Slavery’s Civil War?

Closing our week-long forum on Slavery’s Capitalism, today’s post is courtesy of Kevin Waite, a Lecturer in Modern American History at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He was recently awarded his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania with a thesis entitled “The Slave South in the Far West: California, the Pacific and Proslavery Visions of Empire.”

Slavery's CapitalismNo one could possibly read the fourteen essays that comprise Slavery’s Capitalism and conclude that human bondage was not absolutely central to American, and indeed global, economic development during the nineteenth century. [1] But it’s one of the corollary aims of the book—to move beyond the regionalism that has characterized much of the scholarship on slavery—that seems to me a more provocative, more novel, and perhaps more fraught intervention.

The long tentacles of slavery stretched across the globe and reached into a staggering array of institutions – educational, legal, financial, and political.This becomes especially clear by the final section of the book, “National Institutions and Natural Boundaries.” Compelling essays by Craig Steven Wilder, Andrew Shankman, Alfred L. Brophy and John Majewski provide a fitting capstone to a geographically and conceptually wide-ranging book. This is a history of slavery that catapults us far beyond the slave South. 

And as a result, these essays may indeed accomplish the “remapping of the nineteenth-century United States” that editors Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman set out to achieve. Such a remapping has powerful implications for how we read the history of the period. Beckert and Rockman suggest that the traditional geographic boundaries “that organize so much nineteenth-century American scholarship” may have outrun their usefulness. Indeed, by following slavery’s commodities and capital, these old geographies “begin to crumble,” they argue,“rendering an unclear line of demarcation between a capitalist North and a slave South, with consequences for how we understand North and South as discrete economies—and whether we should do so in the first place.”

By extension, we might ask what happens to the line dividing East and West, and how slavery’s economic logic penetrated not just the Atlantic, but the Pacific World as well. For plenty of understandable reasons, the scholarship on American slavery has been rooted in the Atlantic Basin. Yet some of the South’s most influential economic visionaries looked westward, across the continent and indeed across the Pacific to the ports of China. This volume will likely encourage historians to think even more capaciously about the geographic reach of slavery’s capitalism.

But this “remapping,” and in particular the blurring of old sectional lines, also invites a much thornier question: how does the Civil War fit into this picture? Ironically, the war that was, in many ways, the upshot of the processes described in this book—the global expansion of America’s slave economy—is largely absent from Slavery’s Capitalism. [2] And that’s perhaps because a work that so rigorously transcends sectional lines can’t adequately explain a conflict that was fundamentally sectional in nature.

The impulse to avoid the historiographic vortex of the Civil War is understandable. Not all books about slavery must, or should, address the war that destroyed it. But when the so-called peculiar institution is stripped of its peculiarity—as it is here—we’re left with particularly unsatisfying ways of understanding antebellum American politics.

Herein lies the rub. The capital that slavery generated may have transcended borders, but the political economy upon which it rested was not nearly so portable. Although slaveholding southerners profited from a highly integrated economic system, they saw themselves living in a world apart from their northern neighbours. Holding property in other humans did indeed produce a peculiar set of social relations and a distinct political ideology. If slaveholders were capitalists, they were capitalists of a different stripe, who believed that separation, and not greater integration, held the key to future economic growth. They went to war in an attempt to prove it.

____________________

[1] Few, of course, would have disputed the fact before this volume’s publication, but that should not necessarily diminish its substantial contributions.

[2] For more on how slavery’s global successes fueled secessionist impulses, see Matt Karp’s recently published This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016) and Brian Schoen, The Fragile Fabric of Union: Cotton, Federal Politics, and the Global Origins of the Civil War (2009).

14 comments on “Slavery’s Civil War?

  1. I mentioned something similar to the following in the comments section of the previous blog entry. The sectionalist conflict between north and south was at least partly about the clash of economic interests. The high tariffs protecting Northern manufacturers were perceived by Southerners at the time as harming the South, economically. The South largely absorbed the costs of those tariffs because Southern cash crops bought fewer manufactured goods. James 1981 estimated the distributional impact of antebellum manufacturing tariffs and confirmed that tariffs redistributed income from southerners to northerners. So if the new scholarship only mentions the economic linkages between north and south due to slavery, and ignores the economic aspects of sectional conflict which contributed to the civil war, then that’s a pretty serious lacuna. Also, the economics of sectionalism at least has a bearing on the claims to efface the “unclear line of demarcation between a capitalist North and a slave South, with consequences for how we understand North and South as discrete economies—and whether we should do so in the first place.” Revisionism should address prior and existing claims, especially something as major as sectionalism !!

    • I’m not sure how sectionalism and tariffs can be conceptualized as distinct from the overriding issue of slavery. Is that what you’re arguing; that historians should emphasize sectionalism, tariffs, and economic interests, and not just slavery? Isn’t the latter really at the root of the former categories? For what else causes sectional tensions than the “peculiar” institution? Tariffs are complex–there were certainly free trade adherents and political economists in Philadelphia just as there were pro-tariff KY hemp growers and LA sugar growers, but didn’t a lot of southerners’ anti-tariff proclivities really boil down to the fear of a retaliatory tariff in Britain on slave-grown cotton imports and the sense that US tariffs would make it more expensive to clothe slaves and purchase manufactured goods for southern plantations? Weren’t the most die-hard anti-tariff counties in the southern states the same ones that most enthusiastically supported secession? As others have commented, I kind of wish I knew the identity of the person I was addressing here, but it seems pseudoerasmus wishes to remain anonymous…oh well

      • ???

        I don’t understand what you find so puzzling.

        Tom Cutterham notes in the above post that the civil war is ‘largely absent’ from “Slavery’s Capitalism”. He further notes that Beckert & Rockman both blur the geographical divide between North and South by stressing the economic integration of the two regions through slavery. A previous blog post by Cutterham had been about the ’embeddedness’ of slavery in the North. In the comments section, he observed:

        “I think this emphasis on the integration rather than separation of northern and southern economies is an important part of the new scholarship on nineteenth century slavery and capitalism….. given this appreciation of the embeddedness of slavery in the north, just how did sectionalism emerge so strongly as a factor in mid-C19th politics, and how did the Republican party achieve such a grip on northern voters by 1860, in spite of these apparently compelling economic interests? I guess that’s really yet another version of the “econocide” debate we’ve also already had about British abolitionism.”

        Then there’s Rockman’s comments about the civil war at the “Slavery’s Capitalism” conference:

        ” Similarly, Rockman added that although the conference had clearly shown that the American Civil War was certainly not caused by the ineluctable contradiction between free and slave labor, more work still needed to be done to uncover alternative origins for the war. Indeed, if slavery and capitalism were not as oppositional as we once thought, what then were the roots of the awful violence and terrible destruction of the American Civil War? It was upon this question that the conference adjourned.”

        In context, my remarks should not be puzzling at all.

      • Your question was:

        “I’m not sure how sectionalism and tariffs can be conceptualized as distinct from the overriding issue of slavery. Is that what you’re arguing; that historians should emphasize sectionalism, tariffs, and economic interests, and not just slavery?”

        No. That is not my argument. My point is that the new scholarship exaggerates the economic integration of the two regions — apparently just because there were people in the North who made money off southern slavery.

        As for the rest of your comments,

        “but didn’t a lot of southerners’ anti-tariff proclivities really boil down to the fear of a retaliatory tariff in Britain on slave-grown cotton imports and the sense that US tariffs would make it more expensive to clothe slaves and purchase manufactured goods for southern plantations? Weren’t the most die-hard anti-tariff counties in the southern states the same ones that most enthusiastically supported secession?”

        Those observations complement what I said.

  2. Seth Rockman says:

    I am grateful to Tom Cutterham for organizing a discussion of Slavery’s Capitalism, and particularly appreciative of the time that Casey Schmitt, Justin Leroy, Christy Clark-Pujara, and Kevin Waite have devoted to thinking through the book’s arguments. A number of the issues raised deserve much fuller consideration, especially those regarding the challenge of writing the economic subjectivity of enslaved people into the history of capitalism— and particularly when confronted with an archive that takes human commodification for granted and that often speaks in transactional terms to obscure the violence of the plantation within the abstractions of the market.

    I don’t doubt that “economists interested in the historical past” and “historians interested in economic past” use language differently. It strikes me that when economists hear words like “essential,” “central,” or “crucial,” their instinct is to say, “OK, let’s test the proposition by removing that variable and seeing if we might have gotten to the same destination nonetheless.” And if you can get there with models or historical counterexamples, then by definition, your specific variable is not essential, central, or crucial.

    By contrast, when historians use these words, they mean “You cannot describe what actually happened without foregrounding this specific thing; you can’t relegate it to a footnote, you can’t leave it out of your index, you can’t pretend like it is someone else’s responsibility to discuss or study.” Does this mean that historians are using these words incorrectly? Not necessarily. For one, our discipline has vast space for contingency and multiple causalities, and there is little instinct to collapse the complexity of human experience to a single variable. But as importantly, this language is deployed—especially in regard to slavery— with an awareness of the systemic erasures endemic in mainstream historical narratives, public memory, and civic culture. We’re still trying to dig ourselves out from beneath a misleading set of narratives that continue to operate in public life and in the academe. So when a historian says “x is essential,” it is likely that economists, garbed in the mantle of “social science,” will hear only a normative claim. To the extent that there is an ethics to history writing and that history writing is always reflects and performs ideology, then I guess it can be understood as a normative claim. But it is also a descriptive claim because historians are interested in what actually happened, not what could have happened or what might have happened. As we say in the introduction to Slavery’s Capitalism: “[It might] beg the counterfactual claim that the American economic takeoff could have happened without slavery. Perhaps it might have, but the fact remains that it didn’t.”

    Generally speaking, I think scholarly exchange is best when it isn’t obscured behind anonymous monikers (which also seem to deter broader participation in debate on a site like the Junto). However, I do have a question for “pseudoerasmus”: if we make tariffs causal of Northern economic development and argue that tariff policy “redistributed income from southerners to northerners,” when do we get to talk about where southerners got their money?

    • Jorge says:

      “I think scholarly exchange is best when it isn’t obscured behind anonymous monikers (which also seem to deter broader participation in debate on a site like the Junto).”

      It would be just as easy to claim that anonymity, in fact, encourages honesty. No one knows the reason pseudoerasmus feels the need to post pseudonymously. (Would it would be more acceptable if he used “Helvidius”, “Pacificus”, or “Cato”?).

    • Jorge says:

      “And if you can get there with models or historical counterexamples, then by definition, your specific variable is not essential, central, or crucial.”

      It is not only social scientists who think in these terms. This is the accepted philosophical distinction between necessary and accidental properties (“The distinction between essential versus accidental properties has been characterized in various ways, but it is currently most commonly understood in modal terms: an essential property of an object is a property that it must have, while an accidental property of an object is one that it happens to have but that it could lack”; http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/essential-accidental/). How else do you propose to evaluate “essential, central, or crucial”? If it’s simply a descriptive claim (“But it is also a descriptive claim because historians are interested in what actually happened, not what could have happened or what might have happened”), then, logically, you ought to be saying that slavery was “present”, or “interconnected”, or some other term vague about the actual contribution. Once you claim “essential, central, or crucial”, there must be some reasonably systematic way of measuring that contribution.

      “Our discipline has vast space for contingency and multiple causalities, and there is little instinct to collapse the complexity of human experience to a single variable.”

      I come at this from a historian’s—not an economist’s—perspective. Even so, I’m uncomfortable with the way this is framed. I think there are at least two problems with this claim. First is the suggestion that social scientists ignore complexity or “multiple causality”. A cursory glance at any multivariate analysis from the social science literature ought to disabuse anyone of this notion. Second, this seems to suggest that recognition of multiple causation fundamentally changes the way that evidence should be evaluated (rather than simply complicating the picture). As if adding additional variables absolves a researcher from any obligation to measure those variables in any systematic way.

  3. “when do we get to talk about where southerners got their money?”

    I thought that was bloody obvious.

    our discipline has vast space for contingency and multiple causalities, and there is little instinct to collapse the complexity of human experience to a single variable.

    No. Social science also has a “vast space for contingency and multiple causalities” and charges of monocausality are an obvious strawman. No statistical analysis is ever monocausal, by definition. Social scientists do try to isolate variables, which is not the same as treating complex phenomena as having a single cause. (This is a frequent misapprehension of humanists.) So the difference between historians and social scientists is that the latter try to put some weight on the many variables that generate historical phenomena, whereas the former prefer not to investigate how much of which ingredient went into the mysterious bouillabaisse.

    • And the inadequacy of the bouillabaisse approach is obvious when so many recent historians (apparently) find the sectionalist conflict between North and South so puzzling and problematic because, after all, the North and the South were so economically enmeshed. The puzzlement is due to the lack of interest in quantifying that interdependence.

    • (And historians — elsewhere — do engage in counterfactual reasoning all the time. It’s just more implicit and informal. For example, when historians of India argue that British rule impoverished India, that assumes that India in the absence of British rule would have grown faster. And in fact a recent book by Wilson argues just that.)

    • Tom Cutterham says:

      Please, let’s keep the conversation collegial and polite. It’s not fair to take an aggressive posture from behind a mask of anonymity, towards another member of the community who has identified himself. We want to encourage an environment here at the Junto where all scholars, no matter their background and position, feel comfortable contributing openly and without trepidation.

  4. I’m not persuaded by Seth Rockman’s argument.
    First, most of the historians I know are careful with their choice of words. They know the difference between important and essential, and they do not use one when they mean the other.
    Second, many of the new historians of capitalism are not just saying slavery was important. Baptist was explicit in making up an estimate $600, nearly half of GDP in 1836. In addition, I pointed out that several of the authors in Slavery’s Capitalism continue to reference Doug North’s 1960 book on the growth of the American economy to support claims about the centrality of cotton to American growth. The problem is that Doug’s theory was contradicted by a large body of subsequent work. To continue to rely upon North’s theory for claims about the relative importance of cotton exports one has to ignore work by both economists and historians dating back to the early 1970s. This tendency to ignore or misrepresent the work of earlier scholars is one of the greatest weaknesses of some of the new historians of capitalism. He writes as if they are trying to escape from the neglect of the subject, but they in fact neglect the contributions of people who have been working on these issues.
    Third, I think that the claims about “essential” or “everything” are often unnecessary. The quantitative importance of slavery in the American economy is an interesting question. I hope that some of the people working on slavery now do try to produce accurate estimates of the relative economic importance of slavery. The relative economic importance of slavery is, however, not the only interesting question. I do not believe that you have to show that something was “everything” for New England or “essential” for American development for it to be important. I do not show my economic history class the documentary about the A Midwife’s Tale because Martha Ballard was the midwife that changed the World. I understand that publishers push people to put this sort of hyperbole on the cover of their book now, but let’s try to leave it on the cover.
    Finally, Seth Rockman and I do appear to use the word “normative” differently. Despite the fact that I am garbed in the mantle of “social sciences,” when I hear someone say that “x was essential ” I hear a positive statement, a statement about the way the speaker believes things are, not a normative statement about the way they think things should be.
    By the way, is garbed in the mantle of the “social sciences” a phrase intended to promote polite and collegial discussion?

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