Excerpts from Edmund Ruffin, The Political Economy of Slavery.

Slavery has existed from as early time as historical records furnish any information of the social and political condition of mankind. There was no country, in the most ancient time of its history, of which the people had made any considerable advances in industry or refinement, in which slavery had not been previously and long established, and in general use. The reasons for this universal early existence of slavery, and of domestic or individual slavery, (except among the most ignorant and savage tribes,) can be readily deduced from the early conditions of society.

Whether in savage or civilized life, the lower that individuals are degraded by poverty and want, and the fewer are their means for comfort, and the enjoyment of either intellectual or physical pleasures, or of relief from physical sufferings, the lower do they descend in their appreciation of actual and even natural wants; and the more do they magnify and dread the efforts and labors necessary to protect themselves against the occurence of the privations and sufferings with which they are threatened. When man sinks so low as not to feel artificial wants, or utterly to despair of gratifying any such wants, he becomes brutishly careless and indolent, even in providing for natural and physical wants, upon which provision even life is dependent. All such persons soon learn to regard present and continuous labor as an evil greater than the probable but uncertain future occurrence of extreme privation, or even famine, and consequent death from want. Hence the most savage tribes of tropical regions are content to rely for sustenance almost entirely on the natural productions of a fertile and bounteous soil. The savage inhabitants of less fruitful lands, and under more rigorous climates, depend on hunting and fishing for a precarious support, and with irregular alternations and abundance and lavish waste, with destitution and hunger and famine. . . . Even in countries, and among a general population, in which the highest rewards are held out for labor and industry--where some intellectual, and also moral and religious instruction, are within the reach of all who will seek and accept such benefits, there are numerous cases of men who not only forego all intellectual and moral improvement for themselves and their families, and the attempt to gratify all artificial wants, but who also neglect the relief of the most humble comforts and even necessaries of life, rather than resort to that regular course of labor which would furnish the means for comfortable subsistence. In all such cases--whether in civilized or in savage society, or whether in regard to individuals, families in successive generations, or to more extended communities--a good and proper remedy for this evil, if it could be applied, would be the enslaving of these reckless, wretched drones and cumberers of the earth, and thereby compelling them to habits of labor, and in return satisfying their wants for necessaries, and raising them and their progeny in the scale of humanity, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. Such a measure would be the most beneficial in young and rude communities, where labor is scarce and dear, and the means for subsistence easy to obtain. For even among a barbarous people, where the aversion to labor is universal, those who could not be induced to labor by their own hands, and in person, if they became slaveholders, would be ready enough to compel the labor of their slaves, and also would soon learn to economize and accumulate the products of their labor. Hence, among any savage people, the introduction and establishment of domestic slavery is necessarily an improvement of the condition and wealth and well-being of the community in general, and also of the comfort of the enslaved class, if it had consisted of such persons as were lowest in the social scale--and is beneficial in every such case to the master class, and to the community in general.

Indolence of Free Laborers at High Wages--Different Incentives to Free and Slave Labor--Comparative Values.

But the disposition to indulge indolence (even at great sacrifices of benefit which might be secured by industrious labor) is not peculiar to the lowest and most degraded classes of civilized communities. It is notorious that, whenever the demand for labor is much greater than the supply, or the wages of labor are much higher than the expenses of living, very many, even of the ordinary laboring class, are remarkable for indolence, and work no more than compelled by necessity. The greater the demand, and the higher the rewards, for labor, the less will be performed, as a general rule, by each individual laborer. If the wages of work for one day will support the laborer or mechanic and his family for three, it will be very likely that he will be idle two-thirds of the his time.

Slave labor, in each individual case, and for each small measure of time, is more slow and inefficient than the labor of a free man. The latter knows that the more work he performs in a short time, the greater will be his reward in earnings. Hence he has every inducement to exert himself while at work for himself, even though he may be idle for a longer time afterwards. The slave receives the same support, in food, clothing, and other allowances, whether he works much or little; and hence he has every inducement to spare himself as much as possible, and to do as little work as he can, without drawing on himself punishment, which is the only incentive to slave labor. It is, then, an unquestionable general truth, that the labor of a free man, for any stated time, is more than the labor of a slave, and if at the same cost, would be cheaper to the employer. Hence it has been inferred, and asserted by all who argue against slavery, and is often admitted even by those who would defend its expediency, that, as a general rule, and for whole communities, free labor is cheaper than slave labor. The rule is false, and the exceptions only are true. Suppose it admitted that the labor of slaves, for each hour or day, will amount to but two-thirds of what hired free laborers would perform in the same time. But the slave labor is continuous, and every day at least it returns to the employers and to the community, this two-thirds of full labor. Free laborers, if to be hired for the like duties, would require at least double the amount of wages to perform one-third more labor in each day, and in general, would be idle and earning nothing, more length of time than that spent in labor. Then, on these premises and suppositions, it is manifest that slave labor, with its admitted defect in this respect, will be cheapest and most profitable to the employer, and to the whole community, and will yield more towards the general increase of production and public wealth; and that the free laborer who is idle two days out of three, even if receiving double wages for his days of labor, is less laborious, and less productive for himself, and for the community, and the public wealth, than the slave.

The mistake of those who maintain, or admit, this generally asserted proposition, that "free labor is cheaper than slave labor", is caused by assuming as true, that self-interest induces free hirelings to labor continuously and regularly. This is never the case in general, except where daily and continuous labor is required to obtain a bare daily subsistence.

The Evils and Benefits of Slavery Stated Generally.

Slavery... would be frequently... attended with circumstances of great hardship, injustice, and sometimes atrocious cruelty. Still, the consequences and general results were highly beneficial. By this means only--the compulsion of domestic slaves--in the early conditions of society, could labor be made to produce wealth. By this aid only could leisure be afforded to the master class to cultivate mental improvement and refinement of manners; and artificial wants be created and indulged, which would stimulate the desire and produce the effect, to accumulate the products of labor, which alone constitute private and public wealth. To the operation and first results of domestic slavery were due the gradual civilization and general improvement of manners and of arts among all originally barbarous peoples, who, of themselves, or without being conquered and subjugated (or enslaved politically) by a more enlightened people, have subsequently emerged from barbarism and dark ignorance. The slavery supposed to be thus introduced would be the subjection of people of the same race with their masters--of equals to equals--and therefore this would be slavery of the most objectionable kind. It would involve most injustice and hardship to the enslaved--would render it more difficult for their masters to command and enforce obedience--and would make the bonds of servitude more galling to the slaves, because of their being equal to their masters (and, in many individual cases, greatly superior,) in natural endowments of mind.

The Greatest Works of Ancient Nations Due to Slavery, and In Its Worst Form.

Still, even this worst and least profitable kind of slavery (the subjection of equals and men of the same race with their masters) served as the foundation and the essential first cause of all the civilization and refinement, and improvement of arts and learning, that distinguished the oldest nations. Except where the special Providence and care of God may have interposed to guard a particular family and its descendants, there was nothing but the existence of slavery to prevent any race or society in a state of nature from sinking into the rudest barbarism. And no people could ever have been raised from that low condition without the aid and operation of slavery, either by some individuals of the community being enslaved, by conquest and subjugation, in some form, to a foreign and more enlightened people. The very ancient and wonderful works of construction and sculpture in Egypt and Hindostan could never have been executed, nor even the desire to possess them conceived, except where compulsory labor had long been in use, and could be applied to such great works. And to the same cause as was due, not only the later and far more perfect and admirable works of art in Greece and Rome, but also the marvellous triumphs of intellect among these successive masters of the then known world. And not only were great works of utility and ornament so produced, nations enriched and strengthened, and empires established and maintained, but also there were moral results in private and social life, of far more value. In much earlier time, it was on this institution of domestic slavery that was erected the admirable and benificent mastership and government of the patriarch Abraham, who owned so many domestic slaves that he could suddenly call out and lead three hundred and eighteen of them, able to bear arms, to repel and punish the invasion of foreign hostile tribes. The like system of domestic slavery then, and for many ages after, subsisted in every part of the world in which any considerable moral or mental progress or economical improvement was to be seen...

General and Extreme Suffering from Want Impossible in a Slaveholding Community

So long as domestic slavery is general in any country, and for the most part supplies the labor of the country, there is no possibility of the occurrence of the sufferings of the laboring class, such as were described above. There, the evils which are caused by extreme want and destitution, the competition for sustenance, class-slavery of labor to captial, and lastly pauper slavery, are all the incidents and necessary results of free society, and "free labor". Before such evils can visit any laboring class of personal slaves, they must have first been emancipated, and personal slavery abolished. This abolition of slavery is indeed like to occur in every country in the progress of society, and where the increasing population has no sufficient and advantageous outlet. But so long as domestic slavery remains, and is the main supply of labor, among any civilized people, it is a certain indication, and the most unquestionable evidence, that extensive and long continued suffering from want or hunger have as yet had no existence in that country. The first great effect of such distress will be to reduce (by competition) the wages of free labor below the cost of maintaining slaves--and this effect would next cause the extinction of slavery, by the mode of sale and exportation, or otherwise the emancipation of all the slaves. After this step has been made, of course, in due time, the want and suffering, which are the necessary incidents and consequences of free society, are to be expected to follow in after times.

When temporary evils, great loss, and distress, fall upon slave-holding countries, it is not the laboring class (as in free society) that feels the first and heaviest infliction, but the masters and employers. If a slaveholding country is visited by dearth, ravaged by war, or by pestilence--or suffers under any other causes of wide-spread calamity--every domestic slave is as much as before assured of his customary food and other allowances, and of a master's care in sickness and infirmity, even though the master class, and the country at large, have but half the previously exisiting profits, or value of capital. A striking proof of this was afforded by the recent (and still continuing) general suspension of payments of the banks in this country, and the consequent universal pecuniary loss and distress. Payments of debts could not be obtained, commodities could not be sold, and all manufacturing and some other great industrial operations either had to be continued for greatly reduced prices and wages, or to be entirely suspended, or if of such kind as could be suspended, in consequence, in the Northern States, the free hired laborers were thrown out of employment, or employed only at much reduced wages. Hence all such persons were greatly damaged or distressed, and thousands of the most destitute were ready to starve. Hence hunger mobs were menacing the city of New York with pillage, and the last evils of a vicious and unbridled and starving populace, excited to insurrection and defiance of legal authority. Universal loss from this cause also visited the slaveholding States, and every property holder, and also, to some extent, every other free man therein. But not a slave has lost a meal, or a comfort; and as a class, the slaves scarcely know of the occurence of this great national calamity which has so universally damaged their masters, and the capitalists and employers of labor. Nor was the difference of effect owing to the slaves being generally engaged in agricultural labors. The very large business of manufacturing tobacco, in Virginia, is carried on almost exclusively by the labor of slaves, and those mostly hired by the year. The late bank suspension serving to suspend all payments of debts to, and income of, their great establishments, they were generally compelled to suspend work, even though still obliged to feed and support their hired slave laborers, who, for some time, thus received their full allowance and support, while remaining perfectly idle, and returning no compensation whatever to their employers who had hired them for the year.

Ruffin, Edmund. The Political Economy of Slavery. in McKitrick, Eric L.. ed. Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Spectrum Books, 1963.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Of America's first 25 presidents, who is your favorite? From George Washington to William McKinley, which of the new country's leaders most helped shape America in its first century of existence?