Capitalism and Slavery in the United States (Topical Guide)
Stephen R. Leccese
This topical guide on “Capitalism and Slavery in the United States” was authored by Stephen Leccese, a Ph.D. student in history at Fordham University. A preliminary draft circulated to the subscribers of H-Slavery on July 15, 2015 for feedback; both are available here. This revised version was published to this page on July 28, 2015. The author and H-Slavery gratefully acknowledge the input from H-Slavery’s subscribers. Where substantial recommendations were taken, contributors are mentioned in the appropriate sections. H-Slavery looks forward to revising this guide further in the future.
For over a century now, historians of the United States have been wrestling with the relationship between capitalism and slavery. They’ve asked questions inquiring whether capitalism and slavery are compatible, what role slavery played in capitalist development, and probably most infamously: Is slavery capitalism? Given the booming popularity of histories of capitalism, the time is right for a reassessment of slavery and its relationship to capitalism.
1. Slavery as Inefficient
Slavery was long considered non-capitalist because historians asserted that it was economically unproductive. In the United States, the roots of this viewpoint go back at least to Frederick Law Olmsted’s writings. During his travels to the slave states in the 1850s, Olmsted produced numerous publications arguing that slavery made the South inefficient and economically backward in comparison to the North. These arguments informed the Republican Party’s view that free labor was superior and more productive than slavery. The progressive historians of the early twentieth century used this inefficiency argument in their analyses of slavery, contrasting the unproductive slave South with Northern industrialism and capitalism. With the Civil War, the United States destroyed an economic system that was holding the country back and allowed Northern capitalists to lead the country to much greater prosperity. This viewpoint established a framework that went unchallenged until the mid-1900s.
An early example of this view comes from Ulrich B. Phillips, “The Economic Cost of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt,” Political Science Quarterly (June 1905). The classic work in progressive history is Charles and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (1927). Following their lead are Howard K. Beale, The Critical Year (1930); and Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons (1934). Thomas Cochran and William Miller, The Age of Enterprise (1942); and Eugene Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery (1965) also assume the inefficiency of slavery in their social and economic analyses.
2. Slavery as Capitalism: Economic Productivity and Market Relations
A: Slave Production
(H-Slavery gratefully acknowledges suggestions from Greg Burris of Florida State University.)
Beginning in the 1950s, a new group of historians viewed slavery in a different light. Dubbed “cliometricians,” these historians used economic analysis to argue that slavery was indeed capitalism. They challenged many of the notions that historians had taken for granted before: slavery was not unproductive, but was in fact more productive than Northern free labor; planters owned slaves as an economic investment, not due to paternalistic obligations; the Southern economy was growing, not lagging behind the North’s. Embedded in this argument was a new view on slavery and capitalism. Slaveholders, the cliometricians argued, were capitalists for two reasons. First, their slaves were hugely productive and earned them a great profit. Second, they were in tune with the market and responded to its mechanisms. With these arguments, the cliometricians stand out as a notable group that considers slavery a form of capitalism.
Alfred Conrad and John Meyer are generally considered the founders of this movement. Their work The Economics of Slavery (1964) collects several of their essays from the 1950s reflecting the cliometric view. Other important works in the field are George Woolfolk, “Planter Capitalism and Slavery: The Labor Thesis,” Journal of Negro History (Apr. 1956); William N. Parker, ed., The Structure of the Cotton Economy of the Antebellum South (1970); Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross (1974); Claudia Goldin, Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820-1860 (1976); Fogel, Without Consent or Contract (1989); and Mark M. Smith, “Time, Slavery and Plantation Capitalism in the Ante-Bellum American South,” Past & Present (Feb. 1996). A number of historians detracted from Fogel and Engerman, notably Herbert Gutman in Slavery and the Numbers Game (1975) and Paul David, Reckoning with Slavery (1976). For a note on methodology, see Mark Schmitz and Donald Schaefer, “Using Manuscript Census Samples to Interpret Antebellum Southern Agriculture,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History (1983).
B: The Slave Trade
(H-Slavery gratefully acknowledges the input of Calvin Schermerhorn of Arizona State University.)
Much writing on slavery has focused on the profitability of slave agriculture. The slave trade, however, was also a significant source of income for both Southerners and international traders. Domestic and Atlantic trade networks developed around the transport of human cargo, starting with the Portuguese contact with West Africa in the sixteenth century. Frederic Bancroft first explored the domestic slave trade with Slave-Trading in the Old South (1931). He demonstrates that slave traders were not social outcasts, but rather enjoyed privileged positions in Southern society. Joseph C. Miller’s Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade (1988) looks at the Atlantic context for the slave trade by analyzing Portuguese trade between Brazil and Angola. Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul (2001) looks at the bustling slave market in antebellum New Orleans. More recently, Calvin Schermerhorn has studied the impact of the internal slave trade on American economic development with “Capitalism’s Captives: The Maritime United States Slave Trade, 1807-1850,” Journal of Social History (2014) and “Slave Trading in a Republic of Credit: Financial Architecture of the United States Slave Market, 1815-1840,” Slavery & Abolition (2015).
3. Lack of Wage Labor
Easily the most common reason that slavery is not considered capitalism is the lack of wage labor. This view comes mostly from social historians, many of whom are influenced by the writings of Karl Marx. They are perhaps reflecting Marx’s own uncertainties about slavery; he devotes only a few sentences to it in Das Kapital. Taking this cue, Marxist historians emphatically deny that slavery is capitalism. They argue that the social relations produced by wage labor are the true marker of capitalism, not market conditions or level of productivity. Some view the Civil War as a bourgeois revolution that abolished slavery and allowed the South’s postwar transition to capitalism.
We can see these views in a slew of works from the 1980s and 90s. Major ones include Barbara J. Fields, “The Advent of Capitalist Agriculture” (1985); Allan Kulikoff, The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism (1992); Joseph P. Reidy, From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South (1992); John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic (1995); and Douglas Egerton, “Markets without a Market Revolution: Southern Planters and Capitalism,” Journal of the Early Republic (Summer 1996). A helpful overview of this debate is Mark M. Smith, Debating Slavery (1998). A challenge to these views comes from Edward Baptist’s, “‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men,’” American Historical Review (Dec. 2001), which sees the commodification of human bodies under slavery as the essence of capitalism.
4. Problems of Definition
A critical eye can likely perceive the problem with these previous schools of thought. All have a different definition of what exactly characterizes capitalism. For economic historians, productivity and market connections made slavery capitalism. Social historians argue that social relations and wage labor denote capitalism. Yet there are problems with both of these definitions. They are noticeably vague and trans-historic. Both wage labor and trade networks have been around since the earliest human civilizations. Focusing on either means that capitalism is not a development of the modern world, but one which was born with human civilization. This slavery/capitalism debate is representative of a larger problem: there is no coherent definition of capitalism. A select few historians have noted this problem and called the very term ‘capitalism’ into question, notably Gordon Wood, “The Enemy is Us: Democratic Capitalism in the Early Republic” (1997) and Richard Grassby, The Idea of Capitalism Before the Industrial Revolution (1999). If a term has no definition, they ask, why use it? Future scholarship in this debate must wrestle with this fact and come to a more concrete definition of capitalism, a topic that absorbed considerable attention in a recent Journal of American History “Interchange” on the History of Capitalism (Sept. 2014).
5. Most Recent Trends
(H-Slavery gratefully acknowledges the input of Calvin Schermerhorn of Arizona State University.)
The most recent writing on slavery and capitalism has dealt with the endless either-or debate by stepping outside the paradigm altogether. A survey of recent literature is Scott Reynolds Nelson’s “Who Put Their Capitalism in My Slavery?” (2015). In the last few years, we’ve received a trio of books that examine slavery’s relationship to American and world economic development: Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams (2013), Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told (2014), and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton (2014). Despite differences between these works, the basic message in all three is this: whether or not slavery itself is capitalism, capitalism could not have developed as it did without slavery. Johnson sums the issue up perfectly: “however else industrial capitalism might have developed in the absence of slave-produced cotton and Southern capital markets, it did not develop that way” (254). All three works go on to cover in detail how global capitalism in the nineteenth century depended on slavery. None of the authors says outright that slavery is capitalism. They do make clear, however, that no future historians can treat slavery and capitalism as antagonistic or anathema to one another, since slavery was so integral to the development of capitalism.
In addition to these three important books, several other works examine this very close relationship between slavery and the growth of American capitalism. See also Seth Rockman, “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism” (2005) and Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (2009); Bonnie Martin, “Slavery's Invisible Engine: Mortgaging Human Property” (2010); Joshua D. Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012); and Calvin Schermerhorn, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism (2015). Also be on the lookout for Slavery’s Capitalism, a forthcoming collection edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman.
Beale, Howard K. The Critical Year: A Study of Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1930.
Beard, Charles and Mary. The Rise of American Civilization. New York: Macmillan, 1927.
Cochran, Thomas and Miller, William. The Age of Enterprise: A Social History of Industrial America. New York: Macmillan, 1942.
Genovese, Eugene. The Political Economy of Slavery. New York: Pantheon, 1965.
Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934.
Phillips, Ulrich B. “The Economic Cost of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt.” Political Science Quarterly 20 (June 1905): 257-75.
Conrad, Alfred and Meyer, John Robert. The Economics of Slavery. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co., 1964.
David, Paul A. Reckoning with Slavery: A Critical Study in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Engerman, Stanley and Fogel, Robert. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1974
Fogel, Robert. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.
Goldin, Claudia Dale. Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820-1860: A Quantitative History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Parker, William N. ed., The Structure of the Cotton Economy of the Antebellum South. Washington, Agricultural Historical Society, 1970.
Schmitz, Mark D., and Donald F. Schaefer. “Using Manuscript Census Samples to Interpret Antebellum Southern Agriculture.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17, no. 2 (October 1, 1986): 399–414
Smith, Mark M. “Time, Slavery and Plantation Capitalism in the Ante-Bellum American South.” Past & Present No. 150 (Feb. 1996): 142-68.
Woolfolk, George. “Planter Capitalism and Slavery: The Labor Thesis.” Journal of Negro History 41 (Apr. 1956): 103-116.
Bancroft, Frederic. Slave-Trading in the Old South. New York: J.H. Furst Company, 1931.
Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Miller, Joseph C. Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730- 1830. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
Schermerhorn, Calvin. “Slave Trading in a Republic of Credit: Financial Architecture of the United States Slave Market, 1815-1840,” Slavery & Abolition 36.3 (2015).
______“Capitalism’s Captives: The Maritime United States Slave Trade, 1807-1850,” Journal of Social History 47 (Summer 2014): 897-921.
Ashworth, John. Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Baptist, Edward. “‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men:’ Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States.” American Historical Review 106 (Dec. 2001): 1619-1650.
Egerton, Douglas. “Markets without a Market Revolution: Southern Planters and Capitalism.” Journal of the Early Republic 16 (Summer 1996): 207-221.
Fields, Barbara J. “The Advent of Capitalist Agriculture” in Essays in the Postbellum Southern Economy, ed. by Thavolia Glymph and John Kushma. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1985.
Kulikoff, Allan. The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.
Reidy, Joseph P. From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South: Central Georgia, 1800-1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Smith, Mark M. Debating Slavery: Economy and Society in the Antebellum American South. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A challenge to these views comes from
“Interchange: The History of Capitalism.” Journal of American History (Sept. 2014): 503-536.
Grassby, Richard. The Idea of Capitalism Before the Industrial Revolution. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.
Wood, Gordon. “The Enemy is Us: Democratic Capitalism in the Early Republic” in Wages of Independence: Capitalism in the Early American Republic, ed. by Paul Gilje. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.
Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2014.
Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Knopf, 2014.
Johnson, Walter. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.
Martin, Bonnie. “Slavery's Invisible Engine: Mortgaging Human Property,” Journal of Southern History 76 (November 2010): 817–866
Nelson, Scott Reynolds. “Who Put Their Capitalism in My Slavery?” Journal of the Civil War Era 5 (June 2015): 289-310.
Rockman, Seth. Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
______“The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism.” In Cathy Matson, ed., The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives and New Directions. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
Rothman, Joshua D. Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012.
Schermerhorn, Calvin. The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.