In virtually any discussion of the Civil War, southern apologists quickly make the case that the War was indeed not about slavery, but about other factors. Among the first pieces of evidence exhibited in this case is the statement like this: “Only about 4 percent of the population actually owned slaves.” So, it is implied, the majority people obviously had no concern for slavery much at all, let alone as a cause of the war.
Further, it is implied by this that slavery in America was mostly limited to a handful of ruling elite families, and would because of this, among other factors, die out very soon. We can deal with this aspect another time. For now, let’s look at the reality of that 4 percent statistic and the acceptance of slavery by the general populace.
A prominent southerner himself explains the facts
This very question was taken up by one of the most important southern spokespersons at the time, James D. B. DeBow. He published the most widely circulated magazine in the South, DeBow’s Review, which was effectively the official voice of the South.
Not only was DeBow the South’s leading publisher, he had also served as an official in the U.S. census office during Franklin Pierce’s presidency. He thus was uniquely suited to answer the question.
Just a couple weeks before South Carolina declared secession, DeBow published an op-ed piece entitled, “The Interest in Slavery of the Non-Slaveholder,” listing ten reasons the southern non-slaveholding masses would “make common cause with, and die in the last trenches in defence of, the slave property of his more favored neighbor.” (More on those ten reasons in a separate article.)
At the outset, DeBow states that he wrote this piece because a senator claimed slave ownership was concentrated in the hands of only a few percentage of wealthy elites. This argument had been put forth—ironically, in hindsight—by an abolitionist politician who seized upon the idea as a point of encouragement. If, in fact, slavery were the interest of only a tiny, elite few, it should be easier to break its political strength. DeBow moved quickly to correct the misperception, calling it a “gross misrepresentation” and a “malignant” allegation!
My how political circumstances sometimes make political pundits spill the beans. While southern partisans today want to suppress the real numbers, it seems the apologists of the day wanted to highlight it.
Setting up his case for the non-slaveholders to support a pro-slave south and even war, DeBow first laid out the factual argument that slavery was actually much more widespread among the general populace than these politically-motivated abolitionists were letting on.
Here’s is the central part of his argument:
When in charge of the national census office, several years since, I found that it had been stated by an abolition Senator from his seat, that the number of slaveholders at the South did not exceed 150,000. Convinced that it was a gross misrepresentation of the facts, I caused a careful examination of the returns to be made, which fixed the actual number at 347,255, and communicated the information, by note, to Senator Cass, who read it in the Senate. I first called attention to the fact that the number embraced slaveholding families, and that to arrive at the actual number of slaveholders, it would be necessary to multiply by the proportion of persons, which the census showed to a family. When this was done, the number was swelled to about 2,000,000.
Since these results were made public, I have had reason to think, that the separation of the schedules of the slave and the free, was calculated to lead to omissions of the single properties, and that on this account it would be safe to put the number of families at 875,000, and the number of actual slaveholders at about two million and a quarter.
Assuming the published returns, however, to be correct, it will appear that one-half of the population of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, excluding the cities, are slaveholders, and that one-third of the population of the entire South are similarly circumstanced. The average number of slaves is nine to each slave-holding family, and one-half of the whole number of such holders are in possession of less than five slaves.
It will thus appear that the slaveholders of the South, so far from constituting numerically an insignificant portion of its people, as has been malignantly alleged, make up an aggregate, greater in relative proportion than the holders of any other species of property whatever, in any part of the world; and that of no other property can it be said, with equal truthfulnes, that it is an interest of the whole community. Whilst every other family in the States I have specially referred to, are slaveholders, but one family in every three and a half families in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut, are holders of agricultural land; and, in European States, the proportion is almost indefinitely less. The proportion which the slaveholders of the South, bear to the entire population is greater than that of the owners of land or houses, agricultural stock, State, bank, or other corporation securities anywhere else. No political economist will deny this. Nor is that all.
Even in the States which are among the largest slaveholding, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, the land proprietors outnumber nearly two to one, in relative proportion, the owners of the same property in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut, and if the average number of slaves held by each family throughout the South be but nine, and if one-half of the whole number of slaveholders own under five slaves, it will be seen how preposterous is the allegation of our enemies, that the slaveholding class is an organized wealthy aristocracy. The poor men of the South are the holders of one to five slaves, and it would be equally consistent with truth and justice, to say that they represent, in reality, its slaveholding interest.1
Understanding the Stats
The 1860 census data bears out DeBow’s argument. This is where the “4 percent” statistic (and others like it—I have seen it said anywhere from 1.4 to 8 percent) starts to factor in, as well as why it is a very unfortunate half-truth (half- at best).
If you take the total number of slaveowners and divide by the free population of the southern states, in raw terms, you’ll get a raw number of 4.6 percent. This seems to be the baseline for the standard claim. But the reality is far different, in many ways.
This number of slaveowners, however, represents only the technical owners on paper. These are the people who had their name on the title. It does not consider the totality of the households which in practice, in command, in reality lorded over slaves. For this reason, the 1860 census itself also accounted for the percentage of families owning slaves.
For example, one household today can own several television sets, or more than one registered vehicle. If each of these were bought or titled in only the name of a single purchaser, it would appear on paper that only one person owned these things. Yet everyone in the household could use them both directly and indirectly, and benefit from them. If you have four beneficiaries in the house, that changes the percentage quite a bit. Larger families will have even more dramatic effects.
So it was with slaves in the 1800s. The head of household may have been the only technical “owner,” but the wife and many children, and even some hired hands, certainly benefited directly as if those slaves were their own, too.
Even here, however, the statistics are often misread. The chart shows that this acknowledgment only increases the total to 8 percent ownership. The fallacy here is that this percentage is calculated with all of the United States as a baseline, including the states that had no slavery. This dilutes the percentage. When you consider only the slave states, the average number of families owning slaves jumps to 27.2 percent.
This number is almost identical to DeBow’s estimate: 2,250,000 actual slaveowners makes for 27.1 percent of the population.
If you exclude Delaware and Maryland, which were basically outliers with very few slaves (Delaware had comparatively none at all), the mainstream slave states leap to 30.2 percent slave ownership.
Indeed, as DeBow notes, when we focus on particular states, the numbers are quite outstanding. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas all had at or near one-third ownership. Mississippi and South Carolina were at almost one-half.
Mass psycho-political interest in slavery
This point was covered briefly in The Problem of Slavery in Christian America. The reality of mass interest and support for slavery among the average population was already established at the time of the American Revolution.
While a large percentage of the population never held slaves (more on understanding these statistics in the next chapter), this hardly entailed that they opposed the institution, and even less certainly indicated any compassion for blacks. Virtually every piece of evidence we have of the common populations indicates otherwise. For example, even during the Revolution, in the thick of the fervor for liberty and equality, Virginians reacted harshly against a 1782 state law merely making provision for private manumissions, as well as publications in favor of emancipation by Methodists, Quakers, and some Baptists at the time. Petitions circulated in 1784 and 1785 declared how citizens had “risked our Lives and Fortunes, and waded through Seas of Blood” in order “that our Property might be secure,” but now “Enemies of our Country” had organized “a very subtle and daring Attempt . . . . To wrest from us our Slaves.”2 In all cases, these petitions cited Scripture as justification for holding their slaves, and in each case demanded not only a rejection of all attempts at emancipation, but repeal of the act allowing masters voluntarily to do so. Taken together, these five petitions, coming from a total of only eight counties, bore 1,244 signatures. “The liberalizing trend in Virginia set off by the Revolution appears, then, to have been short-lived.”3
In this atmosphere, when a Robert Pleasants, for example, freed his slaves upon the 1782 exactment, he faced an army of bureaucrats and hostile neighbors. The former stretched vagrancy and other laws in order to fine Pleasants for allowing blacks to roam free on a plantation. The latter group dispensed with the formalities of law altogether: “[T]he Negroes were beaten and robbed by white terrorists.” By 1798, these forces prevailed, and the state closed its voluntary manumission window once again.4
The same phenomena of broad proslavery and anti-black demand, as well as persecution and intimidation of anyone favoring emancipation, appear in other southern states. The Society of Friends in Philadelphia related in 1804 that Quakers were fleeing in droves, and that soon, few if any would remain in Georgia or the Carolinas. The same year, a national convention of Abolitionists reported of North Carolina that “the inhabitants of that state, consider the preservation of their lives, and all they hold dear on earth, as depending on the continuance of slavery; and are even riveting more firmly the fetters of opposition.”5 6
In the fierce crucible of the late antebellum period, men like DeBow feared losing the allegiance of the substantial portion of non-slaveholders who remained. The abolitionist focus on the tight-grip of ruling elites was calculated to turn these poor whites against the rich. DeBow and others moved to emphasize rather their solidarity with their fellow masses who were indeed slaveowners, too. They even joined the call to reopen the African slave trade (!) in order, among other things, to make sure slaves were plentiful enough for everyone to have one. Ronald Takaki notes,
African slave-trade advocates like De Bow and Spratt feared that until white men acquired property in slaves they were not completely committed to the institution, and that high slave prices were making it extremely difficult for nonslaveholders to purchase slaves. If many Southerners could not own or even hope to own slaves, could they be expected to support the peculiar institution? Would they not be antagonistic towards slavery and the slaveholding class? Would they not rally to Hinton Helper’s cry for revolution within the South?7
Editorials all over the South echoed DeBow’s sentiments:
Worried about the high slave prices, a Louisiana editor offered his readers this gloomy prediction. “Let things go on as they are now tending, and the days of this peculiar institution of the South are necessarily few. The present tendency of supply and demand is to concentrate all the slaves in the hands of the few, and thus excite the envy rather than cultivate the sympathy of the people.” Echoing the same anxiety, a Texas editor warned that thousands of citizens were unable to own slaves at the present “exorbitant monopoly prices,” and that “the very inability with so many thousands among us to be slaveowners” had a tendency to create an unfriendly feeling towards the institution. If cheap African slaves could be imported, advocates promised, slaves could be more widely distributed, and the tensions between slaveholders and nonslaveholders in the South could be eased.8
Editorials lamented that higher slave prices created the “inability of so many thousands among us to be slaveowners,” and that if slave ownership was concentrated in only a few large plantations, it would “excite the envy rather than cultivate the sympathy of the people.”9
It was thus first an abolitionist argument to diminish the prevalence of slave ownership throughout the south, and this was a piece of politically-motivated propaganda, well-intentioned though it may have been. The voices of the South, as well as the data itself, disprove this notion. Slave ownership was not only widespread, it was widely defended, and the southern press was filled with laments it was not even more widely spread.
Not only this, there was a strong political movement to make it more widely spread, even by reopening the transatlantic slave trade, or other similar measures. Further, DeBow himself went to some extent to persuade non-slaveholders that they had an abiding interested to support, and even to fight and die for, the institution, including with a hope that they or their children could themselves become slaveowners some day.
In the decade before the Civil War, slave owners on paper can be said to have comprised between 4 and 6 percent of the population, but this statistic is misleading. When including people directly involved in slave ownership, whether through actual title or their immediate family dependents upon those same slaves, the number grows close to a quarter of the population.10
Even that does not exhaust the nature of the problem, for we must consider how much of the population, including nonslaveholders, supported the institution even though they or their direct families may not have owned slaves themselves. Once you consider the broader problem of racism (neither the North nor South wanted free blacks living in proximity among them), along with the widespread desire of poorer whites to ascend into the slaveowning class as at least a status symbol, the percentage approaches universal.
Leaving that for another time, it is enough to have laid to rest the defense that only a minority owned slaves. People in general should stop saying that only 4 to 6 percent actually owned slaves, and start acknowledging the fact that, practically speaking, in reality, between 27 and 30 percent in the South owned slaves, and in select states that number approaches 50 percent.
- James Dunwoody Bronson De Bow, The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder (Charleston, SC: Evans and Cogswell, 1860), 3–4.(↩)
- Frederika Teute Schmidt and Barbara Ripel Wilhelm, “Early Proslavery Petitions in Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly 30, no. 1 (January, 1973), 139; see Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823, 167.(↩)
- Schmidt and Wilhelm, 135; see Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 167–168.(↩)
- Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 197.(↩)
- Quoted in Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770– 1823, 199.(↩)
- Joel McDurmon, The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, 83–84.(↩)
- Ronald T. Takaki, A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade (New York: Free Press, 1971), 63.(↩)
- Takaki, 63.(↩)
- Quoted in Takaki, 63.(↩)
- Takaki, 65–66.(↩)