Some Insights from Henry C. Carey

By Nancy Spannaus

Feb. 22, 2023—A recent post by my friend Lawrence Freeman on his blog Africa and the World provoked me to finally address the issue of the relationship between industrialization and slavery. The travesty of the current popular assertion that the United States owes its fantastic progress in industrialization to chattel slavery, is underscored by Africa’s urgent demand for modern technology.

Freeman’s article reported on the ongoing campaign of African leaders to obtain reliable access to electricity, quoting well-known African philanthropist Mo Ibrahim saying:

600 million African people are without access to electricity. Without access to electricity, you don’t have access to life. You don’t have education. You don’t have health. You don’t have businesses. You have nothing!

Freeman goes on to report on the efforts of South Africans, in particular, to attain access to the widespread use of nuclear energy, as the most reliable, efficient, and environmentally clean source of electricity for the impoverished continent.[1]

Industrialization is the Antithesis of Slavery
Africans are demanding advanced technology to escape poverty. Here, the continent’s one nuclear plant. located in South Africa.

Africans’ demand for this advanced technology brought to my mind the arguments of Abraham Lincoln’s economic adviser, and noted political economist, Henry C. Carey in his famous 1853 book on the slave trade. In The Slave Trade, Domestic and Foreign: Why It Exists, and How It May be Extinguished, Carey painstakingly describes the advance of the hideous practice, while exposing its roots in an imperial economic system which denied the fruits of technological progress to the people of Africa (and elsewhere).

To end slavery, Carey insisted, governments had to take measures to “raise the value of man” through providing modern technology, promoting domestic trade, and investing in infrastructure and education. Those measures can be appropriately described as the American System of Political Economy, an approach to organizing an economy based on the principles established by Alexander Hamilton.

In the rest of this post, I present the gist of Carey’s argument, which emphasizes that it was the denial of industrialization that lay behind the expanding slave trade and slavery itself, not the opposite. While additional arguments on how slavery actually impoverishes a nation can and should be mustered, Carey’s views should be taken into account by those confronting the history of slavery in our nation and internationally.

How Can Slavery Be Extinguished?

In his 1853 book, Carey’s fifteenth chapter, as this subtitle indicates, directly addresses the question of how slavery can be extinguished, using examples from the British Isles, India, Africa, and Virginia. His argument is framed in strictly economic, even capitalist, terms: labor has to become so valuable within the country in question, that there is no incentive for people to be exported (and exploited) as slaves.

Industrialization is the Antithesis of Slavery
Henry C. Carey, Lincoln’s chief economic adviser

This is not to say that Carey didn’t have a moral point of view; he most definitely did. This political scientist was on record as viewing all human beings as “being made in the image of his Creator, and capable of almost infinite elevation.”[2] He also fought tirelessly against the Malthusian frauds of British economists of his day.

But in this chapter, and the book as a whole, Carey is arguing from the standpoint of history and economic principles. Thus, he writes:[3]

Why is it that men in Africa sell their fellowmen to be transported to Cuba or Brazil? For the same reason, obviously, that other men sell flour in Boston or Baltimore to go [be exported to – ed.] to Liverpool or Rio Janeiro—because it is cheaper in the former than in the latter cities. If then, we desired to put a stop to the export, would not our object be effectually accomplished by the adoption of measures that would cause prices to be higher in Boston than in Liverpool, and higher in Baltimore than in Rio? That such would be the case must be admitted by all.

If then, we desired to stop the export of negroes from Africa, would not our object be effectually and permanently attained, could we so raise the value of man in Africa that he would be worth as much, or more, there than in Cuba? Would not the export of Coolies cease if man could be rendered more valuable in India than in Jamaica or Guiana? Would not the destruction of cottages, the eviction of their inhabitants, and the waste of life throughout Ireland, at once be terminated, could man be made as valuable there as he is here? Would not the export of the men, women, and children of Great Britain cease, if labour there could be brought to a level with that of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania?

Assuredly it would; for men do not voluntarily leave home, kindred, and friends. On the contrary, so great is the attachment to home, that it requires, in most cases, greatly superior attractions to induce them to emigrate. Adam Smith said that, of all commodities, man was the hardest to be removed—and daily observation shows that he was right.

So, what needs to be done, Carey asks.

To terminate the African slave trade, we need, then, only to raise the value of man in Africa. To terminate the forced export of men, women, and children from Ireland, we need only to raise the value of men in Ireland; and to put an end to our own domestic slave trade, nothing is needed except that we raise the value of man in Virginia. To bring the trade in slaves, of all colours and in all countries, at once and permanently to a close, we need to raise the value of man at home, let that home be where it may. …

Industrialization is the Antithesis of Slavery
A slave coffle in Central Africa in the mid-19th century.

Instead, Carey says, the British chose to deliberately deprive Africans of the technologies to improve their condition – just as they had deliberately destroyed the manufacturing capability of India previously.

For two centuries it had been deemed desirable to have from that country [Africa – ed.] the same “inexhaustible supply of cheap labour” that Ireland has supplied to England; and, therefore, no effort was spared to prevent the negroes from making any improvement in their modes of cultivation. “It was,” says Macpherson, “the European policy” to prevent the Africans from arriving at perfection in any of their pursuits, “from a fear of interfering with established branches of trade elsewhere.” More properly, it was the English policy.

… How was all this done? By preventing the poor Africans from obtaining machinery to enable them to prepare their sugar for market, or for producing cotton and indigo and combining them into cloth—precisely the same course of operation that was pursued in Jamaica with such extraordinary loss of life. …

To stop the export of men from that important portion of the earth, it is required that we should raise the value of man in Africa, and to do this, the African must be enabled to have machinery, to bring the artisan to his door, to build towns, to have schools, and to make roads. … (emphasis added)

The Mindset of Imperial Slavery

Carey goes on in this chapter to create imaginary dialogues between those countries suffering from slavery and their oppressors. A most telling one is that between Virginians and the British nation, where the Virginians bemoan their reliance on a slave economy, and the economic warfare that British manufacturers have used to destroy their attempts to industrialize.

A scene from impoverished Virginia in the 1850s.

Carey then imagines the answer of the British (who did, you may recall, purchase upwards of 75% of all the slave-produced cotton of the Southern states):

“We need cheap food, and the more you can be limited to agriculture, the greater will be the quantity of wheat pressing upon our market, and the more cheaply will our cheap labourers be fed. We need large revenue, and the more you can be forced to raise tobacco, the larger our consumption, and the larger our revenue. We need cheap cotton and cheap sugar, and the less the value of men, women, and children in Virginia, the larger will be the export of slaves to Texas, the greater will be the competition of the producers of cotton and sugar to sell their commodities in our markets, and the lower will be prices, while the greater will be the competition for the purchase of our cloth, iron, lead, and copper, and the higher will be prices. Our rule is to buy cheaply and sell dearly, and it is only the slave that submits dearly to buy and cheaply to sell.

Our interest requires that we should be the great work-shop of the world, and that we may be so it is needful that we should use all the means in our power to prevent other nations from availing themselves of their vast deposits of ore and fuel; for if they made iron they would obtain machinery, and be enabled to call to their aid the vast powers that nature has everywhere provided for the service of man. We desire that there shall be no steam-engines, no bleaching apparatus, no furnaces, no rolling-mills, except our own; and our reason for this is, that we are quite satisfied that agriculture is the worst and least profitable pursuit of man, while manufactures are the best and most profitable.

It is our wish, therefore, that you should continue to raise tobacco and corn, and manufacture the corn into negroes for Texas and Arkansas; and the more extensive the slave trade the better we shall be pleased, because we know that the more negroes you export, the lower will be the price of cotton. Our people are becoming from day to day more satisfied that it is ‘for their advantage’ that the negro shall ‘wear his chains in peace,’ even although it may cause the separation of husbands and wives, parents and children, and although they know that, in default of other employment, women and children are obliged to employ their labour in the culture of rice among the swamps of Carolina, or in that of sugar among the richest and most unhealthy lands of Texas. This will have one advantage. It will lessen the danger of over-population.”

Finding a Solution

For Carey and his co-thinkers, like Abraham Lincoln, the solution to the perpetuation of the economic, moral, and political disaster of slavery was clear: implement a policy of protection for industry; build infrastructure to connect the entire nation; and ensure mass education and technological advance. Indeed, the economic program of the Lincoln Administration followed precisely on those lines, with the added necessary condition of the provision of public credit to carry out this rapid industrialization process.

Carey saw expanding rail connections as well as industry as a way of creating conditions to defeat slavery.

It was also Carey’s firm belief that it was the abandonment of such an American System policy, especially in the second Jackson administration, that spurred more aggressive expansion of slavery, and impelled us toward the Civil War. Of course, the American System of Hamilton and Washington was also sabotaged much earlier under Jefferson and Madison, creating an increasingly difficult situation for American System president John Quincy Adams to try to turn around.

Industrialization American-System-style was always the enemy of slavery and was fought by the slave interests, from Britain to New York and Charleston, for that reason. To teach history claiming the opposite is to not only distort and dishonor the anti-slavery movement in our country, but to create additional obstacles to resolving the problems cause by the legacy of slavery today. [to be continued]

[1] You can find more on recent efforts by numerous African nations to gain access to nuclear power here.

[2] See his 1857 speech on Money, excerpted in Allen Salisbury, The Civil War and the American System, America’s Battle with Britain, 1860-1876.

[3] The following quotations have been slightly edited for readability through paragraphing. The original text has been made freely available by Project Gutenberg and can be found here.


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