Slaves In The South “Only a minority of the whites owned slaves,” “at all times nearly three-fourths of the white families in the South as a whole held no slaves;” “slave ownership in the South was not widespread;” “not more than a quarter of the white heads of families were slave owners, and even in the cotton states the proportion was less than one-third;” “in 1850, only one in three owned any Negroes; on the eve of the Civil War, the ration was one in four;” and slave owners “probably made up less than a third of southern whites.” From the US History textbooks in an elementary school to the Civil War journals of a major university, these lines are reprinted and repeated in an attempt to shape the perception of the public and to ease the insecurities of a nation embarrassed by slavery, an institution that supposedly marred its glorious history, or so says Otto H. Olsen. In an article that appears in the journal of Civil War History of 1972 entitled, “Historians and the Extent of Slave Ownership in the Southern United States” Olsen attempts to challenge the widely accepted notion that slave ownership was confined to only a few southern white plantation owners and that most of the white population was unaffected by it. The author spends nearly half of his thirty-seven paragraph article displaying the past and present attitudes of the general population through several case studies which he lists chronologically and explains in brief detail. He tries to discredit a handful of them while, at the same time, injecting his own views.
In an attempt to persuade the reader he sets up his side of the debate by citing a few case studies that promote his hypothesis and concludes by relating some of his own opinions and findings including a study where he makes a seemingly strong comparison between those of the population who invested in the slave labor market in 1850 and those who invested in the stock market in 1949. In the first half of the article Olsen sets up the arguments he is going to challenge by showing what historians from the antebellum US through the present, believed the distribution of slaves in the South to be, and also by showing the supposed economic and political effects of this distribution. He focuses heavily on the numbers and percentages of white slave owners and the sometimes relaxed, even incorrect manner in which they were accepted. He cites a study done by Allan Nevins in which Nevins says that, “of the 6,184,477 white folk in the slave States, only 347,525 were listed by the census of 1850 as owners.” Nevins then adds family members of slave owning families and other workers involved and states that the final number of whites directly involved with slavery probably “did not exceed 2,000,000. If so, not one-third of the population of the South and border States had any direct interest in slavery as a form of property.” Olsen uses two more studies to show that these numbers, or very slight variations, are widely accepted and concedes that they are probably correct, but he disagrees with the treatment these statistics have been given.
In what could easily be his thesis statement he says, “Although the constant conclusion has been that the number of whites owning slaves was remarkably small and that the South was therefore an unusually oligarchical society, the comparative basis for such a judgment has never been firmly established. Instead, that judgment appears to have rested primarily upon a moral repugnance toward slavery.” He then begins to investigate the prevailing attitude toward slavery in the past as well as the attitude of historians in the 20th century. Olsen blames the antebellum antislavery movement for the origin of the accusations that southern slavery was politically and economically oligharchical. A prime example is the viewpoint of the Republican party. In a speech to the people of the United States in 1856 the address asserted that non-slaveholders in the South “were reduced to a vassalage little less degrading than that of the slaves themselves ..
although the white population of the slaveholding States is more than six million, of whom but 347,525, or less than one-seventeenth, are the owners of slaves.” From the numbers given in previous studies we can see that these numbers do not include all who were directly involved and thusly agree with Olsen when he says that facts were often distorted in the past and still are today in an attempt to promote a negative view of slavery. He lists several other studies by prominent historical figures such as Karl Marx, John Elliott Cairnes, and Woodrow Wilson in which facts were distorted for the sake of antislavery sentiment. Olsen begins to construct one of his main topics of debate when he challenges a statement made by Civil War historian James Ford Rhodes. Rhodes states, “the political system of the South was an oligarchy under the republican form. The slave-holders were in a disproportionate minority in every State.” To that Olsen replies, “Rhodes, a very wealthy stockholder, failed to note that similar comments were being made by some social critics about nineteenth century capitalists.” With the studies the author has given thus far, including those revealing the percentages of southern slave owners and those showing the distorted manner in which they were used by the antislavery movements, Olsen has done well in showing the reader the argument he is about to take on.
One can easily see the weaknesses in the way statistics were distorted and can also begin to see the approach Olsen will take in trying to disprove them. Before moving into his personal findings the author looks at a handful of studies that agree with his own theories and attempt to show the opposite of what we have already examined. They are, for the most part, weaker in comparison to the previous studies with the possible exception of a comment by Frederick Jackson Turner in which he questioned the study by Rhodes. He said of Rhodes’ idea of an interest in slavery solely with planters and certain higher classes, “Logically, this would lead to the conclusion that the institution of private property in the United States rests on the interest of only the most prosperous, who control the larger portion of the property but constitute only a very small percentage of the population. The great slaveholders of the south represented the concentration of wealth in slaves on a scale comparable with the present concentration of holdings of private property, generally, in the United States.” He adds that, “in the regions where slavery flourished, there was a society which depended upon the institution, and this society was dominant throughout the South.” The first comment is an interesting one to which Olsen will build a bit more and the second is one that contradicts some of what the antislavery movement has always promoted. Although neither Turner nor Olsen offer any quantitative evidence it is believable that an institution such as slavery in which thirty percent of the white population is directly influenced could easily be perceived as a dominant society.
As the reader might assume, Olsen approaches the same statistical evidence with a different perspective. Where historians usually calculate the percentages of slave ownership using all slave states Olsen points out that in the seven states of the lower South the numbers show a different story. He lists them in the order of their secession from the Union: South Carolina with 48.7 percent of the white families owning slaves, Mississippi with 48 percent, Florida with 36 percent, Alabama with 35.1 percent, Georgia with 38 percent, Louisiana with 32.2 percent and Texas with 28.5 percent. Olsen says that even though these percentages might not appear large as an isolated ownership statistic they are huge if slavery is viewed as the economic foundation of an entire social system and the supply of slaves is compared to parallel factors in a free society. He makes these comparisons using two of his own studies.
In these studies Olsen compares the percentages of slaveholders in 1860 to the percentages of first, investors and then employers in the mid 1900s. In the first instance he chooses the year 1949 and uses what he calls “a very modest estimate of $5,000” as an investment comparable to the investment of one slave in 1860. From this he discovers that “in 1949 only 2 percent of the spending units (families) in the United States held stock worth $5,000 or more.” The author then makes his point by saying, “If one is concerned with estimating the extent of a direct personal interest in the profits of a particular labor system it would then seem appropriate to compare this figure of 2 percent with the 31 percent of the white families in the Confederacy who owned slaves .. In this respect the proportion of whites who invested in and profited from slavery far exceeds the proportion of the total population investing in our own free labor system.” The second of these examinations is a comparison of the opportunity extended to white citizens of the slave South to achieve an employer status with the same opportunity afforded citizens in the twentieth century Untied States. Olsen says that the results are similar to those of the first argument.
He says that in 1940 the number of employers in the nation was less than 10 percent of the number of households. Pointing out the comparison the author says, “even the figure of 10 percent hardly equals the 31 percent of white families holding slaves in the Confederate South who may be classed as employers.” Olsen makes good points in both of his studies using the numbers he has chosen but both can be debated as to the impact they have. It seems that while emphasizing the inclusion of all persons directly involved in slave ownership to arrive at the figure of 31 percent, the author fails to do so on the opposite side of his comparisons, using “spending units (families)” and “households” respectively, instead of calculating each family member as he did for the slavery statistic. Had he not slightly distorted them, percentages of employers and investors to slave owners would have been much closer and made his study less powerful. Secondly, in the study of the investor, the year chosen, 1949, can also be debated as somewhat biased for this particular case because the effects of the Great Depression were more than likely still being felt by investors.
A family with $5,000 to invest was probably still hesitant to put it into the stock market thus affecting the given percentage. To make his argument more valid Olsen would have been better off finding the percentages of investors at a time when confidence in the stock market was higher. The impact of what were supposed to be Olsen’s strongest arguments is therefore lessened. In writing on this topic, one worthy of debate and further study, Olsen hoped to show that the “the enslavement of black people did provide extensive economic opportunities for whites,” and that, “slavery appears a good bit less oligarchical in several significant economic respects than twentieth century free labor capitalism.” Although he has shown the reader that the extent of slave ownership in the south was more widely distributed than previously thought, has made some decent arguments through showing the distortion of facts by some antislavery supporters, and shown studies that support his ideas, Olsen’s own studies fail to be thoroughly persuasive. The question as to the extent of slave ownership in the Southern United States remains one of perspective. American History.