On February 7, 1861, the following item appeared in the New York Herald under the title, “Progress of the Slave Population.”
“The returns of the national census, upon which we commented yesterday, show a very material growth of the slave population during the last decade – a growth, indeed, which may surprise many who supposed that slavery was declining under the pressure of abolition propagandism, virulent denunciation and fanatical raids. In every Southern State, except Delaware, Maryland and Missouri, the increase of the slave population has been nearly in the same ratio as that of the free population, white and colored; and in the aggregate the growth of the slave population in the fifteen Southern States has kept pace with that of the whole population of the United States – that is to say it shows an increase of about thirty per cent in ten years. And very curiously even same ratio as that of the free population white and colored, and in the aggregate the growth of the slave population in the fifteen Southern States has kept pace with that of the whole population of the United States.“
According to the 1860 Census, nearly 4 million slaves lived in the United States on the eve of the Civil War. The Herald article was quite correct that the slave population was growing. This natural increase made slavery in North America unique in the Americas, because elsewhere high mortality meant that slave population levels were maintained only through importing new slaves from Africa.
The natural growth in the U.S. slave population was not the result of some moral superiority of North American slaveholders. It stemmed largely from the fact that except for some planters in Louisiana, they did not grow sugar, unlike the Caribbean and Brazil, the other major centers of slavery in the Americas. Tobacco, rice, and cotton in North America were not as wildly profitable as sugar, a crop that for much of its history was so lucrative and required such back-breaking labor to grow that it actually made economic sense for sugar planters to work their slaves to death and replace them with fresh imports instead of easing conditions so that more slaves might live. North American planters did not have these incentives. While their crops returned a healthy profit, it did not make sense for them to work their slaves to death, but instead to encourage their slaves to procreate since their offspring increased the planter’s wealth.
Yet the New York Herald article did not capture another important demographic reality for slaves in the decades before the Civil War. Not only was the slave population growing in these years, a significant portion of it was being shifted out of the old slave states of the Atlantic seaboard and into the interior cotton-growing states west of the Appalachian range. In some cases planters uprooted their slaves shifting them to new plantations in the West. But more often slaves moved into the newer slave states piecemeal through an internal slave trade that developed, especially after Congress banned American participation in the Atlantic slave trade in 1808. In process, hundreds of thousands of slaves were sold away from other family members, often never to see or hear from them again.
It was the prospect of being separated from family that does much to explain how slaves during the Civil War grasped desperately at any chance for freedom. Few aspects of American slavery put a lie to the paternalistic pretensions of slaveholders more than the inhumanity of the internal slave trade.