- The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815–1860 by Calvin Schermerhorn
Historians may look back at 2015 as the high watermark of a recent flurry of scholarship examining the relationship between slavery and capitalism. Two books dealing with this subject, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2014) and Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (New York: Metropolitan, 2014), shared the prestigious Bancroft Prize, while Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014) achieved a significant amount of publicity through a [End Page 90] controversial and much-disparaged review in the Economist. In a year when Black Lives Matter and #CharlestonSyllabus became fixtures in public discourse about the continued ramifications of slavery, racism, and violence in the history of the United States, these works have been especially timely in helping to explain the present through the past.
Calvin Schermerhorn’s The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815–1860 makes important contributions to this scholarship. Instead of focusing on slavery as a form of labor or the plantation as a site of economic production, Schermerhorn organizes the book’s seven main chapters as case studies examining a particular firm or individual involved in the domestic slave trade. By uncovering the strategies and innovations these firms used to surmount particular market challenges, Schermerhorn “narrates a tragedy born of ambition through a discrete set of subjects whose participation in the slavery business illuminates the process of capitalist development and the promise of American modernity” (5). Drawing on a wide range of newspapers, customs records, and legal documents, along with the correspondence and business records of slave traders, Schermerhorn carefully demonstrates the many ways the business of slavery and the economic development of the United States were intertwined.
At their most basic level, profits from the domestic slave trade derived from forcibly relocating enslaved men and women from one market (where they sold at lower prices) to another (where they sold higher), often over vast geographic space. Thus, identifying ways to creatively cut transportation and transaction costs became essential to the business strategies of those trafficking in bondspeople. Schermerhorn shows, for example, how a small-time and minimally capitalized trader like Francis E. Rives could obtain a competitive advantage by walking, rather than shipping, slaves from Virginia to Mississippi in the late 1810s. Similarly, the Baltimore-based slave-trading firm Woolfolk & Co. achieved savings by exploiting the merchant vessels that needed to fill their holds, contributing to the development of a thriving coastal slave trade. This proved both economically and politically profitable for the firm by increasing its earnings and aligning Baltimore’s maritime community with the interests of slave traders. In the 1850s, Charles Morgan, a New York City shipping merchant running packet lines between New Orleans and the Texas coast, leveraged federal subsidies and steam technology to become one of the largest shippers of enslaved people in the country. [End Page 91]
The role of finance also figures prominently in The Business of Slavery. Acknowledging that “varieties” of capitalism have developed over time, Schermerhorn defines capitalism as “a highly structured system of trade characterized by debt obligations that bound borrowers’ ambitions, expectations, and imaginations to future repayment” (1). Finance, he claims, was “capitalism’s locomotion” (3). Given this emphasis, Schermerhorn spends time elucidating the complex credit networks and commodity chains in which enslaving entrepreneurs were embedded. The ability to access credit and remit capital was crucial to the success of domestic slave traders, as he shows in a chapter on Franklin & Armfield, the most successful U.S. slave-trading firm of the 1830s. Devising schemes to orchestrate the complex task of meeting the needs of buyers desirous of credit and cash-demanding sellers across distant and scattered markets was central to the firm’s profitability. Another chapter, one that will seem...