24 May 2014

Meatless Friday Saturday, Civil War Edition

The U.S. Government spent over $1 billion dollars from 1860-1865 to wage the war that subdued the Southern states and ended slavery. That's 1865 dollars. And that doesn't include money spent by Confederate states.

In 1860, there were roughly 385,000 slave owners in the United States-- including states that did not secede.

Though slavery existed in many nations of the Western Hemisphere, every such nation ended slavery in the time between 1794 and 1888. Only two nations accomplished this via war: Haiti and the U.S.

So, being bored waiting for daughters' dance classes to end, I wondered how much would each slaveholder have gotten (in today's dollars) if the government simply bought the freedom of the slaves? The answer is, it depends on how you calculate it-- but the amount is significant.

This site discusses the various ways in which the value of a dollar may be calculated between different years; the manner of calculating this varies. You can read it yourself; I am no economist.

According to the site, an 1865 dollar would be worth between $12.80 and $1,680.00 today. Thus, the U.S. Government spent between $12,800,000,000.00 (12.8 billion) and $1,680,000,000,000.00 (1.68 trillion) in today's dollars.

Dividing the sums equally among the number of slave owners (yes, there are other ways to to this), each slaveholder would have gotten the following amount of today's dollars to free their slaves:

Simple cost of living: $38,480
Labor value: $319,800 (using unskilled labor value)
Labor value: $647,400 (using production level worker value)
Economic power: $4,368,000

Just a thought exercise, of course, though several countries did just that-- they compensated the former owners to secure the greater moral and societal good of ending the abhorrent practice of slavery. Again, the Lincoln administration spent from $12.8 billion to $1.68 trillion on the war. What if he just signed checks instead?

Oh, and in case you were wondering, 620,000 soldiers died in the war, and an undetermined number of civilians.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. How would this thought exercise deal with intransigent slave owners who didn't want to sell, or who would try to take the money and then turn around and buy more slaves? Presumably at some point you'd have to officially outlaw slavery, seize the slaves at market value (sort of like eminent domain), and then set them free, all under threat of force if not outright war.


thetimman said...

Certainly it would entail the abolition of slavery in exchange for the compensation. Giving away money without any hope of changing underlying behavior is a more recent governmental policy.

thetimman said...

Oh, and as a p.s. Of sorts, the US had already outlawed the international slave trade in 1808, so once all were freed more could not be bought even if they wanted to. Further aside, the confederate constitution also outlawed the international slave trade.

ATW said...

I thought Lincoln said the war was about 'preserving the union,' and not about slavery. Could he have paid them not to secede?

truthseeker said...

Tim, were you aware that during the war, Pius IX wrote to Jefferson Davis and expressed his strong support for the Confederacy. I have very much come to believe that the Union waged an unjust war.

Athelstane said...

Accepting the premise that there are serious problems with how Lincoln waged the wear - and planned the peace - there's still a difficulty here. Namely, that the Deep South, at least, was not prepared to stick around long enough to negotiate with a President Lincoln. They simply started seceding in December, three months before Lincoln was even inaugurated. By the time he was sworn in, the nation Lincoln had become president of had already shrunk by seven states.

The obvious counter is that a serious, proactive effort by a President-elect Lincoln in the weeks after his election (rather than the calculated silence he lapsed into) might have brought South Carolina et al to the table before they took the final, fatal step. Yet the difficulty here is that, for the fire eaters, the first basis for any deal would be preservation of the institution of slavery in some more explicit constitutional terms - terms that many Republicans backing Lincoln would simply balk at, just as they balked at the Crittenden Plan. It's hard to think of any level of compensation that the likes of Rhett, Wigfall, Ruffin, Yancey, Gist, Stevens would accept in 1860.

Why? Well, a generously compensated manumission may make slaveowners immediately solvent, but opens up all sorts of other cans of worms - what will become of the three million slaves in the South? Will they still be employed in working cash crop plantations? Will they be made citizens? Can they vote? How will any changes affect Southern society? How can the Southern economy survive?

In retrospect, simply buying out the slaveowners looks like a good deal, one which most Southerners would take in, say, 1870 if you offered them a do-over. But the point may be made that they had been forced to see what the alternative looked like first. And a lot of the bitterest opponents of manumission and Yankeedom simply had to be killed (something like 1 in 4 white males of military age) off first.