Monday, March 28, 2011

Brent on Trade: The (Human) Cost of Cotton Production

A few weeks ago I featured a post on a pro-slavery speech given in March 1861 by George William Brent, the Alexandria delegate to the Virginia Convention. Brent viewed the preservation of the Union as the way to ensure the continued existence of slavery. Secession and civil war would only lead to the peculiar institution's demise. Reading through Brent's speech, a few arguments related to international trade attracted my attention.

A slave family picking cotton outside of Savannah, Georgia (courtesy of The New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Today, critics of free trade sometimes attribute unfair foreign competition to the lack of workers' rights and protections in other countries. The failure of foreign governments to respect fundamental labor rights enables producers to hold down their costs of production by suppressing wages.  Some governments are even accused of turning a blind eye to the use of slave labor.  Facing low to non-existent labor costs, foreign companies then flood world markets with cheaply made goods.  If we go back 150 years, we find Brent on the other side of the equation, making arguments about the Southern dominance of world markets based on maintaining the existence of inexpensive and abundant slave labor.

Brent raised the issue of foreign competition during a portion of his speech where he refuted concerns about the ramifications of a decision by Virginia to remain in the Union:

[W]e are told that if we do not enter into this Confederacy, if we do not link our destinies with the Gulf States, that the Gulf States will inhibit the States on the border from sending their slaves for sale into the cotton States. Mr. President, can they do it? Dare they do it? Their own power, their own interest depends entirely upon the production of cotton.

Brent believed that the economics of slavery and cotton would prevent the Deep South from ever attempting to embargo slaves from Virginia and other "border states" that remained loyal:

In order to compete successfully with the other cotton growing countries of the world, the price of cotton must be kept down to a certain minimum price. When it goes beyond that, the production of cotton is stimulated in the other cotton growing regions of the world. [The Gulf States] therefore, cannot dispense with our labor—they are forced to have it. . . .
They boast, Mr. President, that Cotton is King, they tell us that his supremacy is so firmly established that it cannot be over borne: that his sway is so omnipotent that England, with all her antipathy to slavery, with all her instincts in behalf of freedom, must bow in submission before his power. How is this? Is this boast justified by the facts? Is it true that the cotton of the Southern States is King? Are there any other countries in the world that can compete with the Southern States in the production of cotton? Why, sir, India produces already more cotton than the Southern States. . . .  It is asked, why it is that England, with all her efforts, has not been enabled to build up rivals in India and elsewhere to the cotton production of the South? It results from this consideration alone, that whilst cotton can be produced in India -- as it is in our own country, yet the cost of transportation from the cotton fields to the points whence it is to be carried to England, is so great that it cannot be sent and sold to any advantage at the existing price.
But whenever cotton, grown in the Southern States, has risen . . . you will find the growth of cotton in India will be extended and proper facilities for its transportation provided. . . .  [I]f the cotton Confederacy should interpose a law inhibiting the sale of negroes from the border States, the result would be that labor would be enhanced in value in the cotton States, and cotton would necessarily cost more, and that India, Algeria, Central America and South America would come into competition with the cotton States in the production of cotton.
Brent drew a link between costs of production and trade. Slaves were just another input into production, which, when priced right, helped the Southern states preserve their top position in world cotton markets. Of course, the very existence of this input depended on depriving an entire race of personal and economic freedom. Brent's attitude reminds us that even pro-Union Southerners were not necessarily troubled by the evil system upon which the region had built and maintained its prosperity.

No comments: