The spring before last I traveled to the hallowed halls of Harvard to be a presenter at a symposium on emancipation in the Civil War and advent of the recruiting of black soldiers into the Union Army. Highlighting the speakers were the stars of this field, including Eric Foner. Among Foner’s comments during his talk at the symposium was to note that emancipation resulted in the destruction of hundreds of millions if not billions of slave property. That is, with the exception of the District of Columbia, slaveholders were never compensated for the loss of their slavery property.
Eric Foner’s comment stuck with me for a rather personal reason. In another lifetime it seems, I was a business and economics double major. That is, I was not a History major as an undergraduate and didn’t make the switch to History until graduate school. A bachelor’s in Business Administration requires several accounting courses. And one of the key concepts taught in accounting is assets never really disappear. They always get transformed into something else. This is true as well for capital assets (long existing and expensive productive property), which is why accountants invented the concept of depreciation to account for the diminishing value of capital assets over time as they get “used up.” In double-entry bookkeeping, the diminishing value of a capital asset gets amortized, meaning it gets treated incrementally as an expense over time. The business pays for a capital asset when it buys it, of course, but only recognizes the expense in an accounting sense incrementally over time. Which leads to all sorts of interesting bean-counting games as accountants try to come up with the most advantageous amortization schedule for a business–but that’s a story for some accountant’s blog.
In any case, accounting is relevant here because putting the immorality of slavery aside, a slave was a form of capital asset to the slaveholder. And what occurred in emancipation was that hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of dollars of capital assets were suddenly confiscated from their owners. But my point here is that these capital assets were not destroyed as Foner asserted. Certainly, to the slaveholder they were, since the slaveholder no longer enjoyed the value of their slaves. But the asset remained. So who got the value of the slaves in emancipation?–the slaves themselves. The hundreds of millions or billions in slave assets did not disappear but in freedom went to the slaves. So the American South did not see the destruction slave property during the Civil War, but that human property being acquired by the now former human property.
This was a just outcome because the whole system of human slavery in the Americas was based on an act of theft to begin with, when the ancestors of these slaves had their lives and bodies in essence taken away from them. An act of theft that was perpetuated across generations as the descendants of the original slaves were themselves enslaved. So emancipation represented the restoration of human capital to its proper owners. “Property” was not destroyed but given back to those persons it should have belonged to from the start.
I said something like this rather gratuitously at the start of my talk at Harvard on an entirely different subject. I think Eric Foner was in the room when I said it, but he never said anything about the comment to me. I made the point though and hopefully this small bon mot will make its way into the literature of emancipation in the American Civil War. Slavery was destroyed, but there was no “destruction” of slave property, merely its return to its rightful owners, the slaves themselves.