A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Could we have saved money by buying out slave owners rather than fighting the Civil War?

May 13, 2011

Dear Cecil:

Get out that calculator! I’ve always wondered: take the 1860 census, add up the number of slaves in the U.S., multiply by their then-market value. Then compare this amount to the cost of the Civil War — all the debt, bonds, and such. In other words, suppose Lincoln in his 1861 inaugural address had offered to pay the fair market value of slaves to their owners over the next ten years. Might this not have saved a lot of money, to say nothing of lives and hard feelings?

Cecil replies:

An understandable but naive thought. You’ve got plenty of company, though. A hundred fifty years ago, when the Civil War began with the attack on Fort Sumter, many assumed the conflict would be over in a few months. A hundred forty-nine years ago, after several hellish but indecisive battles, quite a few people, some in high places, began thinking: there’s got to be a more cost-effective way to settle this. Personally I don’t see it. But first let’s do the math.

The 1860 census found there were about 3,950,000 slaves in the U.S. Calculating their market value involves considerable guesswork. In a 1973 paper, economist Claudia Goldin, now at Harvard, came up with a total of $2.7 billion in 1860 dollars, based on New Orleans auction prices with adjustments for slave age. She conceded that a workable compensation scheme might well have cost more, and that another scholar using basically the same starting data had computed a total slave value around $3.7 billion. My assistant Una, not one to be intimidated by academic credentials and knowing the federal government’s penchant for figuring out the most expensive way to do anything, thinks a more realistic buyout figure would be $6.4 billion. However, I don’t wish to ruffle feathers, so we’ll stick with 2.7.

In current dollars, that works out to roughly $72 billion, which today would barely cover the upfront cost of an auto industry bailout. However, it was real money at the time, considering that the gross national product was only $4.2 billion. One way to foot the bill, Professor Goldin notes, would have been to give slave owners 30-year bonds at 6 percent interest. Even if spread among most taxpayers, the slave buyout would have sucked up 5 percent of per capita income in its first year.

Still, Professor Goldin goes on to demonstrate, it probably would have been cheaper than fighting it out. The analysis is a bit woolly; where we practical types might be inclined to limit ourselves to direct costs for Minié balls, ironclads, and whatnot, which ran to about $3.1 billion, she uses an equation that, as I understand it, enables one to calculate the net economic difference in the space-time continuum had the Civil War not occurred. This adds another $10 billion. You may or may not buy that number, but the indisputable fact is that the war left the south in ruins and something like 620,000 soldiers dead. So let’s concede maybe we should have given a buyout some thought.

The idea of compensating slave owners for their wickedness will offend some, but it was a common approach in other slaveholding societies seeking to get on the right side of history. Even Lincoln and the Republicans assumed they’d have to come up with cash to reimburse slave owners who remained loyal to the union when their property was freed. The federal government in fact paid close to $1 million in reimbursements when slaves in the District of Columbia were emancipated.

Professor Goldin, with a scholar’s confidence in the logic of her argument, betrays a touch of exasperation that the two sides didn’t settle their disagreements with a civilized business arrangement rather than subjecting the country to the brutalities of war. She cites an 1862 letter in which Lincoln argued: “Less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at $400 per head … [and] less than 87 days’ cost of the war would, at the same price, pay for all in Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Kentucky and Missouri.”

Others consider the notion preposterous. However much sense it may make on paper, a slave buyout would have been tantamount to saying: look, we’re going to give you fair value to dismantle your entire society. Sure, other onetime slave states made the transition without going to war, but only because the decision to emancipate had come from the top. Southern leaders had spent four score and four years skillfully heading off any such decision, and it was only with the election of Lincoln that they realized the jig was up.

Perhaps had they foreseen that their society was about to be dismantled with cannonballs they’d have taken the money, said ta-ta to their former chattels, and split for Nicaragua without further fuss. But my guess is they’d have walked out of that first presentation on the Human Asset Reclamation Program (HARP) saying what defenders of the ancient values say now when negotiations take an unpromising turn: we’d better lock and load.

Related Posts with Thumbnails


Costa, Dora L. (ed) Health and Labor Force Participation over the Life Cycle: Evidence from the Past University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Goldin, Claudia Dale "The Economics of Emancipation" The Journal of Economic History 33.1 (1973): 66-85.

Goldin, Claudia D. and Lewis, Frank D. Lewis. "The Economic Cost of the American Civil War: Estimates and implications." Journal of Economic History 35.2 (1975): 299-326.

United States Census, 1860.

Walton, Gary, and Hugh Rockoff. History of the American Economy Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

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