It seems to me that the cost of a slave, which might have been 800 dollars, was something like 2 or 3 years salary for a Chinese laborer on the transcontinental railroad project -- they made literally 1 dollar a day and I think they paid for meals themselves. The slave owner was responsible for all expenses of the slave and in particular had to give them a place to stay and food. So at least initially, if you were going to start an enterprise, just importing 1-dollar/day immigrant labor would be cheaper than buying slaves. However, the sale of the children slaves had would be a way to partially earn the cost back -- is that the difference that makes slavery more profitably than hiring free laborers?

EDIT: I am questioning the point of this and may close/withdraw it. Obviously, 800 dollars is just one possible price for a slave depending on inflation, time and place and obviously the estimate of the value of the individual. The owner would pay what he thought was a price at which he would turn a profit. This was a poor question, I think.

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    Keep in mind that a southern slaveholder had far more power over his slaves than a company that employed Chinese laborers. As such, he could extract much more labor with the use of force.
    – user15620
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 16:35
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    If your hypothesis was correct, then nobody would own a single slave, or two slaves of the same sex. Clearly that wasn't the case.
    – user2848
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 20:28
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    Most slave populations through history has had to be sustained through turning free people into slaves. The American slavery system was highly unusual in that it sustained itself without importing new slaves.
    – andejons
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 21:02
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    @StevenBurnap: I disagree about slaves producing more labor. Firstly, Chinese were treated pretty rough and secondly, there is only so much that force can accomplish -- even animals will refuse to work beyond a certain point and there is also the possibility of violent resistance with mistreated slaves.
    – Jeff
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 21:31
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    There's a basic problem with using Chinese labor in the US south: how do you get Chinese laborers across the continent? You can't use the transcontinental railroad - it wasn't completed until after the Civil War.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 5:21

5 Answers 5


If slavery is only profitable through the selling of slaves, there's no point in having slaves except as a social status symbol (which may be the case for some slaves in some societies, but not for the type of slavery you're talking about.

That alone should show you that the argument is fundamentally flawed.

No, slavery becomes profitable in a society where there is work that requires a lot of manpower (preferably largely unskilled labour) and there are relatively few free people available to do the work, either because the work is highly unpopular and people'd rather go hungry than do it, or because there simply aren't enough people at all. In the early USA this was certainly the case. The land was large and wide, the people were few, society was built to a large degree around agriculture and to some degree mining. As industrial cities started to grow, the demand for agricultural products increased, while the population moved towards the cities for the easier and better paying jobs available there, providing the conditions for slavery to become a viable means of staffing the ever larger farms in a still largely pre-mechanised society.

The influx of Chinese labour you mention only started later, and together with an increased influx of other fortune seekers from other parts of the world eventually created the situation where slavery was no longer profitable, especially when combined with increased mechanisation options.

Even without the civil war (which really wasn't about slavery at all, even though there were indeed many more slaves in the confederate states per citizen than there were in the union) slavery would likely not have lasted all that much longer in the US, it simply stopped to be a viable economic model as cheap, well educated (relatively) labour became more plentiful.

  • If you break even on the labor and you can sell the offspring, you would do better with slaves than with free labor. But it is also possible that even without selling offspring the relatively high-cost of labor makes slavery a better option financially. But one has to take into account the eventual results, at least in the American south -- any profits made during the centuries of slavery were no doubt wiped out.
    – Jeff
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 7:43
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    @Jeff the falacy in that is that it quickly becomes a pyramid scheme in which ever more people have ever more slaves just for breeding them, causing the market to inevitably collapse. It didn't, so it can't have been the primary motivation.
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 7:51
  • Not understanding that idea at all.
    – Jeff
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 8:51
  • "which really wasn't about slavery at all". Please read the quote in A. Barhaven's response. Your statement is not only irrelevant to the question, it is plain out Incorrect. I'd be ashamed to have stated such a thing on a History Site, where participants are expected to have done basic research and to have more than superficial knowledge of a subject. (Your answer as a whole is reasonable.)
    – user18963
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 15:38
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    @UnconditionallyReinstateMonica: Sorry, but it's YOUR claim that is factually incorrect. The Civil War was about power: the slavery issue was just one facet of that. Read e.g Lincoln's open letter to Horace Greely abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/greeley.htm in which he admits that his sole objective is to regain power over the South.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 28, 2020 at 16:13

Was American slavery economically advantageous primarily due to being able to also sell offspring?

No, American slavery was economically advantageous regardless of selling offsprings.

If X continuously makes revenue breeding slaves and selling them to Y, we can assume following:

  1. Y makes revenue (directly or indirectly) by using slaves bought from X (otherwise Y would stop buy slaves);
  2. In average, this revenue made by Y exceeds amount which Y pays to X for the slaves, otherwise Y would stop buy slaves;
  3. X can not effectively make revenue by using slaves the same way as Y, otherwise X would stop selling slaves to Y and start to use them himself, making more revenue (see 2).

All these conditions were in effect in US by the middle of XIX century. Let's read and analyze "A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union", second paragraph:

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization"

So we have Lower South states (Y), making revenue by producing "product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth" (cotton), using slave labor.

We have Upper South states (X), who can not produce cotton, "peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions", as effectively as Lower South (condition 3), but can sell slaves to the Lower South states.

As we can see, American slavery was economically advantageous primarily due to unique ability of the Lower South states (Cotton kingdom) to supply "the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth". Selling slave offsprings (from Upper to Lower South) can somewhat increase this advantage, but could not be its primary reason.

Speaking about Chinese laborers - this is pointless discussion. By 1860, it was about 35000 Chinese people in US, 100 times less than number of slaves. By 1850 - about 4000, practically none - before 1849 Gold Rush.


Yes. It was (mostly) the Confederate states of America that imported around 300,000 slaves over two and half centuries, and the Confederacy ended up with nearly four million.

Virginia was the clearest example. It was a net exporter (and breeder) of slaves to other southern states because slavery was unprofitable on a standalone basis in that state.

Other such states were Kentucky and Tennessee. It was because of this fact that "sell someone down the [Mississippi] river" became a saying, based on the next paragraph.

It was mainly in the hotter, faster crop-growing "Deep South" states (basically the states that supported Barry Goldwater in 1964, not counting his native Arizona), where slavery was profitable on a standalone basis.


Slaves were considered a capital asset not just labor. By 1861 almost half the total value of the South's capital assets was in the "value of negroes". They were taxable wealth. When slaves were freed the slave owners lost over $2 billion in capital. Most agricultural societies the most valuable asset is land, in the South it was slaves. They bought a lifetime of labor that was portable. Mortgaging slaves was the most common way of raising capital. In antebellum Louisiana 88% of loans secured by mortgages used slaves as collateral. The 13th Amendment ended this.

Good source: "Capitalism in America; An Economic History of the United States" by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge


This would depend upon which America you're looking at, and when. This chart of African slave shipments shows that most Africans taken into slavery went to either the British Caribbean islands or to central and south America. Of the Africans taken into slavery, less than 10% came to the US.

The reason to import slaves was for labor. Thus, the primary source of income derived was from the results of that labor - cotton in the southeast US, sugar cane in the British islands, and gold and silver mines in central/south America.

The raising of young for slavery became a factor in the US after 1808, when the importation of slaves from Africa was banned, but the practice of keeping people in slavery was not.

Certainly, in the case of the Spanish and Portugese running the gold and silver mines, breeding was not a concern - the average life of an African in their mines was one year. The mine owners had calculated that it was cheaper to ship over more, than to provide proper food and shelter for the people already there. Thus, the one year life span - that's how long they lived under those conditions.

That policy explains both the high level of slave importation, and the relatively low number of people of African descent living in central and south America today. They were worked to death before they had a chance to bear children.

There are no exact figures of how many Africans died in the gold and silver mines, but it is thought to be in the 6-8 million range.

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