Why Did American Slavery Persist?

By Nancy Spannaus

January 10, 2021—In a Zoom presentation to a discussion group on Sunday Jan. 3, I began to tackle the question of why, despite enormous activity in favor of abolition in the early period of our Republic, the institution of slavery persisted until the Civil War. My hour-long presentation, entitled “Hamiltonian Economics and the Persistence of American Slavery,” was taped by the host, Rising Tide Foundation founder Matt Ehret. It is available  on my new You Tube channel, complete with the ensuing discussion.

Before I give you a short resumé of my lecture, two introductory points must be stressed. First, as I argued in my initial post on slavery on this blog, there was a strong, broad belief at the time of the Revolution and Constitutional convention that chattel slavery was not only evil, but on its way to extinction.  In other words, contrary to much popular opinion today, the commitment to enslaving black people was not “baked into American DNA.” There was always a battle being waged by those who demanded that slavery be abolished.

Why Did American Slavery Persist?

Black soldiers in the thousands joined the Revolution on the American side. What happened?

Second, the successful abolition of slavery (and/or slave-like servitude like that imposed by the British Empire on its colony India) required a rejection of British imperial economics.  The adoption of Hamiltonian economic principles was an essential element of freeing the nation (emphatically including the oppressed black population) from the slave practices which the British System has insisted upon. A Hamiltonian political economy, as Mathew Carey stressed in a series of open letters in 1819, was crucial to ensuring the happiness of the nation and all its inhabitants.

Carey especially emphasized Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures as the bedrock for a successful political economy. His summary of Hamilton’s principles, which he contrasted to those of Adam Smith, began with the statement: “Industry is the only sure foundation of national virtue, happiness, and greatness; and, in all its useful shapes and forms, has an imperious claim on governmental protection.”

I stress that my presentation, not to mention this article, are works in progress, as I continue to pursue the subject. Even the summary points I just made are mostly implicit in the lecture. But the review of the history of American policies toward slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries which I have compiled, provides a good number of eye-openers, and thus a good starting point for gaining clarity on the issue of American slavery which has so plagued our nation.

A Brief Outline

My presentation was divided into five parts as follows: 1) American Slavery in 1789; 2) Slavery and the Constitution; 3) The Hamiltonian Threat to the Slave System; 4) The Sabotage; and 5) The Drive Toward Abolition. Each section features long-buried elements of the battle against slavery, a battle which was ever being pursued among the non-enslaved population, as well as the enslaved themselves.

Take, for example, the situation in the Deep South.  How many people know that the colony of Georgia was established in 1733 on an anti-slavery basis?  Founder James Oglethorpe fought a pitched battle with his slave-holding neighbors in South Carolina (and their sponsors in England) in an attempt to keep the abominable institution out of his territory, but ultimately lost by 1750. Equally surprising to me were the number of abolition societies which were active in the pre-Constitution era.

Why Did American Slavery Persist?

In discussing the issue of slavery at the Constitutional Convention, I rely heavily on the insights of historian Sean Wilentz, as discussed in his book No Property in Man.  To mention one: The fact that the Constitution gave the Federal government power over the future of the slave trade, and over U.S. territories, was a crucial tool for the abolition of slavery altogether. It was not for nothing that Southern plantation holders such as Patrick Henry opposed the document, explicitly condemning it because it meant that Congress could “take our n…s away.” (See my review here.)

Section 3 on Hamilton’s political economy essentially reprises arguments I made in my 2019 post “Hamilton’s Economics Aimed to End Slavery”; there’s not much new there, but it is of utmost relevance. One of the crucial aspects was Hamilton’s attacks on the British Empire’s imposition of “free trade,” which suppressed manufacturing, and de facto encouraged the slave trade. (See an elaboration here.)

Then, in section 4, comes a summary discussion of the sabotage, which was led by President Thomas Jefferson, a dedicated opponent of Hamilton’s financial system and the industrial progress which was needed to abolish slavery. Here I again bring in the British imperial element, which expressed itself economically in the British bankers’ financing of the Southern cotton economy and its expansion west. Eventually the saboteurs succeeded in reversing the Constitution’s paradigm, by which slavery was considered a local institution, temporarily tolerated, while freedom was the national norm. In the Dred Scott decision in 1857, the Court effectively ruled that freedom from slavery was a local exception—and could not be stopped from spreading to all the territories, and overturning anti-slavery laws where they already existed.

An image of slavery in Kentucky. Under Hamilton’s system, this oppression would end.

Section 5 features the role of Henry C. Carey, whose work was brought to the fore again in a groundbreaking book by the late Allen Salisbury, The Civil War and the American System, The Battle Against the British 1860-1876. In particular, I highlight Carey’s argument that only by raising the value of labor (i.e., living standards through industrialization) with protection, especially tariffs, can slavery be “extinguished” (his word). He wrote a book in 1853 addressing this topic, and steadfastly pursued this strategy as a leader of the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln’s chief economic advisor. Indeed, he argued that it was the sabotage of industrial and infrastructure development in the South which permitted slavery to get a new lease on life after 1833, i.e., with the second Jackson administration, which killed the Second Bank of the United States and reduced the tariff.

Hamilton Needed Today

Mathew Carey’s point from 1819 cannot be reiterated often enough: without a moral political economy, a nation cannot have a healthy economy. In the 19th Century, such an economy included ridding the nation of slavery, which was not only evil and hideous to its victims, but also corrosive of the entire society, culturally and economically. To do it required Hamiltonian economics, which Abraham Lincoln and his allies provided.

Electrical engineers at a construction site. Reindustrialization will create the basis for racial collaboration rebuilding the country.

Today, we not only have to continue the fight against the destructive legacy of slavery, culturally and economically, but also reverse the deadly effects of having abandoned Hamiltonian principles for decades – effects that range from a collapse of vital infrastructure, to a decline in manufacturing, and income inequality.

Hamilton’s economics, as I show in my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, are not value-free. They are imbued with the requirement for moral treatment of every human being through establishing a system that provides for continuous economic progress. You don’t believe me?  Read the book.

And trust that more installments on the issue of American slavery will appear on this blog. Eventually, maybe even a new book.