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The US economy is one of the most admired economies in the world. The slave labor is one of the main contributions to this economy. History books have omitted the accomplishments and contribution of slavery in building the US economy and politics. Slaves performed many duties offering unskilled, semi skilled and skilled labor in plantations, towns and cities, in various capacities. The US Capitol construction, the plantation farming, the maritime and the transport industries are among the many contribution of slavery in the USA. They were the “machines of 16th to 18th century” that begun the most prosperous country in the world. This essay argues that slavery and slave labor were one of the most outstanding features that laid the foundation for infrastructural, financial, economic, administrative construction of the Americas including the USA.
The labor force provided by the black slaves during the 16th and 19th centuries was vital for survival of the European colonial economies, including the one of the Americas. The British and other colonies had discovered an abundant land in the Americas with a lot of potentials. This new opportunity would be useless without sufficient labor. The Trans Saharan Slave Trade that supplied laborers into southern Europe, North Africa and Middle East became an interest of European colonizers in the Western Hemisphere. The Americas became a dominant slave market (Dodson 3) and transformed the Trans Saharan Slave Trade into Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.
Between 1492 and 1776, more than 6.5 million slaves moved into the Americas. Of these, 5.5 million were from Africa. More than two thirds of the slave got employment mostly in the fields (Dodson 3). The colonial masters bought slaves, and then captured and transported them to the American coasts. Plantation owners bought more than half of the Black slaves. They worked first in sugar plantations in the 16th and 17th centuries. The owners used the profits from the plantations to buy additional slaves. In the United States the colonialists employed African slaves largely in the tobacco plantations, while rice and indigo plantations in South Carolina dominated in slave employment (Dodson 3). Later, after the American Revolution, the Northern state abolished the slave trade. There was a shift from tobacco production to cotton production. Slave-produced cotton formed the main slave economy in the lower South moving slaves to the south. The abolition of slavery in the north also led to domestic slave trade between the North and the South.
The slaves imported from Africa brought with them the knowledge of growing rice among other crops into the Americas (Blassingame 67). Rice grew well in West and Central Africa. Slaves in South Carolina and Georgia taught their owners how to grow rice, a crop that did not grow in England. Other crops imported from Africa were black-eyed peas, watermelon, sorghum okra, and millet. The African slaves prepared these dishes alongside gumbo and rice dishes.
Between 1619 and 1860, slaves continued to enter into the USA. Despite outlawing slave trade in 1808, slave importation continued to offer labor in the emerging world economy for the next forty years (Dodson 3). Over those 246 years, they provided free labor amounting to over 605 billion hours. Their labor contributed immensely in financing the Industrial Revolution, offered the capital for the fortune 500 companies, financed the two World Wars and constructed the main buildings in the USA (Dodson 3).
Apart from working in plantations, the slaves were a constant source of labor in homes of plantation owners as maids, waiters, seamstresses, butlers, launderers and other domestic workers (Blassingame 67). Others worked in many capacities as artisans, or as a part of plantation workforce including carpenters, coopers, blacksmiths, stonemasons, millers, spinners, and weavers.
One can agree that plantations during the colonial were highly significant in the US economy. Agriculture during the colonial period was the main source of revenue. It was the main source of capital that drove other sectors of the economy (Blassingame 68). The value of slavery in the Americas is synonymous with the value of the plantation economy. Each plantation economy formed a part of the large national and international economy. For instance, the cotton plantation economy was part of the regional economy in South Americas. In the 1830s, cotton in the South Americas was king and the domineering part of the economy of the United States. The US at that time was competing with economies for economic leadership and power in the global political economy (Blassingame 68). Slave-grown cotton formed the strong base of the Antebellum Southern economy. Plantations were the economic backbone of Texas that made it flourish.
Colonial trade revolved around slavery. Financial and shipment industries also revolved around slavery. Slaved-produced cotton was one of the main commodities, traded in the colonial era. From the South, they moved to New York, textile manufacturing centers in United States and transshipped through the Atlantic Ocean to England and Europe. Cotton plantation economy attracted banks and financial institutions and provided loans and capital.
Slaves were not only laborers but also a measure of value of the plantation. Plantation owners bought slaves as commodities. They were a form of property and they were traded and exchanged as regular objects of trade (Blassingame 69). Apart from selling slaves for money, the slave owners exchanged slaves for other kinds of commodities. Investors in the plantation economy would estimate the cost of the plantation based on the number of slaves. The value of slaves in the colonial period was high, such that slaveholders used the number of slaves in the plantations to secure loans to buy land and other slaves. They also used slaves to settle off debts (Blassingame 69). Slavery was valuable in the economy. The local authorities and state governments taxed the plantation owners according to the number of slaves they owned and levied taxes on every transaction involving slaves. The transactions involved selling and lending slaves among plantation owners.
The labor in any sector of the economy is vital. Without labor, the sector becomes crippled (Strouse 26). The slave provided labor in the plantations. According to number of the slave population (the figures are provided by the US Census Bureau), the cost of slave labor in America was extremely large if converted to current economic value of labor. The slaves provided labor to America for 164 years working 51 weeks a year. The slaves worked six days a week. The value amounted to 20.3 trillion dollars or an average of $563,450 per slave assuming ten dollars per hour. This free labor injected 20.3 trillion dollars into the US economy. Money is still circulating in the US economy. Money cannot be destroyed (Strouse 26). The contribution of slavery funded new economic ventures that are still operational today.
The business of slavery brought a lot of benefits that are still revolving in the US economy. For instance, Pierre Bauduy bought a quarter of all shares of E.I. DuPont Company for $8,000 (Strouse 37). This money he obtained from the profits from the sugar plantations in Haiti that he sold during the Haitian Revolution. Another example is Brown University. Slave ships manufacturers and cotton businessmen invested their money into the capital that financed the genesis of the University. J.P Morgan obtained his initial capital from cotton trading company that relied on cotton in the South (Marcus 2). A slave owner, who obtained his fortune from the slave trade, gave the Faneuil Hall to the city of Boston which has now become Boston’s most celebrated “Cradle of Liberty” (Marcus 2). Abraham Redwood, England’s largest slave owner, helped to built Redwood Library in Rhode Island, the America’s oldest lending Library (Marcus 2).
In the maritime industry, slaves provided the main labor force. They loaded and unloaded commercial goods from ships that traded within the US and across the Atlantic. Apart from working in the production of the agricultural products, they were also engaged in transporting the goods to the markets in towns. Enslaved blacks in some trades worked side-by-side with white workers. In the maritime economy, slaves labored as boatmen, shipwrights, lighter men, caulkers, sail makers, riggers, coopers, mariners, co-pilots and pilots. Maritime slave employment was an economic necessity for the colonial governments which had branches all over the world. It was an economic opportunity for the governments. The slaves plied the rivers, the creeks and the bays of the South, transporting goods from the plantations and completing the transport network.
It is true that the back of the slaves built the US economy. The most iconic contribution of slavery is the construction of the United State Capitol Building, the White House (Marcus 2). The slaves built the Mt Vernon, Monticello and the Montpelier, the homes of the United States founding fathers - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively. The bondmen built the other two principal buildings in the Williamsburg, Virginia: the Governors Palace and the Wren Building. It is right to assume that any house built in the eighteenth century in Colonial Williamsburg stood majorly due to labor of slaves.
And only 200 hundred years later the anniversary honored the builders of the US most prestigious building, the Capitol. The “Temple of Liberty”, as they called it in the 1820s, cherished the ideas of slave freedom, equality and self determination (Marcus 2). The slaves rented from their owners helped to build the city of Washington that hosts the Capitol. The slave workmen augmented the labor of the free workmen (Marcus 9). Population in the Potomac region was sparse, but the number of black slaves was the highest.
In the 1790s, slave labor was the main workforce traded in the construction industries. This is the time when construction of the Capitol began. The Potomac region where George Washington decided to build the Capitol and the President’s House was devoid of human elements necessary for construction of a great city (Marcus 4). The bricklayers, plasterer, carpenters, roofers were missing. Equally, there were no supply of stone cutters and carvers. The neighborhood could provide only unskilled labor, mostly slaves, but also free blacks and whites. The Capital required more resources than the locally produced.
Robert Brent and William Wright used slave laborers to quarry stones from the Aquia Creek in Stafford County. The whole quarry work involved transporting, hauling, cutting and carving. This was burdensome and backbreaking labor needed only “strong, active NEGRO MEN” (Allen 8). For two years since the beginning of construction of the Capitol, the slaves quarried stones and transported them to the federal capital forty miles. The First Cornerstone laid by Washington in 18th of September, 1893 was a gneiss stone curved at Foggy Bottom by William O’Neale`s Negro slaves.
Hiring of slaves was necessary to increase the speed of the construction which did not move with the expected speed. Records on construction of the Capitol include words such as “Negro hire” (Allen 8). The commissioners made payments to the slave owners who lent the slaves. The slave master provided clothing and blankets to the slave laborers while Capitol construction commissioners paid them 60 dollars a year (Allen 8). Individual payments for “Negro hire” begun in 1795 but were not common (Allen 8). The construction documents recorded 385 individual payments between 1795 and 1801. The slaves worked in every facet of construction of the Capitol: masonry, carpentry, carting, rafting, plastering, glazing, roofing and painting. Sawing was an activity exclusively performed by slaves (Licht 67). Sawing was a hard task. Apart from sawing timber, the commissioners hired slaves to saw stones. Trained individuals superintended and directed the slaves on how to cut the stone. The stone sawyers obtained their freedom after a five or six year-term contract. The contract ensured continuous construction of the Capitol without interference.
Additionally, Capitol construction required bricks to build the walls of the Capitol. Brick making and bricklaying was a familiar work to slaves. Mortar and plastering were the other two activities that depended on slave labor. Carpentry, out of all construction activities, was the most common slave activities (Allen 10). Slaves were proficient in their carpentry activities in plantation. It remained main way of earning a living after the closure of the public quarries and sawing.
As long as the Capitol remains the iconic building in the US, slavery will remain vital in the building of the US. The beautiful National Sanctuary Hall and the old Senate Chamber will remain the prominent feature of slave labor. Philip Reid, a slave worth $1,200 (Allen 8), produced the best bronze statues. The Statue of Freedom on top of the White House is, among many, the visible symbol of slave labor that built the US and made it the center of economy and politics.