Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development

By Berry, Stephen | The Journal of Southern History, November 2018 | Go to article overview

Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development


Berry, Stephen, The Journal of Southern History


Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. Edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. Early American Studies. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Pp. viii, 406. $59.95, ISBN 978-0-8122-4841-8.)

"[F]or all that we are, we believe ourselves ... indebted to the institution of slavery " South Carolinian William Henry Trescot said of his country in 1850, "for a national existence, a well ordered [white] liberty, a prosperous agriculture, an exulting commerce, a free [white] people, and a firm [white] government" (William Henry Trescot, The Position and Course of the South [Charleston, S.C., 1850], p. 6). More than a century and a half later, many historians basically agree with him. African slavery gave capitalism its critical early infusion of capital: black bodies hauled it out of silver mines, squeezed it out of sugarcane, pulled it from the boll, and birthed it from their loins. Commodified, collateralized, leveraged, and compelled to labor, black bodies rewrote the history of the world, propelling the West, and then the globe, into a historical escape velocity from the event horizon known as the Malthusian trap.

In Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development editors Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman seek to provide "the most multidimensional account to date of slavery as a constitutive element of American capitalism," and in this they succeed admirably (p. 5). At their best, edited volumes help capture the diversity of a new field while creatine a multiplying sense of the field's importance. Slavery's Capitalism is strongest on African slavery's impact on modernity itself--on finance, accounting management, charity, technology, law, and higher education. The contributors' consistent point is not the facile suggestion that slavery was profitable and therefore capitalistic; rather, the point is to historicize the slave industries' innovations in pursuit of profits and to trace the impact of those innovations on capitalism, the global economy, and the course of American history

In a meaty introduction, Beckert and Rockman assess the historiographical forces that have combined to give us a new history of capitalism: the withering mythology of a 'free' North," the rise of "[g]lobal and imperial frameworks " the maturation of commodity histories, and studies of settler colonialism (pp 7 8). The editors are probably right not to allude to the contemporary forces that have combined to give us this new history: our increased sensitivity to externalities, to extractive environmental regimes, to racially regulated power and to the winners and losers in all global commodity and labor flows--all capped by the terrifying moment in 2008 when a spinning global economy wobbled on its axis and seemed almost to grind to a halt. (Or in the immortal words of George W. Bush: "this sucker could go down.") Capitalism was implicated in that moment, and therefore exposed itself to a new level and new kinds of analysis, and there is simply no separating that moment from the historio-graphical moment we are now in.

At base, Slavery's Capitalism seeks to prove that African slavery made more than the American South; it made the United States and, to a decree the world This claim rests on three legs. First, the innovations we associate with capitalism--scientific management, vertical integration of supply chains the evolution of accounting practices, property law, credit instruments, data processing, and technological solutions to specific productivity bottlenecks--all emerged with America's first big business: slavery. Second, and just as important, planters "worked their slaves financially as well as physically " creating not just cotton but also a critical pool of leveraged capital that went on to do what capital does, which is to say, multiply and protect itself and make life better for some but not others, or many but not all, or all but not equally depending on whom you talk to (p. …

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