slaves' value exceeded the value of rail­roads and factories -- 10/24/16

Today's selection -- from Slavery's Capitalism by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. In the 1700s, China was the largest economy in the world. However, it was overtaken in the 1800s, first by England, then the United States. Some economic historians suggest that slavery -- tragic and horrifying slavery -- was central to this transformation, first through England's lucrative slave-based colonies in the Caribbean and North America, then, after America's independence, through America's slave-based tobacco and cotton industries. In America, the financial value of slaves alone exceeded the combined financial value of all the nation's rail­roads and factories:

"During the eighty years between the American Revolution and the Civil War, slavery was indispensable to the economic development of the United States. Such a claim is at once self-evidently true and empirically obscure. ... Only in the past several years has scholarship on finance, accounting, management, and technology allowed us to understand American economic development as 'slavery's capitalism.' And only now is there enough momentum to leverage some basic facts -- that slave-grown cotton was the most valuable export made in America, that the capital stored in slaves exceeded the combined value of all the nation's rail­roads and factories ...

Ledger of sale of 118 slaves, Charleston,

South Carolina, c. 1754

"Nineteenth-century Americans had little difficulty grasping slavery's capitalism. Advocates of national economic development presumed the recipro­cal relationship of the slaveholding and nonslaveholding states, as well as the mutual interests of the slaveholder, manufacturer, and merchant. 'On the White mountains of New Hampshire we find the sugar of Louisiana, and in the plains beyond the Mississippi the cotton cloths of Rhode Island are do­mesticated,' explained the famed editor Hezekiah Niles in 1827. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison recognized the North as a 'partner in iniq­uity' and credited the Panic of 1837 with delivering a deserved ruin to those New York City mercantile firms engaged in commerce with the South. In turn, southern nationalists lambasted northern sanctimoniousness. 'Many of the abolitionists of the present day affect to have such tender consciences, and to feel such abhorrence of slavery, that they declare they will not wear the cot­ton of the South, because it has been cultivated by slaves,' observed the Bal­timore minister Alexander McCaine, 'yet, these extremely sensitive, and pre-eminently holy characters, feel no qualms of conscience, to sell Southern planters their boots and shoes, their negro cloth, and all the et cetera that make up a cargo of Yankee notions, and put the money, arising from the labour of slaves, in their pockets.' Indeed, an 1845 manufacturing census found that nearly half the woolens manufacturers in Rhode Island produced textiles for plantation markets. A South Carolina industrialist such as William Gregg might rightfully lament that such thriving northern cities as Bridgeport, Con­necticut, had 'been built by the capital of Charleston,' while a compatriot writing in De Bow's Review could declare slavery the 'nursing mother of the prosperity of the North.'

"The escalation of political tensions in the 1850s generated ever more vivid renderings of the economic relationship between the sections. The New England minister Orpheus Lanphear described slavery as 'a huge serpent' menacing 'Northern Capital, Trade, and Manufactures': its 'hiss was heard in the Stock-market, and in the Counting-house, making the very Ledgers tremble in their cases. It was audible in the whirl of every spindle, and the vibration of every loom, in the muttering of every waterwheel, and in the whistle of every engine; and rang its menace along the edge of the ship-carpenter's adze.' ... 'Every man at the North, who makes a plough, a hoe, a shovel, or a cotton-gin, to aid the production of cotton, should be counted as a hand engaged in that crop,' argued one advocate of reconcilia­tion. It was a familiar refrain that the North was poised to kill the goose that has laid their golden egg.' ...

"As capitalism expanded from within the world market it had created, slavery came to play a central, even decisive, role­ -- first in the Caribbean and Latin America, and then in North America­ --tightly connected to the world-altering Industrial Revolution and the so-called Great Divergence. ...

"More than a century ago, W. E. B. Dubois recognized American slavery as an outgrowth of European colonialism, and scholars such as Stuart Hall, Eric Wolf, Ced­ric J. Robinson, and Robin Blackburn have long situated the plantation-driven economies of British North America and the subsequent United States within an international history of capitalism and empire. Economic history has more recently explored comparative questions, puzzling over the late emergence of England as a rival to China for global economic dominance. Slave-mined sil­ver in the Americas first provided European empires the opportunity to gain access to Chinese markets and consumer goods, and slave-grown agricultural commodities gave England specifically the possibility of supplanting China by escaping the environmental constraints on its population growth. As Ken­neth Pomeranz has argued, one factor in England's ability to break the 'Mal­thusian trap' was that nation's access to calories and fibers in the form of sugar and cotton harvested on American plantations."


Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman


Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (Early American Studies)


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2016 University of Pennsylvania Press


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