Review of: “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism” Seth Rockman


In “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” historian Seth Rockman claims that “unfree labor plays a central role in the economic history of colonial British North America.”[1] His essays explores why this has been left out of the history of the development of American capitalism in the early Republic. Published in The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives & New Directions (2006), edited by Cathy Matson, Rockman’s essay is a precursor to current interest in the new history of capitalism and slavery’s capitalism.[2] He attempts to untangle the association between capitalism and freedom, which has become one of the hallmarks of America’s history and grand narrative. Instead, he argues, that coerced labor was central to America and that free-labor should not always be associated with freedom as the conditions were little better than slavery. “Capitalism in the early Republic is so strongly associated with democracy and freedom that its relationship to unfree labor stands unexplored, unmentioned, and ultimately unfathomed.”[3]

Rockman divides the article into three parts. In the first section, pp.335-340, he explains the grand narrative, which he seeks to undermine. Although scholars focus on the unfree labor in America prior to the Revolution, immediately following 1776 the subject disappears until the Civil War. This occurs, in part because freedom and capitalism, after the Revolution, are conflated. Freedom, during this era, refers to free-labor, meaning the “freedom for common men and women to work when and where they wanted.”[4] This period also saw a rise in “economic development” that economic historians associate with free-labor and individual initiative. Scholars often associated these two themes, arguing that personal freedom and capitalism are inherently inclusive. “Academic historians have enshrined this ‘master narrative’ over the past half-century.”[5] Given this mutual inclusivity, studies of coerced labor in the early Republic have fallen by the way-side. But why and how?

Section two covers the historiographical reasons why coerced labor was overlooked and capitalism and freedom (or free-labor) became inseparable. One of these reasons why the role of coerced labor in American development has been overlooked, he argues, is that scholars have not paid attention to social relations during this era. Traditionally, the development of American capitalism portrays it as arising from the common people. Although there were counter-narratives to this discourse, such as Charles Sellers’s The Market Revolution (1991), where Sellers argued “contrary to liberal mythology, democracy was born in tension with capitalism and not as its natural and legitimizing political expression,” histories equating capitalism and freedom found a resurgence in the 1990s and generally won out over the writing of scholars such as Sellers.[6]

The third part of his essay starts in the section titled “Slavery and Economic Growth,” where Rockman argues that during the economic surge after the Revolution, America saw an expansion in slavery. He shows how slavery and the cotton industry contributed to America’s international trade and structural development. But most importantly, slavery allowed the middle class to become ‘free’; to become masters, innovators, and capitalists.

When compared to slavery, wage labor appeared relatively more free than it actually was. Citing the works of W.E.B. Dubois, wage labor became associated with race and divided American workers. Although wage earners exploited and their ‘freedom’ severely restrained, when compared to slavery free-labor seem free. “Precisely because it was not slavery, wage labor moved from a badge of unrepublican dependence at the time of the American Revolution to the hallmark of liberal freedom during the Civil War.”[7] He states that wage labor only became possible because other Americans were enslaved and that “if the satisfaction of not being a slave was enough to smooth white workers’ entrance into wage relations, then slavery… becomes essential to the development of American capitalism.”[8]

Under capitalism, labor is both a commodity and capital. Capitalist seek to keep their cost low. In the early Republic, they did this by circumscribing the legal rights of U.S. citizens by hiring non-citizens. They also used women because of their diminutive legal status. In other words, they used race, gender, and class to their benefit and in so doing they reified these boundaries and partitions. In the section titled “Coercion and the Wage Economy,” Rockman explores these ideas vital to understanding social relations during the early Republic and revising the history of American capitalism.

Both historians and the general reading public, Rockman argues, have built a grand narrative of America’s past that conflates freedom and capitalism. This narrative is well-embedded in public memory and lies at the heart of the American ideology. “The triumph of liberal capitalism in the early United States depended on unfreedom.” For Rockman, it is important to understand this aspect of American history because it “places those freedoms in a far richer context and reminds us of their costs and consequences.”[9] His work in the history of capitalism and slavery’s capitalism have helped forge a path through in historiography that separate grand rhetoric and narratives from scholarly enquiry, thereby showing how vital history is to understanding today’s socio-economic and political environment.

–Todd Burst




[1] Rockman, Seth. “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism.” The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives and New Directions, 2006, 335–61, 335.

[2] Slavery’s Capitalism (2016), is the title of a book Rockman and Sven Beckert co-edited, but I use the term slavery’s capitalism as shorthand for recent interest in the history of relationships between slavery and capitalism. For more information, please see: Beckert, Sven and Seth Rockman. 2016. Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. University of Pennsylvania Press.

[3] Ibid., 336.

[4] Ibid., 336.

[5] Ibid., 337.

[6] Ibid., 341.

[7] Sellers, Charles. The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. Oxford University Press, 1994, 350.

[8] Ibid., 350-351.


[9] Ibid., 361.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s