Slavery by the Numbers: Errata and More Longitude

The table I posted yesterday had a serious error and a lot of small ones which I should have spotted but did not. Right after I post this I’ll be editing to fix it. The serious error comes in the 1800 census figures, where the black population leaps from 19.25% to 24.01% of the nation’s total. I noticed the unusual spike when I made the table, but did not notice also that the white proportion of the population did not also decline. Somehow, I ended up with 105% of all Americans. That can’t be right, even accounting for some rounding. I also did not notice that the share of the population made up by black people increased but the percentage of slaves and free blacks did not. Legally and logically, all black people the census counted had to fall into one of those categories.  The second discrepancy did not become apparent to me until I worked up the charts for today’s post.

At first, I thought the peak might represent a rush of slave imports in advance of the prohibition that hit at the start of 1808, but then those people would appear as a spike in the percent slave column. They do not. Likewise such would require a reduction in the white proportion of the population. No such luck. I went to check my figures against the University of Virginia’s census browser, thinking I might have mistakenly carried a figure over from one column to another, made a regular typographical error, or something like that. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to raise the site all day.

But census figures also exist at the Census Bureau, oddly enough. Therein I found Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, For The United States, Regions, Divisions, and States by Gibson and Jung. They both draw on census data, so I used Gibson and Jung to check my national totals. Sure enough, I found errors. Most figures did not vary by a great deal, but essentially every one had small variances from what I transcribed earlier. Relying on Gibson and Jung, I replaced the data and the sudden surge in anomalous black Americans vanished. I don’t know how many of the errors come down to my poor transcription and how many belong to the poor UVa students who transcribed from the original tabulations. I have most of the 1860 tabulations as scans of the original published tables and they do not make for easy reading with tiny type closely packed. The older census scans I have seen have similar issues. In either case, Gibson and Jung’s national figures make sense and mine and/or UVa’s do not.

The Longitude of Slavery. (Click image for a larger version.)

The Longitude of Slavery. (Click image for a larger version.)

I’ve said before that I do not have any special gift for numbers. I can see the trends over time, but the degree of change and its relation to changes in the other variables leave my innumerate brain with a bit too much to keep track of. The following charts present the same data much more effectively. I planned to include them with yesterday’s post, but could not get the spreadsheet to generate what I wanted. A friend helped me out with that. (Thanks, bud.)

The national population broken down by race and slave status.

The national population broken down by race and slave status.

Right away, some of the human cost of slavery shows through. White population growth follows the total trend closely, as one would expect from a nation never less than 80.73% white. But white and black lived in the same places, usually at very close proximity. They suffered the same food shortages, natural disasters, diseases, and so forth. Given that, we would expect both lines the follow quite similar curves. They do not. However, this measure does not quite compare apples to apples as the white population also grew due to immigration.

Apologists for American slavery will sometimes go on about how in the United States, and here alone, a forcibly transplanted slave population successfully replaced its own numbers and even grew. So far as that goes, one can’t argue. Caribbean and South American slavery rarely ever managed that and Caribbean sugar plantations worked through people at a prodigious rate. But not matching the most brutal and murderous slave system in the hemisphere hardly seems like something to brag about. Separately, population growth requires a fairly even distribution of the sexes. If one puts enough people of the right age and sexes together for any length of time, babies will ensue no matter what the situation.

Knowing the legal importation of slaves would likely end shortly after Congress gained the power to end it, American slaveholders had plenty of time to buy enough women to increase the numbers of their human herds. Living in an agricultural world, they probably required no advice on the matter at all. If you want more horses, you make sure you have sufficient breeding stock. The same works for people. Given the starkly commercial interest animating the purchase of women who would go on to birth more slaves, I don’t see anything to admire here. The slaveholding class might have practiced good husbandry, but they practiced it on people. The demographics tell us just how well owners as a class treated their human property: well enough not to run out.

The confounding effect of immigration appears more strongly when one looks at proportions.

The total black, free black, and slave populations as percents of the whole.

The total black, free black, and slave populations as percent of the whole.

Whatever their natural growth, black people formed a smaller portion of the population in 1860 than they ever had before. Immigration swelled the numbers of white Americans (at least by modern understandings, to the nineteenth century plenty of Europeans did not fully count as white) but black people arrived only when taken by force, whether they came openly or got smuggled across after the ban on importing slaves became law.

I did not previously know that the free black population peaked, proportionately, in 1810. It makes sense in hindsight, though. A wave of emancipation followed independence, even in states that maintained slavery to the bitter end, but it petered out as state legislatures made manumission harder and probate courts more eagerly set aside wills providing for it. Given the increasing difficulty in granting freedom and essentially zero immigration by free blacks, combined with the numerous obstacles they faced despite their freedom, a decline seems quite reasonable. Of course many who freed themselves did not stop until they reached the Canadian border. Many who did stop short went the rest of the way, at least for a while, after the Fugitive Slave Act, after Kansas-Nebraska, and especially after Dred Scott.


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