The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Southern dynasties’ post-Civil War resurgence tell us about how wealth is really handed down

A plantation owner's house in Wallace, La. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)

Emancipation should have laid waste to the Southern aristocracy. The economy was built on the forced labor of enslaved Africans, and almost half the Confederacy’s wealth was invested in owning humans. Once people could no longer be treated as chattel, that wealth evaporated.

But less than two decades after the Civil War, Southern slave-owning dynasties were back on top of the economic ladder, according to an ambitious new analysis from Leah Boustan of Princeton University, Katherine Eriksson of the University of California at Davis and Philipp Ager of the University of Southern Denmark.

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Their research upends the conventional wisdom that slave owners struggled after they lost access to their wealth. Yes, some fell behind economically in the war’s aftermath. But by 1880, the sons of slave owners were better off than the sons of nearby Southern whites who started with equal wealth but were not as invested in enslaved people.

The sons of formerly enslaved people never caught up, of course. By 1880 more than 90 percent of them were still in the South, and most still worked as farm laborers, tenant farmers or sharecroppers. In the 120 years that followed, they consistently saw lower pay and less upward mobility than similar white men, according to a separate 2017 working paper by economists Marianne Wanamaker of the University of Tennessee and William Collins of Vanderbilt University.

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The gulf in economic status between slave and owner is incalculably large, and slave ownership was widespread. More than 1 in 5 white households owned slaves. About 1 in 200 owned 50 or more enslaved people. But there also were income differences among whites in the prewar South. Boustan found that folks at the 90th percentile were about 14 times as wealthy as a typical white household.

The findings by Boustan and her colleagues indicate generational inequality in the United States isn’t just about the money. Even after the enslaved people on whom their wealth was built were freed, Southern elites passed their advantages to their children through personal networks and social capital.

Boustan says she first conceived of the project when she was a naive, newlywed graduate student. Fifteen years, a couple of jobs and three children later, the final analysis was circulated this week as a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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Along the way, she helped create a branch of economic history designed to answer huge, historical questions. With collaborators such as Stanford University’s Ran Abramitzky, she uses advanced analytical techniques to uncover people and trends in the wild and woolly data sets of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These linked data sets are historians’ version of the databases big tech companies use today to track and target users.

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“The very first people I ever thought about linking over time were these slaveholders,” Boustan said. “My whole career has been built on creating these large, linked data sets.”

Big, historical data

The current version of the project wouldn’t have been possible even a year ago. Methods evolve, and academics and genealogists unearth and digitize new data, such as the 1860 Census and federal records that help identify slaves and slave owners. Each source has limitations — and the records are nowhere near comprehensive enough to allow a similar project tracing the economic outcomes for formerly enslaved people and their descendants. But economists have developed increasingly inventive methods for linking data sets.

“I’ve been working for probably 10 years on some of the proper matching technology,” Boustan said. “I honestly had no idea when I got started with this kind of work that the proper approach to linking people was going to be a large side project of my life.”

To follow families across generations and data sets, Boustan, Eriksson and Ager used first names, last names, ages and birthplaces. They’re not much on their own, but together such data points contain a surprising amount of information, as companies such as Facebook and Google have shown.

Consider records of slave ownership and wealth: They come from different data sets, and 20,000 of the records are clear matches. But those matches allowed the economists to estimate slave ownership in the larger population. One of the most effective data points for doing so was surnames.

The average number of enslaved people recorded as the property of men with the last name Higgins in Lowndes County, Alabama, in 1860, was, for example, a strong predictor of the number of people enslaved by any Higgins household in that county. In many cases, it’s a perfect match.

By applying such methods to counties across the Confederacy, they estimated wealth and slave ownership for about 300,000 households and captured broad trends that might otherwise be invisible.

Their techniques can seem complex, but in the end, Boustan said, their work is guided by, and consistent with, the findings of historians who specialize in the fate of the South’s white aristocracy.

Economic shock

How does the loss of wealth affect elite dynasties? The answer is critical for wealth-tax advocates and others concerned about inequality, but it’s rare to find a wealth disruption that’s swift and deep enough to allow for large-scale analysis.

Emancipation in the American South qualifies, as do revolution-era China and Russia. Weimar Germany, too.

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In 1870, at the height of Reconstruction, former slave-owning families had about 15 percent less wealth than equivalent families who owned fewer people. But by 1880, the sons of slave owners were back atop the Southern socioeconomic hierarchy.

The typical American white family had 10 times as much wealth as the typical black one as of 2016, the most recent year of available data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

A thread summarizing Boustan’s findings has spread far and wide on Twitter, where her enthusiasm, good humor and emoji exemplify a new breed of academics who switch fluently between the language of professional and popular audiences.

How did slave-owning dynasties recover?

It probably wasn’t just white privilege or that these wealthy lineages thrived based solely on their intelligence, talent or entrepreneurial instinct.

The researchers controlled for these factors by focusing on situations where wealth and location were similar in 1860 yet families still differed in the number of black people they enslaved. Presumably, any attributes linked to economic success would be shared by all wealthy white households in the area.

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We can rule out the generational effect of slave owners’ estates and other resources. It’s not as straightforward as going from plantations built on slavery to plantations built on sharecropping. The whites with whom former slave owners are compared will have had similar stockpiles of land and property. The economists help confirm this by analyzing the swath of destruction left by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

Unlike in much of the rest of the South, wealthy white families in Sherman’s path often had their land appropriated, seized or destroyed by Union forces. By 1870, affected families had a staggering 40 percent less wealth than similar folks in nearby counties.

“Yet, even in this extreme case, we find that elite sons completely caught up with or even surpassed the sons of comparably wealthy families in neighboring counties,” Boustan, Eriksson and Ager write.

These white families seem to have drawn upon exceptional social connections, the economists find.

Most notably, they married up. Boustan and her colleagues analyzed sociological indicators such as birth year and name choice to demonstrate that sons of slave owners tended to marry women from families with even more prewar wealth — probably at least in part because of their father-in-law’s network and influence.

Compared with sons from families who owned fewer enslaved people, they were also more likely to make the leap into white-collar jobs, a move that other researchers have shown is often greased by a family’s political and social networks.

The success of slave owners’ sons after emancipation hints that reducing wealth inequality isn’t just a matter of redistributing wealth, Boustan said. It’s a matter of reducing other barriers as well, such as elite personal and professional networks and other intangible privileges.