- Southern Capitalism in the Nineteenth Century: Form and Content
Debates about the relationship between slavery and capitalism in the nineteenth century are among the oldest in the field of Southern history, and scholars show no signs of ending them any time soon. Yet we seem to be in a capitalist moment. Scholarship stressing how slavery constrained the vibrancy of free labor, created structural imperatives that limited regional economic development, and encouraged ideological hostility among white Southerners toward bourgeois values has faded somewhat in recent years in the face of efforts by historians who emphasize instead the significance of Southern cotton production for global markets, of slaves themselves as negotiable commodities and capital forms, and of white Southerners immersed in the worlds of credit and debt who subsumed everything to the relentless pursuit of profit.
For those accentuating the imbrications of slavery and capitalism, no place better demonstrates the point than the antebellum Deep South, which grew more cotton for export than anywhere else on the planet, provided the most active market for enslaved people in the United States, and sat at the forefront of American imperial ambitions. The Deep South in the age of slavery was a powerhouse inseparable from the era’s most important international economic and trade networks. And if that powerhouse had a center, it was surely the city of New Orleans, whose location just above the mouth of the Mississippi River made it both the logical export site for a massive agricultural hinterland and the regional financial and business hub. Scott Marler, associate professor of history at the University of Memphis, never questions New Orleans’s salience. But he does question its modernity. Indeed, in The Merchants’ Capital, [End Page 83] Marler pushes back against the capitalist vogue currently evident in many studies of the nineteenth-century South, arguing that we neglect the distinctive characteristics of the Southern economic model at our interpretive peril.
Marler’s work focuses on the business community of New Orleans—the bankers, factors, commission agents, and merchants who facilitated the financing of the cotton economy and connected the crop’s producers on slave plantations to the markets of the Atlantic world. In Marler’s account, this was a community with internal ethnocultural divisions and hierarchies that impeded its ability to act in a concerted or innovative fashion, but ultimately he maintains that its key limitations were interconnected matters of structure and mindset. The interests of the businessmen of New Orleans were rooted fundamentally in extracting profit by exchanging debt and by acting as intermediaries between commodity producers, which made them on the whole a conservative lot. They might engage in wildly speculative ventures when it came to cotton, but they were also deeply skeptical of committing resources to infrastructure improvements that might only pay off in the long term or to unfamiliar productive enterprises like industry and manufacturing. Though undoubtedly capitalists, they remained locked into an archaic merchant capitalist model where money came from exploiting differences in commodity values among various markets, and they persistently refused to entertain the development of industrial capitalism taking place outside the South that Marler argues would in time pass them by. Smug, atomized, and almost willfully isolated from the winds of broad economic change, the businessmen of New Orleans felt confident that their natural geographic advantages would last forever and that their wealth would accrue indefinitely. In truth, their own backwardness and rigidity left them so exposed that they and their city would never recover from the Civil War and its aftermath.
Marler’s story begins in earnest in the wake of the Panic of 1837, from the devastation of which New Orleans impressively bounced back with a reformed banking system and with even greater control over the regional cotton trade than it had...