Slavery’s Capitalism Forum: Introduction

Slavery's CapitalismSlavery’s Capitalism has been a long time coming. The conference from which this book arose was held at Harvard and Brown Universities in spring 2011—years before the New York Times lionised a “new history of capitalism,” co-editor Sven Beckert won the Bancroft Prize for his Empire of Cotton, or fellow co-editor Seth Rockman surveyed the field in the Journal of the Early Republic. The conversations and ideas aired at that conference have been part of public scholarly discussion for the last five years, including many posts here at the Junto. Now we have the book itself, and we want to congratulate the editors and authors for their perseverance! Continue reading

Guest Post: Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era

Jennifer Goloboy is a literary agent at Red Sofa Literary in St. Paul, MN. She has a PhD in the history of American civilization from Harvard University, and has published articles on merchants and the early American middle class. Her book, Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era, will be published by University of Georgia Press on October 10.

unnamedAs the new history of capitalism reminds us of the immense wealth that traveled through antebellum cotton ports, an old analytical problem remains—why didn’t Southern merchants invest in their communities, in the manner of the Boston Associates? Historians have traditionally explained that this lack of investment was caused by Southern culture: the Southern commitment to slavery, shared by its mercantile class, mandated a conservative approach to economic investment and a fear of change. For example, Scott P. Marler’s recent book on merchants in New Orleans claimed that “in the context of the slave society in which they were deeply implicated, their peculiar market culture discouraged the investments necessary for the city to modernize its economic base,” such as manufacturing and railroad-building.[1]

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Commodification, Specialization, Mechanization

This post is the second in a two-part report on a roundtable session at this year’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, entitled, “Open Question: What’s the Relationship Between Slavery and Capitalism?” The panelists were James Oakes, Craig Wilder, Sven Beckert, and Caitlin Rosenthal. Yesterday’s post focused on Beckert’s comments, today’s looks at Rosenthal’s.

IMG_3913The new historians of capitalism have sometimes been criticised for refusing to offer a definition of their object of study. At the OAH panel, Caitlin Rosenthal (an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley) responded to that criticism directly. The refusal to start out with a strict definition has been, on one level, an asset to recent scholarship—freeing it from earlier dogmatic approaches. But the downside, Rosenthal said, is that it leads to misunderstandings among historians, and between historians and economists. Her tentative definition, then: “Capitalism exists where capital (and through capital, power) is consolidated in such a way that labor can be highly commodified.” Capital is at the centre, but so is labour; and what connects them is the process of commodification. Continue reading

Primitive Accumulation as Creative Destruction?

This post is the first part of a two-part report on a roundtable session at this year’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, entitled, “Open Question: What’s the Relationship Between Slavery and Capitalism?” The panelists were James Oakes, Craig Wilder, Sven Beckert, and Caitlin Rosenthal (Ed Baptist was sadly unable to be there). My first post will focus on Beckert’s comments, my second on Rosenthal’s.

As a protagonist in the debate over slavery and capitalism, Sven Beckert’s principal aim seems to be to show just how crucial violence was to the emergence and success of capitalism. This violence is not something standard, mainstream, or traditional accounts—the kind we see in economics textbooks or breezy historical surveys—are willing to acknowledge. Rather, the role of violence and slavery in the history of capitalism was erased, Beckert noted in his roundtable comments, by a “process of mystification,” an “active act of forgetting,” that took place from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. Especially after the Russian Revolution and the beginning of the Cold War, he argued, American scholars and public intellectuals transformed the story of capitalism into a story of the spread of freedom. In this narrative, the nineteenth-century Civil War took on the role of a violent clearing of the decks, eliminating slavery as a remnant of the past, and opening the way for capitalist modernization. Continue reading

Another Kind of Blood: Edward Baptist on America’s Slaver Capitalism

Another Kind of Blood: Edward Baptist on America’s Slaver Capitalism

Edward E. Baptist. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

edwardbaptist-thehalfThe Half Has Never Been Told attempts a difficult feat: to analyze slavery’s place in the history of American capitalism, but also describe it as a lived experience. This is a story about commodities, bonds, and blood.

To join the abstract and the concrete, Edward Baptist relies on extended metaphors. His narrative traces the form of a human body: the ten chapters move from “Feet, 1783-1810” through “Tongues, 1819-1824” to “Arms, 1850-1861.” Overall, the narrative book follows an image, adapted from a Ralph Ellison essay, of “slavery’s giant body,” stretched across the territory of the United States, serving as the stage on which the drama of American history is acted.[1]

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Intersections upon a Dark River

Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams is the best big book on slavery I have ever encountered. This is not faint praise; there is some about the subject that causes its best historians—Eugene Genovese, Winthrop Jordan, Kenneth Stampp and more—to write in at bullet-stopping length. Johnson’s volume stands out due to his ability to seamlessly place the history of antebellum slavery at the intersection of three of the nineteenth century’s key themes—imperialism, capitalism, and technological development. He does this, as other contributors to this roundtable have noted, at the sweeping level of the very geography of Mississippi River Valley and at the much more intimate level of the lived experience of enslaved laborers. Continue reading