Defining Capitalism in the ‘New History of Capitalism’

Reposts from the Junto


by Tom Cutterham

It’s been two and a half years since the new history of capitalism marked its arrival with the full red carpet treatment in the New York Times. So it’s about time we saw some serious and constructive critiques of the project. Robin Blackburn’s lengthy review of Empire of Cotton goes some way to bringing that Bancroft-winner back down to earth, particularly by scrutinising the concept of “war capitalism.” But what I particularly want to share with Junto readers today is an article by the NYU sociologist John Clegg recently published in the Chicago-based journal, Critical Historical Studies.

Anyone who has read Beckert, Baptist, and Johnson, or is eagerly awaiting the forthcoming volume on Slavery’s Capitalism, ought to read what Clegg has to say. In earlier posts at The Junto, I’ve pointed out the way new historians of capitalism have made a feature out of their resistance to defining the primary term. Clegg puts that resistance at the centre of his critique. “None of them,” he writes, “seem interested in asking what capitalism is” (281). As a result, he argues, “these authors fail to explain how the various features of the antebellum economy that they identify form part of a coherent capitalist system” (284). That makes it very difficult for them to “engage scholars in other fields and contribute to contemporary political and economic debates” (282).

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told comes in for a particularly compelling corrective. [1] One of the book’s core arguments was that the violent techniques of the slave-drivers’ “pushing system,” not improvements in fertility or seed stock, accounts for the nineteenth-century’s consistent increases in cotton productivity. Clegg demolishes that claim (however, see Baptist’s response in the comments below). For one thing, it doesn’t account for differences in Sea Island plantation productivity. Nor does it account for the high productivity of postbellum sharecroppers, who were not subject to the violence of slavery. But more important than either of those considerations is simply the question of capitalist logic—why would it take slavers half a century to reach maximum levels of violence?

Slave owners subject to a competitive constraint can always be expected to use violence to whatever extent it is profitable. They will use violence to extract the maximum output when cotton yields and pickability are low, and they will continue to use violence to extract the even larger output when yields and pickability rise due to changing soils and seeds. Thus it is implausible that increased violence alone could account for a fourfold increase in productivity from 1805 to 1860. For it would suggest that market-dependent slave owners in 1805 were either too ignorant or too kind to take advantage of a relatively simple way to make a lot of money. (294-5)

Clegg also takes on the question of what these historians mean when they say slavery was central or essential to capitalism. Without slavery, could there have been no capitalism? Beckert and Baptist both seem to claim as much. In that sense, they are successors to Eric Williams. As Clegg makes clear, however, such a claim is hard to substantiate. What can more easily be said is, in fact, the opposite. “While it is questionable that British and Northern industry were dependent on Southern slavery,” Clegg writes, “the reverse does not hold.” As Robin Blackburn has suggested, “there would have been no African slaves in the New World had European markets not existed for the products of their labor, but capitalism in Europe gave a new lease of life to slavery in the Americas” (298-9).

Slavery was indeed integral to the history of capitalism, and violence was indeed fundamental to slavery. But if we want to understand just how those things related to each other, we still need to get to grips with just what capitalism means to us. To do that, we might need to engage more closely with the work of theorists and others in the social sciences. It may be that in the process, historians of capitalism can no longer avoid the question of political commitment, or the spectre of Marx.

[N.B. See also Edward Baptist’s guest post, responding to this post; and see John Clegg’s response to Baptist in the comments.]


Guest Post: Correcting an Incorrect “Corrective”

by Tom Cutterham

Edward E. Baptist is the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. He would like to “thank Joshua Rothman, Jefferson Cowie, Louis Hyman, and David Silbey for advice on this piece of writing, and The Junto for letting me publish in their space.”
How was an immense increase in the “efficiency” of cotton production achieved in the nineteenth century? The question cuts to the heart of the debates over the history of U.S. slavery.

Last week, The Junto linked to sociologist John Clegg’s review in Critical Historical Studies, which considered several recent books on slavery and capitalism. This blog reported Clegg’s take on The Half Has Never Been Told as a “corrective.” Clegg attacks my argument that intense coercion drove a 400% increase in the efficiency of cotton-picking slave labor in the U.S. South between 1800 and 1860. His critiques directly build on the work of economists Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode. In a series of essays, they asserted that efficiency actually increased because of improved seeds. In a recent issue of the Journal of Economic History, Olmstead appears somewhat displeased that I disagree with their assertions.

But “correctives” had better be correct. In this critique of The Half, there are holes big enough to push a bale of cotton through.

I’ll focus on just one here. This hole tunnels back to a fundamental error in Olmstead and Rhode’s story about cotton picking. I place great value on their documentary research, because it maps the upward quantitative trend of picking rates in U.S. short-staple cotton. By 1860 ever-growing cotton-picking efficiency helped drop the real price of the world’s most crucial commodity to 25% of what it had been in 1800.

While Olmstead and Rhode attribute the efficiency increase to enslavers’ adoption, especially from the 1820s onward, of new, more “pickable” breeds of upland cotton, I interpret the data very differently. I argue in my book that improvements in cotton seeds are likely to have been part–but only part—of the reason for this increase. On slavery’s cotton frontier, slavery’s survivors reported, torture as a labor-management strategy was the ultimate cause of increased efficiency.

However, Clegg and Olmstead, who dismiss ex-slaves’ testimony as mere “anecdote,” believe they have a trump card. In contrast to the rise in picking efficiency in the interior, Olmstead and Rhode’s data from a handful of lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia plantations that grew Sea-Island cotton shows no change in picking rate between 1800 and 1860. Assuming that labor management in both lowcountry and upcountry was essentially the same, they conclude that the increase in upland cotton-picking rates can only be attributed to improved seeds. Clegg echoes this claim, asserting that it refutes my argument.

By this point anyone familiar with the history of slavery in the pre-Civil War South has probably spotted the error. It’s a doozy. It invalidates Clegg’s “corrective.” It reveals a flaw in Olmstead and Rhode’s reasoning, refuting their attempt to demonstrate a non-anecdotal correlation between cotton seeds and cotton picking.

Some of the best-known historians of U.S. slavery have exquisitely documented the way enslavers in the Carolina-Georgia lowcountry extracted labor. In rice and in sea-island cotton production, enslavers assigned enslaved people a “task” or specific quantity of work to accomplish before the end of the day. So many rice seedlings to replant, so many pounds of sea-island cotton to pick, etc. If they accomplished the task, lowcountry slaves could go home, tend to their own gardens, or help family members finish their own tasks. Task done, day done.

Historians have not only demonstrated that the labor output demanded by these tasks hardly changed before emancipation. They’ve also—and Clegg will be interested to hear this—explained why that was so. For one thing, long-established lowcountry slave communities resisted increases in labor requirements.

Historians of slavery have also known for decades that enslavers used a very different system to extract, supervise, and measure slave labor in “upland” cotton. Outside the lowcountry, enslaved people had to work till sundown, and they did so under direct surveillance and threat of violence. As my book demonstrates, in the new, non-lowcountry areas, enslavers often demanded a specific number of pounds of cotton as a minimum, but pickers had to keep going until dark. Poundage in deficit led to whippings. Poundage in excess of one’s quota led to increases in the quota.

Because the labor systems in the two cotton regimes were profoundly different we simply cannot demonstrate that different kinds of seeds, rather than different labor systems, caused the difference between sea-island cotton-picking rates and “upland” cotton-picking rates. Olmstead and Rhode’s postulate, crucial also to Clegg’s “corrective,” assumes everything it has to prove and is therefore irrelevant.

But this logic fail isn’t just an error. It’s also a revelation: Clegg, Olmstead, and Rhode haven’t thought carefully about (and may be unfamiliar with) historical work on the lowcountry task system. Otherwise, Olmstead and Rhode would not be advancing an untenable argument, nor would Clegg be building untenable critiques on their work.

It’s unclear why economists and sociologists would publish articles about slave labor—let alone pass scathing judgment on books for their account of historical slave labor—when they apparently haven’t done basic reading on the history of slave labor. The difference between task and gang systems is so basic that AP U.S. History students learn it—you can even get flash cards.

Yet here’s what is clear. Some scholars axiomatically refuse to accept the implications of the fact that brutal technologies of violence drove slave labor. They retreat into homo economicus fallacies to resist considering the question of whether in some cases violence increased, or was calibrated over time to enhance production. They evade consideration of survivors’ testimony about those changes, insisting that this data is “anecdotal”—as if the enslavers’ claims on which they build arguments are epistemologically any different.

I’m not going to dismiss Clegg’s review, although I will correct some of its other incorrect “correctives” elsewhere. And in contrast to Olmstead’s claim that The Half Has Never Been Told is “flawed beyond repair,” I’m not going to level that kind of judgment at his work, either. After all, I couldn’t do my own work nearly as effectively without his and Rhode’s basic finding of increasing cotton-picking efficiency under slavery. But if economists and sociologists are going to make claims about the history of slavery, they should familiarize themselves with the work done by historians of slavery.

John Clegg’s RESPONSE:

I’m happy to see that Baptist has responded to one of my criticisms, and I look forward to his promised response to my other arguments. I hope to soon write a guest post on this blog, reflecting on the wider implications of this debate, but first I want to directly respond to Baptist’s response, which boils down to the suggestion that the task system might explain low productivity growth on low-country cotton plantations.

I think this suggestion is worth taking seriously. Despite being a mere sociologist, I’m aware of the literature on the task system, as are the economists Olmstead and Rhode, who refer to it in their work. Our difference with Baptist is not a matter of differing sources but of differing interpretations. It is plausible that a less productive system of labor management was preserved on lowland plantations growing long staple Sea Island cotton (which was marketed separately from short staple upland varieties). But existing scholarship does not provide unambiguous support for such a conclusion. Nor can it explain why productivity on upland plantations rose by a factor of four.

While an opposition between lowland “task” and upland “gang” labor may be adequate for AP history flashcards, specialists tend to guard against such a simplistic dichotomy. Both Edmund Morgan and Peter Coclanis (the authors Baptist linked in his response) acknowledge that some upland cotton plantations were completely organized along task lines (including, it appears, Hammond’s Silver Bluff plantation, a discussion of which Baptist also links to, apparently unaware that it was an upland plantation). While all agree that planting and cultivation on upland plantations tended to be organized in gangs, *cotton picking* (the subject of this discussion) was generally tasked in both regions. Indeed, what Baptist calls “the pushing system” in upland cotton picking is itself a variant of tasking, albeit one where slaves were punished for going under the task rather than rewarded with free time for going over it. Baptist is essentially claiming that upland planters set the task as a minimum and allowed it to vary among slaves and over time, whilst lowland planters set the task as a more or less constant maximum. As Brad Hansen points out above, if this is true it is unclear why Sea Island planters meticulously recorded the daily pickings of individual slaves in the account books that Olmstead and Rhode have digitized. Yet this hypothesis is not implausible given what we know about other differences between upland and lowland work cultures. Unfortunately studies of lowland plantations tend to focus on rice, and more research will be needed to establish whether Sea Island cotton was indeed picked in a systematically different manner.

However, even if Baptist is right that cotton picking was organized entirely differently on lowland cotton plantations (e.g. if slaves were typically rewarded with free time during the harvest) this wouldn’t necessarily explain the stagnant productivity observed on them. Morgan argues that Sea Island planters adopted the task system because it proved a more efficient way to extract cotton from slaves—by providing them with greater incentives—rather than because slave resistance prevented them from introducing the more productive labor management techniques employed in the uplands. If Morgan is right (and he remains the foremost authority on the subject) then Baptist’s alternative hypothesis becomes less plausible.

Lastly, even if Baptist is right that labor organization alone explains low productivity on Sea Island plantations, this cannot save his main argument that torture was the “ultimate cause” of the fourfold labor productivity growth on *upland* plantations from 1800 to 1860. The Sea Island contrast was only one of a number of criticisms that have been made of this argument (by Olmstead, Hansen, Pseudoerasmus and myself). To briefly reiterate these:
1. Baptist fails to explain why slaveowners in 1800 were willing to accept a quarter of the daily output of cotton they received in 1860, when according to him all they needed to do was to apply more violence. Were they too bound by moral feeling for their slaves?
2. Baptist would presumably say no. Instead his claim is that it took slaves a long time to adapt to “the pushing system.” But he fails to account for why it took 50-60 years. Studies of the labor process often find that “learning by doing” can be a major factor in productivity growth. But with technology held constant this effect is usually found to play out over months or years, not generations.
3. While Baptist’s description of a uniform “system” of continually increasing quotas is consistent with the increase of average annual picking rates in Olmstead and Rhode’s data, it is not consistent with sub-annual trends and cross-sectional variation. As Olmstead points out in his response, there is a lot of day-to-day variation in picking rates, as well as periods of decline towards the end of the season. This suggests that the “ratcheting effect” described by Baptist (due to enforced competition) was inoperative in the short term. There was also a tremendous amount of variation in average picking rates between plantations, and this variation increased over time, suggesting there was not much systematicity to “the pushing system.”
4. If torture were all that was required to reach high levels of productivity growth how do we explain centuries of stagnant productivity on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil? Historians of these regions would be surprised to learn that slaveowners there had any qualms about torturing slaves.
5. Daily picking rates from the early twentieth century, from sharecroppers who used the same primitive technology as slaves but were not whipped, are 25 to 50% higher than in 1860. At a minimum this demonstrates that torture is not necessary to achieve productivity growth beyond the level Baptist is trying to explain (of course this is not to suggest that torture was unnecessary under slavery, just that it could be substituted with other “free labor” incentives and/or biological innovation. Baptist, in a comment to an earlier post, cited evidence of total productivity decline in the aftermath of the civil war, but this data does not consist of cotton picking rates, and the best study (Ransom and Sutch) attributes it to a reduction in labor time).

Baptist has still not responded to any of these objections.

But leaving aside these reasons to doubt Baptist’s argument, the biggest problem with it is the sheer paucity of evidence he presents in its defense. He cites data from only one plantation (the Prudhomme plantation of Natchitoches Louisiana), where he claims the introduction of the pushing system led average picking rates to more than double between the 1830s and 1850s. Not only do we have no reason to take this single case as representative, but there is evidence of picking rates on this plantation for only one year in the 1830s, hardly enough to estimate a decennial average. Moreover, in examining Prudhomme letters and account books I have been unable to find any mention of the new system of labor discipline that Baptist claims was introduced between the 1830s and 50s.

It is this supposed evidence, and not the testimony of ex-slaves, that I criticized in my review as “anecdotal.” Which brings me to the thorny issue of Baptist’s rhetorical tactics. Baptist has repeatedly suggested that his critics are either dismissing the experience of formerly enslaved people or denying that coercion played a central role in the slave labor process. In fact, with the exception of a scurrilous review that the Economist was forced to retract, his critics have done no such thing. In my review I drew on a comprehensive analysis of interviews with former slaves, as well as published slave narratives. My comments on Baptist’s work were framed by an argument about the compatibility of capitalism and violence, as well as a criticism of Fogel and Engerman for downplaying the essential brutality of slavery. My critique of Baptist is not that he overestimates the extent of slaveowner violence in the fully-fledged cotton kingdom of the 1850s, but that in order to make violence the central cause of productivity growth he ends up *underestimating* the extent of violence in 1800. Olmstead makes essentially the same point in his review: “Slavery was a disgustingly vicious institution in 1860, but it was also a disgustingly vicious institution in 1800.”

Yet Baptist continues to frame this debate as about “seeds vs. coercion” and “numbers vs. testimony”, in spite of the fact that both are false oppositions. Everyone agrees that brutal coercion lay at the bleeding heart of the slave labor process, and that without such coercion productivity would have been lower than it was. But it does not follow that a new technique of coercion caused a fourfold increase in productivity over 50-60 years. Numbers and testimony can both provide vital information, and as far as I know none of the scholars who have criticized Baptist’s handling of numbers have questioned any of the testimony he has presented. But then it’s striking that Baptist never seems to provide any actual citations of the testimony on which his argument are supposedly based in these exchanges with his critics. If he were to do so it would perhaps allow us to have a more rewarding discussion of these important sources.

The issue of testimony raises questions about the goal of history writing. There are of course multiple legitimate goals. Baptist’s technique of “evocative history” combines slave narratives and interviews to create what he call “composite characters”. Several commentators, including Trevor Burnard and Trevor Logan, have strongly criticized this technique, accusing Baptist of “ventriloquizing” formerly enslaved people and using the experience of survivors as vehicles for rhetorical ends. More charitably, we might interpret Baptist’s use of testimony as primarily descriptive rather than explanatory. This technique allows Baptist to depicts the horrors of slavery in all their gruesomeness, and his argument about torture draws on the moral outrage that every reader will appropriately feel when confronted with these horrors. But evocative writing and an earnest moral stand should not be confused with convincing explanation. The idea that torture is the “ultimate cause” of long-run productivity increases may be morally satisfying, for it allows us to focus on one of the most awful features of a deeply repugnant institution. But with the meager evidence Baptist has provided, this argument does not bear critical scrutiny. In my forthcoming post I will put forward an alternative explanation and try to show why I think this debate has important implications for our understanding of capitalism, both past and present.



Let me make one final point. I like John Clegg a lot. He’s a great young scholar, and though I disagree with many points and believe he hasn’t always read my book carefully (or represented it accurately) on some very specific matters, he has launched a great debate and I appreciate that. However, I must say this. He claims that I “mock” Olmstead and Rhode specifically by stating (sorry, I have to quote myself here) “We don’t usually see torture as a factor of production. Economics teachers don’t put it on the chalkboard as a variable in a graph (“T” stands for torture,
one component of “S,” or supply).” Behzad Diba, my econ teacher at Georgetown, might have fair cause for complaint. (He was actually a great teacher.) But to say that I call out O & R here is just not right. Instead, I’m calling out _all of us, myself included_, who study the history of slavery, for not taking the role of violence seriously enough. And now, off to my Parisian dinner with my beautiful spouse. In this case, I am taunting–but dear readers, please don’t take it too hard. In a day I will be back in upstate New York, winter will be coming, and many of you will have every opportunity for schadenfreude. That’s the last I will write on this till I respond to Clegg’s very interesting review, which I promise to do in these pages.

Caitlin Rosenthal

Historian Caitlin Rosenthal stumbled upon connections between organization methods used by slave owners and modern management methods.  Recently, Rosenthal helped defend the historians of the “new history of capitalism” against criticisms that these historians have not defined ‘capitalism,’ thereby causing ambiguities and cross-overs with other fields of history.

Three years ago, Forbes magazine interviewed Rosenthal about connections between slave management and modern management practices.  Below, is a reposts of that interview:

The Messy Link Between Slave Owners And Modern Management


Caitlin C. Rosenthal didn’t intend to write a book about slavery. She set out to tackle something much more mundane: the history of business practices. But when she started researching account books from the mid-1800s, a period of major economic development during the rise of industrialization in the United States, Rosenthal stumbled across an unexpected source of innovation.

Rosenthal, a Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in business history at Harvard Business School, found that southern plantation owners kept complex and meticulous records, measuring the productivity of their slaves and carefully monitoring their profits—often using even more sophisticated methods than manufacturers in the North. Several of the slave owners’ practices, such as incentivizing workers (in this case, to get them to pick more cotton) and depreciating their worth through the years, are widely used in business management today.

As fascinating as her findings were, Rosenthal had some misgivings about their implications. She didn’t want to be perceived as saying something positive about slavery. On the contrary, she sees her research as a critique of capitalism—one that could broaden the understanding of today’s business practices.

The work is part of her current book project, “From Slavery to Scientific Management: Capitalism and Control in America, 1754-1911,” and the forthcoming edited collection Slavery’s Capitalism.

The evolution of modern management is usually associated with good old-fashioned intelligence and ingenuity—”a glorious parade of inventions that goes from textile looms to the computer,” Rosenthal says. But in reality, it’s much messier than that. Capitalism is not just about the free market; it was also built on the backs of slaves who were literally the opposite of free.

Leading research and ideas from Harvard Business School faculty.

Commodification, Specialization, Mechanization

Repost from the Junto

This post is the second in a two-part report on a roundtable session at this year’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, entitled, “Open Question: What’s the Relationship Between Slavery and Capitalism?” The panelists were James Oakes, Craig Wilder, Sven Beckert, and Caitlin Rosenthal. Yesterday’s post focused on Beckert’s comments, today’s looks at Rosenthal’s.

The new historians of capitalism have sometimes been criticised for refusing to offer a definition of their object of study. At the OAH panel, Caitlin Rosenthal (an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley) responded to that criticism directly. The refusal to start out with a strict definition has been, on one level, an asset to recent scholarship—freeing it from earlier dogmatic approaches. But the downside, Rosenthal said, is that it leads to misunderstandings among historians, and between historians and economists. Her tentative definition, then: “Capitalism exists where capital (and through capital, power) is consolidated in such a way that labor can be highly commodified.” Capital is at the centre, but so is labour; and what connects them is the process of commodification.

Drawing on her archival research, Rosenthal presented some provocative evidence for the way slave labour was sometimes commodified in the nineteenth century United States. What makes a commodity isn’t just the capacity to buy and sell it, but its fungibility: the degree to which one unit is like any other. At least some slave-owners and slave-merchants, Rosenthal showed, thought of slave labour in this way, finding ways to price slaves “objectively” (by height or weight, for example) and to quantify their labour power. Because enslaved people were people, this process was always incomplete and subject to resistance. But planters “made an audacious effort” to achieve it, to turn their slaves from people into fungible packets of labour power to be deployed at the planter’s will.

Of course, there’s a difference between commodifying labour and commodifying labourers. For historians and economists who see slavery as a non-capitalist form of production, that difference is essential. It is the wage relation that allows capitalists the flexibility to deploy labour only where and when they need it, where and when the market price is right. Wage labour promotes processes like division of labour, which Adam Smith placed at the centre of his analysis of the growing, new, industrial economy. But rather than hiring the right specialists for each job, slave-owners had to make the most out of the slaves they had. While elsewhere people became more and more interdependent, plantations were becoming more self-sufficient (except, that is, for their fundamental reliance on the cash crop market). Because their labourers were also capital, slave-capitalists had to treat them differently.

Yet Rosenthal’s presentation made me think harder about that distinction. Of course, on larger plantations the division of labour could be thoroughly implemented; slaves who developed specialised skills could also be hired out in a secondary labour market that allowed increased efficiency. And it’s not as though capitalists in free-labour systems didn’t also face limits to their flexibility. Especially in smaller enterprises, workers, servants, and apprentices had to take on multiple roles and could not always be easily fired and replaced. Here too, labourers were also people, with individual and collective powers of resistance; and here too, capitalists often had interests other than maximum efficiency. The commodification of labour was vital to capitalism, but nowhere was it complete or without contradiction.

Along with specialisation comes the question of mechanisation, obviously paradigmatic to nineteenth-century industrial capitalism. Was there something about slavery that prevented the drive toward technical innovation and the mechanisation of labour? Planters who invested heavily in slaves might not be particularly interested in replacing them with expensive machinery. But then, capital improvements were expensive and risky for everyone, regardless of the type of labour used. The south did see technical development and mechanisation, just not on the scale of the industrial north. In the antebellum United States, plantation slavery, like other forms of agriculture, grew by expanding more than it did by intensifying. That’s why the question of land was such an important one. None of that helps to draw a sharp dividing line, economically, between slave and free labour systems.

That’s not to say there weren’t good reasons some capitalists preferred slaves to wage labourers. As Rosenthal pointed out, slave labour was as much about control as it was about price. Through systematic and violent coercion, backed by the power of the state, slave-owners could make slaves go to places and perform tasks that free labourers wouldn’t. “Capital’s power to control labour was rarely more extreme,” Rosenthal concluded, “than when labourers themselves were capital.” Just as historians of slavery have worked to tease out the agency and powers of resistance in enslaved people, so historians of capitalism might also help to find the limits, gaps, and contradictions that place power, even just a little, in the hands of labour.

Primitive Accumulation as Creative Destruction?

Repost from the Junto

by Tom Cutterham

This post is the first part of a two-part report on a roundtable session at this year’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, entitled, “Open Question: What’s the Relationship Between Slavery and Capitalism?” The panelists were James Oakes, Craig Wilder, Sven Beckert, and Caitlin Rosenthal (Ed Baptist was sadly unable to be there). My first post will focus on Beckert’s comments, my second on Rosenthal’s.

As a protagonist in the debate over slavery and capitalism, Sven Beckert’s principal aim seems to be to show just how crucial violence was to the emergence and success of capitalism. This violence is not something standard, mainstream, or traditional accounts—the kind we see in economics textbooks or breezy historical surveys—are willing to acknowledge. Rather, the role of violence and slavery in the history of capitalism was erased, Beckert noted in his roundtable comments, by a “process of mystification,” an “active act of forgetting,” that took place from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries. Especially after the Russian Revolution and the beginning of the Cold War, he argued, American scholars and public intellectuals transformed the story of capitalism into a story of the spread of freedom. In this narrative, the nineteenth-century Civil War took on the role of a violent clearing of the decks, eliminating slavery as a remnant of the past, and opening the way for capitalist modernization.

Beckert and his fellow “new historians of capitalism” have made it their task (building on the work of earlier pioneers from what he called the margins of the profession, including C.L.R. James and W.E.B. DuBois) to push back against this “utopian” account. In his book, Empire of Cotton, Beckert introduced the concept of “war capitalism” to emphasise the role not just of violence, but of state-sponsored, state-perpetrated violence in constructing the global processes of production that characterise the capitalist economy. Plantation slavery in the American south was one part of a larger system that incorporated many different regimes of labour and forms of coercion. In Egypt and India, Africa and South America also, states and capitalist entrepreneurs organised violent mechanisms by which to extract the cotton that, Beckert claims, drove European economic growth during the nineteenth century.

In his comments to the roundtable, Beckert condensed and reiterated some of the positions he staked out in Empire of Cotton. What interested me the most, and made me rethink my reading of the book, was the way he framed his concept of “war capitalism,” within which slavery was a crucial element, in terms of the weakness of capitalist forces. Market mechanisms, Beckert argues, simply didn’t have the power to transform the globe in the way that capitalists needed; so they used state-backed violence instead. In a notion that was picked up in Caitlin Rosenthal’s talk afterwards, Beckert emphasised the political power inherent in slavery: slavery as a system of rule as much as a system of production. Political strength had to be exerted before capitalism’s economic logic could take hold.

As Peter James Hudson has pointed out, Beckert’s account of “war capitalism”—especially as expressed in his roundtable remarks—reads a lot like Marx’s notion of “primitive accumulation,” the historical moment (albeit an extremely long moment) in which violent expropriation made capitalism possible. But if Marx’s notion emphasises, well, accumulation—the monopolisation of land, resources, and labour by first-generation capitalists—Beckert seems to want to draw attention to something slightly different: destruction. War capitalism may be less about what capitalists gained than what other people lost. The structures of social organisation, law, government, culture, and community that preceded the dominance of capital were also the greatest barriers to its expansion. It was these that had to be, in many cases, violently destroyed. Just as Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” paves the way for new heights of capitalist innovation, Beckert’s war capitalism broke down institutions of resistance. In this light, we could imagine primitive accumulation as less like the dragon’s hoard of gold… more its annihilating fire.

Repeal of the Stamp Act

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today? “ADVERTISEMENT Extraordinary. … Repeal of the Stamp-Act.” This “ADVERTISEMENT Extraordinary” hailed the “Repeal of the Stamp-Act” and encouraged other patriotic Britons to do the same. In particular, the advertisement encouraged a variety of public displays” “general Illuminations, Ringing of Bells, Bonfires, Firing of Guns, […]

via April 25 — The Adverts 250 Project

‘Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807’ Review H-Atlantic

David Richardson
Justin Roberts. Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. pgs. $91.00 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-107-02585-1.

Reviewed by David Richardson (University of Hull)
Published on H-Albion (April, 2014)
Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth

Justin Roberts has written a challenging and thought-provoking book. In it, he underlines the centrality of work and the conditions pertaining thereto to the lives of enslaved Africans in Barbados, Jamaica, and Virginia in the late eighteenth century. This period saw the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, an event often linked to change in agriculture and to the emergence, among other things, of the factory system. Rising productivity in the latter was identified with the division of labor; long working hours; close supervision of factory operatives; and, most significantly for Roberts, a belief in the importance of labor discipline and the morally redemptive values of work as part of “benevolent” management ideas associated with the Enlightenment. Roberts’s goal is to assess the extent to which slave owners in British America appropriated such ideas as they sought to maximize output and productivity from their own labor forces. Readers of his book will detect the application to plantation slavery arguments associated with Edward Thompson about discipline and labor conditions in early industrial Britain. Students of slavery will also recognize parallels with the work of others, among them the late Mary Turner, who emphasized that enslaved Africans were essentially workers and who encouraged other historians to see such slaves as living at one extreme of a spectrum of Atlantic-wide labor regimes that included both free and coerced workers. In Roberts’s view, slavery in British America needs to be seen as a species of labor history, with similarities to and differences from other forms of labor in the English-speaking Atlantic world. His focus in this book is more on the similarities between factory and plantation labor than on their differences.

Management of workers’ time was key to labor discipline, whether the workers were free or enslaved. The factory bell became symbolic of British industrial capitalism. With plantation slavery, the slave owners’ logbook of slaves’ work time assumed a similar role, in Roberts’s view. His study revolves around analysis of the reported number of hours per day worked by slaves, the distribution of time between tasks as it related to different groups or gangs of slaves, the apportionment of such tasks by age and gender categories, the toll exacted on slaves by them, and the rates of absence through flight or sickness of slaves. The evidential base for his analysis is provided by annual work logs of four estates–Mount Vernon (northern Virginia), Newton and Seawell (southeast Barbados), and Prospect (northeast Jamaica)–for which detailed logs have survived for several years between 1787 and 1798. Partial logs, together with other papers for other estates, notably, in Barbados and eastern Jamaica, allow Roberts to extend the scope of his analysis back to the 1770s and forward to the early 1800s. The study’s core estates varied in size, slave numbers, the birthplace of the enslaved populations, and crop outputs. Together with the limited number of estates under study, this may be thought to raise questions about the representativeness of slaves’ experiences that Roberts is able to reveal. Though future studies of other plantation records may help to shed light on that issue, Roberts’s comparative framework and detailed statistical analysis nevertheless offer acute and valuable insights into the different patterns and burdens of work encountered by enslaved Africans across the English-speaking Americas in the later eighteenth century. Whereas others have studied slaves’ plantation life in one specific locality, Roberts offers a multipolar study of their lives that sheds light on important differences not only between the Chesapeake and Caribbean worlds of slavery but also within the Caribbean world of slavery. In this respect, Roberts has written an important book, providing for the later eighteenth century the more nuanced and comparative study of sugar production, plantation life, and slave demography in the Caribbean that one has come to associate with the research of Barry Higman, among others, for the period after British slave trade abolition in 1807.

Among Roberts’s more important findings are the high costs to slaves of sugar cane holing and fertilizing relative to other tasks, the positive contribution of crop diversification and mix to slave labor productivity, and differences in the seasonal incidence of slave sickness among the plantations under review. These and other findings will provide further grist to ongoing arguments among historians about the relationship between work regimes and slave demography in the Americas. They may even provoke new thinking about slavery and the human costs of British industrialization. For, insofar as enslaved Africans in British America made a net contribution to Britain’s industrial growth, as Eric Williams and others have argued, then perhaps the life experiences of those forced to labor to produce sugar, coffee, tobacco, and other goods for British consumers need to be included on the balance sheet of assessment of the living standards of British workers during the Industrial Revolution. This seems a logical extension of Roberts’s insistence that such slaves were one part of an Atlantic-wide British laboring population that by the eighteenth century worked under varying degrees of coercion or freedom. It is also consistent with treatments of British abolitionism that highlight the empathy shown by some sections of the British working class with the plight of enslaved Africans in British America. Whether or not factoring in the well-being of the eight hundred thousand or so enslaved Africans living by 1800-34 under British rule would radically alter calculations of “British” workers living standards ca. 1750-1850 remains unclear, but it is one of many issues that Roberts’s book demands that we should reflect upon.

The considerable merits of Roberts’s book notwithstanding, he leaves open some important issues, the addressing of which may expose some limitations of his approach to the Atlantic as an arena of British-centered sociocultural change. Two issues might be noted here. First, though Roberts relies heavily on documentation generated by planters and their agents, he says little about the processes by which so-called British enlightened ideas relating to labor discipline were transplanted to the Americas. Maybe absenteeism by British Caribbean planters in Britain, where they might have been exposed to such ideas, as well as the correspondence of those planters with their attorneys and overseers in the West Indies had some part to play. Maybe, too, one needs to consider in this context the education of planters (absentee or otherwise), their library stocks, and the resulting literature that they read. Doubtless, other mechanisms of knowledge transfer were also involved, but in largely overlooking such mechanisms and focusing instead on what sort of ideas migrated rather than how they migrated, Roberts offers an, as yet, incomplete story of Enlightenment knowledge transfusion in the British Atlantic world. Second, while Roberts provides important new insights into the world of work of slaves, he provides little evidence, directly or indirectly, on how far Enlightenment ideas determined slaves’ overall productivity performance. Following Adam Smith’s strictures on the relative inefficiency of slave labor, and bearing in mind the difficulties of identifying precise sources of productivity change historically, Roberts’s reticence on this issue is perhaps understandable. There are, nevertheless, published estimates that show differentials in productivity performance among slaves in different parts of the Americas, but with colonies in the western Caribbean, including Jamaica, Saint-Domingue, and Cuba, leading the way in improvements in performance after 1750. Roberts overlooks such findings. They are, however, consistent with arguments by Robin Blackburn that emphasize the comparative advantage of Saint-Domingue in Caribbean sugar production before the 1791 slave uprising. They also suggest that efforts to discipline African captives and to raise output per capita among enslaved populations were not confined solely to British America. On the contrary, they were seemingly commonplace throughout an Atlantic world in which European nations competed against each other for economic advantage in colonial production.

Any suggestion that Roberts should widen his vision in seeking to explore how Enlightenment ideas in Europe influenced attitudes to, and the economic performance of, slave labor in the Americas should not detract from the considerable achievements of his book. In urging the need to view slave labor as part of a spectrum of labor conditions in the Atlantic world and to investigate comparatively the influence of European ideas on the life of slaves in different parts of the Americas, Roberts has opened up a line of research that will occupy him (and hopefully others) for some time to come. Historians will look forward with much anticipation to receiving the fruits of that research agenda.

Printable Version:

Citation: David Richardson. Review of Roberts, Justin, Slavery and the Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. April, 2014.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

0 Replies

‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ Review from New York Times

‘The Half Has Never Been Told,’ by Edward E. Baptist

Review: Eric Foner


The auction of a baby, from a slave narrative published in 1849.

For residents of the world’s pre-­eminent capitalist nation, American historians have produced remarkably few studies of capitalism in the United States. This situation was exacerbated in the 1970s, when economic history began to migrate from history to economics departments, where it too often became an exercise in scouring the past for numerical data to plug into computerized models of the economy. Recently, however, the history of American capitalism has emerged as a thriving cottage industry. This new work portrays capitalism not as a given (something that “came in the first ships,” as the historian Carl Degler once wrote) but as a system that developed over time, has been constantly evolving and penetrates all aspects of society.

Slavery plays a crucial role in this literature. For decades, historians depicted the institution as unprofitable and on its way to extinction before the Civil War (a conflict that was therefore unnecessary). Recently, historians like Sven Beckert, Robin Blackburn and Walter Johnson have emphasized that cotton, the raw material of the early Industrial Revolution, was by far the most important commodity in 19th-century international trade and that capital accumulated through slave labor flowed into the coffers of Northern and British bankers, merchants and manufacturers. And far from being economically backward, slave owners pioneered advances in modern accounting and finance.

Edward E. Baptist situates “The Half Has Never Been Told” squarely within this context. Baptist, who teaches at Cornell University, is the author of a well-­regarded study of slavery in Florida. Now he expands his purview to the entire cotton kingdom, the heartland of 19th-­century American slavery. (Unfortunately, slavery in the Upper South, where cotton was not an economic staple, is barely discussed, even though as late as 1860 more slaves lived in Virginia than any other state.) In keeping with the approach of the new historians of capitalism, the book covers a great deal of ground — not only economic enterprise but religion, ideas of masculinity and gender, and national and Southern politics. Baptist’s work is a valuable addition to the growing literature on slavery and American development.

Where Baptist breaks new ground is in his emphasis on the centrality of the interstate trade in slaves to the regional and national economies and his treatment of the role of extreme violence in the workings of the slave system. After the legal importation of slaves from outside the country ended in 1808, the spread of slavery into the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico would not have been possible without the enormous uprooting of people from Maryland and Virginia. Almost one million slaves, Baptist estimates, were transported to the cotton fields from the Upper South in the decades before the Civil War.

The domestic slave trade was highly organized and economically efficient, relying on such modern technologies as the steamboat, railroad and telegraph. For African-Americans, its results were devastating. Since buyers preferred young workers “with no attachments,” the separation of husbands from wives and parents from children was intrinsic to its operation, not, as many historians have claimed, a regrettable side effect. Baptist shows how slaves struggled to recreate a sense of community in the face of this disaster.

The sellers of slaves, Baptist insists, were not generally paternalistic owners who fell on hard times and parted reluctantly with members of their metaphorical plantation “families,” but entrepreneurs who knew an opportunity for gain when they saw one. As for the slave traders — the middlemen — they excelled at maximizing profits. They not only emphasized the labor abilities of those for sale (reinforced by humiliating public inspections of their bodies), but appealed to buyers’ salacious fantasies. In the 1830s, the term “fancy girl” began to appear in slave-trade notices to describe young women who fetched high prices because of their physical attractiveness. “Slavery’s frontier,” Baptist writes, “was a white man’s sexual playground.”

The cotton kingdom that arose in the Deep South was incredibly brutal. Violence against Native Americans who originally owned the land, competing imperial powers like Spain and Britain and slave rebels solidified American control of the Gulf states. Violence, Baptist contends, explains the remarkable increase of labor productivity on cotton plantations. Without any technological innovations in cotton picking, output per hand rose dramatically between 1800 and 1860. Some economic historians have attributed this to incentives like money payments for good work and the opportunity to rise to skilled positions. Baptist rejects this explanation.

Continue reading the main story

Planters called their method of labor control the “pushing system.” Each slave was assigned a daily picking quota, which increased steadily over time. Baptist, who feels that historians too often employ circumlocutions that obscure the horrors of slavery, prefers to call it “the ‘whipping-machine’ system.” In fact, the word we should really use, he insists, is “torture.” To make slaves work harder and harder, planters utilized not only incessant beating but forms of discipline familiar in our own time — sexual humiliation, bodily mutilation, even waterboarding. In the cotton kingdom, “white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed.” When Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans in his Second Inaugural Address of the 250 years of “blood drawn with the lash” that preceded the Civil War, he was making a similar point: Violence did not begin in the United States with the firing on Fort Sumter.

Baptist has a knack for explaining complex financial matters in lucid prose. He relates how in the 1830s Southern banks developed new financial instruments, bonds with slaves as collateral, that enabled planters to borrow enormous amounts of money to acquire new land, and how lawmakers backed these bonds with the state’s credit. A speculative bubble ensued, and when it collapsed, taxpayers were left to foot the bill. But rather than bailing out Northern and European bondholders, several states simply defaulted on their debts. Many planters fled with their slaves to Texas, until 1845 an independent republic, to avoid creditors. “Honor,” a key element in Southern notions of masculinity, went only so far.

By the 1850s, prosperity returned to the cotton economy, and planters had no difficulty obtaining loans in financial markets. As the railroad opened new areas to cultivation and cotton output soared, slave owners saw themselves as a modern, successful part of the world capitalist economy. They claimed the right to bring their slaves into all the nation’s territories, and indeed into free states. These demands aroused intense opposition in the North, leading to Lincoln’s election, secession and civil war.

Baptist clearly hopes his findings will reach a readership beyond academe — a worthy ambition. He pursues this goal, however, in ways that sometimes undermine the book’s coherence. The chapter titles, which refer to parts of the body, often have little connection to the content that follows. Presumably to avoid sounding academic, he sprinkles the text with anachronistic colloquialisms (“the president was all in” is how he describes Franklin Pierce’s embrace of the Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854) and with telegraphic sentences more appropriate for Twitter. Occasionally, he deploys four-letter words that cannot be reproduced in these pages. This is unnecessary — his story does not require additional shock value.

It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of “The Half Has Never Been Told” are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.

Foner, Eric. “‘The Half Has Never Been Told,’ by Edward E. Baptist.” The New York Times, October 3, 2014. Accessed April 16, 2016.


Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

By Edward E. Baptist

Illustrated. 498 pp. Basic Books. $35.

Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia, won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” His next book, “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad,” will appear in January.

A version of this review appears in print on October 5, 2014, on page BR21 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: