The Second Slavery: Modernity in the Nineteenth-Century South and the Atlantic World

Article excerpt

DURING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, THE EXPANSION OF SLAVERY transformed not only the U.S. South but also political economies across the Americas. The "second slavery," as Dale W. Tomich calls this historic departure, was distinguished from colonial slavery by new commodities, produced in unprecedented quantities, in regions formerly marginal to the Atlantic economy, in reconfigured polities. At the outset of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, Saint Domingue was the leading producer of coffee as well as sugar, the most valuable tropical commodity in the Atlantic world. The fledgling United States, like Cuba and Brazil, was still a marginal player in the European market for American staples. Brazil, the leading producer of sugar from about 1580 to 1640, had stagnated during the eighteenth century. In Cuba, planters began a shift from sugar production for local markets to sugar as a staple crop during the Seven Years' War, but tobacco remained a mainstay. The Chesapeake was, since 1710, the largest exporter of tobacco, while the Lowcountry exported rice to England and to the British West Indies to feed slaves on sugar plantations. Planters entered the cotton market during the 1770s, but North American exports to England in 1790 were but a fraction of those from the British Caribbean. The South was, at best, a primary producer of secondary staples. After 1790, slavery expanded onto new ground, slaves tended new crops and new machinery, and the planter classes gained dominance in rising world markets and acquired new powers from reconstituted states in Cuba, Brazil, and the South. Profits reaped from sugar, coffee, and cotton derived, in part, from burgeoning industrial production in two ways. First, upturns in output met increased demand from the growing populations of industrial workers. The transition of tropical commodities from elite luxuries to common necessities reached midcourse around 1800 and was completed during the nineteenth century. Second, planters integrated industrial machines with slave labor. In the new techniques and increased scale of production and the sheer mobility and adaptability of slave labor, the second slavery was, in a word, modern. (1)

Although southern historians have yet to write in terms of the second slavery, we could begin by building on connections in several directions already made in recent work. This project requires breaking out of the confines of "antebellum slavery," which point the field headlong toward the Civil War, draw its parameters along the Mason-Dixon Line, and cast the history of the Old South as a nation-building project. Since the 1970s, historians have crossed such temporal boundaries in studies of slave kinship, labor, property, and politics encompassing the antebellum and postbellum periods. Explaining the second slavery in the South requires crossing the divide on the earlier side to connect the antebellum period to the early republic. Scholars of slavery in colonial North America have sallied forth into the Atlantic world, but historians of the nineteenth-century South have some catching up to do. (2) Fortunately, two related themes prominent in recent historiography on antebellum slavery have lessened the conceptual gap with historiography on the Atlantic world. The long debate about whether the Old South was an anachronistic, seignorial society or a variant on modern capitalism is approaching a consensus around the latter. (3) This is a revealing outlook on southern slavery with bracing implications. Yet this work wants perspective. It has gone rather far without due attention to such elementary matters as exactly what was capitalist and modern about slavery. This essay aims to move this literature forward by clarifying its terms and placing the South in the context of the second slavery. A comparative perspective sharpens our understanding of modern slavery in the South yet makes it less peculiarly southern. Like Cuba and Brazil, the South was a modern slave society in many ways, but not necessarily the most modern. …