The total wealth represented by the South’s nearly four million slaves was $3.059 billion, a huge component of the country’s national wealth of $16.16 billion at the time. By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted fifty-nine percent of the United States’ exports. The looms of New England and the British linen industry were wholly dependent on the South’s product. Historian Eric J. Hobsbawm observed “Whoever says Industrial Revolution says cotton.” There were more millionaires along the Mississippi Valley per capita than anywhere else in the nation. South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond boasted from the Senate floor in 1858, “The slaveholding South is now the controlling power of the world. Cotton, rice, tobacco and naval stores command the world…No power on earth dares… to make war on cotton. Cotton is king.”
A male slave in his or her prime might cost as much as $1,800, a tremendous sum at the time. Cotton consumers, insurance companies, and industrial enterprises alike benefited from slavery, and the entire Southern economy, including cotton, rice, and tobacco cultivation, were also depended on human chattel. Slaves were so expensive they had to be financed, and Northern bankers accommodated Southern planters. For this reason, there was strong support for secession in New York City.
Not surprisingly, such valuable “property” required rules to protect it, and the South’s institutional practices and slave codes displayed a sophistication that rivals present-day corporate law and business regulation.