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  • Slavery and Capitalism
  • Seth Rockman

The relationship of slavery and capitalism looms over nineteenth-century historiography. Few explanations for the coming of the Civil War are more durable than those pitting a capitalist North against a slaveholding, anti-capitalist South. However, this "clash of civilizations" framework is harder to sustain as we learn more about economic structures and cultures in both sections, as well as about their commercial interconnectedness before 1860.

Slavery and capitalism were deeply entangled with one another as the United States grew into an economic power in the nineteenth century, yet we still know far too little about these entanglements. Two things become clear almost immediately. First, to understand technological innovation, entrepreneurship, speculation, sanctified property rights, and market integration, it is necessary to take Mississippi and South Carolina as seriously as Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Second, slavery was indispensible to national economic development, as access to slave-grown commodities and to markets in slave-agriculture regions proved essential to the lives of Americans far removed from the plantation South.

By connecting the stories of New York financiers, Virginia slaves, Connecticut shipbuilders, and Alabama land speculators, historians have made slavery central to the history of capitalism. In an "age of industry" predicated on the transformation of slave-grown cotton into textiles, the plantation and the factory must necessarily be discussed together. In the blur of commodities and capital that flowed between regions, it becomes far harder to locate the boundary between a capitalist North and a slave South, with consequences for how we understand North and South as discrete economies—and whether we should do so in the first place. [End Page 5]

Seth Rockman
Brown University


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