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Reviewed by:
  • Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development ed. by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman
  • Brian Luskey (bio)
Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. Edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Pp. 406. Cloth, $39.95.)

If this book's topic no longer seems new, that is in part because its editors and essayists have been at the forefront of a renewed effort to show how significant slavery was to the early United States economy. Their essays suggest that the label "slavery's capitalism" is the best way to comprehend that economy before the Civil War. Slavery infiltrated capitalism—and vice versa—such that we cannot understand one without the other. In order to capture the nature and extent of this symbiotic relationship, these scholars draw from labor history, social history, business history, financial history, and political economy. Their source bases include the records of financial, legal, and educational institutions; the correspondence and calculations of merchants, inventors, plantation owners, and slave traders; the writings of economic theorists; and census data. By exploring diverse archives and using multiple methodologies, these authors offer significant new perspectives on the economic connections and social experiences of slavery in the South, the United States, and the Atlantic world.

In a thorough and persuasive introduction, editors Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman sidestep the question that occupied an earlier generation of historians: "whether slavery itself was or was not capitalist." They focus instead on the "impossibility of understanding the nation's spectacular pattern of economic development without situating slavery front and center" (27). In adopting the rubric of "economic development" and asserting that slavery was the source of the United States's "economic takeoff" (3), they appropriate the language used by post–World War II neoliberal economists in order to historicize a transformation that most scholars of that period believed had little to do with slavery.

The volume's essayists take the editors' cue, tracing historical relationships between slavery and capitalism and explaining how coerced labor came to drive American political economy. The essays of Edward Baptist, Caitlin Rosenthal, and Daniel Rood demonstrate how slaveholders, rather than northern industrialists, pioneered innovations in labor management. Technologies as varied as the whip, accounting practices, and new machines such as Cyrus McCormick's reaper complemented each other [End Page 466] and placed slaveholders at the forefront of efforts to ensure maximum production long before Frederick Winslow Taylor initiated his time-motion studies.

Slavery was a property regime as much as it was a labor regime. Calvin Schermerhorn's work on the slave ships that plied the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts reveals that slave traders fully embedded their transactions within the broader economy, shipping human commodities in the same holds as other consumer goods. The essays by Bonnie Martin, Joshua Rothman, Kathryn Boodry, and Craig Steven Wilder collectively show how slaveholders and bankers converted enslaved people into financial capital and credit, utilizing mortgages, loans, and advances on slave-made agricultural products. When flush times yielded to hard times, profligate slaveholders on the verge of bankruptcy sometimes tried to evade their financial responsibilities, but the fungibility of enslaved people gave their owners opportunities to sell human commodities or use them as collateral to obtain loans from neighbors. As Daina Ramey Berry and Alfred Brophy contend, slaveholders were adept at using insurance policies and the legal system to wring further value from their enslaved property, even after slaves had died. Judges were more than willing to uphold the property regime—and the economic development that resulted from it—with a "proslavery law of the market" (264).

Slavery produced capital that flowed throughout the Atlantic world, encouraging northern merchants to seek the wealth that could be accrued from it. New England merchants profited from Caribbean slavery in trading routes with continental Europe, Russia, and Africa to such an extent that Eric Kimball and Stephen Chambers ask us to consider broadening our definition of "slave societies" (182) to include those that benefited from slavery existing elsewhere. Early nineteenth-century political economist Mathew Carey believed that southern slavery was vital to creating a consumer market for a domestic manufacturing sector after the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2159-9807
Print ISSN
2154-4727
Pages
pp. 466-468
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-24
Open Access
No
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