The Slave Trade
Henry Charles Carey

Chapter V.
How Man Passes From Poverty and Slavery Toward
Wealth and Freedom.

The first poor cultivator is surrounded by land unoccupied.  The more of it at his command the poorer he is.  Compelled to work alone, he is a slave to his necessities, and he can neither roll nor raise a log with which to build himself a house.  He makes himself a hole in the ground, which serves in place of one.  He cultivates the poor soil of the hills to obtain a little corn, with which to eke out the supply of food derived from snaring the game in his neighbourhood.  His winter’s supply is deposited in another hole, liable to injury from the water which filters through the light soil into which alone he can penetrate.  He is in hourly danger of starvation.  At length, however, his sons grow up.  They combine their exertions with his, and now obtain something like an axe and a spade.  They can sink deeper into the soil;  and can cut logs, and build something like a house.  They obtain more corn and more game, and they can preserve it better.  The danger of starvation is diminished.  Being no longer forced to depend for fuel upon the decayed wood which was all their father could command, they are in less danger of perishing from cold in the elevated ground which, from necessity, they occupy.  With the growth of the family new soils are cultivated, each in succession yielding a larger return to labour, and they obtain a constantly increasing supply of the necessaries of life from a surface diminishing in its ratio to the number to be fed;  and thus with every increase in the return to labour the power of combining their exertions is increased.

If we look now to the solitary settler of the West, even where provided with both axe and spade, we shall see him obtaining, with extreme difficulty, the commonest log hut.  A neighbour arrives, and their combined efforts produce a new house with less than half the labour required for the first.  That neighbour brings a horse, and he makes something like a cart.  The product of their labour is now ten times greater than was that of the first man working by himself.  More neighbours come, and new houses are needed.  A “bee” is made, and by the combined effort of the neighbourhood the third house is completed in a day;  whereas the first cost months, and the second weeks, of far more severe exertion.  These new neighbours have brought ploughs and horses, and now better soils are cultivated, and the product of labour is again increased, as is the power to preserve the surplus for winter’s use.  The path becomes a road. Exchanges increase.  The store makes its appearance.  Labour is rewarded by larger returns, because aided by better machinery applied to better soils.  The town grows up. Each successive addition to the population brings a consumer and a producer.  The shoemaker desires leather and corn in exchange for his shoes.  The blacksmith requires fuel and food, and the farmer wants shoes for his horses;  and with the increasing facility of exchange more labour is applied to production, and the reward of labour rises, producing new desires, and requiring more and larger exchanges.  The road becomes a turnpike, and the wagon and horses are seen upon it.  The town becomes a city, and better soils are cultivated for the supply of its markets, while the railroad facilitates exchanges with towns and cities yet more distant.  The tendency to union and to combination of exertion thus grows with the growth of wealth.  In a state of extreme poverty it cannot be developed.  The insignificant tribe of savages that starves on the product of the superficial soil of hundreds of thousands of acres of land, looks with jealous eye on every intruder, knowing that each new mouth requiring to be fed tends to increase the difficulty of obtaining subsistence; w hereas the farmer rejoices in the arrival of the blacksmith and the shoemaker, because they come to eat on the spot the corn which heretofore he has carried ten, twenty, or thirty miles to market, to exchange for shoes for himself and his horses.  With each new consumer of his products that arrives he is enabled more and more to concentrate his action and his thoughts upon his home, while each new arrival tends to increase his power of consuming commodities brought from a distance, because it tends to diminish his necessity for seeking at a distance a market for the produce of his farm.  Give to the poor tribe spades, and the knowledge how to use them, and the power of association will begin.  The supply of food becoming more abundant, they hail the arrival of the stranger who brings them knives and clothing to be exchanged for skins and corn;  wealth grows, and the habit of association — the first step toward civilization — arises.

The little tribe is, however, compelled to occupy the higher lands.  The lower ones are a mass of dense forests and dreary swamps, while at the foot of the hill runs a river, fordable but for a certain period of the year.  On the hillside, distant a few miles, is another tribe;  but communication between them is difficult, because, the river bottom being yet uncleared, roads cannot be made, and bridges are as yet unthought of.  Population and wealth, however, continue to increase, and the lower lands come gradually into cultivation, yielding larger returns to labour, and enabling the tribe to obtain larger supplies of food with less exertion, and to spare labour to be employed for other purposes. Roads are made in the direction of the river bank.  Population increases more rapidly because of the increased supplies of food and the increased power of preserving it, and wealth grows still more rapidly.  The river bank at length is reached, and some of the best lands are now cleared.  Population grows again, and a new element of wealth is seen in the form of a bridge;  and now the two little communities are enabled to communicate more freely with each other.  One rejoices in the possession of a wheelwright, while the other has a windmill.  One wants carts, and the other has corn to grind.  One has cloth to spare, while the other has more leather than is needed for its purpose.  Exchanges increase, and the little town grows because of the increased amount of trade.  Wealth grows still more rapidly, because of new modes of combining labour, by which that of all is rendered more productive.  Roads are now made in the direction of other communities, and the work is performed rapidly, because the exertions of the two are now combined, and because the machinery used is more efficient.  One after another disappear forests and swamps that have occupied the fertile lands, separating ten, twenty, fifty, or five hundred communities, which now are brought into connection with each other;  and with each step labour becomes more and more productive, and is rewarded with better food, clothing, and shelter.  Famine and disease disappear, life is prolonged, population is increased, and therewith the tendency to that combination of exertion among the individuals composing these communities, which is the distinguishing characteristic of civilization in all nations and in all periods of the world.  With further increase of population and wealth, the desires of man, and his ability to gratify them, both increase.  The nation, thus formed, has more corn than it needs;  but it has no cotton, and its supply of wool is insufficient.  The neighbouring nation has cotton and wool, and needs corn.  They are still divided, however, by broad forests, deep swamps, and rapid rivers.  Population increases, and the great forests and swamps disappear, giving place to rich farms, through which broad roads are made, with immense bridges, enabling the merchant to transport his wool and his cotton to exchange with his now-rich neighbours for their surplus corn or sugar.  Nations now combine their exertions, and wealth grows with still increased rapidity, facilitating the drainage of marshes, and thus bringing into activity the richest soils;  while coal-mines cheaply furnish the fuel for converting limestone into lime, and iron ore into axes and spades, and into rails for the new roads needed for transporting to market the vast products of the fertile soils now in use, and to bring back the large supplies of sugar, tea, coffee, and the thousand other products of distant lands with which intercourse now exists.  At each step population and wealth and happiness and prosperity take a new bound;  and men realize with difficulty the fact that the country, which now affords to tens of millions all the necessaries, comforts, conveniences, and luxuries of life, is the same that, when the superabundant land was occupied by tens of thousands only, gave to that limited number scanty supplies of the worst food;  so scanty that famines were frequent and sometimes so severe that starvation was followed in its wake by pestilence, which, at brief intervals, swept from the earth the population of the little and scattered settlements, among which the people were forced to divide themselves when they cultivated only the poor soils of the hills.

The course of events here described is in strict accordance with the facts observed in every country as it has grown in wealth and population.  The early settlers of all the countries of the world are seen to have been slaves to their necessities — and often slaves to their neighbours;  whereas, with the increase of numbers and the increased power of cultivation, they are seen passing from the poorer soils of the hills to the fertile soils of the river bottoms and the marshes, with constant increase in the return to labour, and constantly increasing power to determine for themselves for whom they will work, and what shall be their reward.  This view is, however, in direct opposition to the theory of the occupation of land taught in the politico-economical school of which Malthus and Ricardo were the founders.  By them we are assured that the settler commences always on the low and rich lands, and that, as population increases, men are required to pass toward the higher and poorer lands — and of course up the hill — with constantly diminishing return to labour, and thus that, as population grows, man becomes more and more a slave to his necessities, and to those who have power to administer to his wants, involving a necessity for dispersion throughout the world in quest of the rich lands upon which the early settler is supposed to commence his operations.  It is in reference to this theory that Mr. J.S. Mill says—

“This general law of agricultural industry is the most important proposition in political economy.  If the law were different, almost all the phenomena of the production and distribution of wealth would be other than they are.”

In the view thus presented by Mr. Mill there is no exaggeration.  The law of the occupation of the land by man lies at the foundation of all political economy;  and if we desire to know what it is that tends to the emancipation of the people of the earth from slavery, we must first satisfy ourselves that the theory of Messrs. Malthus and Ricardo has not only no foundation in fact, but that the law is directly the reverse, and tends, therefore, toward the adoption of measures directly opposed to those that would he needed were that theory true.

The great importance of the question will excuse the occupation of a few minutes of the reader’s attention in placing before him some facts tending to enable him to satisfy himself in regard to the universality of the law now offered for his consideration.  Let him inquire where he may, he will find that the early occupant did not commence in the flats, or on the heavily timbered-land, but that he did commence on the higher land, where the timber was lighter, and the place for his house was dry.  With increasing ability, he is found draining the swamps, clearing the heavy timber, turning up the marl, or burning the lime, and thus acquiring control over more fertile soils, yielding a constant increase in the return to labour.  Let him then trace the course of early settlement, and he will find that while it has often followed the course of the streams, it has always avoided the swamps and river bottoms.  The earliest settlements of this country were on the poorest lands of the Union — those of New England.  So was it in New York, where we find the railroads running through the lower and richer, and yet uncultivated, lands, while the higher lands right and left have long been cultivated.  So is it now in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio.  In South Carolina it has been made the subject of remark, in a recent discourse, that their predecessors did not select the rich lands, and that millions of acres of the finest meadow-land in that State still remain untouched.  The settler in the prairies commences on the higher and drier land, leaving the wet prairie and the slough — the richest soil — for his successors.  The lands below the mouth of the Ohio are among the richest in the world;  yet they are unoccupied, and will continue so to be until wealth and population shall have greatly increased.  So is it now with the low and rich lands of Mexico.  So was it in South America, the early cultivation of which was upon the poor lands of the western slope, Peru and Chili, while the rich lands of the Amazon and the La Plata remained, as most of them still remain, a wilderness.  In the West Indies, the small dry islands were early occupied, while Porto Rico and Trinidad, abounding in rich soils, remained untouched.  The early occupants of England were found on the poorer lands of the centre and south of the kingdom, as were those of Scotland in the Highlands, or on the little rocky islands of the Channel.  Mona’s Isle was celebrated while the rich soil of the Lothians remained an almost unbroken mass of forest, and the morasses of Lancashire were the terror of travellers long after Hampshire had been cleared and cultivated.  If the reader desire to find the birthplace of King Arthur and the earliest seat of English power, he must look to the vicinity of the royal castle of Tintagel, in the high and dry Cornwall.  Should he desire other evidence of the character of the soil cultivated at the period when land abounded and men were few in number, he may find it in the fact that in some parts of England there is scarcely a hill top that does not bear evidence of early occupation,[1] and in the further fact that the mounds, or barrows, are almost uniformly composed of stone, because those memorials “are found most frequently where stone was more readily obtained than earth.”[2]  Caesar found the Gauls occupying the high lands surrounding the Alps, while the rich Venetia remained a marsh.  The occupation of the Campagna followed long after that of the Samnite hills, and the earliest settlers of the Peloponnesus cultivated the high and dry Arcadia, while the cities of the Argive kings of the days of Homer, Mycenae and Tiryns, are found in eastern Argolis, a country so poor as to have been abandoned prior to the days of the earliest authentic history.  The occupation of the country around MeroŽ, and of the Thebaid, long preceded that of the lower lands surrounding Memphis, or the still lower and richer ones near Alexandria.  The negro is found in the higher portions of Africa, while the rich lands along the river courses are uninhabited.  The little islands of Australia, poor and dry, are occupied by a race far surpassing in civilization those of the neighbouring continent, who have rich soils at command.  The poor Persia is cultivated, while the rich soils of the ancient Babylonia are only ridden over by straggling hordes of robbers.[3]  Layard had to seek the hills when he desired to find a people at home.  Affghanistan and Cashmere were early occupied, and thence were supplied the people who moved toward the deltas of the Ganges and the Indus, much of both of which still remains, after so many thousands of years, in a state of wilderness.  Look where we may, it is the same.  The land obeys the same great and universal law that governs light, power, and heat.  The man who works alone and has poor machinery must cultivate poor land, and content himself with little light, little power, and little heat, and those, like his food, obtained in exchange for much labour;  while he who works in combination with his fellow-men may have good machinery, enabling him to clear and cultivate rich land, giving him much food, and enabling him to obtain much light, much heat, and much power, in exchange for little labour.  The first is a creature of necessity — a slave — and as such is man universally regarded by Mr. Ricardo and his followers.  The second is a being of power — a freeman — and as such was man regarded by Adam Smith, who taught that the more men worked in combination with each other, the greater would be the facility of obtaining food and all other of the necessaries and comforts of life — and the more widely they were separated, the less would be the return to labour and capital, and the smaller the power of production, as common sense teaches every man must necessarily be the case.

It will now readily be seen how perfectly accurate was Mr. Mill in his assertion that, “if the law were different, almost all the phenomena of the production and distribution of wealth would be other than they are.”  The doctrine of Malthus and Ricardo tends to make the labourer a slave to the owner of landed or other capital;  but happily it has no foundation in fact, and therefore the natural laws of the production and distribution of wealth tend not to slavery, but to freedom.


1 The Celt, the Roman, and the Saxon, by Thomas Wright, p. 87.

2 Ibid. p. 56.

3 Where population and wealth diminish, the rich soils are abandoned and men retire to the poorer ones, as is seen in the abandonment of the delta of Egypt, of the Campagna, of the valley of Mexico, and of the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates.