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Slavery and the development of agriculture

By Staff | Feb 4, 2019

Growing up in Iowa, I was relatively unexposed to the regional cultural differences of this great country. There was no racial diversity in Royal, Iowa 50 years ago when I was a young man with a total white population here, mostly Danes and Germans. Everything that we learned about race relations we saw on TV or experienced only by traveling to other regions of the country. While our region has a minor ethnic/racial inclusion today there is still relatively minute diversity, reflected in the election of our Congressman Steve King.

While growing up here in a dominantly agrarian rural economy, the development of agriculture here contrasts starkly with the development of the agriculture of the nation as a whole and that of the South. What we know about slavery or race relations we read in books.

When in Washington D.C. last fall, I visited Abraham Lincoln’s summer house and I picked up a book on slavery there that they recommended. While slavery in its initial form was ended by proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, slavery was a primary component of the development of agriculture in the U.S. from 1619 to emancipation and beyond. Variances of discrimination by segregation and Jim Crow laws extended well past emancipation retreating kicking and screaming to reach the point where we now celebrate Martin Luther King Day.

The election of President Trump was in part a backlash from some who have still not conceded in the culture war, who fear a minority majority in the U.S. The differences in culture are more evident in rural regions versus urban population centers yet today. Slavery was very much a part of Steve King’s western civilization that he is so proud of.

Eight of the country’s first twelve Presidents were slaveholders…in office for forty-nine of the nation’s first sixty-one years. George Washington owned 277 slaves, the majority legally the property of his wife Martha. George freed his slaves in his will.

The first 20 black slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619 sold by a Dutch Captain. There were slaves in all colonies by 1708. Indentured servitude was the dominant form of forced labor in northern colonies. It was the less favored form of forced labor overall because it was temporary as terms of indenture expired.

By 1810, 75 percent of blacks in northern states were free. 697,897 slaves were counted in the first census in 1790. Between 1680 and 1750 the proportion of blacks in the general population increased from 7 percent to 44 percent in Virginia and from 17 percent to 61 percent in South Carolina.

All colonies enacted slave conduct laws, following Virginia in 1680. Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia had laws on the books prohibiting teaching slaves to read and write. The U.S. imported over 600,000 slaves, mostly from Western Africa. They constituted just 6 percent of the total slaves brought to the Americas by the slave trade with far more being sold in the Caribbean and Brazil than in the US. 6-20 percent of blacks did not survive the passage.

The U.S. slave population grew domestically until there were 4,000,000 slaves living in the U.S. by 1850. The importation of new slaves was banned in 1808 so by the time of the Civil War, the vast number of slaves living in the U.S. were born here and part of a slave culture. Demand for forced slave labor was primarily ag and crop related. Initially in the U.S., slaves were used to grow tobacco and wheat. Exports of tobacco grew from 20,000 lbs in 1619 to 38 million pounds by 1700. South Carolina lost 30 percent of its slave population during the Revolutionary war due to the disruption caused by the war as well as entreaties by the British promising freedom to blacks who fought with them. An American Tory noted, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of the negros?”

He did have a point. Vermont prohibited slavery in 1777 with most northern states following, the last being New Jersey in 1804. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin transformed agriculture in the South turning cotton into the primary crop with exports growing from 3000 bales in 1790 to 178,000 in 1810.

The center of U.S. agriculture moved south and west from eastern colonies with slave-holders and their slaves moving together leaving unproductive farms as soils played out. They immigrated together to Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas to grow cotton. The exodus from the east-coast states to the deep South was considered by blacks to be similarly as disruptive to their lives as their initial capture and transfer from Africa to the U.S.

Wealth became extremely concentrated in the South. In the South in 1860, slaveholders owned 93.1 percent of the region’s agricultural wealth. The slaves themselves constituted a large asset on cotton producer’s balance sheets. Slaveholder’s wealth averaged 13.9 times that of those who did not own slaves. Wealth was concentrated as 26 perent of white southern families owned slaves. This wealth was also reflected in political power as 75 percent of legislators in deep South states owned slaves in 1860. Slaveowners controlled their state governments. Racism flourished more after emancipation than before it, as before emancipation blacks were considered valuable property. After emancipation they were viewed as a scourge by most in the South who reached for any and all means to minimize and denigrate them as a social nuisance in their world. (Source of Information Above: American Slavery 1619-1877 by Peter Kolchin.)

When Steve King promotes the white supremacy of western civilization, he is actually revealing how ignorant he is to be on the wrong side of history.

David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.

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