- Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life, and: The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana's Cane World, 1820-1860, and: Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South
The forces of global capitalism seem inexorable and bewildering as they transform the contemporary world. The convergence of revolutionary technologies with pressures to expand markets and increase profits has both created unprecedented economic opportunities and exacerbated horrifying inequalities. Governments attempt to shape change even as mass migrations, fluid capital flows, and transnational corporations challenge [End Page 745] the entity of the nation–state and blur the boundaries between public and private interests. Indeed, humankind appears torn between the hope that globalization will lead to widespread material well-being and the fear that it will entrap the vulnerable in a merciless integrated world system.
As it often does, history tells us we have been here before. This is hardly the first time that capitalism has been ascendant on the world stage, so it is unsurprising to find parallels and precedents in the past for the tumult of our globalizing age. But it is somewhat remarkable that we might find these precedents in the history of the slave South, for over the years much intellectual energy has been devoted to demonstrating that the South under slavery cannot properly be called capitalist at all. Most forcefully advanced by Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, this argument holds that the southern socioeconomic system, predicated on unfree labor, nurtured a ruling class whose paternalist worldview made regional social relations and modes of production fundamentally unlike, and in important ways antagonistic to, the free-labor system emerging elsewhere in nineteenth-century America.
Many southern planters undeniably saw themselves as paternalistic patriarchs and believed that this ideological framework guided interactions with their families, their slaves, and the larger world. Outstanding recent work in southern history, however, suggests that whatever their professed values, slaveholders' actions situated them firmly in a capitalist milieu and reflected a capitalist mindset. They eagerly produced as much as they could for domestic and foreign markets that they continually sought to expand. They behaved as acquisitive entrepreneurs, savvy consumers, and technological sophisticates to stay competitive, boost profits, and wrest greater efficiencies from their economic operations. They fashioned themselves as masters of an organic, hierarchical, and traditional social order in which recognized obligations bound people to one another, but they rarely let tradition or obligations obstruct business decisions or the demands of the market. True, they owned rather than hired their labor force, but that made slaves both workers and a capital investment that could be bought, sold, and traded in the marketplace. These sorts of considerations may not convince those who insist upon free labor as a precondition for genuine capitalism, but taken together they describe a world where markets and mammon fused with self-serving racist ideology to subsume considerations of humanity. In that [End Page 746] sense, newly published histories of the slave South grow out of and offer cautionary tales for our own time.
With slaveholders so strongly represented at the Constitutional Convention, it might be naïve to imagine that the founders would seriously have considered the abolition of slavery, but one wonders how many of them anticipated the extent to which their new nation would become a slave republic. Even though northern states began phasing out slavery and the overseas slave trade became illegal, America's enslaved population tripled between 1775 and 1825. Moreover, as Adam Rothman shows in Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South, such explosive growth was no accident...