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Estimating Slavery Reparations: Present Value

Comparisons of Historical Multigenerational
Reparations Policies∗
Thomas Craemer, University of Connecticut
Objective. I investigate two problems regarding multigenerational reparations: legal obstacles caused
by the passage of time and economic difficulties in obtaining realistic present value estimates.
Methods. To investigate legal precedents, I trace the French spoliation claims, which were paid
over a period of 123 years, and Haiti’s independence debt, which was paid over 156 years. To
investigate present value estimation, I compare existing slavery reparations estimates based on slave
prices as expected future income to alternative estimates based on the number of unremunerated
work hours multiplied with historical free labor market wages. Results. I estimate the present value
of U.S. slave labor in 2009 dollars to range from $5.9 to $14.2 trillion. Historical precedents
suggest that political rather than narrowly legal processes will determine any ultimate claims.
Conclusions. Neither problems nor solutions associated with multigenerational reparations are new.
New is the estimation method and the resulting upward correction of reparations estimates.

Public opinion research on slavery reparations suggests that support for slavery crucially
depends on who is to receive reparations, from whom, in what modality, and for what reason
(Craemer 2009a, 2009b; Dawson and Popoff, 2004). Otherwise, the connection is hard
to see since the injured parties and proposed reparations recipients are separated by many
generations. Reparations opponent Horowitz (2001: point 4) expresses this view when he
states: “Most Americans have no connection (direct or indirect) to slavery.” This statement,
of course, fails to consider the fact that legal distinctions considered unconstitutional today
continue to exert tangible effects on Americans living today (Westley, 2005). Some Americans alive today are excluded from receiving inheritances based on the hard work of their
ancestors, simply because their ancestors were arbitrarily designated “Person held to Service
or Labour” (U.S. Constitution, 2011, Article 4 Section 2, prior to the 13th Amendment).
Instead, the property rights to these inheritances are transmitted to individuals whose ancestors were equally arbitrarily designated as “Party to whom such Service or Labour may
be due.” Of course, over many generations estates diffuse, and people not named in any
will may directly or indirectly benefit from the interest earning capital originally produced
by a slave. Today, an African-American slave descendant can only indirectly benefit from
an ancestor’s hard work by virtue of living in a powerful economy that received its start-up
capital during the 89 years when the U.S. government allowed slavery to exist. In contrast,
some heirs of slave owners benefit both indirectly and directly. They benefit from the
powerful economy and they may currently earn interest on estates accumulated in part
through the hard work of other Americans’ ancestors.

Direct correspondence to Thomas Craemer, Department of Public Policy, University of Connecticut, 1800
Asylum Avenue, West Hartford, CT 06117-2697 Thomas Craemer shall share
all data and coding for replication purposes. The author would like to thank Robert Westley for inspiring
discussions of slavery reparations.

SOCIAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY, Volume 96, Number 2, June 2015 

C 2015 by the Southwestern Social Science Association

DOI: 10.1111/ssqu.12151


Social Science Quarterly

With regard to reparations, the uncertainty associated with the passage of time is viewed
as a major obstacle (Kaplan and Valls, 2007). This obstacle is not only empirical but also
based in law, influencing legal standing. Westley (2005:85) writes: “Time and standing
in American law are interrelated concepts . . . and . . . are socially constructed.” Their
social construction renders them inherently political. According to Westley (2005:91),
“[l]egislatures may alter statutes of limitations or eliminate them altogether.” This points to
the potential for a future political solution to the slavery reparations question. The historical
precedents discussed in the following section, the so-called French spoliation claims and
the Haitian independence debt, show that previous multigenerational reparations cases
faced similar challenges. The two cases are comparable in three ways. First, both were
ultimately resolved by political rather than merely legal means. Second, the government
of the United States played a crucial role in administering both cases. Finally, time lapses
were comparable—123 years in the case of the French spoliation claims, and 156 years in
the case of the Haitian independence debt. With 150 years since the abolition of slavery in
1865, the time lapse regarding slavery reparations in the United States falls between these
two historical precedents.
In other ways, the two reparations precedents are not comparable. For example, while
the French spoliation claims represent a moral example of multigenerational reparations
(descendants of the harmed party were compensated), the Haitian independence debt
represents an immoral example (descendants of slaves were forced to pay reparations to
descendants of their former owners). Further, both cases differ from slavery reparations as
the beneficiaries in both cases were White1 (White Americans in the case of the French
spoliation claims and White French in the case of the Haitian independence debt) rather
than Black (descendants of slaves in the United States or Haiti).
With respect to slavery reparations in the United States, the uncertainty associated with
the passage of time and the resulting need to make simplifying assumptions have proven
a challenge for historical economists. In this article, I am going to compare specific reparations proposals developed in the 1990s whose present value estimates (in 2009 US$)
ranged from a total debt of $17.4 billion (Ransom and Sutch, 1990) and $1.4 trillion
(Neal, 1990), to $4.7 trillion (Marketti, 1990). These proposals do not represent the universe of all reparations proposals ever developed, but they represent a specific subset of
proposals that look only at the 89 years during which slavery existed in the United States.
They ignore slavery in the colonial period, as well as reparations for injustices during the Jim
Crow era. These issues are important, but would require different remedies. The existing
reparations estimates are based on slave prices as expected future income streams from the
sale of cash crops. They ignore the substantial time spent by slaves on forced activities other
than cash crop production. To correct for this omission, I propose an alternative estimation
method based on the number of unremunerated work hours multiplied by historical hourly
free labor compensation to estimate the value that slaves contributed to the U.S. economy. In terms of total amounts, my reparations estimates exceed the historical precedents
(the French spoliation claims and the Haitian independence debt), as well as most of the
reviewed proposals made in the 1990s. However, in per capita terms, recipients of the
French spoliation claims and the Haitian independence debt received substantially larger
individual reparations awards than would be the case for African Americans even under
the most liberal reparations estimate considered here.
In the following section, I will review the historical precedents for multigenerational
reparations: the French spoliation claims and the Haitian independence debt. In subsequent
To emphasize the socially constructed character of the race concept, group names are capitalized even if
they refer to colors (e.g., Black, White, Black Americans, and White Americans).

Estimating Slavery Reparations


sections, I will review specific slavery reparations proposals by Ransom and Sutch (1990),
Neal (1990), and Marketti (1990) based on slave prices. I will provide an economic critique
of their approach and present an alternative estimation method based on historical free
labor market wages. Then, I will compare all reparations schemes, both historical and
proposed, in terms of magnitude to the Bush/Obama stimulus packages of 2008 and 2009.
This provides a baseline of comparison of large contemporary government expenditures
that were also the result of a political process. They share the function of stimulating
the economy, an aspect that has historically been part of slavery reparations proposals
from the earliest proposals. For example, the first movement for slavery reparations (slave
pensions) in the 1890s represented a strange coalition of southern ex-confederates and
ex-slaves (Berry, 2005:35). Legislation to this effect was supported by abolitionist icon
Frederick Douglass and introduced into the Senate by Alabama Democrat Edmund M.
Pettus (Diouf, 2007:201–02). While African-American supporters hoped that reparations
would improve the living standards of ex-slaves, white southern Democrats pursued the
bill as a stimulus package for the stagnating southern economy.

Historical Precedents for Multigenerational Reparations

The French Spoliation Claims
The French spoliation claims represent the earliest precedent of multigenerational reparations in the United States. They date back to the American Revolution but their settlement
lasted well into the 20th century. The claims cover only a seven-year period from 1793
to 1800 when France attacked American ships in retaliation for the United States’ neutral
stance in the war between France and Britain (Scattergood and Henry, 1910:21/29). This
neutrality, formalized through the Jay Treaty in 1794, was interpreted by the revolutionary
government of France as a breach of the treaty Benjamin Franklin had concluded in 1778
on behalf of the American Revolution with King Louis XVI of France (hereafter referred to
as the Franklin Treaty). Following the Franklin Treaty of 1778 Royal France had poured an
estimated $280,000,000 (1,400,000,000 francs) into the American Revolution along with
nearly 20,000 troops and a navy of 36 war ships (Scattergood and Henry, 1910:19/148).
In return, the United States had promised aid should France’s possessions in the West
Indies ever be threatened. That aid was neither forthcoming in 1791 when a slave uprising
in Saint-Domingue threatened French colonial rule, nor in 1793 when Britain challenged
French domination in Saint-Domingue. In light of these developments, Jay’s Treaty in 1794
was perceived by Revolutionary France as a hostile act and led to a policy of confiscation
directed at American merchant ships. The U.S. government referred to these confiscations
as “spoliations” and demanded compensation from France.
What turned the spoliations claims into an American reparations case was the fact that
the United States concluded a treaty with France on September 30, 1800 ending the
dispute. France agreed to release the United States from her obligations under the Franklin
Treaty of 1778 in return for the United States releasing France from the spoliation claims.
This led to a century of political lobbying on the part of the original claimants and their
heirs for payment of the spoliation claims by the U.S. government. Their reasoning, shared
by Senator Charles Sumner in 1864, was based on the Fifth Amendment. Sumner writes:
“The Constitution . . . declares that ‘private property shall not be taken for public use
without just compensation.’ Here ‘private property,’ to a vast amount, was taken for ‘public


Social Science Quarterly

use,’ involving the peace and welfare of the whole country; and down to this day the
sufferers are petitioning Congress for that ‘just compensation’ solemnly promised by the
Constitution” (Sumner cited in Scattergood and Henry, 1910:83–84). As the Civil War
was drawing to a close, Sumner discussed three main objections to the spoliation claims:
“(1) It is said that these claims are ancient and stale . . . (2) It is sometimes said that these
claims are no longer the property of the original sufferers . . . (3) It is sometimes suggested
that, even assuming the meritorious character of these claims, yet in the present condition
of the country they ought to be postponed” (Sumner cited in Scattergood and Henry,
1910:65–67). In response to the first two objections, Sumner stated: “It would be hardly
creditable for a government to take advantage of its own procrastination and refuse just
compensation because the original sufferer had been compelled . . . to discount his claims.
. . . It is well known that in many families these claims still exist as heirlooms, transmitted
by ancestral care in the full confidence that, sooner or later, they will be recognized by the
Government” (Sumner cited in Scattergood and Henry, 1910:66–67). In response to the
third objection regarding war time and the associated economic difficulties, Sumner stated:
“Any postponement must inevitably throw these claims into direct competition with those
now accumulating on account of losses during the rebellion . . . If the earlier claims are
just they should not be exposed to the hazards of any such competition, when feeling will
be stronger than reason” (Sumner cited in Scattergood and Henry, 1910:67).
It was not until 1885 that Congress referred the spoliation claims to the U.S. Court
of Claims for evaluation and payment (Scattergood and Henry, 1910:8). The Court of
Claims was tasked with conducting extensive historical research, relying on documents
from executors and descendants of the original proprietors and sending special government
agents abroad to search for evidence relating to the claims (Scattergood and Henry, 1910:
By 1890, the Court of Claims had decided on claims worth a combined value of
$11,726,726.26 (present value in 2009 dollars: $276,446,580.26, computed based on
Friedman’s, 2009, Inflation Calculator).2 The Court of Claims found in favor of 282 petitions praying for a combined amount of $3,346,726.26 (present value in 2009 dollars:
$78,895,934.73) but limited the total amount of reparations to $1,604,681.99 (present
value in 2009 dollars: $37,828,873.86), making up only 13.68 percent of the original
claims. Petitions amounting to $8,380,000 were dismissed by the court due to a lack of
evidence (Mansur cited in Scattergood and Henry, 1910:133). Thus, the average claim received by a successful claimant was $5,690.36 (present value in 2009 dollars: $134,144.90).
Throughout the history of the French spoliation claims, three presidential vetoes had
to be overcome before Congress could appropriate funds, the first by President Polk in
1846, the second by President Pierce in 1855, and the last by President Cleveland in 1896
(Scattergood and Henry, 1910:36–37), moving the spoliation claims issue well into the
20th century. Describing the situation in 1910, Scattergood and Henry (1910) state, “the
total favorable findings from the beginning to the present have amounted to only a little
more than $6,000,000, and it is understood that the subject is now almost disposed of, so
far as favorable findings by the court are concerned . . . the total amount of these claims
is now practically certain not to exceed $6,500,000” (Scattergood cited in Scattergood
and Henry, 1910:9–10). The range of $6 to $6.5 million in 1910 would represent from
$136,432,892.37 to $147,802,300.06 in 2009 dollars.
Present values in 2009 dollars are computed using Friedman’s (2009) Inflation Calculator
( based on consumer price index statistics from Historical Statistics of
the United States (USGPO, 1975) and from the annual Statistical Abstracts of the United States.

Estimating Slavery Reparations


Haiti’s Independence Debt
Haiti’s independence debt turned the concept of slavery reparations on its head since
it forced former slaves to pay compensation to their former owners. In 1791, a slave
rebellion broke out in the French colony of Saint-Domingue that ultimately led to Haitian
independence in 1804. Initially, the insurgent slaves fought against the French Revolution
because it had failed to abolish slavery. When the French Revolution found itself at war with
a united royalist Europe it declared the abolition of slavery on February 4, 1794, to gain
the support of the insurgent slaves. The latter switched sides and supported the French
Revolution against the British and Spanish. However, in 1801, Napoleon sent General
Leclerk to reestablish slavery and imprison the leader of the slave uprising, Toussaint
L’Ouverture, who died in captivity in France in 1802. In response, L’Ouverture’s successor
Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated Napoleon in 1803 long before any European military
power matched this feat. A side effect of the French defeat was Napoleon’s decision
to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States after it lost its strategic purpose of
defending France’s most valuable colonial possession. Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared
Haiti’s independence as a free Black nation on January 1, 1804. In 1806, Haiti split
into two parts, a monarchy under King Henri Christophe in the north, and a republic
under President P´etion in the south. While the north retained a plantation system similar to
slavery, the south divided the old plantations among the former slaves. Thus, while the north
had sufficient income from exports to build a strong military and defend independence
against colonial aggression, the south sought a diplomatic strategy. Beauvois (2009:112)
writes that P´etion proposed to pay France in return for an official recognition of Haiti’s
independence: rather than demanding return of the former owners’ property, “the French
government would do much better, both for itself and for the former owners, if it would sell
us Saint-Domingue like it sold Louisiana to the United States.” In 1820, P´etion’s successor
President Boyer united the two parts of Haiti and continued indemnity negotiations with
France. King Charles X of France ended negotiations on April 17, 1825 by dispatching a
unilaterally drafted order to Port-au-Prince reinforced by a large fleet, demanding in return
for an official acknowledgment of Haiti’s independence that “[t]he current inhabitants of
the French part of Saint-Domingue will pay one hundred fifty million francs . . . intended
to compensate the former settlers who demand an indemnity” (Sur l’Indemnit´e, 1828:3,
translation TC).
The French demand for restitution represented over 10 times the annual Haitian revenue
at that time so that Haiti had to borrow the money. It borrowed the first 30,000,000- franc
installment from the French bank Ternaux Grandolpe et Cie, and the second from Lafitte
Rothschild Lapanonze. Haiti could not complete the scheduled indemnity payments and
defaulted. In 1838, renegotiations of the terms concluded with the Trait´e d’Amiti´e reducing
the remaining balance down to 60,000,000 francs (Phillips, 2008:5). This deal was again
reinforced by a large fleet (Phillips, 2008:6). Haiti paid the final installment in 1883 after
having paid more than 90,000,000 francs in reparations. Haiti had to borrow more than
166,000,000 francs to finance the indemnity and early loan payments. Phillips (2008:6)
writes: “More than half of that money was returned to the lending banks under the rubric
of commissions, fees and interest payments.” In 1915, as in prior years, 80 percent of the
government’s revenue was spent on servicing the “independence debt,” stunting growth
of infrastructure, education, and healthcare (Phillips, 2008:7). That same year the United
States invaded and occupied Haiti and in 1919, the National City Bank of New York (today’s
Citibank) acquired a controlling interest in the Haitian National Bank (Phillips, 2008:6).
In 1922, the bank acquired Haiti’s outstanding debts to French banks and continued to


Social Science Quarterly

service these debts until 1947 (Phillips, 2008:6). Phillips (2008) writes: “It took Haiti 122
years to repay its Independence Debt. It did so 140 years after the abolition of the slave
trade and 85 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. In the same year, the Nazis paid
for their crimes, including slavery, at Nuremberg, Haiti still labored to repay in cash the
freedom its founding fathers had won with their lives” (Phillips, 2008:6).
On occasion of the bicentennial of Haiti’s declaration of independence in 2004, the
government of Haiti under President Aristide filed a legal brief to request, not reparations
for slavery itself, but simply a repayment of Haiti’s independence debt (De Cordoba, 2004).
Haitian economist and close advisor to President Aristide, Francis St.-Hubert, computed
the present value figure of that amount with 5 percent interest and arrived at an amount of
$21,685,135,571.48, presumably in 2004 dollars ($24,426,224,950.57 in 2009 dollars).
He said: “The clock is running at a rate of $34 a second” (St.-Hubert quoted in De
Cordoba, 2004).
When it comes to slavery reparations in the United States, the argument is often made
that tracing withheld wages and other benefits over many generations would be impossibly
complicated (see Kaplan and Valls, 2007). The most interesting aspect of the Haitian case is
the meticulous research at government expense tracing indemnity claims from the original
slaveholders over many generations to their legal heirs. Phillips (2008:12) writes: “Detailed
claims, submitted by former slave owners for compensation, including the monetary value
of the ‘lost’ slaves’ . . . have been documented.” In 1828, the French government produced
an incredibly detailed report listing the names of all property owners of Saint-Domingue
´ D´etaill´e (1828) contains the names
prior to the revolution. This massive six- volume Etat
of former property owners, information about lost plantations and other real estate, as well
as names and estimated values of the lost enterprises. Naturally, the estimated value of the
enterprises contains the value of the slaves who were exploited in them. Most importantly,
´ D´etaill´e (1828) contains lists of heirs with sometimes up to 40 names. Overall, it
the Etat
contains about 7,900 names of owners and their heirs.
The spoliation claims and the Haitian independence debt are moral opposites, the
former indemnifying descendants of victims and the other descendants of perpetrators.
But they both show that reparations for events multiple generations in the past are not a
new idea. There is ample legal as well as administrative precedent. In both cases, extensive
archival research was financed by governments and political settlements were reached.
The arguments against multigenerational reparations are also not new: the argument that
nobody alive today was either ever a slave owner or a slave mirrors the arguments against
the French spoliations claims Charles Sumner responded to so eloquently. However, the
historical events they addressed were very circumscribed, ranging from 1791 to 1800 in
the French spoliations case, and from 1791 to 1804 with regard to Haiti’s independence
debt. The fact that slavery lasted for centuries and involved a vastly greater number of
potential claimants (ex-slaves and their descendants) makes slavery reparation a much
more daunting process. Further, the debt is likely much more staggering, involving many
millions of lifetimes of unpaid labor, compounding interest over a longer period of time.
This raises the question of what order of magnitude to expect for possible slavery reparations
policies in the United States.

Slavery Reparations Proposals

This section compares three specific slavery reparations proposals developed to address
restitution for unpaid labor and lost inheritances in the 1990s. They are compiled in Richard

Estimating Slavery Reparations


F. America’s (1990) The Wealth of Races. The Present Value of Benefits from Past Injustices. The
book contains a wider range of proposals that also take into consideration remedial policies
for racial discrimination following the Civil War to the current time. Although these broader
reparations proposals deserve equal consideration, I am focusing the present discussion on
a set of more narrow proposals for two reasons. Although slavery and discrimination
are historically intertwined, they are conceptually distinguishable. Lost wages and denied
access to inheritances can be addressed at the individual level, comparable to the French
spoliations claims and the Haitian independence debt. Of course, race was part and parcel
of both cases. However, their claims were based on lost inheritances with interest, not on
group membership per se. In contrast, reparations policies that address racial discrimination
require group-based remedies based on the same group distinctions that represented the
basis for discrimination (Westley, 2005). The conflation of individual-level and grouplevel claims has led both reparations supporters and reparations opponents to interpret
antidiscrimination policies and affirmative action as substitutes for slavery reparations.
For example, reparations supporter Westley (1998:128–29) states: “Affirmative action, by
providing Blacks with educational and employment opportunities that they would not
otherwise have due to white racism, ‘compensated’ Blacks for the injustices they suffered.”
Reparations opponent McWhorter (2003) uses this logic to argue that reparations have
already been paid. Conservative columnist Krauthammer (2001) even advocates slavery
reparations in return for an elimination of existing affirmative action policies (for a more
detailed discussion, see Craemer, 2009a:281).
Interestingly, the historical precedents of multigenerational reparations such as the French
spoliations claims or Haiti’s independence debt tend to be overlooked in this context
despite the fact that the latter has direct relevance to slavery. Why should descendants of
Black slaves relinquish claims that descendants of their owners and other Whites not only
claimed but received? And why should one form of claim (group-level racial discrimination)
count against another (individual-level denied inheritances) when one historical injustice
aggravated the other?

Slavery Reparations Estimates from the 1990s
Various methods have been proposed to estimate the size of the reparations debt, with
estimates ranging from $17 billion (Ransom and Sutch, 1990), to $1.4 trillion (Neal,
1990), up to $4.7 trillion (Marketti, 1990), all in 1983 dollars. In 2009 dollars, this would
represent $36.14 billion, $2.98 trillion, and $9.99 trillion, respectively.
Ransom and Sutch (1990:32) use the market value of a slave from historical records as
“the buyer’s calculation of the present value of the stream of income which the buyer could
extract from the slave.” With that expected income stream representing the difference of
the slave’s productivity and the cost of feeding and housing the slave, according to Ransom
and Sutch (1990:32), “the price of a slave summarizes the capitalized value of the economic
exploitation inherent in the slave system.” They define the term economic exploitation
as “that part of labor’s product which is not returned to the slave as food, shelter, and
other consumption items” (Ransom and Sutch, 1990:32). Using a rate of return of 6.6
percent, Ransom and Sutch (1990:32–33) “estimate the dollar value of exploitation from
the crop output produced by slaves in each year using evidence on the slave population
and the average price of slaves.” Ransom and Sutch (1990:47) calculate the total value of
exploitation per slave and subtract from it the estimated value of consumption provided to
the slave. These numbers allow Ransom and Sutch (1990) to compute the total amount of


Social Science Quarterly

exploited slave labor for each year, summing it across years, while compounding interest,
yielding the “present value of past exploitation in 1860,” which they estimated in 1983 at
$17.4 billion (Ransom and Sutch, 1990:33), $36.99 billion in 2009 dollars.
The idea of subtracting the cost of slave consumption from the slave’s productivity, and
only treating the difference as expropriated property for which reparations are due, seems
odd. Whatever food a slave consumed was not his or her choice, nor was it for his or her
benefit. Even when ingested, the calories remained the property of the slave owner along
with the work these calories produced.
The logical problem with this estimation method becomes even clearer in Neal’s (1990)
calculation of the current benefits of slavery. Conceptually, Neal’s (1990:92) estimation
method seems straight forward: “estimate the difference between what slave owners would
have had to pay free black men and women for the same tasks . . . and what they actually
spent on their slaves.” However, rather than using historical wage records along with the
total number of work hours available to slave owners, Neal (1990) follows Ransom and
Sutch (1990) in using slave prices as a basis for estimating “slave wages.” Neal (1990)
writes: “The empirical work involves three steps. The first estimates the market value of the
unpaid net wages of slaves who lived at various times before emancipation. . . . The second
estimates the number of slaves who labored without fair pay. . . . The third multiplies
the amounts by the number of slaves . . . and aggregates them” (Neal, 1990:94). Neal
(1990:100) arrives at a present value estimate of diverted slave wages of $1.4 trillion in
1883, which represents $2.98 trillion in 2009 dollars. As Ransom and Sutch’s (1990)
method, however, Neal’s (1990) method relies on the market price of the slave as the future
income stream expected by the slave owner, not on the slave’s actual time lost. Using a
similar method, Marketti (1990) arrives at larger estimates, ranging from $2.1 to $4.7
trillion in 1983 (Marketti 1990:107), representing a range of $4.46 to $9.99 trillion in
2009 dollars.
Although estimation methods based on slave owner expectations and slave losses may
yield debt estimates of similar orders of magnitude, it seems important conceptually to
use historical records from the slave’s perspective, not the slave owner’s. Only from a slave
owner’s perspective would it seem necessary to “estimate the number of slaves who labored
without fair pay” (Neal, 1990:94). From a slave’s perspective, “fair pay” is an obvious
oxymoron, and in place of an estimate, the actual total number of slaves can be used as a
basis of debt estimation.
Slave prices resembled “wages” only from the perspective of a slave owner, who would
have had the choice of hiring free laborers instead of purchasing slaves. In contrast, from
the perspective of the slave, upkeep costs did not resemble a “wage” (much less a fair
one) because the slave had no (legal) choice in the matter. If unhappy with the “wage”
(provisions), the slave could not choose a different “employer” (slave owner), thus ruling
out any competition of “employers” (slave owners) for “employees” (slaves). To circumvent
this problem, I use historical data on hourly compensation for free labor, adding up the
total hours of work that were available to slave owners, and multiplying the two. Before
doing this, a discussion of the assumptions underlying price formation on free markets is

“Free Labor” Economics
The idea that prices represent true reflections of supply and demand on markets for
labor, goods, and services assumes that all market participants exercise free choice. Slave

Estimating Slavery Reparations


labor obviously violates this assumption. Further, while the goal of a planter was to produce
crops for sale, profit-maximizing motives led planters to spend as little money as possible on
feeding, clothing, and housing slaves and on running the slave owner’s household. The logical answer to this problem was to use slaves to produce directly for domestic consumption.
This represented a form of subsistence farming writ large. However, economic measures
based on market assumptions are blind to forced labor and subsistence production. Since
many of the goods and services slaves produced were not exchanged for money, they would
neither have entered slave prices nor the gross domestic product (GDP) (see Bloem and
Shrestha, 2000; Costanza et al. 2009).
Based on forced subsistence farming, plantations could accumulate lavish wealth for the
owners while producing comparatively little monetary income. This led to the seemingly
contradictory phenomenon of money scarcity among the rich. George Washington biographer Ron Chernow (2010) illustrates this phenomenon when he describes Washington
as “land and slave rich but cash poor” (Chernow cited in Spears, 2010). The goods and
services that allowed him to live lavish in a state of money scarcity were produced on
his own farms by the farms’ slaves. While the prices for Washington’s slaves on a slave
market would only have represented their monetary earning potential through cash crop
production, a more accurate estimate of the value they contributed to Washington’s life
would be to estimate the money Washington would have had to spend to pay free laborers
to produce all goods and services his slaves produced, including those aimed at domestic
consumption (subsistence work). In the following section, I will use historical data on
wages for free labor to estimate the total value that slaves contributed the U.S. economy
while slavery existed in the United States.

Alternative Estimation Method
Using historical data on wages for free labor raises the obvious question of whether slaves
if freed would have received the same compensation. Of course, racial discrimination might
have led to lower wages for freed slaves in practice. But discrimination cannot legitimately
be used to reduce present value reparations estimates. The only relevant consideration is
the likelihood that wages could have changed had an estimated 3 million forced laborers
suddenly flooded the free labor market.
Figure 1 illustrates why, at least in theory, the addition of freed slave laborers might not
have exerted a net effect on wages. In this model, S represents wage labor supply under free
market conditions and S wage labor supply under slavery. The demand for labor under
free market conditions is denoted D and that under slavery D . The X-axis represents the
quantity of wage labor available, Q under free market conditions and Q’ under slavery.
Under free market conditions the intersection of lines S and D represents the market price
(wage) for free labor. Removing potential wage laborers from the market into slavery would
reduce free labor supply, which, if it was the only effect, would lead to wage increases for
the remaining free laborers (the intersection of lines S and D). However, the institution
of slavery also removed the corresponding quantity of wage labor demand from the labor
market (moving line D to D ), resulting in a free labor market wage that remains more or
less unchanged (intersection of S and D ). These countervailing considerations justify the
use of free market hourly compensation records to estimate the earning potential of slaves
had they been free laborers at the time. Of course, slavery forced slaves to produce more
labor than they would have offered voluntarily (longer work days). As such, the quantity
of labor available to slave owners may have been greater than the amount of labor they


Social Science Quarterly
Effect of Slavery on Free Wages

NOTE: D = demand; S = supply; Q = quantity of labor; w = wages; X = free market quantity; X = quantity
under slavery.

could have purchased on the free labor market had the slaves been free laborers. This
suggests market wages may have been higher had slaves been free laborers. On the other
hand, it is also possible that the labor slaves offered as free laborers might have been more
efficient (better rested, higher motivation), such that less labor (a shorter work day) would
have had the same effect, reducing the amount of labor (in work hours) demanded under
free market conditions. With these countervailing considerations, average market hourly
compensation for free labor is probably a reasonably good estimate of wages lost due to
To obtain reparations estimates, I use the work hours available in the slave labor force
and multiply them with average market wages at the time. The slave population is recorded
from the 1790 census on (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975:18) and estimated by linear
interpolation for years between decennial censuses. For the period from 1776 to 1789, estimates are obtained by linear extrapolation using the estimated annual population increase
between 1790 and 1800 (reducing the number of slaves by 19,592.1 for each year before
1790). Information on production workers’ hourly compensation (in nominal dollars) is
provided online by Officer and Williamson (2009). These wage data are available from
1790 to 2009 and I estimated the missing values before that time by linear extrapolation
using data on the cost of unskilled labor, which is available all the way back to 1774.3 I

The extrapolation procedure is based on the assumption that production workers’ hourly compensation
in nominal dollars would have experienced ups and downs proportional to those of the cost of unskilled labor.
For the year before the first recorded production workers’ hourly compensation, I took the first nominal dollar
compensation and divided it by the ratio of that year’s cost of unskilled labor index over the corresponding
index for the year for which the estimate of production worker compensation was to be determined. Then

Estimating Slavery Reparations


estimate reparations for the period from 1776 to 1865 since this is the time the United
States could have abolished slavery but failed to do so.
I present two slavery-reparations scenarios whereby the more conservative estimates the
amount of uncompensated work time only, while the more liberal one counts any amount
of time the slave was “on the clock.” Scenario 1 only counts slaves of working age (five
years or older) during daylight working hours (on average roughly 12). Scenario 2 relaxes
the age requirement because slave owners were under no legal obligation to observe age
limits, and it counts all 24 hours of the day as time to be compensated. Scenario 2 has
the advantage of accurately representing the role of downtime and sleep for a slave: it was
restoration of energy for further forced labor. It was not spare time in the wage-labor sense
with choice of activities and granting it or not was entirely up to the slave owner—no law
required it. Granting or denying it was part of the economic calculation of the slave owner
and the life expectancy of a slave crucially depended on that utility calculation.
For Scenario 1, the proportion of slaves under the age of five is estimated and subtracted
from the total number of slaves recorded in the decennial censuses. The estimate is based on
the number of slaves under the age of five listed in the 1850 and 1860 censuses (the listings
are separate by male and female slaves, and for each group in both years, the percentage
of under-five year olds is computed). The percentages are then averaged across genders
and across the two years (16.69 percent). For 1776, the estimated number of slaves is
423,394 (above five years of age 352,709), with an estimated number of work hours of
365(12) = 4,380 hours for Scenario 1. For Scenario 2, the number of work hours amounts
to 365(24) = 8,760 hours. At an estimated production worker’s hourly compensation
of $0.017, the amounts owed for the year 1776 are $26,722,011.76 for Scenario 1 and
$64,154,126.11 for Scenario 2. Since these wages remained unpaid, interest is charged for
that year, which, at a conservative 3 percent, would result in $27,523,672.12 for Scenario 1
and $66,078,749.90 for Scenario 2. In each scenario, the next year’s uncompensated slave
work hours are multiplied with that year’s production worker hourly compensation, added
to the previous unpaid total, and the total sum compounded with 3 percent interest. This
procedure is continued until 1860, the last year antebellum for which census figures are
available. Since the formal abolition of slavery did not occur until 1865, these estimates
leave an additional five years of slave labor unaccounted for. During the Civil War, the
slave population dropped, and no reliable census records are available to impute slave
population estimates for the years between the 1860 census and 1865. Thus, the resulting
figures establish lower boundaries for debt estimates.
From 1860 until 2009, the estimated amount grows each year by the interest rate
that is applied (here 3 percent) and the resulting total slavery debt figures for 2009 are
$5,931,336,366,538.91 for Scenario 1 and $14,239,934,652,326.70 for Scenario 2. If the
number of slave descendants is estimated based on the number of people who identify as
African American or Black in the U.S. Census of 2006–2008 (37,131,771 individuals4 ),
per capita reparations would amount to $159,737.50 in Scenario 1 and $383,497.32 in
Scenario 2. With a U.S. Census estimate for the total U.S. population of 301,507,198,
the per capita debt for all Americans (White, Black, or otherwise) would amount to
$19,672.29 in Scenario 1 and $47,229.17 in Scenario 2. Since most reparations recipients
would have a dual role as debtors (Americans) as well as claimants (slave descendants),
net per capita reparations would amount to $140,065.21 in Scenario 1 and $336,268.15
I treated that estimate as the first available production worker compensation entry and repeated the process
until all missing values back to 1776 had been estimated.
The 2000 Census’ Black population proportion was p = 0.1231538457. At a total U.S. population of
301,507,198 in 2006–2008, the Black population estimate for that time span would be 37,131,771.


Social Science Quarterly

Unpaid Slave Labor at 3 Percent Interest as Percentage of the U.S. GDP (Dotted Horizontal
Line); Dotted Vertical Lines Represent the Civil War (1860–1865)

in Scenario 2. According to the Pew Research Center (Taylor et al., 2011), the racial
gap in median household net worth between Whites and African Americans in 2009
amounted to $107,472. Thus, both scenarios would help to eliminate the persisting wealth
Debt estimates over long periods of time are extremely sensitive to the choice of interest
rate as a comparison with the 2009 U.S. GDP of approximately $14,256,300,000,000.00
demonstrates. At 3 percent interest, the debt estimated for Scenario 1 is less than half the
U.S. GDP (41.6 percent) and that for Scenario 2 is roughly the same as the U.S. GDP
(99.88 percent). In contrast, at 4 percent interest, the debt balloons to 2.6 times the U.S.
GDP in Scenario 1 and 6.17 times the U.S. GDP in Scenario 2. Thus, settling on an
interest rate would likely represent the most important topic of political negotiations in
any reparations debate.
Figure 2 plots the slave debt at 3 percent interest over time as percentage of the U.S.
GDP with the top panel representing the conservative Scenario 1 and the bottom the
liberal Scenario 2. The dotted horizontal line just above the X-axis represents 100 percent
of the U.S. GDP and the dotted vertical lines mark the beginning and the end of the Civil
War (1860–1865). For most of American history, paying the debt in full as a lump sum
would have seemed impossible. Only under the more conservative scenario (Scenario 1 at 3
percent interest) would the total slavery debt have dropped below 100 percent of the U.S.
GDP and only as recently as the mid-1980s (see top panel of Figure 2). The massive role
slave labor played in the U.S. economy, especially prior to the Civil war, is evident in both
panels of Figure 2. During the Civil War, its proportion of the overall economy dipped,
but continued to be well above 100 percent of the U.S. GDP even after the Civil War.
How could slavery have been multiple times more valuable than the entire country’s GDP? As described above, this question plagues all economic theories of unpaid

Estimating Slavery Reparations


Slavery Reparations Estimates and 2008/2009 Stimulus Package in 2009 Dollars Compared to
the U.S. GDP

NOTE: Spoliations: French spoliation awards; Haiti: Haiti independence debt; Ransom/Sutch: Ransom &
Sutch (1990); Bush/Obama: Bush’s and Obama’s Stimulus Packages of 2008 and 2009; Neal: Neal (1990);
Scenario 1: Scenario 1 at 3 percent interest; Marketti: Marketti (1990); Scenario 2: Scenario 2 at 3 percent
interest; U.S. GDP: U.S. GDP in 2009 (total top panel, per capita bottom panel).

labor (e.g., Bloem and Shrestha, 2000; Costanza et al., 2009). The GDP measures
only financial transactions in formal markets and renders other economic activities—
including slave labor and subsistence work—invisible. What the charts in Figure 2 clearly
demonstrate is the enormous contribution slave labor made in kick-starting the U.S.

Comparing Current Value of Historical Reparations Proposals

The top panel of Figure 3 provides a comparison of all reparations policies discussed
in this article, both historical and proposed (black bars). Estimates are in 2009 dollars
to facilitate comparison with the Bush/Obama stimulus packages of 2008/2009 (white
bars). The stimulus packages represent a baseline of comparison for large government
expenditures that have proven politically feasible despite their lack of popularity. The


Social Science Quarterly

Bush/Obama stimulus packages combine the Economic Stimulus Act worth $152 billion,
signed into law by President George W. Bush on February 13, 2008, the Emergency
Economic Stabilization Act worth $700 billion, signed into law by President Bush on
October 3, 2008, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act worth $787 billion,
signed into law by President Barack Obama on February 17, 2009. The total amount of the
stimulus packages exceeds $1.6 trillion. As a further baseline of comparison, the right-most
bars in Figure 3 provide the 2009 U.S. GDP.
The French spoliation awards as of 1910, the demanded repayment of Haiti’s independence debt as estimated in 2004, and the U.S. slavery reparations estimates of Ransom and
Such (1990) fall substantially below the 2008/2009 stimulus packages, while Neal’s (1990)
and Marketti’s (1990) estimates based on slave prices, as well as Scenarios 1 and 2 based on
historical hourly wages (computed at 3 percent interest), fall substantially above. In fact,
Scenario 2, which counts 24 hours a day and seven days a week without age restrictions on
“billable hours,” rivals the entire 2009 U.S. GDP (see top panel of Figure 3). Reparations
demands based on national income estimates are not without precedent. The independence
debt France demanded of Haiti was carefully calculated to represent 10 times the national
income of Haiti. Beauvais (2009) writes about how France arrived at the demand of a 150
million francs “indemnity”: “Following the order of 17 April, a commission responsible for
reviewing Haiti’s income [was] appointed on September 1, 1825. Based on Haitian exports
figures in 1823 . . . the commission concluded . . . that Haiti’s annual net income [was]
15 million. Thus, France claimed an indemnity amounting to 10 years of net national
income” (Beauvois, 2009:116, translation TC).
Of course, comparing stimulus packages to reparations policies seems odd. First, reparations policies aim at compensating for bad past behavior, while stimulus packages are
oriented toward future economic growth (although they could also be viewed as rewarding
bad past behavior). Some of the stimulus amounts (e.g., TARP as part of the Emergency
Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, signed by President Bush on October 3, 2008) require repayment by the corporations that received them. This would not be the case
with slavery reparations. However, this could be viewed as a mere reversal in the sequence in which payments are made. In the case of TARP, the government advanced
capital to be repaid by private corporations. In the case of slavery reparations, slaves
were the ones who provided the stimulus package (start-up capital for the U.S. economy) and reparations would represent repayment albeit with a long delay. At the same
time, however, they may provide the U.S. economy with an important stimulus for future
The bottom panel of Figure 3 presents the total estimated amounts from the top panel
divided by the number of claimants or their heirs. The French spoliation claims awarded
were distributed among 282 recipients, while 7,900 claimants and heirs are listed in the Etat
D´etaill´e (1828) as recipients for Haiti’s independence debt (former French slave owners
and their heirs). As potential recipients for slavery reparations, I use the census estimate
for the number of African Americans in 2006–2008, and for the Bush/Obama stimulus
packages of 2008/2009, I use the total U.S. population estimate. This presentation format
suggests that individual claimants or heirs in the two historical examples, the French
spoliation claims and the Haitian independence debt, claimed or received substantially
larger per capita reparations awards than would be the case for African Americans even
under the most liberal reparations estimate considered here (Scenario 2 at 3 percent

Estimating Slavery Reparations


Conclusion and Discussion

Neither the problems nor the solutions associated with multigenerational reparations
policies are new. Both the French spoliation claims and Haiti’s independence debt suggest
that individual-level multigenerational reparations claims can be traced over long periods
of time given the political will. They also illustrate that legal processes alone are insufficient unless political opposition can be overcome. In both cases, reparations were paid
as a result of lengthy political processes involving multiple countervailing interests and
The French spoliation case demonstrates how individual-level claims between American
ship owners and French privateers were assumed by the federal government based on the
Fifth Amendment. The idea was that by relieving the French government from having
to pay fair compensation, the federal government of the United States had assumed the
debt. By devising a Constitution that relieved slave owners from having to compensate
fellow human beings whose “unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”
had been recognized in the Declaration of Independence (1776), the federal government
similarly assumed the debt owed them.5 By giving slave owners title to their slaves’ time,
the government took private property to kick-start the U.S. economy. VanDyke (2003:62)
writes: “it is appropriate and necessary to characterize [the] claim for reparations based
on the slave experience as a property claim, protected by the Fifth Amendment of the
United States Constitution, and cognizable in courts of law.” The same argument had been
made in the French spoliation case not only by Senator Sumner, but also by Chief Justice
John Marshall, Secretary of State and Senator Henry Clay, Secretary of State and Senator
Edward Livingston, as well as Secretary of State and Senator Daniel Webster. Sumner
stated emphatically: “Here ‘private property,’ to a vast amount, was taken for ‘public use,’
involving the . . . welfare of the whole country” (Sumner cited in Scattergood and Henry,
1910:83–84, 114).
Besides legal obstacles, the passage of time also creates empirical problems of how to
adequately estimate the magnitude of the debt. Sufficient historical documentation exists to
derive reasonable current value estimates but estimations based on free-market assumptions
may have rendered past estimates too conservative (Marketti, 1990; Neal, 1990; Ransom
and Sutch, 1990). They overlook productive activities that slaves were forced to perform
for their own subsistence and their master’s support and that were never exchanged on
a market for currency. Using an alternative estimation method based on the number of
unremunerated work hours multiplied with historical free labor market wages I arrive at
current value estimates for U.S. slave labor (at 3 percent interest) ranging from $5.9 to
$14.2 trillion in 2009 dollars.
The sheer magnitude of the claims arising from slavery raises questions about the political feasibility of slavery reparations. The analysis of historical precedents suggests that
political processes are central to multigenerational reparations cases. In a democracy, this
places a great weight on public opinion. Research on public opinion in the United States
shows that slavery reparations proposals tend to elicit significantly more public opposition
than support (Craemer, 2009a). However, this opposition is not unqualified; reparations
proposals that specify a potential provider’s and a potential recipient’s connection to slavery
tend to receive significantly more support than more general reparations proposals (Craemer, 2009a, 2009b). This suggests that support for slavery reparations might grow to the
Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution (2011) establishes not only slavery but, by referring to
slaves as “persons,” it also establishes the personhood of slaves. The Fifth Amendment applies to all persons,
rendering the slave’s time one property with two government-recognized owners.


Social Science Quarterly

extent that the slaves’ contribution to the U.S. economy is better understood. That estates
accumulated through slave labor continue to earn compound interest without benefiting
slave descendants directly is an important part of that understanding.
That massive spending is possible despite popular skepticism was illustrated by the
stimulus packages of 2008 and 2009—they represented government expenditures with
the goal of stimulating the economy. While the purpose of stimulating the economy was
viewed as being in the general interest, the idea of rewarding bad behavior was unpopular.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll conducted in September 2008 suggested that 79 percent
of respondents favored government action, but 77 percent “also said they believed that a
government bail-out would benefit those responsible for the economic downturn in the
first place” (Musante, 2008). A slavery reparations package may provide the same general
benefit of stimulating the economy, without the odious reward of bad behavior.
As the analyses presented here suggest, the total debt from unpaid wages would likely
be substantially larger than the 2008/2009 stimulus packages. What scenario and what
interest rate it should be based on, whether paid in full or up to a certain limit, and based
on what eligibility criteria is up to the political process to decide. When Sumner argued for
the payment of the French spoliation claims in 1864, the United States faced not just an
economic crisis, but with the Civil War a struggle for its very survival. Sumner stated: “The
resources of the people are now tasked to put down the rebellion. Let nothing be stinted.
But there is another duty which must not be forgotten. The just debts of the Republic
must be paid to the last dollar. Here also nothing must be stinted . . . The Republic will
have new title to love at home and honor abroad, when with one hand it overcomes the
rebellion now menacing its existence, and with the other does justice to ancient petitioners,
long neglected” (Sumner cited in Scattergood and Henry, 1910:67).
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