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Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development

Editor(s):Beckert, Sven
Rockman, Seth
Reviewer(s):Wright, Gavin

Published by EH.Net (March 2017)

Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, editors, Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.  viii + 406 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8122-4841-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gavin Wright, Department of Economics, Stanford University.

In case any economic historian has been asleep or on Mars for the past three years, you may want to know that the economics-of-slavery culture wars have broken out again.  Though only a pale shadow of the dust-up we had back in the 1970s, the aggressive assertions of the “new history of capitalism” regarding the centrality of slavery for U.S. economic development, and critiques of this work by economic historians, have generated much commotion in academic circles, including numerous review articles and a lengthy survey in The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 8, 2016). The present volume is a manifesto of sorts for the slavery wing of the NHC insurgency, originating in a conference at Brown University (co-sponsored by Harvard) in 2011.

The claims of the editors for the new history of capitalism and slavery are not modest.  The opening sentence of the Introduction reads: “During the eighty years between the American Revolution and the Civil War, slavery was indispensable to the economic development of the United States” (p. 1).  They acknowledge that “the argument is more easily asserted than substantiated” (p. 3), but this cautionary note does not deter them from announcing the “impossibility of understanding the nation’s spectacular pattern of economic development without situating slavery front and center” (p. 27).  The publisher’s summary of the book (presumably approved by the editors) deploys even more extravagant language, declaring that the book “identifies slavery as the primary force driving key innovations in entrepreneurship, finance, accounting, management, and political economy,” “the originating catalyst for the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism” (University of Pennsylvania Press web site).

Having thus allowed the editors to dig their own rhetorical graves, let me urge economic history readers not to overreact to the bluster and bombast.  After decades of untouchability, the new interest in economic aspects of slavery on the part of younger scholars is a good thing, an opportunity for cross-disciplinary learning and cooperation.  Scholars from different disciplines will inevitably differ in their framing of the issues, their choice of language and styles of historical writing, but there is no deep reason here for an ideological Great Divergence regarding slavery.  Suffice it to say here that virtually none of the claims in the preceding paragraph are supported in any substantial way by the research presented in the volume. But most of the writers do not seem committed to this agenda anyway.  It is unfortunate that historians pursuing original inquiries on slavery-related topics have been persuaded to present their work as apparent disciples of a militant insurgency.  But there is no intellectual gain in recasting this historical project as a team sport.

Putting the editors’ introduction aside, only the chapter by Edward E. Baptist stands out for tendentious claims in support of a preconceived agenda.  Here Baptist is somewhat defensive, his book having been roundly criticized by Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode for inventing the term “pushing system,” neglecting improvements in cotton varieties, and misusing historical sources, including the WPA slave narratives.  But this does not stop Baptist from adding a few more half-baked morsels to his mélange.  Among many candidates, most irksome to this reviewer is this one: “The three million white people in the cotton states were per capita the richest people in the United States, and probably the richest group of people of that size in the world” (p. 36). A footnote cites James Huston’s Calculating the Value of the Union (the whole book) and p. 87 of Robert Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract.  The statement gets the population wrong, conflates wealth with income, ignores the widening gap between slave owners and non-owners, and aggregates real and slave property.  To be sure, the value of slave property was very real to the owners. The essential point is that the South was the wealthiest region in the nation when slave values are included, but the poorest when they are not.  (See Gavin Wright, Slavery and American Economic Development, p. 60.)  This deficiency, coupled with the failure to invest in education and infrastructure — not the purported decline in plantation productivity (p. 43) — explains the emergence of southern economic backwardness when slavery was abolished.

Because the Baptist debate is ongoing, it will not be pursued further here.  Following my own injunction to accentuate the positive, let me recommend the chapters by Caitlin Rosenthal on accounting practices on slave plantations; by Daina Ramey Berry on attitudes toward life and death in the shadow of slave markets; by Calvin Schermerhorn on the entwining of financial and mercantile interests in the coastwise slave trade; by Craig Steven Wilder on the role of slavery in financing Catholic colleges in the Age of Revolution; by Alfred L. Brophy on “proslavery instrumentalism” in legal thought; and by Andrew Shankman on Matthew Carey’s embrace of slavery in formulating his Whig political economy for the nation.  Independent scholar Bonnie Martin has performed extraordinary labor compiling records on slave mortgages from county deed books, and here she adds 10,000 additional loans to her previous collection (Journal of Southern History, November 2010).  One hopes that these data will at some point be put to use by economic historians.  Here, unfortunately, Martin struggles to draw interesting conclusions from her evidence.  She suggests that “an image of capitalistic sophistication … runs counter to the traditional assumptions about the economy of the South,” (p. 119) appending a footnote including no less than three books by the current reviewer.  Since none of these books advance any claims about the “lack of sophistication in the southern economy” — quite the contrary — one can only conclude that the author is grasping for straws.

Let me call particular attention to the chapters by Daniel B. Rood and by John Majewski, which should be read conjointly.  Rood writes about the slave-using wheat farms of Virginia, building on his earlier article on that topic (Journal of American History, June 2014).  The particular focus here is the invention of the reaper by Cyrus McCormick on his father’s wheat farm in the Shenandoah Valley.  The reaper’s Virginia origins are well-known to economic historians, but Rood asks us to see this “quintessentially American machine as a Creole artifact, a tropical technology, and, more than anything, a product of Atlantic slavery” (p. 87).   According to Rood’s account, pressure to mechanize came from a premium on speed in marketing, which arose as planters sought the patronage of new mills in Richmond, producing flour for the Brazilian market.  Rood is persuasive in describing the “pools of expertise and the plantation laboratory” (p. 94) in Virginia, including the contribution of skilled slaves.  (Oddly, there is no citation to Charles Dew’s Bond of Iron [1994], which discusses Virginia’s skilled slave machinists in considerable detail.)  What he does not come to grips with is the fact that the reaper did not diffuse rapidly in Virginia, which McCormick largely abandoned after 1845, moving into what he knew to be a more promising market for mechanical implements in the Midwest.  Obed Hussey, McCormick’s arch-rival in mechanical reaping, had been there all along.

Majewski, the only card-carrying economic historian in the group, also shows the compatibility between slavery and a “thriving, diversified economy,” (p. 279) focusing on what he calls the Limestone South, a fertile alfisol area encompassing Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and Tennessee’s Nashville Basin.  According to Majewski, the decisive feature differentiating the Limestone South from the free states was the absence of support for public schools, a consequence of slaveholders’ stranglehold on state politics.  Majewski argues that this stark difference in access to educational opportunity helps to explain northern opposition to the expansion of slavery.  He quotes Abraham Lincoln: “Free Labor insists on universal education,” but evidently the first step toward this goal was to keep large slaveholders out.

The book’s broad characterization of slave owners as calculating, acquisitive, financially sophisticated and linked to international networks, is not one that economic historians will be inclined to object to, in large part because we have been arguing along similar lines for decades.  The striking divergence between slave and free states, on the other hand, in the geography of settlement, population growth, urbanization, schooling, and politics (a partial list) cries out for more intensive study by historians of all types.  With only occasional exceptions, that major topic is largely missing from the volume under review.  One thing seems certain: calling one region or the other “capitalist” will not contribute much to historical understanding.

Gavin Wright is William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History Emeritus at Stanford University. His book, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, will be issued in paperback by Harvard University Press in the Fall of 2017.

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Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century