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Unfree Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina

Author(s):Hill Edwards, Justene
Reviewer(s):Byrne, Frank J.

Published by EH.Net (January 2022).

Justene Hill Edwards. Unfree Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina. Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. Vii + 260 pp. $145.00 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-2311-9112-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Frank J. Byrne, Professor of History, State University of New York at Oswego.


Unfree Markets: The Slaves’ Economy and the Rise of Capitalism in South Carolina by Justene Hill Edwards is a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on capitalism and slavery in the United States. Both building upon and complementing the work of Sven Beckert, Edward E. Baptist, Kathleen Hilliard, and more recently Alexandra J. Finley, Hill Edwards argues convincingly that the commercial activity of enslaved people in South Carolina was critical to the state’s economy. Yet this trade not only did not lead to greater freedom for the enslaved, but “only entrenched them even more deeply within the institution of slavery” (p. 4). Whether selling crops or animals, hiring themselves out, or engaging in other money-making ventures, the services the enslaved offered and what money they could make was typically welcomed by slaveholders as helping “safeguard their investments in slavery” (p. 18).

Hill Edwards finds evidence supporting her case in seventeenth-century colonial South Carolina. Many of the first planters in the colony migrated from Barbados, where slaves had already established themselves as economic actors. This tradition, now transplanted in coastal South Carolina, was bolstered by the unique work regime that came to shape rice and indigo production in the colony. Hill Edwards contends that “without the task system, enslaved peoples’ networks of commerce would not have taken such a strong foothold in the culture of Lowcountry slavery” (p. 26). Of course, not all white South Carolinians welcomed enslaved men and women selling what crops they could grow or the competition skilled slaves presented to mechanics and artisans. Some planters feared their slaves trafficked in stolen goods. Others believed such economic activity would inevitably lead to the enslaved gaining freedoms that would threaten white supremacy. Regulations were passed prohibiting trade and limiting the growth of slave hires but Hill Edwards shows that time and again such efforts had only a negligible impact on the “slaves’ economy.” Even the uproar over the Stono Uprising of 1739 did not curtail the economic activity of enslaved South Carolinians. This trend continued after independence and into the antebellum period.

Several chapters in Unfree Markets examine “enslaved entrepreneurship” and accumulation in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Hill Edwards asserts that the commercial activity of enslaved people continued to grow alongside increased cotton production. A particularly strong chapter on the Denmark Vesey conspiracy illustrates that white fears of violence were likely heightened by “the subversive reality of slaves with access to money and the purchasing power of their labor” (p. 108). The majority of the 135 African Americans tried by Charleston magistrates worked as hired-out laborers, mainly in the mechanical trades. Despite the alarm over slave insurrections, slaveholders became more fixated on increasing the “productivity” of the enslaved and putting “their economic skills to good use” (p. 129). Hill Edwards argues that the use of more modern accounting methods was just one tool used to more fully incorporate the “slaves’ economy” within the expanding capitalist economy of South Carolina. She emphasizes, however, that regardless of the amount of commercial activity enslaved men and women conducted, the prospect of gaining their freedom was fleeting. Hill Edwards takes her analysis to the outbreak of the Civil War with a conclusion that touches upon the turmoil of the “slaves’ economy” in wartime South Carolina.

A great deal of research informs Unfree Markets. Nevertheless, much of the evidence Hill Edwards relies upon is fragmentary and anecdotal, which makes assessing the scale of the “slaves’ economy” difficult. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the source base. Hill Edwards does make excellent use of court records, petitions, and available slave narratives. More attention to the very different slave regimes in Lowcountry and Upcountry South Carolina would have enhanced her analysis. Undoubtedly the dearth of sources from the perspective of enslaved men and women made this challenging. Unfree Markets is a clearly written, persuasive study that will appeal to anyone interested in slavery, early capitalism, and the antebellum South.


Frank J. Byrne is Professor of History at the State University of New York at Oswego. His research specialty is nineteenth-century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the antebellum South.

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