During the fourth Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday night, Republican presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson offered an incomplete history of the roots of American wealth.
Carson attempted to build his free-market capitalist credentials by suggesting that between the nation's founding and the end of the 19th century, the accumulation of massive wealth in the United States was due to an "atmosphere that encouraged entrepreneurial risk-tasking and capital investment."
He's not wrong, exactly. But as others quickly noted, during the period Carson pointed to, there was one particular capital investment much of the country was storing its wealth in: slaves.
As Slate political correspondent Jamelle Bouie pointed out, black Americans who lived during the hundred-year period following the beginning of the American Revolution would probably prefer he acknowledge that.
"In the pre-Civil War United States, a stronger case can be made that slavery played a critical role in economic development," notes the Gilder Lehrman Institue of American History. "One crop, slave-grown cotton provided over half of all U.S. export earnings. By 1840, the South grew 60% of the world's cotton and provided some 70% of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Thus slavery paid for a substantial share of the capital, iron, and manufactured good that laid the basis for American economic growth."
It's really not a coincidence that the U.S.' monumental economic growth during that time span corresponded with the legality of owning human beings for the purpose of forced labor.
As National Geographic points out, there were few sectors of the U.S. economy untouched by slavery. While slaves predominantly worked in agricultural jobs in the antebellum South, they also worked in factories, were domestic servants. and as skilled laborers like "carpenters, stonemasons, blacksmiths, millers, coopers, spinners, and weavers."
Slavery in the southern half of the country helped enable the north's industrialization, forming the basis of the young country's agricultural production.
"The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization," wrote historian Edward E. Baptist. "In fact, slavery's expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation—not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing U.S. politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make civil war possible."
The concentration of American wealth in slaves can "conservatively be described as large," argue economists Samuel H. Williamson and Louis P. Cain. According to their estimates, in the years 1850 and 1860, slave holdings comprised nearly half of Southern wealth.
Though some economists argue that slavery was ultimately inefficient in economic terms, forced labor in the form of slaves were a key component of the system of free enterprise Carson described during the debate. His statement that "entrepreneurial risk taking and capital investment" were key to American growth are not inaccurate. But he's definitely overlooking who took on most of those risks, as well as what exactly many Americans were investing in.