January 25, 2021, 15:30–17:00
Job Market Seminar
Slavery had long been one of the dominant labor institutions before its demise in the nineteenth century. This paper shows that changing economic interests determined shifts in political support for slavery. We exploit the competitive forces generated by the westward expansion of the Southern United States between 1810 and 1860 to identify changes in local economic incentives for the use of slave labor. We show that areas losing comparative advantage in the production of cotton relative to wheat changed their production decisions and reduced their use of slave labor. Evidence suggests that economic benefits for the white laborers and the political influence of the planter elite sustained a broad pro-slavery coalition. The local decline of slavery profitability decreased wages and shifted newspapers’ pro-slavery content, reducing non-slave–owners’ incentives to support the institution. The Westward Expansion divided the South’s productive, political, and social systems in the decades leading to the Civil War.