How long would slavery have lasted in the South if not for Lincoln?

I finally saw the movie “Lincoln” this evening. A companion asked me “Suppose that the Civil War had never been fought or the South had won. How much longer could they have continued with slavery given that it had been abolished in most of the rest of the world?” I didn’t have a good answer. shows that legal slavery persisted in Arab and North African countries until as late as 2007 though the last country that was reasonably comparable to the American South, Brazil, seems to have completely abolished slavery in 1888.

What do readers think? How long would slavery have lasted in the South if the confederate states had been successful in seceding?

[Separately, I was shocked to learn from the movie that two Connecticut Representatives had voted against the 13th Amendment. But then I asked “the Google” (as George W. Bush referred to it) and the consensus seems to be that in fact Connecticut’s delegation was solidly in favor of the amendment. The screenwriters were apparently too lazy to use the Internet to check this seemingly ridiculous fact. If they got that wrong it is hard to know how much of the rest of the movie to believe…]

26 thoughts on “How long would slavery have lasted in the South if not for Lincoln?

  1. According to Prof Walter E. Williams, George Mason University, the war of 1861 was not a civil war, but a war of independence:

    I’m pretty sure slavery would have ended (peacefully) in the South by 1890, if not earlier. Can’t put my finger on it right now, but I have seen references to plans by the Confederacy to end slavery. These plans were in place before war broke out.

    The closest I could find quickly was from here:

    In 1864, the Confederate States began to abandon slavery. There are some indications that even without a war, the Confederacy would have ended slavery. Most historians believe that the Confederacy only started to abandon slavery once their defeat was imminent. If that were true then we are to believe that the CSA wanted independence more than they wanted to hold on to slavery. The CSA’s highest ranking generals, Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston were not slave holders and did not believe in slavery. And according to an 1860 census, only 31% of families owned slaves. 75% of families that owned slaves owned less than 10 and often worked beside them in the fields. The Confederate Constitution banned the overseas slave trade, and permitted Confederate states to abolish slavery within their borders if they wanted to do so. Slavery wasn’t abolished until 1868, 3 years after the war. Thus Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware still had slaves.

  2. “If they got that wrong it is hard to know how much of the rest of the movie to believe…”

    Isn’t that the case with all historical fiction? If the movie were a robot, it would be setting off our uncanny valley detectors. But we apparently aren’t equipped for that in the case of movies so the facts and fiction conflate in a delusive stew.

    This seems like a good opportunity to castigate the much-lauded Argo. Besides sharing the same confusion between fact and fiction (car/plane chase scene – really?), the acting was terrible and character development was non-existent. You have to wonder if they’re willing to insert random dramatic elements to make the movie more interesting, why not just make the usual fictional action movie. Alan Arkin FTW, though.

  3. It is a myth that the southern people ever seriously considered freeing their slaves during the civil war.

    Robert E Lee owned slaves.

    During his invasion of Pennsylvania Lee’s army kidnapped black residents and sent them south to be sold.

    It is a myth that emancipation was seriously considered by the southern insurgency. Even in the last days when use of black soldiers was authorized by the southern insurgent government, ownership of these soldiers was retained by their masters.

  4. Jim: It does seem doubtful that the confederates would have wanted to free slaves during the war, but at the same time it seems doubtful that, had they been permitted to secede, slavery would today be legal in, say, Virginia. That means at some time between 1865 and 2013 the slaves would have been freed regardless. the question my friend raised was “when?”

  5. I messed up the link in my last post, but Lee’s slave ownership is well documented. Who do you think did the work at Lee’s Arlington mansion? He didn’t hire staff on his salary as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army.

    See the Wikipedia article on Robert E Lee.

  6. Slavery was guaranteed in the Constitution of the CSA. Banning it would have required a constitutional amendment – a process as difficult as it is under our Constitution – so it would probably never have been banned. Even if slaves were no longer economically useful (a questionable proposition), slavery is a big part of what they fought for. Why would they turn around and surrender on that issue after winning the Civil War?

    The CSA would have been too big to be bullied like South Africa or Rhodesia, and they would have been able to form a mutual pariah trading block with those countries, so maybe they would still be around too. All the civil rights advances in the South have been forced on it by the North. If the South was separate from the North, there’s no reason to believe they ever would have happened.

  7. Phil, it’s hard to know what the south would have done with slavery had they been allowed to leave the union.

    Had the south won the Battle of Gettysburg they probably would have won the right to leave the Union. In that case slavery would certainly have remained as long there were surviving civil war veterans alive. The last civil war veteran to die was an insurgent general in (IIRC) 1958.

    What’s even more interesting to think about is how long slavery might have lasted had the south not started the civil war.

    In a last ditch effort to save the union in March 1861, Congress passed the first 13th amendment to the Constitution. Known as the ‘Corwin Amendment’ (see Wikipedia) said:

    “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”.

    This amendment did not have an expiration date, so legally it could still be ratified today.

  8. I was born and raised in Brazil, and one of the reasons for abolition of slavery was pressure from Britain who was partly selflessly promoting the common good, but partly selfishly wanting to sell their Industrial Revolution machines to the 3rd world, and slaves were getting in the way. Abolish Slavery -> Sell machines to the 3rd world -> Profit!

  9. Like you, Brazil was always the one I considered to be the last major nation to abolish slavery and I think the South would have ended it around the same time. Remember, if anyone calls America barbaric for ending slavery “late”, Brazil ended it later and, in fact, Britain had slavery for far longer than the United States. If you support capital punishment, remember for argument sake that Japan still has capital punishment too, and it is generally considered even a more civilized nation than ours.

    The end of slavery in Britain (1772), later for their overseas possessions:'s_Case

  10. It would have ended later rather than sooner. Many slaves wouldn’t have lived to see freedom. Their years of freedom would have been less. It would have been like many skinny men who don’t find true love until moments before death. The momentum against slavery was in place, just like the rise of socialism today. Why does this feel like writing a high school essay again?

  11. Slavery would have ended as industrialization came to the south in the form of tractors and other equipment and at a point in which there was enough stability that the south did not feel that releasing the slaves would possibly result in widespread violence.

    The question I have is if the south had not had slavery, but wanted to succeed over the issue of high federal tariffs on imports, would there still have been a war?

  12. Could also look at when slavery ended in the north and see what drove it to end there. The google says there was slavery in CT until at least 1850, only 11 years before the start of the war.

  13. I think slavery would have been ended, but it would have happened much, much later. Southern culture, despite many virtues, is not particularly amenable to change. But the worst part, to my understanding, was that as an ‘institution’, slavery was no longer just about economics. It was also about social order. Even though most southerners didn’t own slaves, they still ‘benefited’ socially by having a permanent underclass.

    One hint at the likely intransigence of southern leaders might be found in the town Americana, in Brazil, where some escaped to after the war. I once saw a brief TV clip about it, and was astonished. It sure seemed like they were trying to maintain the same culture, though it’s not clear how many slaves they owned:,_Brazil#Immigration_from_the_Southern_United_States

  14. Abolishing slavery in the CSA would have required a constitutional amendment changing the very cause for which they seceded. Highly unlikely.

    The newly reduced US would share a long border with the CSA, a long border that allowed easy escape of slaves, and easy flow of weapons south. The US government would be reluctant to go to war again, but many Americans would be eager to stir up trouble.

    The most likely outcome is a Haiti-like slave rebellion, perhaps a generation after the “War Between the States”. Imagine the revenge fantasy of Django Unchained, but writ large across the whole of the CSA. Maybe 1 million dead, another 2 million white refugees escape north.

  15. I think it would have lasted another 25-50 years. Even once Southern whites decided that slavery wasn’t working, it’s not an easy thing to end. What would happen to the ex-slaves? Are they given land? etc.

    I’m suspicious of it-would-have-happened-anyway claims. People say that about Iron Curtain countries and 1989. That pressure from Reagan was pointless and dangerous because the collapse of the USSR would have happened anyway.

  16. Phil, here’s an interesting economic analysis of the role of slavery in the Civil War made by Karl Mark from October 1861:

    He states that: “The cultivation of the southern export articles, cotton, tobacco, sugar , etc., carried on by slaves, is only remunerative as long as it is conducted with large gangs of slaves, on a mass scale and on wide expanses of a naturally fertile soil, which requires only simple labour. Intensive cultivation, which depends less on fertility of the soil than on investment of capital, intelligence and energy of labour, is contrary to the nature of slavery.”

    And thus most slave holding states had gotten into the business of exporting slaves (rather than using them on plantations). Since there were fewer places that slaves could be profitably used, the requirement was for more land to exploit in this fashion in order to keep the institution going. The actual trigger of the War is in his analysis the elimination of the possibility of the entire west becoming slave territory (and this ties into the origin of the Republican Part in the battle over Kansas).

    From his analysis, it seems likely that the perpetuation of slavery would have been a major concern of the Confederacy. And it might have spent quite a bit of effort imposing its system on other countries.

    Not sure how convincing you’ll find a purely economic analysis…


  17. I think your companion may be underestimating the sheer inertia of the US, and its ability to resist external pressures that other societies might succumb to (for good or bad). The US is so large and independent that it’s practically a world unto itself. What do you think the chances are of the US adopting the metric system in the next 50 years? Or repealing the Second Amendment?

    Thinking about later upheavals in the US — the Great War, the Great Depression, World War II — I suspect that if slavery had continued in the US past the 1860s, the next chance to abolish it would have been in the 1960s, after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II and discrediting of racist ideology. (Jim Crow survived in the South until then.)

    By the way, if you want to irritate your libertarian friends, you can point out that the “taxation is theft” view of government as alien, illegitimate, and tyrannical bears a strong resemblance to the post-war views of the defeated South (specifically the Lost Cause view of the Civil War). Sam Tanenhaus, variously described as a neoconservative (by liberals) or the NYT Book Review editor (by conservatives), argues that the “nullification” doctrine of John C. Calhoun was a major influence on modern conservatism, via the National Review.

  18. I’ve read historical studies (some 30 or 40 years ago) about the successful use of slaves in the South as skilled laborers so the conclusion was more or less indefinitely.

  19. I’m simplifying a bit but mass slavery would have ended when the economic pressure became too great. The industrial revolution would have eventually made mass slavery a bad economic proposition. Essentially the maintenance costs and efficiency of machine labor would have outcompeted for the type of hard labor we associate slaves performing. That process was already well advanced by the time the Civil War started. The interesting question would be if slavery had consisted of house servants and others not involved in hard labor would it have died a very slow death or would politics/ethics have killed it quickly. CJ, I believe Marx was correct about the war trigger but I don’t think he foresaw how machines were going to impact slavery. Even if the west had been opened to slavery there eventually would have been no buyers for the exported slaves on a large scale.

  20. Thomas Sowell treats the subject in “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”. Some highlights include the role of Britain in the abolition of slavery worldwide (for instance, it more or less forced Brazil as well as the Ottoman Empire to abolish slavery), and the fact that slave trade was abolished in the South long before slave ownership was, with slave traders being routinely hanged without this being controversial in the slightest. The problem with abolishing slavery in the US was what to do with slaves who’re already there; a problem many other nations didn’t have because, for instance, of castrating their slaves…

  21. The question is so speculative as to not have a meaningful answer. It does, however, stimulate thought.

    I am struck by how appealing it is to have an underclass. Men in societies where women are oppressed resist progressive movements involving women’s rights. It’s nice to have half the population serve you. We in California enjoy the services of diligent and hardworking Latin Americans, working at reduced wages due to being illegal. We are loathe to give this up. And our tech company executives flock to Washington to insure a supply of intelligent Asians who can only remain in the U.S. at their behest.

    Then we come to slavery, the crack cocaine of human exploitation. How wonderful it must have been to own slaves. We never would have given it up.

  22. While Lincoln and others are hailed as heroes for freeing the slaves I think the tone at the time and afterwards was “alarm” at number of blacks that were brought into the country, and what to do with them ?

    My thinking has evolved a bit on the Civil War, and Lincoln. I don’t think the war was necessary, the industrial revolution was eliminating the need for slaves , and was steamroller that would have eventually changed the South as it did everything else.

    The epic battle that Lincoln fought to save the Union gave the Federal Government the power over States’ rights we have never recovered from, and while he may have freed the slaves, he enslaved us to the Federal Government, which now is into almost every aspect of our lives, and puts down any dissent with quick brutal efficiency.

  23. ‘The genius of the slaveholders, wrote Daniel Hundley in his Social Relations in Our Southern States, is that they are “not an exclusive aristocracy. Every free white man in the whole Union has just as much right to become an Oligarch.” This was not just propaganda: by 1860, there were 400,000 slaveholders in the South, making the American master class one of the most democratic in the world.’

    – from Corey Robin’s book, The Reactionary Mind

  24. “Django Unchained” Slavery still exists, globally. There’s some doc. that’s called ‘slavery by another name’. As you know, a very popular way of changing something politically is to abolish it, slow down on the punishment for contravention of new laws, turn a blind eye and continue the practice in all but name or change the name. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, there’s a good chance it is a duck. The time when there will be no slavery is when it meets with general disapproval. I haven’t seen Lincoln, but will go despite some talk of historical whitewashing and low entertainment level.

    How long would it have continued, without the civil war? Impossible to tell, but for someone who doesn’t live in the US but does live in another country that benefitted from this trade, Lincoln’s actions stuck a flag on a piece of conceptual territory on behalf of your nation that demonstrated a political intention and a moral statement.It might take a while for that place to be colonised but I’m hoping, with or without technological assistance we’ll all get there.

    By the way, didn’t mean to write stuff here, was looking through this blog because I’d visited a brilliant site explaining servers and wanted to find out who wrote it, then got distracted by all the news items and comments, this in particular. All the best and thanks.

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