How America Became an Economic Powerhouse on the Backs of African-American Slaves and Native Americans

Y. Datta


The objective of this paper is to make the case that the United States became an economic super-power in the nineteenth century on the backs of African-American slaves and Native Americans.

It was in 1619, when Jamestown colonists bought 20-30 slaves from English pirates. The paper starts with ‘The 1619 Project’ whose objective is to place the consequences of slavery--and the contributions of black Americans--at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a nation.

Slavery was common in all thirteen colonies, and at-least twelve Presidents owned slaves. The enslaved people were not recognized as human beings, but as property: once a slave always a slave.

The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1788, never mentions slavery, yet slavery is at the very heart of the constitution.

The U.S. government used the Declaration of Independence as a license to commit genocide on the Native Americans, and to seize their land.

Racist ideas have persisted throughout American history, based on the myth that blacks are intellectually inferior compared to whites. However, in a 2012 article in the Scientific American, the authors reported that 85.5% of genetic variation is within the so-called races, not between them. So, the consensus among Western researchers today is that human races do not represent a scientific theory, but are sociocultural constructs.

After end of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery in America, and the 15th Amendment protected the voting rights of African Americans.

However, in the Confederate South, Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation between 1870-1968. In 1965, thanks to the Civil Rights movement, the Voting Rights Act was passed to overcome barriers created by Jim Crow laws to the legal rights of African Americans under the 15th Amendment.

British and American innovations in cotton technology sparked the Industrial Revolution during the latter part of the eighteenth century. The British cotton manufacturing exploded in the 1780s. Eighty years later in 1860, Manchester, England stood at the center of a world-spanning empire—the empire of cotton.

There were three pillars of the Industrial Revolution. One was the centuries-earlier conquest by Europeans of a colossal expanse of lands in the New World. It was the control of huge territories in America, that made monoculture farming of cotton possible. Second was that the Europeans drastically—and unilaterally--altered the global competitive landscape of cotton. They did it by using their military might, and the willingness to use it—often violently--to their advantage.

The third—and the most important--was slavery: without which there would be no Industrial Revolution.

America was tremendously suited for cotton production. The climate and soil of a large part of American South met the conditions under which the cotton plant thrived.

More importantly, the plantation owners in America commanded unlimited supplies of the three crucial ingredients that went into the production of cotton: labor, land, and credit. And this was topped by their unbelievable political power.

In 1793 Eli Whitney’s revolutionary cotton gin increased ginning productivity fifty times, and thus removed the bottleneck of removing seeds from cotton.

Because of relying on monoculture farming, the problem the cotton planters were facing was soil exhaustion. So, they wanted the U.S. government to acquire more land. Surprisingly, in 1803 America was able to strike an unbelievable deal with the French--the Louisiana Purchase--which doubled the territory of the United States. In 1819 America acquired Florida from Spain, and in 1845 annexed Texas from Mexico.

Between 1803 and 1838, under President Andrew Jackson, America fought a multi-front war against the Native Americans in the Deep South, and expropriated vast tracts of their land, that culminated in the ethnic cleansing of the Deep South.

With an unlimited supply of land—and slave labor--even soil exhaustion did not slow down the cotton barons; they just moved further west and farther south. New cotton fields now sprang up in the sediment-rich lands along the banks of Mississippi. So swift was this move westward that, by the end of the 1830s, Mississippi was producing more cotton than any other southern state. By 1860, there were more millionaires per capita in Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in America.

The New Orleans slave market was the largest in America--where 100,000 men, women, and children were packaged, priced, and sold.

The entry of the United States in the cotton market quickly began to reshape the global cotton market. By 1802 America was the single-most supplier of cotton to Britain.

For eighty years--from the 1780s to 1865--almost a million people were herded down the road from the upper South to the lower South and the West, to toil on cotton plantations. The thirty-odd men walked in coffles, the double line hurrying in lock-step. Each hauled twenty pounds of iron, chains that draped from neck-to-neck, and wrist-to-wrist, binding them all together. They walked for miles, days, and weeks, and many covered over 700 miles.

The plantation owners devised a cruel system of controlling their slaves that the enslaved called “the pushing system.” This system constantly increased the number of acres each slave was expected to cultivate. In 1805 each “hand” could tend to five acres of a cotton field. Fifty years later that target had been doubled to ten acres.

Overseers closely monitored enslaved workers. Each slave was assigned a daily quota of number of pounds of cotton to pick. If the worker failed to meet it, he received as many lashes on his back as the deficit. However, if he overshot his quota, the master might “reward” him by raising his quota the next day.

One of the most brutal weapons the planters used against the slaves, was the whip: ten feet of plaited cowhide. When facing the specter of an overseer’s whip, slaves were so terrified that they could not speak in sentences. They danced, trembled, babbled, and lost control of their bodies.

When seeking a loan, the planters used slaves as a collateral. With extraordinarily high returns from their businesses, the planters began to expand their loan portfolio: sometimes using the same slave worker as collateral for multiple mortgages. The American South produced too much cotton. However, consumer demand could not keep up with the excessive supply, that then led to a precipitous fall in prices, which, in turn, set off the Panic of 1837. And that touched off a major depression.

The slaveholders were using advanced management and accounting practices long before the techniques that are still in use today.

The manufacture of sugar from sugarcane began in Louisiana Territory in 1795. In sugar mills, children, alongside with adults, toiled like factory workers with assembly-like precision and discipline under the constant threat of boiling hot kettles, open furnaces, and grinding rollers.

To attain the highest efficiency, sugar factories worked day and night where there is no distinction as to the days of the week. Fatigue might mean losing an arm to the grinding rollers, or being flayed for not being able to keep up. Resistance was often met with sadistic cruelty.

The expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American independence, drove the evolution and modernization of the United States. In the course of a single life time, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations, to a continental cotton empire. As a result, the United States became a modern, industrial, and capitalistic economy. This is the period in which America rose from being a minor European trading partner, to becoming the world’s leading economy.

Finally, we hope that we have successfully been able to make the argument that America became an economic powerhouse in the nineteenth century not only on the backs of African-American slaves, but also on the genocide of Native Americans, and their stolen lands.

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