Macroeconomics of Slavery
Sales of Slaves
Slaves were freely bought and sold across the antebellum South. Southern law offered greater protection to slave buyers than to buyers of other goods, in part because slaves were complex commodities with characteristics not easily ascertained by inspection. Slave sellers were responsible for their representations, required to disclose known defects, and often liable for unknown defects, as well as bound by explicit contractual language.
Hiring Out Slaves
Slaves faced the possibility of being hired out by their masters as well as being sold. Hired slaves frequently worked in manufacturing, construction, mining, and domestic service, often labored side by side with free persons. Bond and free workers both faced a legal burden to behave responsibly on the job. Yet the law of the workplace differed significantly for the two. Employers were far more responsible in cases of injuries to slaves. However, nineteenth-century free laborers received at least partial compensation for the risks of jobs. Whereas free persons had direct work and contractual relations with their bosses, slaves worked under terms designed by others. Free workers arguably could have walked out or insisted on different conditions or wages. Slaves could not. The law therefore offered substitute protections. Still, the powerful interests of slave owners also may mean that they simply were more successful at shaping the law.
MARKETS AND PRICES
Market prices for slaves reflect their substantial economic value. Prime field hands went for four to six hundred dollars in the U.S. in 1800, thirteen to fifteen hundred dollars in 1850, and up to three thousand dollars just before Fort Sumter fell. Even controlling for inflation, the prices of U.S. slaves rose significantly in the six decades before South Carolina seceded from the Union. By 1860, Southerners owned close to $4 billion worth of slaves. Slavery remained a thriving business on the eve of the Civil War: According to Fogel and Engerman, by 1890 slave prices would have increased on average more than 50 percent over their 1860 levels. No wonder the South rose in armed resistance to protect its enormous investment.
Slave markets existed across the antebellum U.S. South. Private auctions, estate sales, and professional traders facilitated easy exchange. Established dealers like Franklin and Armfield in Virginia, Woolfolk, Saunders, and Overly in Maryland, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee prospered alongside traveling traders who operated in a few counties, buying slaves for cash from their owners, then moving them overland in coffles to the lower South. Over a million slaves were taken across state lines between 1790 and 1860 with many more moving within states. Some of these slaves went with their owners; many were sold to new owners.
Determinants of Slave Prices
The prices paid for slaves reflected two economic factors: the characteristics of the slave and the conditions of...