No, the US was not built on slavery
|A Graphic From Change.Org|
A common refrain is that the US was built on slavery. I saw an example of this today with Kyrie Irving suggesting that the NBA should not really criticize the Chinese government because the USA has a racist past and, "was built on slavery." Irving in saying this is just repeating a common thought. The Atlantic ran a headline a few years ago saying, "Slavery Made America." Vox recently had a headline, "How slavery became America’s first big business."
For many people, the answer to the question, 'How did America become the richest nation in the history of the world?' is simple: slavery.
We went to Africa, plundered the people, we brought them back, we enslaved them. We used them to build the agricultural powerhouses of the south and literally build the buildings and foundations of the nation. The legacy of slavery therefore tarnishes any claim to American exceptionalism. Sure we are rich but we did it through racism and slavery.
Is this true? Was slavery the secret to our success? The answer is that this claim is ridiculous. It is ridiculous because prior to the United Kingdom giving up their slaves in the early part of the 19th century, every major empire in history had slaves! China did. The Ottoman Empire did. The Egyptian Empire did. The great societies of the pre-Columbian did. The UK ended their slave trade and then actively started working to pressure other nations to do the same. But many nations around the world kept slaves right into the 20th century. The Ottoman Empire for example did not end slavery until 1908. Iraq and Sudan did not end it until 1924. Slavery persisted in Korea until the 1930s. Kuwait did not end it until 1949. A few small countries kept it longer.
In short, if slavery was the secret to success, you would think that the US would be middle of the pack at best.
But... you might counter, the US had more slaves and kept them longer than any Western society. And this is true. But think about this statement for a second. Western Europe largely gave up its slave trade in the 6th century AD. It was given up primarily due to Christian convictions and not any law. Christians just did not think it was loving to enslave, beat, and abuse people.... especially when the slaves got baptized and were supposed to be their brothers and sisters in Christ. So, Western Europe largely gave up their slaves 1300 years before the rest of the world! And yet, Western Europe became very rich and powerful without it. Slavery was not reintroduced until the colonial days of the 1600s and then only in the New World. Doesn't this undermine rather than support the idea that slavery helps a nation become powerful and rich?
Adam Smith (1723-1790) who was writing in the era of slavery certainly thought that slavery was a net negative to the economy. He argued that slavery ended up costing slave owners more than if they used free labor. His argument went like this. With a free laborer, you pay for their time and nothing more. Assuming there is plenty of supply of labor, the price of labor will be just enough to allow a man to have housing, food, and clothing. But, Smith argues, that is also the price of having a slave. You have to feed the slave, clothe him, and house him. Smith argues that the additional cost for slavery comes in when the slave is too old or young to do good work or just sick. With a free laborer, they would be responsible to save and plan for retirement and to figure out how to pay for the kids. Further, when economic slowdowns come, you can just lay off workers. Not so easy with slaves. So, when all these things are considered, it would be MORE expensive to have slaves than to have free laborers.
But, someone might argue, isn't Smith ignoring the fact that you can beat a slave and make them work harder and faster? Smith did not ignore this. But he argued that free labor almost always works harder than slave labor for the simple reason that there are financial incentives for doing so. Who will the boss pay more the guy that works hard and does a nice job or the guy that does the bare minimum? Who gets laid off first? The free laborer without a single whip looks for the fastest and best way to do his job because there is a financial incentive to do so. On the other hand, the slave gets no incentive to find creative new ways to be be better at the job. The slave has fixed pay (clothing, food, housing and nothing more) and fixed hours (sun up to sun down no matter what). Why should the slave work faster? Why should the slave brainstorm ways to be more efficient? This is why Smith argued that not only was there a financial incentive to have free labor, the work would be better too.
The United States is did not become big, rich and powerful because of slavery. It accomplished these things in spite of slavery.
For Further Reading:
I have written on this subject a few times so you can read:
Why American Christianity Does Not Have a Racist Past
How Christianity Ended Slavery in the United Kingdom
How Christianity and Slavery Have Interacted Through the Centuries
Then, if you would like to read books on the subject I would recommend the following:
For a broad view of how Christianity led to the fall of slavery twice and had other good effects on the world, check out "The Victory of Reason," by Rodney Stark.
For an excellent defense of some of the founding fathers and their attitudes toward slaves and racial minorities, read Thomas Sowell's "Black Rednecks and White Liberals." (Particularly the second half of the book). This book also details at great length the extent to which evangelicals in England led to the fall of the slave trade globally. Sowell's companion book, "Discrimination and Disparities," makes many similar points and is well worth the read.
Another good read for those who are beginners to studying Christian history is called, "Christianity on Trial," by Carroll and Shiflett . They have a whole chapter dedicated to slavery that is quite helpful.
I also recommend the biography on William Wilberforce (pioneer of the abolition movement), "Amazing Grace," by Eric Metaxas. This book shows the Christian roots of the 18th century push that successfully ended slavery globally.
To learn more about slavery in ancient Rome, this excellent book on the house of Caesar by Tom Holland provides some excellent (and sickening) overviews.