Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Value of Slaves

I was looking for a way to explain to students why the institution of slavery turned into such a major fight, and the easiest way to do so is to put the price of slaves into a modern context.  The value of a prime field hand (a man in his early 20s) in 1850 was about $800.  Gold was $20 per ounce at the time, so today, that would be equivalent to about 50x that, or $40,000 in current money.  A prime field hand was therefore about as valuable an economic asset as a new BMW 335i sedan. There's a nice graph showing how the value of a male slave rose and then fell with age in 1850.  An average slave might be worth $400 in 1850, or the equivalent of a new Chevrolet Impala today.

The large slave owners might have hundreds of slaves--and the work that they did is what made a large slave owner wealthy.  Without those slaves, even a planter's land was worth far less, because free labor would not have been anywhere near as cheap. 


  1. Well, at the current price of gold (~$1400/oz), 20 oz of gold would be $70,000 rather than $40,000. And, the owner has to provide food, clothing, and shelter.

    Seems to me that this is a rather expensive proposition. I think the problem is that slavery became an ingrained institution before large-scale European immigration began. Such immigrants were substantially cheaper than slaves from everything I've ever read. However, by the time such immigrants began to appear, slavery was well-entrenched in the South.

  2. I would disagree with your statement, based on what I read about the Post Civil War economy. As I recall, sharecropping evolved because it was significantly cheaper than simply hiring on former slaves as wage laborers. At this point, if free immigrant labor was in fact cheaper, you would expect a few planters to try to hire a bunch of Irish to replace their slaves at some point. Therefore, slavery probably was a better deal for the planter than using free wage labor for the same tasks.

  3. Actually, we don't know the exact reason slavery became common. There is some evidence that a shortage of free labor after the Great Fire of 1666 may have made slave labor more attractive.

    Fogel & Engerman's work suggests that return on investment of slaves was perhaps as high as 8% annually--which is a decent return for the antebellum period.