To hear Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow of the Platte County Self-Defense Association tell it, slavery had God’s approval. It uplifted people black and white alike. It produced more churches with more seats in the pews. It created more homes and fewer homeless. It produced a faster growing native population. It even led to less income inequality. It even, Stringfellow finally came around to saying outright, made for great fortunes:
The poor worn out slave-holding States, have in fact $417,523,392, more wealth than New England with all its boasted prosperity!
This is result is the more extraordinary because it reverses again all our experience. Since the days or Tyre and Sidon, commerce and manufactures have been regarded as sources of greater wealth, agriculture of least profit. In Europe tariffs are made to protect the farmer; commerce and manufactures are able to protect themselves. With us on the contrary, the farmers are not only richer than the trader, the merchant, the manufacturer, but tariffs are enacted to protect the latter — Agriculture not only protects itself, but carries on its shoulders commerce and manufactures. In despite of oppressive legislation, we find these agricultural, slave-holding States, in wealth, far in advance of New England, with its unequalled commerce, its unrivalled manufactures.
Slavery did not just bring all these social goods. It brought them in a handy package that invited you to come get rich. Step right up, by your slaves, put them to work, and watch them bleed money.
Stringfellow had it right that slavery produced great fortunes. If Southerners as a whole really had thrown their money away on slave property, they would soon have stopped or run out of money to throw away. They got returns on their investment, even if the nature of the market meant that often they ran cash poor. But Stringfellow got it wrong on the tariffs. Antebellum tariffs protected American cotton. They sustained virtually the entire American sugar industry. The New England manufacturer and the Carolina cotton magnate both reaped the benefits.
That said, Stringfellow got ahead of an obvious objection:
But we will be told that in this estimate we include our slaves that they should not be counted its property, but rated as persons, entitled to a share!
So Stringfellow ran the numbers counting slaves as both property of their masters and people entitled to a share of the wealth. The South still came out ahead. He declined, however, to take the wealth held as slave property out of the numbers and keep the slaves as legitimate stakeholders in the question. One might suspect deception here, or at least some kind of strategic omission, but the 1850 census lacked a line item for the value of slave property. It didn’t even track the names of enslaved individuals, though for the first time it did aspire to get the full names of every free person. Finding the value of all the slaves in a state would take more doing than just looking it up like Stringfellow could the number of churches or the blind. Modern economic historians have done the work, but Stringfellow might simply have lacked the tools.