technology, and growing slave populations make keeping your labor force from killing you more and more a daunting and costly task. At a certain point, slavery becomes too unwieldy and retards development. This existential fear was ever present for slavers in America during the entirety of their existence. We see this in their bloody and desperate fight to have kept slavery alive. By 1865, commercial slavery in the US was only abolished because it was ready to be surpassed by industrial production employing proletarians.

New World, New Markets

In the America of the seventeenth century, so much fertile land was available for so low a price that it was actually hard to find anyone willing to come as a laborer. Europeans flocked to the New World ready to begin life as a landowners and proprietors. Historian Thelma Foote notes that “the colony builders initially intended to rely almost exclusively on white indentured servants.” For the great masses of poor Europeans, getting to the New World seemed like a way to escape the destitution and squalor of their home countries. Signing away the next four to seven years of their lives, usually to grow tobacco or other crops, seemed to them a fair trade.

This cheap labor made the plantations immediately very profitable; so much so that the stream of indentured servants who arrived more or less voluntarily was no longer enough. The growth of the plantations had far exceeded the growth of the colonial labor pool. Not only was a new source of slave labor needed, a new form was needed as well. It was no longer an option to go through the trouble of finding people willing to work for free.

There seemed to be no solution in either Europe or America. The indigenous population had been enslaved in the past but were simply too difficult to take and control. It was dangerous work going into native territory and stealing people and there was always the risk of a war party coming back for them and then razing the whole damn town. What few were able to be taken usually succumbed to disease quickly. Working with the natives, too, seemed impossible, as slavery was not part of the indigenous mode of production in eastern North America. Many even argued that the English, who would come to dominate the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the eighteenth century, were better off making friends with the natives, as they were “natural allies” against the Spanish.

Africa, however, was another story. Slavery was already a feature in most, if not all, African societies and African slaves brought to the Americas were less susceptible to disease. As such, they seemed a perfect fit. In Virginia, in 1700, there were a mere 6,000 or so African slaves. By 1763, that number had increased to well over 170,000, nearly half the population.

Though agricultural slavery developed first in the north, it was stymied by the harsh winters. Though still a feature in northern plantations, as well as in urban workshops, slaves became more and more staples of the northern elite, acting as butlers, chauffeurs, and servants.  The real money for northerners was in the sale of slaves. Northern ports, especially in New England, became a hub for the slave trade. Their market was in the plantations of the south and the Caribbean. Slavers there preferred to deal with slaves not taken directly from Africa, as they were already accustomed to European etiquette and believed to be less likely to rebel.

Slavery became all the more profitable throughout the eighteenth century as northern slave merchants raked in money selling to southern plantation aristocrats who also raked in money cultivating tobacco, sugar, and cotton. Even the sea faring slave traders had their fill. Despite the inevitable economic and diplomatic interruption caused by the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States, the British shipped, at the very least, 40% of all slaves from Africa to America. And though the British government abolished slavery in 1807, this did little to stop the transport of slaves by British merchants outside of Europe.

Industry and the Slave

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, slavery was firmly entrenched in southern society but declining significantly in the north where agriculture was taking a backseat to industry. In the 1790s and 1800s, British engineers and mechanics who made it to the US were immediately hired by wealthy northern financiers looking to build factories. With the south providing huge quantities of cheap agricultural products, especially cotton, the north found a foundation for industrialization.

Northern states had been gradually abolishing slavery since the 1770s. The Puritan anti-slavery rhetoric of the Quakers in New England and the Enlightenment philosophy of the American revolutionaries had changed public perception in just about every state above the Mason-Dixon Line. Vermont became the first state to abolish slavery in their 1777 Constitution. New Jersey was the last northern state to take similar measures when, in 1804, they passed a plan for gradual emancipation which would transform slavery into something more akin to colonial indentured servitude.

This was not an act of charity nor the product of a new humanist mindset. Anti-black racism was still near unanimously prevalent and many in the north, especially New Jersey, begrudged the abolitionist measures. So why did these states take measures at all? To push black people into agriculture and whites into industry.

By 1832, northern textile companies made up 88 out of 106 American corporations valued at over $100,000. These textile mills were worked, out of necessity, by wage laborers. White women and children, groups decidedly more educated than black slaves, were pulled from homes and fields into crowded factories. In their place, the former slaves could become the keepers of northern agriculture.

It is important to note that no slave could ever have worked in the modern industrial factories. Slaves, for the most part, were less educated than ever the European immigrants filling the factories. Though the machines at the time can hardly be considered complex, most considered black people as subhuman and “childlike,” likely unable to master the process of industrial manufacturing. Additionally, slave labor would slow the process of industrial manufacturing. Whereas the modern wage earner fears firing and so does everything to keep themselves employed, the slave in the same situation would worry about nothing. It’s not like they’re gonna lose their job. As was seen in plantations, slaves were not blindly obedient. Having no incentive to work harder but fearing to actually rebel or runaway, slaves often used passive aggressive means of resistance. Slowdowns and sabotage, in particular, notes Howard Zinn, were common. As bad as this was on the plantations, in a factory, this would be disastrous. The industrial proprietor needs the industrial proletariat. In the modern workplace, it is the wage, not the whip, that secures obedience.

New Jersey was the only exception to this. Western New Jersey, especially near Philadelphia, was significantly more urban and so was the hub of abolitionist thought in the state. Towards the east, however, agriculture was still king. The vast rural countryside still needed slaves. In Monmouth and Bergen Counties alone, the number of slaves more than doubled between 1772 and 1800. Thus, New Jersey was the only northern state to maintain slavery in some way, shape, or form until the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Census records do show, however, that the slave population in New Jersey dwindled between from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end of the Civil War. In 1800 there were 12,442 slaves. By 1860, only 218 remained. More than 5,000 gained their freedom just between 1820 and 1830. The growth of the proletariat proper and the corresponding diminution of slavery was inevitable.

Industry and the Civil War

The Civil War was a fight to death between two opposing orders, the old and the new, for the fate of the United States. The Confederacy was on the side of agricultural aristocracy, supporting free trade and, as was proven during the course of the war, backwardness. Keeping the US agrarian and underdeveloped, subservient to and dependent on the world market, would’ve resulted in poverty and ruination the moment the demand for cotton fell. Hence, as soon as their waters were blockaded and they were cut off from Europe, they crumbled beneath the Union’s industrialized army and were unable to secure any such technology for themselves. Cotton Diplomacy simply forgot that there were other cotton producers in the world, some closer to Europe than they.

The Union, on the other hand, was on the side of industrialization and modernity. They had more powerful banks, productive urban centers, and the kind of industry which could win the war and, eventually, the world. If the slave needed to be replaced with the proletarian, then so be it. As President Abraham Lincoln wrote, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it.”

After the war, the goal of the Reconstruction era was to create a new, industrial south in harmony with the north. The new south needed to share the same economic motivation as the north with its great industrial base. While the north was exploding with the never before seen marvels of industry and technology—of capitalism—the south began down the long path to industrialization; beginning with the very same rudimentary textile mills which emerged some seventy years earlier in the north.

Child worker in a South Carolina textile mill, 1908.

The Black Nation

So what happened to black people following the end of commercial slavery, both in the north and south? When slavery ended, semi-feudalism and semi-colonialism began. Sharecropping turned black slaves into tenant farmers, effectively tied to the land, and slave masters into landlords, receiving tribute from their former slaves.

As tenant farmers, they proved more useful than slaves. Unlike the slave, the tenant farmer has initiative, is invested in the success of their crop. Where the slave may laze as an act of quiet rebellion, the tenant farmers very life depends on good harvests, cultivated fields, and the many hundreds of hours of work this takes. Of course, it’s the former slave masters who benefited the most from this.

Indeed, the “free” black population formed their own nation, a black nation. This, of course, was imposed on them from without. Unlike the white proletariat, theirs was a feudal exploitation which produced superprofit for their colonial masters. Their labor benefited only the white nation, exactly as the exploitation of the third world creates superprofits which benefit only the imperialist power and its labor aristocracy.

Segregation, both culturally and in written law, defined the borders of the black nation. Jim Crow defined the terms of their unconditional surrender, was the black nations Treaty of Versailles. In the absence of iron chains, rope would suffice to inspire terror in and do war with the new black nation as the white supremacist ideology which justified and maintained slavery now justified and maintained colonization. It can be said, and has, that the terror and colonial exploitation of Jim Crow was even worse than slavery. But such is life for a citizen of the black nation trapped within the white one.