- Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development ed. by Sven Beckert, Seth Rockman, and: The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815–1860 by Calvin Schermerhorn
Slavery, Capitalism, Slave trade, Economy, Banking, Finance, Business
The two books under review advance the paradigm shift in interpretations of antebellum American slavery that has been under way for two [End Page 736] decades. Mark Smith, Richard Follett, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist, and others have challenged previous assumptions that southern society was pre-modern, that the southern economy was “backward,” and that capitalism and slavery—understood as systems in a Marxian sense—were antithetical to one another. Works such as Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York, 2014) have put American developments in a global perspective, helping scholars see beyond national boundaries to interpret American slavery within wider patterns of power, trade, and labor exploitation. As Beckert and Seth Rockman note in their lucid introduction to Slavery’s Capitalism, the rapid expansion and intensification of American slavery after 1790 formed part of a wider “second slavery” that embraced plantation regions in the Caribbean and Brazil. The suppression of the international slave trade to the United States in 1808 was more than balanced by the expansion of an internal slave trade that forcibly moved one million or more people by land or coastal sea passage over the subsequent half-century. Not only were capitalism and slavery intertwined, but North and South were deeply interdependent: People and regions of the North were economically and morally complicit in the slave system. Far from being “backward,” southern economies exhibited many of the characteristics of an emergent American capitalism. The nation’s wealthiest places were in the plantation South, and the next wealthiest were northern centers involved in trading or processing slave-grown products. Moreover, as these two books amply illustrate, the slave trade, slave-based production, and the many facets of the “business of slavery” employed financial instruments, organizational methods, and technologies usually taken as hallmarks of capitalist enterprise.
Calvin Schermerhorn traces these methods by examining the firms that conducted the internal slave trade, noting the development of new patterns over time. The Baltimore slave trader Austin Woolfolk built a “brand” in the business during the 1810s and 1820s, advertising “Cash for Negroes” in upper South newspapers. His name became sufficiently well known that Frederick Douglass would recall parents using it as a bogey-man to scare enslaved children. Woolfolk built his business running slaves to the expanding plantation South by organizing coffles to be marched overland or chartering space in coastal sailing vessels trading between the Chesapeake and southern ports. By the 1830s, the most prominent slave-trading firm, Franklin and Armfield, had built a vertically integrated operation, purchasing slaves at various points in the [End Page 737] border states and upper South, shipping them to New Orleans in purpose-built vessels purchased from New England shipyards, and offering them for sale in New Orleans or the Natchez region at auction houses that were under the firm’s direct control. By the 1850s, the capitalist Charles Morgan was using a different business model, employing steamships that also carried cargoes and regular passengers to move slaves to points on the Texas Gulf coast for sale into the far reaches of the Southwest’s cotton frontier. As Schermerhorn demonstrates, these differing arrangements at the level of the firm always depended on the extension of credit, for which new techniques and new banking institutions were also developed. After the Panic of 1837, international bankers became important figures in the trade in slaves. Quintessentially capitalist institutions developed at the heart of the slave economy. But if business methods and paper financial instruments structured the slave trade and oiled its mechanisms, Schermerhorn never loses sight of the...