Question: “In today’s dollars, each slave in 1860 cost about $17,000. Wouldn’t whipping decrease work output and decrease resale value?”
You misunderstand how the system of slave based production on cotton and sugar cane plantations in the Deep South worked.
The work load for each slave laborer per day was set by the slave owner based upon the maximum output that could be achieved by the best hands with the most experience under the best conditions. Each slave was given an output quota that was a percentage of that…a quota that was the maximum that that hand could achieve based upon their experience.
Those maximum production figures were well known, being published in Planters’ Journals , Southern Slave Owners’ Newspapers subscribed to by the slave-owning classes. These journals described and promoted methods designed to get the greatest possible productivity out of the enslaved labor while spending as little as possible on their care and feeding. For some time those journals promoted the idea of feeding the enslaved workers on cotton seed waste. Cotton seed waste cost nothing. But it had NO nutritive value and as a sole source of nutrition would cause a man to starve to death.
The primary mechanism for increasing productivity on the slave plantations of the Deep South was the systematic application of violence and torture.
ANY slave who for any reason failed to meet their essentially arbitrarily assigned quota was whipped. These whippings were extremely painful. They were ordinarily administered by a sadist using a heavy braided stock whip intended to be used on animals. The whipping always resulted in torn and bleeding skin and were accompanied by loud uncontrollable involuntary screaming that could be heard hundreds of yards away. The diaries of the landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted who spent a year on Southern Plantations notes that one of his most vivid memories from those plantations was the screams of men and women being whipped. Those whippings often caused men used to brutal conditions to lose consciousness from the pain.
The whippings were a management technique. They were purposely administered sadistically and publicly. The other slaves, exhausted from their labors but still required to fetch their own water and gather their own cooking fuel and spend hours preparing their own food before sleeping and being woken before dawn, were required to watch them.
Systematic whippings were used to increase productivity. Once the hands were generally able to achieve the set quota, the quota for everyone would be increased. Those who could not achieve the new quota would be whipped.
The Southern Slave-Owning Classes were both sadists and perverts. There was an obvious sexual sadism involved in these whippings. Southern men, who bragged to each other in their letters and journals of the number of female slaves they had raped, would whip the females when they were staked to the ground on their backs naked with their legs spread and whipped across their bellies and thighs.
Southern brutality was so extreme that both male and female slaves died in agony while being whipped. But Southern law specifically allowed a slaver to kill his own slave. There were no penalties for doing so. The only restriction on killing a slave applied when the murderer was not the slave’s owner. In such a case the killer was NOT guilty of or tried for murder. Rather he was required to make a cash payment to the dead slave’s owner for depriving him of his property.
When all of the hands could achieve the new higher arbitrary production quotas, the Best Hands, who were the most experienced and therefore had the highest productivity, would themselves be whipped to encourage them to achieve a super-human output. Then the quota system would be adjusted upwards based upon the output of these Best Hands and the whippings would continue.
How effective was this system of obtaining productivity increases through violence and torture? We have three objective indicators that this systematic torture greatly increased the wealth of the Southern Slave-Owning Classes.
- Picking cotton is a skilled task that is difficult to learn, requires eye-hand coordination to do well and quickly, and under the best conditions will result in bloodied hands. Believe me, you can’t do it. Yet many Black slaves learned to quickly and simultaneously pick cotton on two rows using both their right and left hands ambidextrously. This takes an almost impossible level of concentration, skill, and dexterity. But it was done by tired nearly-starving beaten people working from before dawn to dusk in the hot southern sun. The slaves learned to do the impossible to avoid being whipped.
- Before the Civil War these Slave Labor Plantations increased their productivity 2% each year, for 17 consecutive years, without any increase in capital investment or any change in production methods. This continuous increase in productivity without investment over that long a period in time is, from the point of view of a capitalist-investor, astounding! This increase in productivity was achieved through the systematic use of torture and violence by Southern White Slave Owners.
- After the Civil War and the Emancipation of the Slaves Southern White Planters resorted to using Paid White Labor for planting and picking cotton. That Paid White Labor was not able to achieve even ONE THIRD the average productivity of Black Slave Labor during the pre-war years.
As for the argument that the Slave Owners might not want to diminish the resale value of their enslaved brutalized human property and would, therefore, refrain from whipping them: NO. there are two reasons why that was not true.
- The most productive slaves, those who worked on the First Gang, were strong-bodied healthy males aged between 16 and 27. After that because of the onerous nature of their work and poor diet and lack of medical care their productivity decreased markedly. It was, therefore, determined by the Southern Planter Class that the most economically rational course was to work a man to death. The average life expectancy of a healthy male, who by our standards would have the body and stamina of a pro athlete (!), on the First Gang of a cotton or sugar cane slave farm was at best 17 years.
- The slaves were NOT actually owned. On the slave plantations in the Deep South all of the slaves were mortgaged. Fractional shares of each slave were owned by investors. The Southern Slavers were extremely poor businessmen who routinely lived beyond their means and were perpetually in debt…for their unpaid-for land, for their mortgaged slaves, to the merchants, and to factors to whom they had sold their crop before it had been harvested.
Southern Slave Agriculture was unspeakably evil and incompetently managed. Its main feature was obtaining productivity increases through violence and torture.
I truly hate to show this picture. It sickens me. But THIS is how Southerners treated slaves.
The Militant South 1800–1861, John Hope Franklin
Without Consent or Contract-The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, Robert William Fogel
Slave Nation, Alfred W. Blumrosen & Ruth G. Blumrosen
Spying on the South, Tony Horowitz
Confederate Reckoning, Stephanie McCurry
Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball
Lynching in the New South, Brundage
Fush Times & Fever Dreams-A History of Capitalism and Slavery, Joshua Rothman
Slave-based production was very profitable…as long as one was willing to accept systematic violence and torture. Towards the end of the Civil War slavery was being used by the South in industry and mining as well as agriculture. Slaves had already been colateralized and fractionally sold as bonds which were traded on the international market. In the pre-Civil war decade enslaved Blacks were the single biggest capital investment in the United States and cotton produced by slave labor was by far America’s most valuable export product.
In the decade prior to the Civil War a Black male slave between the age of 16 and 27 used for violence-based slave cotton or sugar production gave the greatest ROI (Return On Investment) of ANY investment.
Because of that I can see, lacking the American Civil War and Government Forced Slave Emancipation, violence-based slave production having continued into and through the 20th century not only in agriculture but in heavy industry and mining.
There is a problem with the $17,000 figure cited in the question. No economist or historian would use that. It is a grossly misleading figure based upon a conversion of a different currency in a different age with a different pricing structure and different commodities and a completely different distribution of income and effectively no taxation. The only useful comparative figure would involve the number of hours of labor needed by a person of a given social class to obtain a needed commodity that had equal utility/desirability in 1855 and 2019.
The planter class in the Deep South was generally composed of the dissolute spoiled sons of planter/slavers on the Chesapeake. They were speculators who competed with each other for a valuable commodity, e.g. slaves, and had by the mid-1850s bid the price of a young male slave up to absurd levels.
They were able to do this because slaves were collateralized and, like American home buyers in the decade prior to 2008, borrowed money wildly thinking that the value of slaves would continue to rise forever and they could always refinance their debt. They only needed easily obtained credit, not cash, to buy slaves.
Nevertheless, the market determined a price for slaves that was always far less than the money that could be made by owning slaves, especially if you were base enough to barely feed them (slaves had to grow for themselves or hunt and then cook almost all of the vegetables and protein they consumed), clothe them in hand-me-down rags, and work them to death.
Without getting into arcane detail, we can at best say that by the 1850s the price of young males slaves in the Deep South had been bid up to high levels but that the market still thought that the price still had the greatest ROI (Return On Investment) available in the United States.