Slavery and Capitalism

Against the Current, No. 197, November/December 2018

Dick J. Reavis

Slavery’s Capitalism:
A New History of American Economic Development
Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, editors
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 402 pages, $27.50 paperback.

SLAVERY’S CAPITALISM DOES not live up to its subtitle, A New History of American Economic Development. Rather, this is a collection of loosely-related chapters by a dozen scholars to the findings of its co-editor, Sven Beckert, in his 2014 masterwork, Empire of Cotton: A Global History.

Beckert’s book pictured slavery not as an inefficient, anachronistic or throwback practice, but as a cornerstone of the modern world. Before its publication, historians commonly regarded American slavery as Marx did. They pictured it as an inefficient method of production.

What Beckert showed was that what­ever its economic downsides, slavery supplied lenders in New York and London with fat revenues. If slavery retarded the development of the South, it also greased capital investment in Manchester and New England. The textile industry, which pioneered mass production, arose on the basis of cheap cotton and cheap credit.

In Beckert’s telling, antebellum cotton production in the United States, especially after 1820, also was not, as received wisdom would have it, an undertaking of aristocratic planters, but of hustlers. It was a boom-and-bust business, marked by the kind of volatility we today associate with oil.

Wide Explorations

Slavery’s Capitalism explores the economics of American slavery, although like Empire of Cotton it doesn’t fully account for the effects of slavery on the South. It includes chapters on accounting, mechanization, credit and law.

Its articles delve into mortgages for slaves, insurance policies issued upon their lives, and even the consequences of suicide by bondspeople. It exposes New England and the sons of the Founding Fathers, men like John Quincy Adams who navigated foreign bans and restrictions to introduce slave-produced cotton to the world. It implicates Georgetown University and other now-revered institutions for playing hands in this ghastly game, and outlines the connections between American slavers and those in Cuba and the West Indies.

The book is of uneven quality, both in its writing and its content. One chapter is devoted to the proposals of a forgotten economist, Mathew Carey, for wedding the industrializing north to the agrarian South. His wishful scheme’s outcome, had it been workable, might have prevented both the Civil War — and the end of slavery.

The most readable chapter is the 25-page “The Contours of Cotton Capital­ism: Speculation, Slavery, and Economic Panic in Mississippi, 1832-1841” by University of Alabama professor Joshua Rothman. Its scenes and story structure are reminiscent of the oilfield boom depicted in the movie Giant — or accounts of Silicon Valley today.

It is chocked full with quotations from contemporary observers like Joseph Baldwin, a Virginia lawyer, who sized-up Mississippi after an 1836 trip. “’Money, or what passed for money,’ Baldwin remembered, was ‘the only cheap thing to be had’ and real estate costs ‘rose like smoke.’ … Men accumulated ‘paper fortunes’ and imagined instant riches at ‘every cross-road and every avocation.’” (125) ‘“I like this country,’” a settler wrote home to North Carolina, “’better than any country I have evry yet seen for making money.’” (128)

Fighting Slavery Expansion

The book’s most substantive chapter is probably “Why Did Northerners Oppose the Expansion of Slavery? Economic Development and Education in the Lime­stone South.”

Its author, John Majewski of UC Santa Barbara, opens by noting that the lands beneath the cleared pine forests of the Deep South were not ideally suited for cotton. From the antebellum states he picks three regions that never existed as political entities but shared soil characteristics similar to those of Ohio.

Comparing the economies of Ohio and “the Limestone South” he finds startling similarities, but one great difference. Both Ohio and the Limestone South were prosperous, populated and fairly urbanized by the mid-19th century. But, he says, “… Slavery created a political economy antithetical to long-term development.”(279)

Majewski finds its failure in a dearth of invention and its mother, education. “In 1860 alone,” he reports, “Ohioans filed 329 patents, or about 141 per million residents. Despite having a similar economic structure as Ohio, the residents of the Limestone South filed for 52 patents, or about 50 per million residents.” (292-293) Figures for the rest of the South were presumably lower than that.

Inventors of the era needed to know at least how to calculate fractions and decimal points, skills that were — and still are — imparted by elementary schools. But slaveholding planters, who dictated politics in the antebellum South, were, unlike Ohioans, averse to taxes for public education.

When Kentucky in 1798 authorized a public school for each of its counties, it funded them only by granting land to local trustees, who then divided and sold those tracts. The sales usually brought in enough cash to build schoolhouses.

“Tuition provided revenue for operating expenses (mostly the salaries of the teachers), but was well beyond the means of most ordinary families…” (288) As late as 1847 a mere two percent of children in the Bluegrass region — a sector of Majewski’s Limestone South — attended common schools. (289)

But Slavery’s Capitalism, like most scholarly works before and since Beckert’s Empire, has little else to say about workaday whites in slavery’s locales. This weakness shows even in Rothman’s chapter on Mississippi, which gives the impression that any white male could borrow his way into the cotton-and-slavery game.

If that was true, for reasons that remain without an explanation, millions of Southern whites took a pass. Only a quarter of them owned slaves, let alone the 20 or more bondsmen that defined planter status.

The failure to fully account for the class structure of the antebellum South is evident even in Rothman’s truly exciting Mississippi chapter. For example, within two pages he refers ten times to slave buyers as “white Mississippians,” “whites,” or “Mississippians” (130-131) — as if most of the white population engaged in the slave trade.

Slavery stunted the white South in dozens of ways perhaps first enumerated in 1860 by Rowan Hinton Helper, a University of North Carolina professor who, although an abolitionist, was unfortunately also a send-‘em-back-to-Africa racist.

“The lords of the lash,” Helper wrote: “are not only absolute masters of the blacks, who are bought and sold, and driven about like so many cattle, but they are also the oracles and arbiters of all non-slaveholding whites, whose freedom is merely nominal, and whose unparalleled illiteracy and degradation is purposely and fiendishly perpetuated.”

While Majewski pays attention to the stunting of Southern education and innovation, only by implication does he answer the question its subtitle raises, “Why Did Northerners Oppose the Expansion of Slavery?” The ostensible reason is simply that they had no reason to favor it. Immigrants did not pour into the South, because its narrow commercial and industrial base did not offer jobs for them.

In those days, a worker in New England might have thought of moving westward to Ohio, but nothing drew urban workers southward. Even the rough cotton in which planters clothed their slaves was produced in Northeastern mills.

Legacy of Backwardness

The economic and political backwardness of Helper’s day still echoes in Dixie, even in its sharply-peaked class pyramid. Need anybody mention the Waltons of the chronically-poor state of Arkansas?

Antebellum Dixie’s railroad network did not, as industrialization would have required, connect cities to each other, but instead linked hinterland cotton depots to ports.

While both Empire of Cotton and Slavery’s Capitalism report that cotton became the nation’s leading export, neither tells us, as Helper did, that, “the hay crop of the free states is worth considerably more in dollars than all of the cotton, tobacco, rice, hay and hemp produced in the fifteen slave States.”

Empire of Cotton and Slavery’s Capitalism also fail to tell us how much cotton was produced by slaves and how much by yeomen, the Southern whites whose prosperity was hemmed-in by the need to compete with slave-labor plantations.

Slavery’s Capitalism adds bankers, lawyers, shipping magnates and even clergymen to the cast of the bitter drama of slavery, but still leaves yeomen, independent craftsmen and white longshoremen offstage.

November-December 2018, ATC 197