Commodities and Agents in the History of Slavery

This contribution to the forum comes from Justin Leroy, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at UC-Davis. Prior to joining UC Davis in 2016, he was a postdoctoral fellow in global American studies at Harvard University. He is at work on his first book, Freedom’s Limit: Racial Capitalism and the Afterlives of Slavery.

Slavery's CapitalismSlavery’s Capitalism offers a tremendous amount of evidence to support what scholars of slavery have long known—that slavery underwrote nearly every aspect of American economic development for over two centuries. These essays provide unprecedented detail about the precise workings of slavery’s role in the rise of American capitalism and will inspire many future research projects. Beckert and Rockman’s introduction is an ambitious piece of historiography, drawing together a diverse array of subfields and intellectual debates. Work such as Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism and Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic, while key texts for interdisciplinary scholars working on questions of racial capitalism, are not often acknowledged by historians of the “new history of capitalism.” The introduction’s scope makes it an excellent primer for specialists and non-specialists alike. It is the most comprehensive of the recent review essays on slavery and capitalism, yet the breadth of this introduction is not matched by the essays within.

Although there is much Slavery’s Capitalism does well, it has several major shortcomings. Gender is almost entirely absent. Of course, women both black and white make sporadic appearances, and it would be impossible to write such a volume without at least passing reference to the sexual violence of slavery. But nowhere is there a sustained gender analysis. One might conclude that the cultural construction of white men’s expert knowledge or the reproductive labor required to sustain slavery do not contribute significantly to our understanding of slavery’s economic dimensions. This is more than an error of omission—such an absence perpetuates the myth that the social and cultural are to be subordinated to the economic, and that these things are discrete fields of analysis to begin with. Similarly, black people are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere in the volume. With few noteworthy exceptions, the authors do not challenge the notion of the enslaved as mere commodities. Rarely are they historical actors who did or thought anything that might be worth dwelling on. Daina Ramey Berry’s essay is the chief exception; Berry argues that the enslaved understood how important their labor was to the engine of capitalism, and that they used suicide (what she calls self-destruction) as a political act of sabotage. Yet the majority of the volume is filled with narratives about white men who disguised ineptitude, cruelty, and deceit as business expertise. While none of the authors are sympathetic to these subjects, the cumulative suggestion is that the study of these white men is the best way to write the history of capitalism and slavery.

Despite the editors’ assertion that we know little about the precise, quantitative workings of capitalism’s relationship to slavery, no serious scholar of slavery or the nineteenth-century United States would dispute the fact that slavery was crucial to the nation’s economic development. Thus in the end, I was left wondering what is at stake here? What exactly does all of this new evidence do? Part of the answer is self-evident—it strengthens our arguments and opens new avenues for research. But does this evidence fundamentally transform the way we think about slavery and capitalism? I’m not quite sure. For example, although I learned much about the various financial tools that emerged from slavery, I was left wishing the authors made stronger arguments about how those tools should recast our understanding of the history of finance and the history of slavery writ large. In particular I wanted to find here arguments about how uncovering evidence about slavery’s role in American capitalism challenges us to think about the legacy of slavery in new ways.

Those arguments would necessarily admit the deeply ideological nature of history writing. Such an admission might have been beyond the scope of the volume or the desires of the authors. But we must remember that the long, controversial historiography of this field, from Eric Williams and his detractors onward, has largely been a debate between ideology and quantitative evidence. Put another way, it has been an extended debate on how liberal ideological arguments shroud themselves with the legitimacy of numbers in order to delegitimize a radical critique of modernity. Take the recent example of Judith Carney, who argued in Black Rice that African women’s indigenous agricultural knowledge was crucial to the economic development of the Carolinas. Her findings were summarily dismissed by several prominent scholars in an article titled “The African Contribution to Rice Cultivation in the Americas.” The argument against Carney was couched in numbers and statistics, yet one can’t help but wonder if what was really at stake is that a part of the historical profession simply cannot accept the possibility that black knowledge—black women’s knowledge at that—might have profoundly shaped the course of history. We are more comfortable confining the importance of the enslaved to implementations of their master’s will, however repugnant that implementation might have been. Even for all it does well, Slavery’s Capitalism misses the opportunity to tackle the most longstanding intellectual problems of the field.

One response

  1. “no serious scholar of slavery or the nineteenth-century United States would dispute the fact that slavery was crucial to the nation’s economic development.”

    I haven’t looked at this volume yet but the word ‘crucial’ as used by historians is always so problematic. At least in the case of the British industrial revolution the arguments about the contribution of slavery (whether American or Caribbean) are clear, well-stated, and amply aired in the various debates in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s surrounding the Williams thesis. You cannot get any clearer than Joseph Inikori’s massive work.

    However, the case for the role of slavery in US economic development is much less precisely stated. Take for example this quick review by Brad Hansen:

    Here is the relevant bit:

    “Several of the authors [of Slavery’s Capitalism] run into problems when they try to make claims about the relative importance of slavery to American economic growth. The problems stem from the desire to show that slavery was not just “a” significant or important part of the economy, but was instead “everything” to New England, or “indispensable” to American economic growth. These claims tend to emphasize the role of slavery in international trade, which was large. The problem is that international trade itself was not a large part of the economy. Cotton was more than half of exports, but it was still only about 4-6 percent of GDP. It was thisproblem that led Ed Baptist to tie himself in knots trying to expand its share of GDP.

    “Doug North’s Economic Growth of the United States (1961) is cited by several of the authors because it emphasizes both international and interregional trade, making cotton exports the driving force behind antebellum growth. It seemed like a reasonable story given the evidence that Doug had collected, but subsequent research generated evidence that contradicted the theory. First, work by a number of economic historians (Gallman, Hutchison and Williamson, and Herbst) found that Doug’s theory tended to underestimate the degree of regional self-sufficiency and overestimate the importance of interregional trade. Second, subsequent work on early industrialization has emphasized the role of intraregional trade. Much of early industrialization appears to have been directed at local demand. Notable contributions on this subject were made by Diane Lindstrom Economic Development in the Philadelphia Region and more recently by David Meyer Roots of American Industrialization or see his essay on Industrialization in EH.Net’s Encyclopedia. In short, subsequent research did not support the conclusion that cotton was the driving force behind economic growth. Doug acknowledged the implications of this subsequent research in his later work, such as Growth and Welfare in the American Past.

    “Personally, I’m fine if you tell me an interesting story. It does not need to be “the” story about “the” driving force behind American development. But, to the extent that people do want to make such claims, they need to address the work done by economic historians since North’s Economic Growth of the United States. Apparently, at the conference that led to this volume Stanley Engerman raised questions about the extent of the role of slavery in Northern development, but his paper does not appear in the book.”


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