Lesson 8: The Political Economy of Emancipation


1.       A key to understanding people’s behavior is figuring out the incentives they face.

6.       Government is the arena of competition among interest groups.

ECONOMIC CONCEPTS that support the historical analysis:


Opportunity Cost


Labor Markets

Supply and Demand

Expected Benefits v. Expected Costs


History Standards (from National Standards for History by the National Center for History in the Schools)

Era 2 – 1:  The student understands why the Americas attracted Europeans, why they brought enslaved Africans to their colonies, and how Europeans struggled for control of North America and the Caribbean

Era 2 – 3:  The student understands how the values and institutions of European economic life took root in the colonies, and how slavery reshaped European and African life in the America

Era 3 – 3: The student understands the institutions and practices of government created during the Revolution and how they were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system based on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights

Era 4 – 2: The student understands how the industrial revolution, increasing immigration, the rapid expansion of slavery, and the westward movement changed the lives of Americans and led toward regional tensions

Era 4 – 4: The student understands the sources and character of cultural, religious, and social reform movements in the antebellum period

Era 5 – 1:  The student understands the causes of the Civil War

Era 5 – 3:  The student understands how various reconstruction plans succeeded or failed

Economics Standards (from Voluntary National Content Standards in Economics)

Standard 2:  Effective decision making requires comparing the additional costs of alternatives with the additional benefits. Most choices involve doing a little more or a little less of something; few choices are all-or-nothing decisions.

Standard 4:  People respond predictably to positive and negative incentives.

Standard 17:  Costs of government policies sometimes exceed benefits. This may occur because of incentives facing voters, government officials, and government employees, because of actions by special interest groups that can impose costs on the general public, or because social goals other than economic efficiency are being pursued.


  • That the South was the locus of slavery was not random, but instead chiefly determined by climate conditions, which made slavery much more competitive with indentured servitude.
  • That slavery was both a central economic and political issue in America was clearly recognized by the Founding Fathers, and explicitly incorporated into the Constitution.  In addition, between the Constitution and the Civil War, a number of important compromises were required to perpetuate the institution and the union.
  • The early emancipation of slaves in the North (as in Britain) was implemented in ways that minimized the costs of emancipation to slave owners.
  • The very factors that made slavery so profitable in the South also made a peaceful, political end to slavery so much more difficult to achieve.

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