I’ve seen this argument bouncing around a lot lately. It was kind of kicked off by former judge and human toenail Andrew Napolitano, and it goes like this:
The civil war and reconstruction of the south cost a great deal more than the combined price of every person held in bondage in the United States and its territories, and slavery could have been abolished if the Lincoln administration had allocated the money to purchase all the slaves and grant them their freedom.
Of course, this argument makes no sense.
First of all, anyone with the slightest bit of economics is aware of the concept of supply-and-demand. If you buy up the entire stock of a product, you’ve increased demand, and the supplier of that product will increase supply.
By buying, and freeing, all the slaves, Lincoln would have essentially given the institution of slavery a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. Not only would it give a financial reward to white slavers for the owning and sale of slaves, but it would create a demand for more slaves in the south as well.
Despite the fact that the transatlantic slave trade was not legal by Lincoln’s time, it still happened rather regularly, and to purchase all the slaves and set them free without outlawing slavery itself would have a consequence of “no more slaves,” not “no more slavery.” More and more slaves would be imported in this scenario, and the institution of slavery would come back stronger than ever.
If simply outlawing slavery without war breaking out were an option, it could have been done without purchasing the freedom of the southern slaves. Even if the slaves were to be purchased and set free, a civil war would still have broken out if a law was established outlawing the institution of slavery.
But for the main reason this proposed solution wouldn’t work, I’d like to re-tell the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs.
A married couple of farmers has a goose that lays a single solid gold egg every night. Every night, they get a golden egg that buys them food for that day and then some. They start to believe that this goose might contain an enormous lump of gold in its stomach, so they kill the goose to get it.
However, once they’ve done it, they find that this goose is physically no different from any other goose. It’s just a goose, with no gold inside of it.
They gave up a steady, self-renewing source of gold in the hopes of getting one big lump sum of gold. If they had let the goose live, they would have been set for life, but they killed the goose and they are left with nothing.
So knowing that fable, if you had a golden goose, and someone comes up and tells you they’re willing to buy it from you for $10,000, you would say no. If you sell, you get $10,000 and that’s it forever.
If you don’t sell, you get an egg worth $1,000 every day, so if you wait ten days, you’ll make as much as the buying price and you’ll still have more coming in every day after that.
The thing is, the institution of slavery was immensely profitable for the southern planters. After all, they were selling a product they didn’t personally make, and they were taking the profits of those sales for themselves, as well as stealing the wages that should have gone to the people who were doing all the work.
Slavery was pure, self-sustaining profit for the south. They barely had to do anything and the money kept rolling in. If the government came along and said they would pay a lump sum for all the enslaved workers, they almost certainly would have refused.
They especially would have been unwilling to sell their slaves in the event that slavery would be outlawed immediately following emancipation. That proposition would have, to a southern planter, sounded something like this:
"Hey, so I know you have this source of free labor that creates a strong, steady flow of cash and brings you in a ton of money that you don’t have to share with anyone, but how would you feel about this? In exchange for setting your slaves free, we’re going to give you a fraction of the amount of money you could make if you keep them, then, if you agree to this plan, we’re going to make a law saying you have to spend pretty much all that money paying workers, because you wouldn’t be allowed to make people work for free anymore."
It’s despicable, of course, but it’s important to remember that since the cause of American Black slavery was white greed, the slaveholders would certainly not be agreeable to any proposed solution that involved a net loss in their profit.
The institution of slavery in the American south was thriving and growing prior to the civil war. The southern states were so dedicated to preserving the institution of slavery that, in response to the potential for abolition (which racists will tell you is actually “states’ rights” or “economic reasons,” even though the states’ right in question was the right to decide on their own whether or not to preserve the institution of slavery, and the economic reason was “if you abolish slavery I won’t be able to stay as rich as I am”), they were willing to commit treason, attack their own country, and spark one of the bloodiest wars in history.
There is no scenario in which the southern states would have been willing to cooperate in the abolition of slavery. The only way to liberate the slaves from the southern states was by force.
There is also the point to be made that, in a way, the civil war was actually going on for a long time before the first shots were fired. It was, however, a black resistance movement against the society that allowed them to be held captive. There were many slave revolts and uprisings, a great deal of underground resistance among both enslaved and free black populations, and this was against both halves of the country.
When the two halves turned against one another, this movement largely sided with the north because it was the lesser of two evils and was slightly more willing to help their cause, and the north’s eventual willingness to lend its force to the cause of black liberation simply gave the existing groups working towards that cause the power necessary to break the hold their captors had over them.
Now, it is fair to say that the civil war could have been avoided if the question of slavery had been solved through economic or diplomatic means. It’s also fair to say the civil war could have been avoided if the question of slavery had been resolved with fairy dust, or unicorn tears, or a time machine that allowed Abraham Lincoln to go back and repeatedly punch the person who invented the system of American slavery in the dick until they agreed not to do so.
The point is, though, that simply buying the slaves was not a viable solution for two basic reasons:
- The main reason the institution still existed was the fact that it was so wildly profitable, and throwing money at it would be about as effective as trying to put out a fire with gasoline
- The south was unwilling to sell their slaves into freedom, as shown by the fact that Abraham Lincoln actually tried to do this and southern states refused