My question relates to the following quote from chapter XI of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:

I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed at the north, compared with what were enjoyed by the slaveholders of the south. I probably came to this conclusion from the fact that northern people owned no slaves. I supposed that they were about upon a level with the non-slaveholding population of the south. I knew they were exceedingly poor, and I had been accustomed to regard their poverty as the necessary consequence of their being non-slaveholders. I had somehow imbibed the opinion that, in the absence of slaves, there could be no wealth, and very little refinement. And upon coming to the north, I expected to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and uncultivated population, living in the most Spartan-like simplicity, knowing nothing of the ease, luxury, pomp, and grandeur of southern slaveholders. Such being my conjectures, any one acquainted with the appearance of New Bedford may very readily infer how palpably I must have seen my mistake...
Here I found myself surrounded with the strongest proofs of wealth... From the wharves I strolled around and over the town, gazing with wonder and admiration at the splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated gardens; evincing an amount of wealth, comfort, taste, and refinement, such as I had never seen in any part of slaveholding Maryland.
...But the most astonishing as well as the most interesting thing to me was the condition of the colored people, a great many of whom, like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men. I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slaveholders in Maryland. I will venture to assert, that my friend Mr. Nathan Johnson... lived in a neater house; dined at a better table; took, paid for, and read, more newspapers; better understood the moral, religious, and political character of the nation,—than nine tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot county Maryland. Yet Mr. Johnson was a working man. His hands were hardened by toil, and not his alone, but those also of Mrs. Johnson.

Are there other historical data that back up or contradict Douglass's observations? For example, did tradesmen in the urban northeast commonly live in greater material comfort than slaveholding plantation owners in the south? Are there records about wealth distribution and stratification in slaveholding vs free states at this time?

  • 1
    prima facia, I am skeptical. the constant complaint of the South was against the "money men" of the North. Of course a comparison will be difficult - do you compare the median income of each? or the income of the top quintile of each? We certainly don't want to compare plantation owners (the 1%) to tradesmen (analogous to middle class).
    – MCW
    Sep 10, 2021 at 9:33
  • "New England was the poorest region, and the South was the richest" NBER.org
    – MCW
    Sep 10, 2021 at 11:10
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    @MCW - Correct me if I'm wrong...I just skimmed, but it looks like that paper is using average ("per capita") income. Averages give really distorted results in the event of large disparities. The per-capita wealth of you and Bill Gates is in the billions. This kind of effect is why I'm not real sure how I would approach answering this question. Its quite possible the median free man in NE was better off. More likely they were quite similar.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 10, 2021 at 13:42
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    I also just skimmed. On the one hand, I agree with your skepticism. On the other hand, I'm reluctant to go toe to toe with NBER. I think that OP might want to refine the question so that we could find an answer that more precisely fits the question.
    – MCW
    Sep 10, 2021 at 14:03
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    @MCW that was an interesting read but they were only looking through 1774, which predates the invention of the cotton gin and early industrialization in the north. Sep 10, 2021 at 15:12

1 Answer 1


Here are some rough economic facts for a start. The North had four times the GDP of the South. The North had 22 million people. The South had 9.5 million people, of which just under 4.0 million were slaves, so 5.5 million white people. If you divide the white populations, you get a four to one North/South ratio, the same as the GDP ratio. This means that the northern and southern per capital GDPs were equivalent, but only if you count the nearly 4.0 million black slaves as property, and their production as part of white per capita GDP. If you divide the South's GDP by all 9.5 million people, including blacks, the southern standard of living was on average, 61% of the northern.

It follows therefore, that the average white southerner who didn't own any slaves was much worse off than the average white northerner (who also didn't own any slaves). The second thing is the "nine tenths of the slaveholders" who had ONE slave were barely better off than the poor white farmers that had none.

The last question is how much Mr. Nathan Johnson's (northern) standard of living was below that of the average white northerner. Presumably, there was some "discount," but probably not all the way down to "61%." It made sense that he was better off than southern whites who owned 0 or even one slave. It was the large plantation owners with tens or hundreds of slaves that were wealthy. The South was a very unequal society, with 1%-2% of the people at the very top, and the rest below that of the northern "average."

Source: Gary Becker, "The Economics of Discrimination"

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