Post-Civil War storytelling has often depicted the economic devastation the war and Reconstruction inflicted upon Southern whites, especially the elites. Margaret Mitchell’s treacly novel Gone with The Wind is centered on a Southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara, going to desperate lengths to save her plantation from fiendish Northern carpetbaggers and “scallawags”—“Southerners who had turned Republican very profitably.”
Sentimental southern narratives have been receiving overdue corrections, and a fascinating new study appears to show that, while the richest Southern slave-owners did lose a substantial amount of wealth immediately after the war, their sons gained it all back. The main purpose of the study was to track generational wealth and to understand how sudden losses of wealth have affected elite families. The post-Civil War period was chosen because it offered a natural experiment that would yield to a large-scale analysis.
The study’s main author, Princeton economics professor Leah Boustan, issued a tweet-thread summary of her findings. The upshot: By 1870, elite slave-holding families lost 15 percent of their wealth. But, by 1880, the sons of these elite recovered. In many cases, they surpassed the wealth of similar families who had owned fewer slaves.
“It’s not the resources here,” Boustan tweeted. “It’s the social connections.” Sons married rich daughters, and their fathers used social connections to ease their progeny’s transition into white-collar industries.
While Boustan intends this study for economists evanulating the impact of wealth and estate taxes, it also burnishes further empirical proof of how the fortunes extracted—better yet, stolen—from slave labor made possible future fortunes. The connections slave-owning patriarchs used on behalf of their sons were made possible by the wealth accrued from slavery, and by the social customs that protected that wealth.
Opponents of reparations often lean on the argument that one should not, in principle, “punish the son for the sins of the father.” The sons, however, are in fact indebted to the victims of the father. The debt, counting the psychological and physical traumas that continue today, is incalculable. Something, however small, should be returned.