In 1827, Samuel McPherson Janney was a recently married young man of 26 years old. He and his wife, Elizabeth, lived in the beautiful old city of Alexandria, Virginia. Always of a scholarly, moral nature, Janney wrote a series of anti-slavery essays on behalf of the “Benevolent Society of Alexandria for ameliorating and improving the condition of the People of Color.” The essays call for the emancipation of the nation’s slaves. Janney used the same logical arguments he would turn to repeatedly in letters and articles written over the course of his life: slavery not only caused grievous harm to blacks caught in its brutal, repressive grip, but also contributed to white citizens’ moral and financial ruin.
Janney also made a point which would be repeated by others in the coming years: the South’s reliance on slavery as a labor force tied the slave states to agrarian pursuits. Outside the American South, the developed world was embracing innovative change. Opportunities offered by industrialization and mechanization drove much wealth and power in the northern Unites States, as well as abroad.
The three essays are printed here in their entirety. A transcript, for easier reading, is found near the bottom of the page, below the three essay images. Over the years of his anti-slavery efforts, Janney will return to the arguments made in these seminal essays again and again.
Of the Benevolent Society of Alexandria for ameliorating and improving the condition of the People of Color [Essay] No. 1:
All Alexandria Gazette newspaper images are Courtesy of Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA
In 1807 it became illegal to import slaves from Africa into the United States. In the 1820’s (and later) it was considered by many to be a generous and benevolant act to to return back to Africa, men and women who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. This ‘colonization’ endeavor would eventually prove both unpopular with former slaves, as well as financially impractical.
Readers of the following Monday’s Alexandria Gazette, published on May 7, 1827, found the second in the series of Samuel Janney’s anti-slavery essays: “No. 2 On the Comparative Cost of Free and Slaver Labour.” In this essay, Janney compared expenses associated with slave ownership versus paying wages to free laborers. He made his argument, using examples, that it was a false economy that claimed enslaved workers were a financial benefit to the white ownership class. No. 2 essay is shown below:
Samuel Janney’s third essay, “No. III Of the Causes why Slave Labour is Dearer [more expensive] than Free Labour” in this series was published May 14, 1827.
Transcript of essay No. 1:
Of the Benevolent Society of Alexandria for ameliorating and improving the condition of the People of Color [Essay] No. 1:
When societies are formed for purposes affecting, in any degree, the general welfare, it may be naturally expected that the public will enquire, what are the specific objects they have in view, and the means by which they expect to promote them?
In order to satisfy enquiries of this nature, and at the same time to promote one of the objects of the institution, we purpose to lay before the public a candid and temperate exposition of our sentiments and designs; and while we solicit the patient attention of the general reader, we would earnestly crave the aid and co-operation of the patriotic and benevolent. Although most persons will admit, that the system of slavery and domestic slave trade, now existing in this District and the surrounding country, is an evil of serious magnitude, – yet we think the public mind is not sufficiently awakened to its pernicious effects, both upon the slaves themselves, and the white population, of every class, where they are held.
It frequently happens, that they whose hearts are glowing with benevolence and charity have their attention so much directed to distant scenes of splendid enterprise, that they overlook objects of distress, equally worthy, and more within the reach, of their philanthropy. No age nor country has been more distinguished than our own for public charities and religious pilgrimages yet we deem it highly necessary frequently and earnestly to call the public attention to an evil that exists in the bosom of our own community, and even at our own doors – an evil that not only causes its poor victims t groan with anguish inexpressible, but threatens at no distant day to sap the foundation of our free institutions, and to involve us, or our posterity, in overwhelming calamity.
Although our legislative halls have often resounded with the eloquence of those who have denounced the horrors of the slave trade, and the statute book of our country bears honorable record of the national feeling on this subject, yet even now does the slave trade exist to an extent scarcely paralleled in any former age; nor are its ravages confined to [illegible] land of liberty, and in this District, the seat of the national government, is it carried on with circumstances of the most afflicting and heart-rending cruelty, – separating husband and wife, parents and children, and rending asunder all the dearest connexions [sic] of life. Shall we then fold our arms and look on with indifference, while it is undermining the foundation of our government, by corrupting the hearts of the people? Shall we wear a countenance of serenity and composure, while it is praying [sic] upon our vitals? Or shall we not rather, by an undisguised and candid exposition of its character and influence, urge upon the people the necessity of speedily taking measures to eradiate the evil, and wipe away the disgrace?
We have no intention of interfering with the constitutional rights of slave-holders; but we thin[k] it may be proven, that, not only the prosperity of their descendents [sic] and of the community at large, but even their present interests may be advanced by a judicious course of gradual manumission and colonization. It would, however, be premature, in this stage of the investigation, to propose a remedy for the evil. – Our object is first to enquire into, and lay before the public, the extent of its existence and the effects it produces, and then to consider what may be the best means in our power of promoting its final extinction.
We know the discussion of this subject frequently engenders unpleasant feelings in the minds of those who are concerned in slavery, many of whom we respect too highly willingly to offend. But if the subject be not discussed, the evil must be suffered to grow: it has inflicted a wound upon the body-politic that must be probed before it can be healed; and this duty, how ever unpleasant and unwelcome it may be now, will, if properly conducted, ultimately tend to the general welfare. We are sensible of the difficulty of the task we have undertaken, and know that it is almost impossible to speak on this subject so mildly as never to offend, yet we would place but little reliance upon our own unassisted efforts, yet our Society being one of the many that are engaged in this great work, we trust that our feeble efforts will not be altogether lost; and we confidently look for ultimate success to Him who commands his people to “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke.” When we look abroad through the world, and behold the efforts that have lately been made in other countries declaring that slavery cannot exist under their free constitutions. And throughout our own country the march of public sentiment towards this point, though gradual, is, we think, steady, and must ultimately prove victorious. A large and active society has lately been formed in Maryland for the promotion of this object. Numerous societies and branches, under various names, now exist in different parts of Virginia and Tennessee. In North Carolina there are about fifty societies, and branches of this kind; and even farther south, we are credibly informed, that symptoms of the same spirit are manifested.
Nor should we overlook the benevolent and perservering [sic] exertions that have been made and are now so successfully progressing, to promote the colonization of free people of color. Some of us are members of an Auxiliary Society formed for this purpose – yet we think (without detracting from the merit of their labors) that there is likewise great need of exertion in our own country, in order to raise the people of color from their present degraded state into the rank of freemen and thinking beings, preparatory to their colonization; and this object will claim the early attention of the Society, as far as our limited means will enable us to promote it.
There are also many prejudices to be overcome, and long established habits to be removed, before the people will engage with earnestness in this work. It will probably require many years of perservering exertion to accomplish it: but we feel encouraged in the belief that the Great Author of all good is now raising up many instruments for its promotion; that He will touch the hearts and open the eyes of the people; and that a way will be prepared by His wisdom to bring the slaves of every clime out of the house of bondage into the enjoyment of man’s “natural and inalienable rights,” “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Transcript of essay No. 2:
No. 2 “On the Comparative Cost of Free and Slave Labour”
It has been too much the custom of those who have treated on the subject of Slavery in this country, to overlook the interests of the master and his posterity, while they have been contemplating the deplorable effect it produces on the slaves. We shall, therefore, direct our attention first to the relative cost of free and slave labour, and the effects of each upon public and individual prosperity.
The productiveness and economy of labour, being the only foundation on which national wealth can be established, it becomes an enquiry of the first importance, whether the labour of freemen or of slaves is the cheaper to the employer?
“It is,” says Clarkson, “an old maxim, as old as the days of Pliny and Columella, and confirmed by Dr. Adam Smith, and all the modern writers on political economy, that the labour of freemen is cheaper than the labour of slaves.”
It is acknowledged by all persons who have visited the different States of this confederacy, that the non-slaveholding states generally exhibit a striking superiority over the others, in the value of their permanent improvements, in the cultivation of their lands, and in the industry and general competency of their inhabitants. Their superiority in pecuniary resources is also proven by the great public works they have executed, the large capital they have invested in manufactures, and the great extent of their commerce. They are, therefore, richer in every respect, than the southern and middle states, and from whence does this superiority arise, if not from the greater productiveness of Free than of Slave labour? The soil and climate of the slave-holding states, are generally far better adapted for producing the necessaries and comforts of life, than the bleak and rocky shores of New England; and at least equal in this respect to New York or Pennsylvania. Virginia has also been longer settled than any of these, and ought, therefore, to be further advanced in opulence and improvement.
It may, perhaps, be replied, that foreign commerce and domestic manufactures have enriched the eastern and northern stats; but why should not Virginia and Maryland have equally shared the advantages of these lucrative employment? They have as fine bays, as noble rivers, and as good harbours as the other states. They produce a greater variety and abundance of commodities for exportation, and of materials for manufactures. Water power is not wanting, and capital will always flow where profits may be reasonably expected. But the character of our laboring population, especially where slaves are most numerous, is the cause why we cannot compete, with the non slave holding states, either in navigation or manufactures. Slave labour is too dear to come into competition with the productions of free labour, without a ruinous loss to the master. – The existence of slavery has also the effect of driving away many of the best of the laboring classes of whites, and of corrupting those who remain, so that they are unfit for any useful employment.
But foreign commerce is not absolutely necessary to the prosperity of a state. Ohio has scarcely any foreign commerce, yet the rapid increase of her population, the excellent cultivation of her lands, the progress of her Domestic manufactures, and the extent of her public works, now in progress announce a degree of prosperity hitherto unexampled in so young a state, and call for the admiration of all who visit that peaceful and happy community – Although at so great a distance from the seaboard, she already competes with us in one of our staple commodities. Her tobacco, cultivated by free labor, after being transported 300 miles in wagons, is sold in our markets, & affords a better profit to the grower than is yielded to the Maryland and Virginia planters, who have a market at their own doors. This is, we think, a most conclusive evidence of the greater economy of free than of slave labour, and the same state exhibits a no less evidence of the moral effect of a free population in promoting public enterprize, general intelligence, and virtuous habits.
Within a few years past a number of manufactories have been established in the neighborhood of Baltimore, which are almost entirely carried on by free labour. The circumstance of their employing free labour in a slave holding country shows that they have found it more to their interest to do so. It has no doubt been found that they could not in any other way with those made in the Eastern states. But still it is found that some kinds of domestic manufactures do not flourish there to the same extent that they do in the free states, and the [illegible] always results from it, and because most articles of consumption, being the produce of slave labour, are dearer [more expensive] than they are in free states. It is true that breadstuffs are cheaper, owing to the greater fitness of the soil and climate for producing them, but the poor generally buy these articles by retail, and a pound of flour is sold nearly as cheap in New England as in Maryland: but even supposing it to be a cent in the pound dearer, this will add very little to the expense of maintaining a family, and is much more than counterbalanced by the greater cost of almost every other article of consumption. – It is, indeed, a remarkable fact, that cotton and wool raised in Virginia are transported to New England, manufactured there into yarn or cloth, and brought back again to Virginia, and sold cheaper than the same fabrics can be made here, although large quantities of the bread-stuffs used by the manufacturers are also taken from Virginia. It seems, then, that free labour is so much cheaper than slave labour, that they can afford to pay a profit here to the purchaser of the cotton or wool, a freight on them to New England, a commission to the merchant who sells them here, and still sell them cheaper than they can be manufactured by a person here, who buys the materials at his own door, and sells the fabric in his own neighborhood.
If any further evidence were wanting to prove the greater advantages of free labour, it will be abundantly furnished by the greater affluence of those parts of the upper counties of Virginia where slaves are least numerous, and by the general independence of those industrious families and religious societies, who have for a length of time depended upon voluntary labour.
An inhabitant of Virginia, on visiting the Northern and Eastern states, is forcibly struck with the contrast they exhibit to his own. He can travel but a few miles in New England without passing a flourishing town or a beautiful village, where the mansions of the rich are surrounded by the neat and comfortable dwellings of the poor; and where every house seems to be the abode of contentment, and every countenance wears the smile of cheerfulness. From almost every eminence that he ascends, he can see the village spires shooting up in all directions around him, and almost every stream that he crosses, contributes its strength to some flourishing manufactory.
In the western part of New York, he will be still more astonished to behold the works that have been accomplished, within a few years, by the industry and enterprise of a free population. Their well cultivated fields, their populous towns, and their prosperous villages, have sprung up with a rapidity that seems like the work of enchantment, and they are still progressing with a pace accelerated by the assurance of success.
After witnessing these scenes let him return to his own State – a State that is peculiarly dear to all her sons, from the remembrance of former greatness – and what will be the nature of his reflections?
In those parts of the State where slaves are most numerous, he beholds her towns generally stationary, and some even in a state of decay. He sees large tracts of land ruined by bad cultivation, and thrown into common. The mansions of the rich seem, generally, to speak only of former grandeur, while the hovels of the poor, and the cabins of the slaves, exhibit the extreme of wretchedness?
In contemplating this scene he is forced reluctantly to withdraw his gaze from the last rays of her departing glory, and fix a desponding eye upon the dark cloud that hangs over her future destiny.
But lest this picture should seem to be colored too darkly, and be attributed by some to the gloomy imagination of an abolitionist, we will present one drawn by a slave-holder in this neighborhood, who stands deservedly high in public confidence, and is no less distinguished for the excellence of his judgment than the benevolence of his feelings. The expressions which follow, will be found in the controversy between Caius Gracchus and Opinions, on the American Colonization Society.
Speaking of the “moral principle in society ‘favorable to emancipation,’” which the Colonization Society had been charged by Caius Gracchus with “attempting to create,” Opinions replies: “But the little, the very little danger to be apprehended from the moral principle which the Society is charged with attempting to inculcate, cannot be better attested, than by the simple fact, that during the eight years of its existence the country which ‘a single spark’ it is said, ‘would be sufficient to throw into a flame,’ has remained undisturbed, even in its most delicate relations. – “And what, let me ask, is the object to be effected by this ‘moral principle?’ The removal of a population cruelly forced on the present generation by those who have preceded it – a population equally injurious to our morals, our wealth, our political purity, and our physical strength – a population which Caius Gracchus has not more eloquently than justly described as ‘degraded and debased from the very knowledge of their condition as slaves, dissolute and abandoned in their moral character, and with passions and feelings of the most lawless and brutal kind.”
And is it possible that any rational man, any member of a Christian community, any citizen of a republican country, can seriously object to the operation of an influence whose object is the removal of such a population? If a feeling of justice does not prompt us to restore to others when we can, what has been forcibly wrested from them, if a sentiment of philanthropy inspires us with no wish to civilize and enlighten a benighted portion of the world – if we do not feel under obligation to carry to Africa, whom we have injured, the healing balm of the religion in which we believe – yet let us not be deaf to the calls of patriotism, let us not look with cold indifference on our country, gifted by nature with every advantage of soil and climate and location, hourly diminishing in its wealth, losing its [illegible]
will pronounce this picture overdrawn? Or is there any citizen of Virginia who will attribute the evils it presents to any cause than the character of our laboring population? Let him look to our languishing agriculture, our deserted farms, our decayed fortunes, our decreasing population; let him cast up in his own ledger his profit and loss account for the last fifteen or twenty years, and then let him say the labour of the slave is not a curse on the land at which it is expended? But I forbear, the theme is as fruitful and as inspiring, as it is delicate.
The sentiments I have uttered are the sentiments of a slave-holder, of one too whose interests are peculiarly those of the country in which he lives. He has examined this subject in all its bearings, and he unhesitatingly pronounces an early and a combined operation of the States and General Government essential to preserve the country from progressive debility and premature decay.”
Transcript of essay No. III:
“Of the causes why slave labour is dearer [more expensive] than free labour”
From the facts and testimonies adduced in our second number, we think it is evident that the labour of freemen is actually cheaper to the employer than the labour of slaves. This evidence we chose to draw principally from facts in the history of our own country, which may come within the knowledge of every reader, rather than rely entirely upon the experience of other countries, as recorded by former writers, and which in every instance, goes to prove the same position with an increasing weight of evidence. We shall, however, when we come to speak of the means of preparing slaves for manumission and colonization, state the results of some experiments that have been made in other countries for this purpose, and which also afford additional confirmation of the position advanced by Dr. Adam Smith, in his able work on the wealth of nations – “That the work done by freemen, comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves.”
As this position is so contrary to the usual habits of thinking among many persons in the southern and middle States, we will endeavor to show the principal causes why the labor of slaves is so expensive to the employer. Although it may seem, at first view, that the slave costs his master no more than his food and the coarse clothing that is allowed him, yet there are other items of expense often overlooked, that are, perhaps, greater than both of these. – The most prominent among them is, the expense of rearing children, to replace the slave, when he shall be worn out by labor, or released by death. This expense can in no wise be avoided by the master; for if he purchases his slaves, instead of rearing them, he must pay the expense that has been incurred by another; and when he comes to estimate the interest on the stock so invested, and the value of its annual depreciation, he will find it amounts to more than half the hire of a free labourer. Suppose, for instance, that a young man slave costs $400, the interest on this sum is $24 per annum, which is a fair item of expense, because it could have been so invested as to bring this interest. But he cannot calculate upon the slave living more than 20 years, in order to replace him when he shall die, or become too infirm to work: in the event of his living much beyond this period, he must also set apart some of his former earnings to maintain him in his old age; but this we will not take into the account, though it is a fair item of expense. The clothing of a slave, to keep him in tolerable comfort, must cost, we think, at least $20 per annum; but we will say $15 for a safe calculation, for if the stuff for clothing be made in the family, the spinners and weavers must be supported, and some of the materials must be bought. We will estimate taxes, medical attendance, and time lost by sickness, at $5 per annum. We must also add to the expense of each slave, his proportion of the overseer’s wages and maintenance, who is employed to watch them, and to supply, by a degrading punishment, that stimulus to exertion, which the freeman finds in the hope of reward. As one overseer can watch a good many slaves, we will estimate this expense at only $10 per annum for each. There are many other expenses, resulting from the employment of slaves, which we cannot estimate – such as desertion, pilfering, & c; but on recapitulating those enumerate, we shall find that they amount to $74 per annum for each working man, and this may be called the waged=s paid to slaves, in being exclusive of their food. We are informed that the ordinary wages of freemen, who are employed as field labourers in the upper counties of Virginia, are from $60 to $75 per annum, besides their board. It seems, then, that a slave labourer costs as much as a free-labourer; and if he does three-fourths as much work, his employer loses by him about 15 or $20 per annum; or, in other words, the work done by him would cost this much less, if it had been performed by a freeman. But we shall generally find that slave-holders employ twice as many working hands as are employed by those who depend upon voluntary labour, on a farm of the same size; and that the farms of the latter are generally cultivated more judiciously. Even those farmers who do but little work themselves, can cultivate a farm of 300 or 400 acres, with th usual proportion of cleared land, by the labour of two freemen and an apprentice boy, while the slave-holder will have at least 4 or 5 men slaves, besides many women and children, on a farm of the same size. In [illegible]
“–tion of corn degenerated, how unprofitable it became to the master, when it came under the management of slaves, is remarked both by Pliny and Columella.”
It may, however, be objected to this reasoning, that it is not fair to estimate the price of the slave, and the amount of his depreciation by age, because most persons in this neighborhood have either obtained them by inheritance, or raised them, and that they merely hold them because the laws of the State oblige them to maintain them, even if they were to set them free. To this we answer, that it is vey little, if any, cheaper to raise slaves than to buy them; that most persons who hold them are every year sinking money by them, especially if they cultivate poor land, and that laws in favor of emancipation and colonization would be enacted if the people were only convinced of their true interest.
That it is nearly as dear to raise slaves as to buy them, we think may be inferred from the circumstance, that very few persons, and perhaps none, engage in the business of raising as a profitable trade, and that most persons who do raise them, are frequently driven by their pecuniary embarrassments, and contrary to their inclinations, to the painful and disgraceful act of selling them to the southern traders. It should also be remembered, that part of the wages of the free-labourer goes to the raising of children to supply his place in society, and that the wages he generally receives at the present time, in this part of the country, is barely sufficient to maintain him and his family, with all the economy he can make use of. Now the owner of slaves who keeps up his stock, must also maintain for this purpose, at least double the number of children that he has of grown hands of both sexes; for “it is computed,” say Adam Smith, “that one half the children born, die before the age of manhood.” It is also estimated by writers on the subject, that the woman who rears children cannot do more work than is sufficient to maintain herself, – so that every laboring male slave must be charged with the maintenance of four children to keep up the stock two of which the master may calculate on raising to supply the places of their parents. It is true that they generally have more than four children, but every one above this number will add in nearly the same proportion to the expenses of the family.
“The fund,” says the author just quoted, “destined for replacing, if I may say so, the wear and tear of the slave, (that is keeping up the stock) is commonly managed by a negligent master or careless overseer. That destined for performing the same office with regard to the free-man, is managed by the free-man himself. The disorders which generally prevail in the economy of the rich, naturally introduce themselves into the management of the former; the strict frugality and parsimonious attention of the poor, as naturally establish themselves in that of the latter: under such different management, the same purpose must require vey different degrees of expense to execute it. It appears accordingly, from the experience of all ages and nations, I believe, that the work done by free-men comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves.”
The estimates we have hitherto made relate solely to the expense of rearing and maintaining slaves, and to the unproductiveness of their labor compared with that of free-men; but there are other causes of expenditure which operate generally upon slave-holders, and may perhaps be considered as necessarily attendant upon the system: one of these is the number of their domestic servants, which is generally much greater than would be employed if they were to hire free-servants. We presume that the reason why they employ more domestic servants is because slaves are generally slower in their movements than free-people, which naturally results from their having to prospect of gain to incite them to activity.
Now there is no kind of servants so unproductive to the master as menial servants. They do no work that adds any thing to his fortune, and they live more expensively, and are much better clad, than any other kind of slave-laborers; – therefore the greater number of these a man has, the greater must be his family expenses; and he will find it much cheaper in the end to employ free-servants than to hire slaves, or to own them himself, and raise young ones to keep up the stock.
Another great cause of expenditure may be traced to the nominal value which a slave-holder places upon his slaves. – Although they may actually bring him no revenue, yet he places a value upon them equivalent to what they would bring in the market, and, like most other men, he lives in a style proportioned to the nominal value of his property, and not proportioned to the revenue it affords him, consequently his debts frequently increase upon him, until he is obliged to convert his slaves into money, contrary to the best feelings of his heart.
There are many other evils attendant on this deplorable system, particularly those of a political and moral nature, which we shall leave to be discussed in a future number. But we think those already presented; if attentively considered, are sufficient to convince every candid mind of the vast importance of taking early and decisive measures to avert them.