A few weeks ago one of our readers posted a comment on one of our blog posts asking for a “best guess” as to when slavery would have ended in the South had the Confederacy been successful in winning its independence. There is, of course, no easy answer to this question, as counter-factual history is just that: not factual. However, the question is an important one that deserves attention and at the very least can be used to explore some ways in which slavery can be contextualized in the Civil War era.
The Confederacy was founded on the idea of preserving the institution of slavery. The short-lived nation’s need for slavery was economic as well as social. Economically, the South depended on an agrarian economy driven chiefly by cotton production. Cotton, a very labor-intensive crop, required large labor forces to produce. Consequently, profit margins depended on decreasing the cost of labor. Therefore, cotton’s profitability–and thus the economy of the South–benefited immensely from slavery. A change in the workforce would have severely disrupted the status quo. Poor Southerners, who may not have owned slaves, also saw the economic trickle-down effects of slavery: wealthy planters required food, tools, and other goods to keep the system of slavery running, and of these supplies would be supplied by yeomen farmers and craftsmen. As a result, many white Southerners who were neither wealthy nor owned slaves were also economically invested in the institution of slavery.