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).

Slave Economies of the U.S. North

Continuing our forum on Slavery’s Capitalism, today we are pleased to feature a contribution from Christy Clark-Pujara, Assistant Professor of History in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the author of Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island (NYU Press, August 2016).

Slavery's CapitalismSlavery’s Capitalism is a timely collection of essays which details the necessity of placing slavery at the center of the economic history of the United States of America. The editors convincingly contend that the nation’s economic rise is inextricably linked to the institution of slavery. Moreover, they demonstrate the necessity of understanding the rise of capitalism in the U.S. as global—the institution of slavery was essential to the rise of capitalism throughout the Western world.  Part III, “Networks of Interest and the North,” examines northerners’ investments in the business of slavery—the buying and selling of goods and people that sustained plantations throughout the Americas and the financial systems that were established to facilitate those trades.   Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Autumn Reads


Winslow Homer, “The Country School,” 1871

Looks like #VastEarlyAmerica just got even vaster—and that’s a good thing. Here’s our fall preview of new titles. Please share your books/finds in the comments! Continue reading

Women and the History of Capitalism

Cartoon or Sketch of Mill Woman_0One of the best questions a historian can ask is, “what am I missing?” Whatever you’re investigating, and whatever stage you’re at, it’s always worth your while to step back and look around. If you’ve been focusing on something, using a particular lens, it can be pretty hard to pan out. That’s where setting aside time for more eclectic reading really helps—journals and blogs are convenient ways to keep your field of vision broad. Sometimes, they can give you a kick. That’s how I felt about the forum on women’s history in this summer’s issue of the Journal of the Early Republic.[1] Continue reading

Building Intellectual Community at SHEAR

Students of the early American republic: I urge you to apply to SHEAR 2016’s Graduate Research Seminars!

The program, which debuted last year, brings together grad students and senior faculty clustered around four “hot” themes in the field for an hour and a half or so of small-group discussion. Lunch is free. The sessions are open to current graduate students and those who earned a Ph.D. during the 2015-16 academic year. A one-page dissertation abstract is all it takes to apply. Best of all, this year’s lineup of topics and faculty is just as wonderful as 2015’s was. Continue reading

Guest Post: Correcting an Incorrect “Corrective”

Edward E. Baptist is the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. He would like to “thank Joshua Rothman, Jefferson Cowie, Louis Hyman, and David Silbey for advice on this piece of writing, and The Junto for letting me publish in their space.”

edwardbaptist-thehalfHow was an immense increase in the “efficiency” of cotton production achieved in the nineteenth century? The question cuts to the heart of the debates over the history of U.S. slavery.

Last week, The Junto linked to sociologist John Clegg’s review in Critical Historical Studies, which considered several recent books on slavery and capitalism. This blog reported Clegg’s take on The Half Has Never Been Told as a “corrective.” Clegg attacks my argument that intense coercion drove a 400% increase in the efficiency of cotton-picking slave labor in the U.S. South between 1800 and 1860. His critiques directly build on the work of economists Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode. In a series of essays, they asserted that efficiency actually increased because of improved seeds. In a recent issue of the Journal of Economic History, Olmstead appears somewhat displeased that I disagree with their assertions. Continue reading