Author Interview--James L. Huston ("Slavery, Capitalism, and the Interpretations of the Antebellum United States")

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature part two of our interview with James L. Huston, talking about his Civil War History article “Slavery, Capitalism, and the Interpretations of the Antebellum United States: The Problem of Definition” (CWH June 2019, Volume 65, No. 2).

Huston Interview Part I

At the Southern Historical Association meeting in St. Pete Beach in 2016 during the opening plenary session, Thavolia Glymph noted that capitalist studies of the plantation and slavery ignore the human element of slavery, do you see your research agreeing with that?

JLH:  I would agree with the assessment, but with the acknowledgment that economists and historians have included in their studies aspects of the human element (housing, food, discipline, education, opportunities, and the like).  There are certain areas, however, I would like to see further investigated.  First, amidst all the studies on slavery, I still cannot recall anyone who has given an annual dollar income of a plantation (as well as an annual cost) nor looked at differences in plantation income by states, crops, or other activities.  Second, as to the human element in slavery, it amazes me that on the question of violence we have not incorporated present ideas of traumatic stress syndrome.  By this time, it is recognized how war, kidnapping, assaults, and forms of physical abuse can scar people for decades (just think of Vietnam War vets who still have nightmares about their war experience).  So in the antebellum South we have families torn apart, violent whippings, branding, and rapes—and no one uses traumatic stress syndrome to explain how these episodes can scar people for life.  It does not matter if slaves were whipped either daily, monthly, or yearly; each incident would generate a traumatic stress that could last for a lifetime.  And how such episodes can affect economic behavior should be explored (if one has experienced whipping, one is not likely to believe in the win-win scenario of free marketplace trades).  Just to drive home the point: what is the likely expectation ex-slaves would have of the “free market system” if their experiences were all in the direction that the road to wealth and position was by the use of violence?  Why should former slaves in the Caribbean embrace the economic system that made life nasty, brutish, and short?  What, in an economic sense, did slavery teach slaves about economic practices?
    A second, and major area of investigation, has to be whether the practice of paternalism existed to any extent.  The new studies of slavery with their emphasis on violence have put the rest of antebellum scholars in a vice.  No one doubts (or no one should doubt) that the violence of slavery was real and necessary to make the system work; yet enough material is out there to suggest that paternalism was not merely a figment of the slaveholder imagination.  Peter Kolchin's 
American Slavery (2003) is superb on this particular problem.  There may be a way to combine the two aspects.  Slave children may have been taught to accept the mastery of whites and then have the subordination reinforced for years, making the use of violence only necessary at one stage of enslavement and not so necessary in later stages.  It may be that violence was employed only to get the behavior needed and have the behavior repeated constantly; after that, some semblance of paternalism may have entered the system.  Maybe.  I really don’t know but only offer this as a conjecture.
    One of the human elements of slavery that accompanied racial slavery that could be amplified is the constant attack on the slave’s capacity to achieve and grow.  The eternal verbal assault by whites on the ability of slaves to act intelligently on their own, to make decisions, and to grow mentally had to have some stunting effect; it was a form of continuous negative reinforcement.  Of course, it could be countered to some extent by life within the slave community and general life experience, but the constant degradation should have had some impact on slave personality, economic behavior, and social interaction.  I think that in this regard that John Blassingame’s
The Slave Community (1979) remains absolutely classic.

What do you think the most important contribution of your article is?  How will it enhance our interpretative framework of plantation slavery and the plantation as an economic but also social unit?  What do you think the best direction for slavery studies is?

JLH:  The original impetus for the article was the recognition of how the new studies of slavery had mangled economic theory or the general theories we have employed to understand slavery; the empirical work simply invalidated theory.  Some reconceptualization is necessary (and good luck to whoever tries it because it won’t be me).  A second contribution is to realize how the slavery-as-capitalism authors have made a return to some old questions necessary: the free labor/slave labor debate, the characterization of the abolitionists, the Republican party view on slavery, the willingness of northern Democrats and Unionists to excuse the peculiar institution, now take different directions if the proposition is accepted that southern slavery was a torture chamber.  
    Generally, the studies of the plantation and plantation slavery take their own trajectories and it is not likely that any single article is going to alter those trajectories.  Of the subjects that are most pressing for interpretation of slavery is the question of the extent of violence and paternalism.  Perhaps more generally, something could be said about the role of violence in generating (or retarding) economic growth and social stability and harmony.  The plantation and plantation slavery have been so extensively studied that there are few large areas left to explore, except possibly state/county differences in discipline, profitability, and work routines.  Of the major gaps in state studies, the one remaining is the one James Oakes (The Ruling Race [1982]) found several decades ago: the realm of the small slaveholders and their treatment of slaves and their condition.
    I will take the opportunity to offer two other suggestions about future studies.  A central postulate in the economic backwardness of slavery (a position now jettisoned by the slavery-as-capitalism authors) is that by turning people into capital assets, slaveholders threw their capital into human beings instead of buildings and machines, thus starving the South of the funds for inanimate but more productive capital stock, i.e., industrialization.  In short, a slave labor system effectively froze capital in human beings, not allowing enough for other types of investment, whereas a free labor system did not (i.e., workers could be discharged as soon as a better technology appeared.)  That argument might be rethought because late twentieth century experience has demonstrated that investment in mechanical stock produces its own immobility.  Basically, slavery might be more mobile than free labor because while slaves were capital assets, their economic function was labor.  Throughout the last two centuries labor was always necessary for production.  Thus the slaveholder could move his “capital” to different activities (assuming some time for skill acquisition) if the necessity ever arose or simply sell the slave labor to someone who had the ability to use slave labor profitably.  In this sense, because slavery was a labor system, slavery might have been very mobile.  On the other hand, in a free labor system, capital could be immobile.  As long as the capital was simply money, then it was tremendously mobile, but as soon as it was invested in buildings or machines, it became highly immobile.  If economic conditions changed, then the owner of the building might be able to sell it but perhaps could not.  And because machinery tends to be task specific, the machines might be able to be sold to other companies engaged in the same production—even overseas—but often could not and simply had to be scrapped.  The reality of immobile capital stock is everywhere visible in the old industrial heartland where the last few decades of the twentieth century saw buildings that housed manufacturing rotting away and the machines once in those buildings turned into scrap.  From this angle, slave labor might have been more mobile than free labor.
    A second suggestion involves the definition of capitalism.  After some ruminating, I am moving in the direction of conceiving of capitalism as a condition of individual private property ownership that permits the owner to dispose of the property in any manner he/she sees fit.  There are a few side conditions.  One has to be what will be considered property, and the other has to be the condition that disposition of property cannot be allowed to take away another person’s life, liberty, or property.   The more a society permits the individual the unrestrained disposition of property, the more that society is capitalistic.  The continuum appears as societies make decisions about limiting the right of disposition (this includes taxes) and those societies are less capitalistic.  At a certain point, individual property rights might become so laden down with multiple obligations as to be labeled feudalistic; at the end of the spectrum would be the elimination of individual property rights altogether and thus entry into some sort of communal society.  This suggestion does not eliminate all complications.  How corporations fit into this definition is ambiguous.  However, this is only a suggestion.

Jim, thank you for this conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your article with us here on H-CivWar.