- Unrequited Toil: A History of United States Slavery by Calvin Schermerhorn
Historian Calvin Schermerhorn, known for his work tracing American capitalism's rise via the business of slavery, has produced in Unrequited Toil a readable, compact story of American slavery. This accessible, affordable book comes at the perfect moment to serve not only academics but also readers whose interest in the history of slavery has been stoked by recent media like the New York Times' 1619 Project. Characterized by punchy topic sentences and an absorbing pace, the book emphasizes what was robbed from enslaved people—not only stolen wages but also stolen lives and legacies. This approach, which highlights the calculations of the system's managers at every turn, does not, however, translate into a cold interpretation void of bondspeople's culture and humanity. Rather, Schermerhorn tells a dynamic history with rich detail. Even familiar individuals' travails, such as the ones of Frederick Douglass and Charles Ball, are imbued with new narrative power in Schermerhorn's hands.
Schermerhorn builds his narrative by drawing together established and recent themes in the historiography of American slavery. He gracefully synthesizes established concepts like Atlantic Creole society, set out by the recently departed Ira Berlin, with more recent scholarly contributions, such as historian Bonnie Martin's notion of the "hidden engine" [End Page 595] of slave mortgaging and Daina Ramey Berry's work on the value placed on enslaved bodies.1 By integrating the work of scholars of slavery and capitalism, Schermerhorn infuses his topical survey with new terminology. For instance, he profitably employs Sven Beckert's "war capitalism" to tell a story that includes whites' expulsion of Native peoples from their ancestral lands to force African-descended people onto that acreage as chattel. He also makes use of Edward E. Baptist's "labor camp" rather than "plantation." This term signals how Schermerhorn leans toward Baptist's argument that although improved cotton varieties played a role in the rising yields on southern cotton operations, it was the increasingly brutal coercion by enslavers and their overseers that did more to increase productivity, a finding that is still hotly contested by some economists of agriculture.2 Schermerhorn's masterful fusion of the latest scholarship also shifts the geography of American slavery. He expands the scope of the book beyond the boundaries of the United States, integrating topics like the Haitian Revolution and the imperial designs of slaveholders into the story of American slavery as told by historians like Walter Johnson and Matthew Karp.3
Unrequited Toil offers a deep and welcome exploration of the gendered aspects of enslaved people's treatment and the role of gender in their own constructions of family and community. In such a relatively brief volume, an entire chapter devoted to sexual violence might strike some readers as surprising, but it is an essential part of the exploitation of enslaved people. As Schermerhorn explains: "sexual assault established mastery" (111). The rape and abuse of enslaved men and women was [End Page 596] not simply an effect or symptom of their status but a fundamental scaffolding in the structure of exploitation. Unrequited Toil's accessible treatment of this topic will do much to integrate it into the public's understanding of slavery.
One small point of Schermerhorn's work might trip up readers who are new to the topic of American slavery. More than once the author mentions slavers' calculation that it was cheaper to purchase adult men and women as slaves than it was to raise them from children. This could be more clearly explained for readers who might assume that this assessment contradicts the fact that the enslaved population of the United States reproduced itself and that some slavers attempted "slave breeding," which Schermerhorn also addresses. While these facts are not necessarily exclusive of slavers' neglect of children—and it is clear that slaveholders did not want to "waste" resources on them—the author could have offered more clarification in the relationship between these facts. This is a minor bump in a smoothly...