(It’s an old post, but I just noticed it, and I can’t let it pass.)
Could we have just bought and freed the slaves in 1860, and thus avoided war? Two very smart economists, Brad DeLong and Alex Tabarrok, think so, or are at least intrigued by the idea. But they shouldn’t be; while their theories may make great economics, they’re based on poor history, and at least some of it strikes me as just sloppy thinking.
First, the history. DeLong’s thesis is that the slaves would have cost $90 per capita to free, while just the direct costs of the war amounted to $140 per capita for Northerners and $340 per capita for Southerners. But would this have worked? Not in a society that frowns on free blacks. See, for example, this blurb for a book on manumission (freeing of slaves) in antebellum New Orleans:
Their success rate was so great that in 1857, facing pressure arising from the increase in the number of free people of color, the state legislature prohibited manumission.
Schafer also recounts numerous cases in which free people of color were forced to use the courts to prove their status, showing that remaining free was often as challenging as becoming free. She further documents seventeen free blacks who, when faced with deportation, amazingly sued to enslave themselves rather than leave family, friends, property, and home.
But couldn’t Northerners buy slaves, move them north, and free them there? In theory, yes; Frederick Douglass benefited from this procedure to legitimize his status as an escaped slave, for example. But Northern attitudes towards blacks were little improved over Southern attitudes. Consider that there was widespread opposition to the creation of black regiments even in places like Massachusetts and Ohio during the war itself. Even strong pressure from abolitionist groups could only push the Union to organize a few regiments as experiments; only the bravery of these first regiments caused public opposition to abate.
(For more examples of Northern attitudes towards blacks, look at the criticism President Lincoln received when he met with Douglass formally at the White House.)
DeLong uses the career of Stephen Douglas, the Senator from Illinois who debated Lincoln in the famous debates of 1858, as an example of unintended consequences, attributing to his “popular sovereignty” position the ills of “creat[ing] a low-leel [sic] guerilla war in Kansas, creat[ing] the Republican party, elect[ing] Lincoln president in 1860, and the South then secedes, and Lincoln says that he will fight.” Yet only the first of those ills can be credibly be laid at the feet of Douglas. The genesis of the Republican party was not, like the genesis of the Whig party that preceded it, the result of one personality, but of a confluence of events. Douglas played a part in some of those events, but others (such as the rise and fall of the Know-Nothings, the collapse of the Whig party between the 1852 and 1856 elections, and the Dred Scott decision) were far beyond Douglas’s power to control even had he supported them.
With the history out of the way, why do I suspect sloppy thinking? Simply because it seems dodgy to think that the government could have bought its way out of the slavery question. As noted before, it was not unheard of to re-enslave free blacks; providing a government bounty for each freed slave would certainly not have improved that condition. Further, certain parts of the Southern economy revolved around slaves, which implies that these parts would have to radically adjust to new conditions. What does the government say to the poor slave auctioneer, for example, whose job has just been legislated out of existence?
But for the most important refutation, we must turn back to history. Read, for example, John C. Calhoun’s speech on Clay’s Compromise of 1850, in which he ties slavery to the core of Southern character in his portrayal of Northern offenses.
Unless something decisive is done, I again ask, What is to stop this agitation before the great and final object at which it aims–the abolition of slavery in the States–is consummated? Is it, then, not certain that if something is not done to arrest it, the South will be forced to choose between abolition and secession? Indeed, as events are now moving, it will not require the South to secede in order to dissolve the Union. Agitation will of itself effect it, of which its past history furnishes abundant proof–as I shall next proceed to show.
Slavery was seen by Southerners like Calhoun to be a core part of Southern society, and almost definitive of it. Note how a single issue–slavery in the territories–is interpreted by Calhoun as an exclusion of the entire Southern way of life from those territories. With the battle lines thus drawn (and this was only the last of a very long line of speeches by Calhoun drawing the lines in this way), how can anyone think that the mere spending of money could alleviate all this hostility and defensiveness?