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Capitalism and Slavery and the Civil War

  • James Oakes (a1)

They push in different directions, these two great debates. The first, on the relationship between capitalism and slavery, invites us to consider how closely the two systems were connected, to the point where more and more scholars argue that slavery itself was a form of capitalism. The second, on the origins of the American Civil War, highlights the fundamental difference and growing divergence between the free labor system of the North and the slave society of the South, to the point where some scholars see an irreconcilable conflict between the two. Can these competing tendencies be reconciled? Is it possible to define southern slavery as essentially “capitalist” without losing sight of the crucial distinctions between free and enslaved labor? A number of recent books suggest that scholars have begun to recognize the problem but have not quite figured out how to solve it.

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1. The classic account and starting point for all modern discussions is Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, 1944). Two important collection of essays capture much of the debate aroused by Williams: Barbara L. Solow and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams (Cambridge, 1987); Joseph E. Inikori and Stanley L. Engerman, eds., The Atlantic Slave Trade: Effects on Economies, Societies, and Peoples in Africa, the Americas, and Europe (Durham, NC, 1992). The quotation is from Solow, “Caribbean Slavery and the Industrial Revolution,” in Solow and Engerman, British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery, 72. My own thinking is close to Robin Blackburn, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (London, 2011), especially chapter 4, where Blackburn emphasizes that the capitalist transformation of the countryside preceded the Industrial Revolution without denying the various ways that slavery stimulated the growth of British industry.

A different tradition, derived from Max Weber, explains Europe's, and especially England's, economic divergence as a product of political and cultural rationalization. For recent examples of such cultural explanations, see Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: Britain and the Industrial Revolution, 1700–1850 (London, 2009); Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World (Chicago, 2010). This approach has not gone uncontested, particularly by scholars more familiar with the histories of India and China. See, for example, C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World: 1780–1914 (Malden, MA, 2003); Prasannan Parthasarathi, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600–1800 (Cambridge, 2011). For the global perspective see, among many others, Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, 2001).

2. Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, 2001); Parthasarathi, Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not.

3. The most sustained defense of the classic “Williams Thesis” is undoubtedly Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (Cambridge, 2002). From a very different perspective Ronald Findlay nevertheless endorses the Williams thesis in Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. O'Rourke, Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium (Princeton, 2007), 344–347.

4. Maurice Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (New York, 1947); Rodney Hilton, Introduction to The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (London, 1976); T. H. Aston and C. H. E. Philpin, eds., The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge, 1985); Robert Brenner, “Property and Progress: Where Adam Smith Went Wrong,” in Marxist History-Writing for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Chris Wickham (Oxford, 2007), 49–111. With the partial exception of Eric Hobsbawm (see below), the transition debates were largely oblivious to the problem posed by the rise of New World slavery. Conversely, where Eric Williams was careful to define slavery in precise terms, he made no attempt to say what he meant by “capitalism.” Not until Robin Blackburn and Joseph Inikori engaged the problem did the two debates effectively merge.

5. Hilton, R. H., “Capitalism—What's in a Name,” Past & Present 1 (1962): 3243 , at 40.

6. Jan DeVries, The Economy of Europe in the Age of Crisis, 1600–1750 (Cambridge, 1976), especially 75–82, 113–46 (quotations are from 145). See also Jan De Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present (Cambridge, 2008).

7. Scholars who uncovered a “consumer revolution” in the eighteenth century largely ignored the fact that many of the “goods” consumed were produced by slaves. A pioneering exception is Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York, 1985). At the time he was writing nobody questioned Williams' emphasis on sugar plantations, but recently scholars have suggested that cotton was more important.

8. Eric Hobsbawm, “From Feudalism to Capitalism,” in The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, ed. Hilton et al., 163–64, originally published in Marxism Today (August 1962). For Hobsbawm it was but a short step to world-systems theory, which sees the capitalist “core” and the underdeveloped periphery as interconnected parts of a larger capitalist “system.” The difference is that for Hobsbawm the capitalist transformation of the English countryside necessarily preceded the creation of the world system.

9. Brenner, Robert and Isett, Christopher, “England's Divergence from China's Yangzi Delta: Property Relations, Microeconomics, and Patterns of Development,” The Journal of Asian Studies 61 (2002), 609–62.

10. Gavin Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1978). On the role of debt in the slave economy, see Clegg, John J., “Slavery and Capitalism,” Critical Historical Studies 2 (2015), 281304 .

11. David Weiman, “The First Land Boom in the Antebellum United States: Was the South Different?” in Structures and Dynamics of Exploitations: Studies in Social and Economic History, vol. 5, ed. Erik Aerts (Louvain, 1990), 27–39; Gavin Wright, Slavery and American Economic Development (Baton Rouge, 2006).

12. Robert E. Gallman, “Self-Sufficiency in the Cotton Economy of the Antebellum South,” in The Structure of the Cotton Economy of the Antebellum South, ed. William N. Parker (Washington, D.C., 1970), 5–23. Self-sufficiency in foodstuffs did not preclude significant southern purchases of shoes, clothing, or farm implements from the North, though these southern purchases represented a relatively small and declining proportions of sales. If we assume that slaves on southern plantations wore as many shoes as workers in Chicago or New York—that is, in proportion to the number of slaves in the US population—it would mean that purchases for slaves accounted for about eleven percent of the shoes manufactured in the North. That proportion was shrinking over time because northern population growth outpaced southern growth. When factory owners in New England mechanized production in the 1850s, they did so in response to the rapidly expanding northern market, not the declining southern market.

13. Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York, 1989), 78–79.

14. Philip D. Morgan, “Task and Gang Systems: The Organization of Labor on New World Plantations,” in Work and Labor in Early America, ed. I. Stephen Innes (Chapel Hill, 1988), 189–220; John Hebron Moore, The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest: Mississippi, 1770–1860 (Baton Rouge, 1988); Peter Coclanis, “How the Low Country Was Taken to Task,” in Slavery, Secession, and Southern History, ed. Robert Louis Paquette and Louis A. Ferleger (Charlottesville, VA, 2000), 59–78.

15. Alan L. Olmsted and Paul W. Rhode, Creating Abundance: Agricultural Innovation and American Agricultural Development (Cambridge, 2008).

16. Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life in Jamaica and Virginia (Cambridge, MA, 2014), 297–98.

17. There is now an impressive body of scholarship demonstrating that the capitalist transformation of the North began in the countryside. For a lucid summary of the scholarly debate, see Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1620–1877 (Chicago, 2011), 37–102. See also David R. Meyer, The Roots of American Industrialization: Creating the North American Landscape (Baltimore, 2003).

18. Robert J. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870 (Chapel Hill, 1991); Gavin Wright, Slavery and American Economic Development (Baton Rouge, 2006), 49–55 (quotation on 123).

19. No doubt the southern trade had been vitally important to the northern colonies in the eighteenth century, but by the American Revolution the focus of northern commerce had already shifted away from the Caribbean trade to the trans-Atlantic trade with Great Britain.

20. Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, 1976), 151–54.

21. Richard Holcombe Kilbourne, Jr., Debt, Investment, Slaves: Credit Relations in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, 1825–1885 (Tuscaloosa, AL, 1995); Martin, Bonnie, “Slavery's Invisible Engine: Mortgaging Human Property,” Journal of Southern History 76 (2010): 817–66. Research indicates that a majority of the mortgages on slaves were personal loans between neighbors.

22. Though he relies less on vulgarity than Johnson and Baptist, Beckert does not resist the urge to make up new words for familiar things. He replaces “merchant capitalism” with “war capitalism,” for example, without explaining why or what difference it makes. Here I stick to “merchant capitalism,” the term widely used by scholars.

23. Parthasarathi, Why Europe Developed; Giorgio Riello, Cotton: The Fabric the Made the Modern World (Cambridge, 2013).

24. E. J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day (Harmondsworth, 1968), 20–21. For a more recent reaffirmation of the point, see Post, The American Road to Capitalism, 30–31.

25. Robert E. Lipsey, “U.S. Foreign Trade and the Balance of Payments, 1800–1913,” in The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, vol. 2, The Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Stanley Engerman and Robert Gallman (Cambridge, 2000), 685–732. Lipsey calculates that exports accounted for six percent of the GDP in the first half of the nineteenth century.

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International Labor and Working-Class History
  • ISSN: 0147-5479
  • EISSN: 1471-6445
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