24 October 2013

Economic Inequality In The 19th Century South

It is cliche to think about the Antebellum South as the epitome of extreme class based inequality.  A number of sources I've looked at recently, however, cast doubt on these stereotypes.  While local castes were firmly entrenched, the oligarchy at the top of several thousand people in a region with a population smaller than Ohio alone has today, was large and had far fewer dominant players than it does in the modern big business economy.

While it had a well entrenched upper middle class aristocracy of large and medium sized plantation owners, it had almost no one in an economic stratum above this level.

In a recent post at this blog, I summarized some of the key statistics, but didn't focus on it from an economic inequality perspective.

Economic Inequality In The South Before The Civil War

Key Facts
In 1860, there were about 22,100,000 people living in the Union states (400,000 of whom were slaves, about 2% of its overall population, of whom 340,000 were in Kentucky and Missouri) and 9,100,00 living in states that would become a part of the Confederate States of America (about 3,500,000 of whom were slaves, about 38% of its overall population). In the lowlands deep South including the Mississippi River valley, the percentage of the population that consisted of slaves was much greater.
There were about 394,000 slave holders in the United States in 1860. Only 8% of all US families owned slaves in 1860, but in the South, 33% of families owned slaves.
The distribution of slaves among holders was very unequal: holders of 200 or more slaves, constituting less than 1% of all US slaveholders (fewer than 4,000 persons, 1 in 7,000 free persons, or 0.015% of the population) held an estimated 20–30% of all slaves (800,000 to 1,200,000 slaves). Nineteen holders of 500 or more slaves have been identified. The largest slaveholder was Joshua John Ward, of Georgetown, South Carolina, who in 1850 held 1,092 slaves, and whose heirs in 1860 held 1,130 or 1,131 slaves
Only about 10% of the manufacturing capacity of the United States was in the South before the war.  The Antebellum South was overwhelmingly an agrarian economy.


These facts do not tell the story of a highly economically unequal society. 

Plantations Were Not The Big

Let's start at the top.

Consider Joshua John Ward, the owner of the single largest plantation in the entire American South as measured by number of slaves owned.  His plantation was in just one county.  The total size of his operation was big, but not that big.  He had about as many people working under him as:

* the general manager of a single location of a decent sized big city department store or Home Depot or grocery store;
* the CEO of Colorado's Broadmoor hotel;
* a modern U.S. Army Major (O-4) or Lieutenant Colonel (O-5) leading a battalion;
* the Ships Captain of a large cruise ship or Harrier Carrier small aircraft carrier;
* the chief of police in a city like Denver;
* the President of a medium sized U.S. university campus;
* the CEO of a medium sized, one location hospital;
* the owner of a small manufacturing company with a single plant (e.g. Boulder's Celestial Seasonings company that makes specialty teas) or general manager of a single factory in a larger manufacturing company;
* a superintendent of a medium sized school district;
* the City Manager or Mayor of a medium sized suburban city;
* the owner of a large construction company operating in just one city;
* the President of a small community bank or local credit union;
* the general manager of a single large hard rock mine at one location; or
* the owner of a cab company in a Denver sized city.

Was Joshua John Ward an economically successful man?  Surely.  But, his plantation would not have been a turnkey investment; he would have had to devote considerable time to actively managing it and by 21st century standards someone who actively runs an enterprise of that scale is right on the threshold between rich and merely upper middle class.  Yet, he was the very epitome of the plantation owning aristocracy of the Antebellum South. 

Only 19 families owning collectively 0.5% of the slaves in the American South, had enterprises even half the scale of Mr. Ward's plantation.  Only a handful of plantation were in more than two  or three counties and the vast majority were entirely within a single state.  Not a single firm in the entire South had even 0.1% share of the entire cotton producing market in the American South.

The mean number of slaves per slaveholder in the American South was just under ten.  About 70%-80% of slaves were at plantations with fewer than 200 slaves.  The median slave was at a plantation with something on the order of 150 slaves give or take - an enterprise with a scale about 1/7th that size of Mr. Ward's plantation.  One of the owners of one of the thousands of plantations of this size, again in a single county were comparable to:

* the general manager of a single location of a medium sized Big Box store like a Best Buy;
* the owner of a a handful of fast food franchises;
* a modern U.S. Army Captain (O-3) or Major (O-4) leading a company and some supporting units;
* the Ships Captain of a U.S. Navy Frigate;
* the head of the Parks and Recreation Department in a city like Denver;
* the President of a small liberal arts college;
* the CEO of a small community hospital;
* the owner of a dry cleaning chain in a single metropolitan area;
* a principal at a large urban high school;
* the City Manager or Mayor of a small city;
* the owner of a medium sized general contracting firm;

In short, firmly in the middle of the modern upper middle class, and not actually "rich."

The proportion of families that owned any slaves in the American South was similar to the proportion of families in modern American that have a college graduate.

Economic Inequality In The South After The Civil War
The . . . Confederacy fielded about 1,064,000 soldiers (about 19% of its free population and about 38% of its free male population of all ages). About half of the Confederate Army in Virginia in 1861 came from slave holding families and (per Wikipedia on Slavery in the United States) and more "enlistees rented land from, sold crops to, or worked for slaveholders." . . . Based on 1860 census figures, 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% in the North and 18% in the South. . . .
The war destroyed much of the wealth that had existed in the South. All accumulated investment in Confederate bonds was forfeit. Income per person in the South dropped to less than 40% than that of the North, a condition which lasted until well into the 20th century. Southern influence in the US federal government, previously considerable, was greatly diminished until the latter half of the 20th century.
An effective Union naval blockade captured about 95% of the exports from the Confederate states during the war. . . .  
In the short run, the war destroyed almost all 8,800 miles of Confederate railroads while the Union added about 7,300 miles to its existing 21,800 miles of railroad. The war also destroyed almost all of the South's manufacturing plants, and almost all of its cotton production, and almost all of its exports (70% of the total for the nation before the war).
The uncompensated loss of slaves due to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, was in many cases (probably most) promptly followed by the loss of plantation land to carpet bagger lenders during Reconstruction.

Thus, in the Reconstruction and immediately post-Reconstruction South, the South saw a decline in economic inequality from what had already been a highly Jeffersonian economy, despite its stratification into quite rigid castes.  The wealth of the South's historic upper middle class largely collapsed in favor of a new and far more complexly organized modern economic elite with a strong component of Northern financial and commercial interests.

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