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Trevon Logan

Slavery Was Never an American Economic Engine

On the contrary, emancipation delivered the largest single productivity gain in U.S. history.

Value destruction.

Value destruction.

Photo: Rischgitz/Getty Images

In honor of Black history month, allow me to revisit a view of the past in need of greater scrutiny: the idea that slavery in the U.S., while morally wrong, was nonetheless an “economically productive” practice that helped form the foundation of American capitalism.

True, slavery generated substantial wealth for its practitioners. The income generated by enslaved labor was much higher than its financial costs. This difference was capitalized in the market value of enslaved people, which is estimated to have been $4 billion as of 1860 — more than every bank and railroad combined at the time. Annual expected returns were 7% to 10% per year, which would be an impressive performance even today.