Saturday, July 06, 2013

Loose Change on Human Capital

I've been reading a bit lately on the post-Civil War settlement and in particular, the question of how to redeploy the former slaves, now citizens, in control of their own (as we might have said) labor power.  In particular, about the celebrated mantra of "40 acres and a mule"--give 'em land, let 'em work it for themselves and stay out of their way.  

I've always had the vague sense that 40-acres was supposed to be undoable and last night I got to wondering--was it undoable?  What did it require?

For an answer, consider: there were something like 4 million slaves liberated by the war.  As a wild stab, let's figure five people per family.  So, 800,000 families.  Ill spare you the pencil work but this translates into land about equal to the state of Mississippi.  This would include, of course, the rich bottomland of the delta.  But it would also include the scrub in the Faulkner country up north, which is hardly worth anything to anybody.  So, throw in a second state.  Throw in Louisiana.  More scrub and more delta.

So, doable.  Didn't happen, of course.  My own take is that it was that ol' darlin' Andrew Johnson who made it his business to assure that no freed slave got anything except his freedom and sometimes maybe the pants he stood up in.  And FWIW, I'll bet he thought that free-the-slaves stuff was a dreadful mistake.

Fun to speculate on what the world might have looked like if he hadn't got in the way.

No comments: