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.”
No 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.  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.  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.
 Few, of course, would have disputed the fact before this volume’s publication, but that should not necessarily diminish its substantial contributions.
 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).