Scholars interested in debates on capitalism's relationship to slavery in the nineteenth-century United States should start with this volume. The papers here grew out of a joint 2011 conference at Brown University and Harvard University. Most essays have been revised since, and they provide pithy versions of excellent recent work in the field. Seth Rockman's introduction is especially welcome. While too many editorial introductions offer a hurried lumping of tangentially related articles, Rockman neatly summarizes the arguments while identifying their significance to the complex and increasingly fierce debates. His footnotes deftly alert readers to the critical reception these works have received. My favorite essay of the bunch was my favorite when I attended the conference: Daniel B. Rood's international history of the trade between Richmond, Virginia, and Rio de Janeiro. Rood's is simultaneously a history of technology, international trade, and labor, and suggests how Cyrus McCormick's harvester-reaper was initially designed not to replace expensive free workers (economists' argument) but to ensure that slave-produced wheat could be harvested more rapidly. Also fascinating is Craig Steven Wilder's examination of Jesuit institutions and slavery in the American South. Wilder not only undermines the assertion that Catholics were a persecuted southern minority but also exposes the history of Georgetown's brutal resettlement of its slaves—a story that has since made headlines. The financial side of the internal slave trade has drawn special attention from scholars in this volume. Joshua D. Rothman and Kathryn Boodry argue that a debt-fueled boom in plantation construction collapsed in the panic of 1837, though Rothman's work better captures the financial linkages between Britain's financial district and Mississippi plantations. Rothman's essay (revised after 2011) usefully deploys Jessica M. Lepler's work, showing how Andrew Jackson's federal policy helped provoke a shortage of credit in Britain, which then bounced back to destroy so many plantations, leading planters to flee creditors in Texas. In addition, Calvin Schermerhorn carefully reconstructs the underresearched role of highly capitalized coastwise ships in transporting slaves to the Deep South, ships that also suffered from the financial downturn. Close analyses of internal credit markets (by Bonnie Martin) and panoptic obsession with slave productivity (by Edward E. Baptist and Caitlin Rosenthal) are also welcome additions. Left unanswered in the volume is, as Rockman puts it, “an explicit theorization of the relationship between capitalism and slavery” (p. 10). Karl Marx, Maurice Dobb, and Eric Williams all saw modern commerce as depending on slavery but argued that slavery failed the test of capitalist relations. If capitalism is a labor relationship in which the employee is free to starve and must sell labor daily on a market to capitalists, then slavery is something different. While Sven Beckert and Walter Johnson have wrestled with this problem directly, coining the terms “war capitalism” and “racial capitalism” respectively, many in this volume have punted, arguing that, since America's plantations depended on an international market, Marx and the Marxists who followed Dobb might have erred. That makes me wonder if the apostrophe in Slavery's Capitalism might be rendered as a question mark. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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