The Ins and Outs of American Identity in the Early Republic. A Review of Robert G. Parkinson’s “Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?”

Historian Robert Parkinson recently published The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), where he argues that the Declaration of Independence was shaped by colonial fears of  Native Americans and slave insurrections. The “common” in Common Cause, excluded non-white people in the colonies and served the social, economic, and political construction of community. His work contributes to the growing literature on the interconnections between race, politics, and economics in American (U.S.) history.

For the fourth of July 2016, Parkinson published an article in the New York Times, summarizing thee argument of his book. “Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence,” claims, “we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong.”[1] Our contemporary views of the Declaration as a revolutionary document extolling the virtues of sovereignty and liberty, is the result of nineteenth and twentieth century interpretations. For eighteenth contemporaries, such as Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, “the separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.”[2]

The Declaration committee, including Franklin and, of course, Jefferson listed twenty seven “facts” indicating that King George III was a tyranny, thereby forfeiting his right to govern the colonies. Parkinson draws readers’ attention to the last “fact”: He [King George III] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” “Domestic insurrections,” according to Parkinson, often referred to slave uprisings. Jefferson’s originally draft accused the King of starting the slave trade and also claimed that the King “now exciting those very people [Africans] to rise in arms among us.”[3] This was not a call for universal rights; the colonists were specific about who the Declarations of Independence represented.

Months before the Declaration was printed, the “Continental Congress received a letter from an army commander that contained a shocking revelation” and confirmed colonial suspicions that the British “were utterly despicable” and the natives were a real threat to settlers and even “civilization” itself. The letter reported that “two British officials… had gathered a number of Indians and begged them to ‘feast on a Bostonian and drink his blood.'”[4] To conjure public support and provoke fear among colonies, “Congress ordered this letter printed in newspapers.”[5] It was rare for Americans not to read stories about “British officials ‘whispering’ to Indians or ‘tampering’ with slave plantations.”

After the Declaration was printed and signed supporters made an effigy of King George III and blew it up with gunpowder. However, before blowing up the effigy, they “blackened [its] face and stuffed its head with feathers before setting it on fire.”[6] Native Americans and Africans were viewed as ‘savages” and potential insurrectionists. Even if they supported the Revolution, colonists’ remained suspicious. Parkinson ends his article stating: “Like the people of Huntington, Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic. This notion comes from the very founders we revere… It haunts us still.”

–Todd Burst

[1]. Parkinson, Robert G. “Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?” The New York Times, July 4, 2016.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. “Jefferson’s ‘original Rough Draught’ of the Declaration of Independence – Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents | Exhibitions – Library of Congress.” Web page, July 4, 1995.


[4]. Parkinson, Robert G. “Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?” The New York Times, July 4, 2016.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Ibid.

Questions About the Illicit Slave Trade, State Auctions, and Urban Infrastructure


In Antebellum America, Southern municipalities generated revenue by confiscating and reselling illicit slaves through public auctions.[1] In 1807, Congress prohibited the international slave trade, a year later, Louisiana followed suite, but this did not stop the trade.  An illicit trade from Africa across the Atlantic continued to supply the America South with slaves.  Illegal slaves were forfeited to the state.  The Sheriff’s department placed these slaves in prison to await resale to the public.   These findings raise questions about the role of the state in the slave trade, property laws, municipal revenues, and contributions of the sale of slaves at “property auctions” to modern city infrastructures.

According to Edward Baptist, from 1830 to 1840, slave traders brought nearly one million slaves from Africa to the Americas–mainly in the Caribbean–despite the ban on the international slave trade.[2]  Slaves brought to Cuba, often found their way to the American South.  Once in America, African immigrants were enslaved and put to work.  In some cases, however, local officials would hear about “illegally imported” slaves and investigate.  Sheriffs would ask suspects for records or proof that they purchase whatever slaves were in their possession.  These records were certified bills of sale, receipts of which were kept with local notaries.  If an owner failed to provide the proper records, the sheriff might take the slaves into custody, place them in jail, where they waited till they were officially forfeited to the state, then resold to the public.  From the court petitions covered below, it is not clear what happened to the slave-owner, but it is clear that slaves were not sent home, but instead became the property of the state, put in jail, and were resold.

Around December, 1812, three Africans were “illegally imported… from the coast of Africa or some other foreign port or country” to New Orleans.  Though the details of the case are not included in petition, Attorney General F.X. Martin claimed that, because of their illegal entrance, the slaves “have become forfeited to the state.”[3]  May, 1814, Attorney General Francis Martin petitioned the state to “detain and sell an enslaved man named Harry.”  He was sold for 392.00 dollars — “one half to the informer and the other to the State Treasurer.”[4]

In the case of state petitions to seize and resell the slaves, the slaves are defendants.  For instance, June 5th 1816, acting Attorney General, Stephen Mazureau Esq. claimed that three “defendants, Antoine, Reine, and Juan de Lacruza, are slaves who ‘have been illegally imported into this State contrary to law.'”  Their ports of origin hardly mattered, Mazureau claimed that Juan de Lacruza came “from Carthagena or some other foreign place or country.”  Carthagena might be South America, Spain, or maybe even North Africa.[5]

Antoine (Rodriquez), however, claimed that he was not a slave.  He asked the judge to “be liberated from the Custody of the sheriff on his giving bond with J.H. Holland as his security and to not depart the state without leave of the court.”  The judge agreed, allowing Antoine to go free for 500 dollars, with the promise to return to court so that his status as a free man might be determined.  Reine and Juan de Lacruza were sold “to the highest bidder” for 262.54, paid to the state treasurer.

Informants, sometimes asked if the slaves could be sold to them, thus begging the question about the authenticity of their claims.  For instance, August 18, 1817, four white men seized “five African negroes,” who they claim were “brought and imported from a foreign place into the said Parish of St. Mary [Louisiana], contrary to and in direct violation of the laws of the United States and the State of Louisiana.”[6] In September, 1817,  Dempsey Snipes, John Pattie, Allen Key, and William Harris petitioned the 5th district court of St. Mary Parish for the state of Louisiana to take possession of the “five negroes” and in turn sell them to the petitioners for their duty to the state for discovering the illegally imported slaves sell them to the petitioners  that the five Africans will be “forfeited to the use of the said State of Louisiana and to the Said Snipes, Pattie, Key and Harris as informers and as such that they may be sold and disposed of according to” law. petition two females, one of whom is from six to ten years of age & the other between ten and fifteen years of ages., 1817 four men petitioned the District Court of St. Mary Parish, Louisiana.

These cases indicate that the state was directly involved in the sale of slaves, money made from auctions supported the state, city, or town’s infrastructure.  But there are many other questions that need to be answered before we understand the extent of slavery’s role in the expansion and maintenance of local government and cities infrastructure?  How much did the state (by state, I am referring to any governing entity) make through these auctions?  Did state sanctioned slave auctions create an “Urban Renaissance” in the American South like it did in slave port cities such as Bristol a century earlier?  How genuine were informants’ information?  Did the state care about the accuracy of informants’ information?  Did the illicit trade give the state incentive to enforce property laws?  In the nineteenth century, many free blacks lived in the South, especially New Orleans and some even owned slaves, but there are countless stories of foreigners (Africans) being kidnapped and sold into slavery while their ships were stationed in New Orleans.  One of the more famous cases involved the movie Twelve Years a Slave, but what about other cases, such an Antoine?  When Africans first arrived in the American South during this period, they were labeled as a slave until proven otherwise.  The burden of proof fell on Africans recently brought to the South, brought to a strange place, with laws alien not only to themselves, but even some of the contemporaries.


It is my hope that further research on this topic contributes to current research on Slavery’s Capitalism and nineteenth century American economic development.  This work falls outside my area of focus.  I posted this blog to open dialogue, and offer others–more qualified–with a starting point.  Below. I made some comments on the sources I worked with on this.  I also include links to the Petitions project.  And of course, I must apologize for inability to cite old court cases.  The petition numbers correspond to the petitions on the petition project website.  I hope this inspires scholars for more research.  I am willing to collaborate or even do research (for free).  Please feel free to contact me:  Todd Burst


Note on Sources:

The Digital Library on American Slavery (DLAS), based out of the University of North Carolina Greensboro, provides researchers with several links to several databases pertaining to slavery in North America. The DLAS acts as a central point for researchers to find information pertaining to various aspects of slavery. One such database that can be accessed through the DLAS site is the “Race and Slavery Petitions Project.” The DLAS says this about the “Race and Slavery Petitions Project,” “The Project contains detailed information on about 150,000 individuals, including slaves, free people of color, and whites, extracted from 2,975 legislative petitions and 14,512 county court petitions, as well as from a wide range of related documents, including wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, depositions, court proceedings, amended petitions, among others.” The petitions project covers the years between 1775 to 1867 “in fifteen slaveholding states in the United States and the District of Columbia.”


The petitions pertain to any legal grievance whether from free person of color, slave, or free white persons. The database provides insight into genealogical information, courts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, contemporary beliefs from court records and insight into relationships between the economy and law. Informational of the online database includes, but is not limited to: “young slave owners”; “warranties on slaves”; “Slave title disputes”; “passing as white”; and “free people of color held as slaves.”


The “Race and Slavery Petitions Project” is in the process of publishing two books with selected cases; these books however, only represent two percent “of petitions held in the collection.” The actual collection consists of 151 reels of microfilm. For researchers interested in finding the original copies of the petitions, the microfilm is freely available and the website provides an index to help researchers find the relevant material. Louisiana petitions consist of eighteen reels of microfilm from 1795 to 1863. These petitions are in Section II Part F of the collection. For instance, if a research wanted to find petitions in the year 1830, the appropriate citation would read: “Race and Slavery Petitions Project” II/ F/ 7.


The “New Orleans Public Library” provides a research aid to help students and researchers narrow their search before going to the archive and annoying the archivist. In the finding guide to the 4th District Court is reference to the “Mormon Family History Center,” which has collected important documents in Louisiana and have published some of the docket books online at (free access). Discovering and seeing the docket referring to the case of William Houston online can help researchers feel as if they made some headway.

The full petitions have been submitted online with the ProQuest “Slavery and the Law Digital Library.” ProQuest is a membership database, meaning that researchers can only log onto the site through their respective institution, if their institution has paid the necessary membership fee. These fees cost exorbitant amounts of money and although cites like ProQuest offer free trial memberships, they are not often available for individual researchers or students.

Race and Slavery Petitions Project


–Todd Burst




[1]          Surplus property auctions provide local municipalities financial support through “the disposal of surplus equipment, materials, supplies, and confiscated assets. “New Orleans Surpluses Property Auction website:

[2]          Baptist, Edward. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Basic books, 2014, 298

[3]          Petition 20881438; Race and Slavery Petitions Project Series 2, County Court Petitions The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

[4]          New Orleans first district court 1815. #20881413; Race and Slavery Petitions Project Series 2, County Court Petitions The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

[5]          Jun 5, 1815, Records of the First Judicial District Court; Orleans Parish, Louisiana; Accession: #20881505;  Race and Slavery Petitions Project Series 2, County Court Petitions The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

[6]          Petition #:  20881767; Race and Slavery Petitions Project Series 2, County Court Petitions The University of North Carolina at Greensboro


The Company of Merchants Trading to Africa


In 1750, An act for extending and improving the trade to Africa, incorporated the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa as a non-profit regulated company to “facilitate Britain’s African trade” by governing and maintaining a series of trading establishments on the African coast.[1] The purpose of the company was to protect free trade, a role the state would later adopt.  The CMTA replaced the bankrupt Royal African Company. Regulated companies differed from joint-stock companies in that members of regulated companies did not participate communally to enhance the price and thus wealth of stockholders.[2]  The company did not sell shares, nor cold coastal employees partake in the slave trade for their own personal gain. Private merchants paid the CMTA 40 shillings a year for the use of the forts on the African coast. Parliament provided most of the company’s finances through an annual stipend. The main purpose of the company was to protect free trade and avoid competition between the company and private merchants. According to historian Christopher Brown, in The British Government and “the Slave Trade: Early Parliamentary Enquiries, 1713-83,” the 1750 Act “aimed to resolve the long-standing tension between a joint stock corporation that had long since lost its commercial standing and the individual traders who conducted the commerce, but had no institutional recognition.”[3] The CMTA was an attempt to synthesize corporatism with free trade, debates surrounding the company reveal insight into the changing roles and relationships between the state, corporations, and private merchants during Britain’s expansion as the prominent commercial Empire.

CMTA archives provide scholars with indispensible information on a breadth of topics ranging from the regulations of trade to relations between company employees and African communities on the coast—especially the Fante. Despite a wealth of scholarship published about these relations, scholars sometimes confuse the CMTA with the Royal African Company, but these were two distinct companies. For instance, historians Randy Sparks and Rebecca Shumway refer to the CMTA as the Royal African Company. Part of the reason for this confusion stems from title of the archives. One of the main sources for insight into life on the African coast comes from the treasury records (T 70) of both companies. Unfortunately the title of the series holding both the Royal African Company and the CMTA’s records are titled: Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading with Africa and successors.[4] Eveline Martin’s “The English Establishments on the Gold Coast in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,” provides a detailed study of the companies constitution and provides further sources for reading about the company.[5]

The company consisted of a governing Committee, in England, and Council of governors on the coast lead by the Governor of Cape Coast Castle. Nine men ran the Committee; three men were elected from each of England’s main slave port cities—Bristol, Liverpool, and London. According to Martin, “the functions of this Committee bear no comparison with the powers possessed by the Directors of the Joint-Stock Companies.”[6] Their main function, Martin argues, was to obtain the annual stipend from Parliament and use it to purchase the necessary supplies for the coastal staff. Although the company was independent from the state, the Board of Trade oversaw complaints leveled at the CMTA when they occurred and even launched several investigations.[7] On the coast, the acting Governor of Cape Coast Castle led a council of officers, as mentioned above. The forts were organized in a hierarchical fashion, when officers moved up in rank, they would move to the next fort in the hierarchy.

Several excerpts from the 1750 Act help explain the role and intentions for creating the company. For instance, “It shall not be lawful for the Company established by this Act, to trade to or from Africa in their corporate or joint Capacity, or to have any joint or transferrable Stock, or to borrow or take up any Sum or Sums of Money on their Common Seal.”13  Section XXIV reads, “no Officer or any other Persons to be employed by the said Committee… at any Time hereafter, in any Manner, or on any Pretence, obstruct or hinder any of his Majesty’s Subjects in Trading and that the Forts.”14  Section XXVI and XXVII state that the Warehouses, and Buildings, already erected, or which shall hereafter be erected, by the said Company, shall be applied and appropriated wholly to the Maintenance, support, and Improvement of the Forts and Settlements already” and that the forts and other buildings “shall be free and open to all his Majesty’s Subjects.”15  The Act prohibited officers from trading for profit or hindering the trade of British merchants and stated that the forts were to be kept open for private merchants. Officers, however, violated each of these measures.

The CMTA had three major tasks. First, company employees were supposed to maintain the to assist private merchants and help expedite slaving voyages. Company officers, or chiefs, were supposed to assist merchants by keeping the forts supplied with slaves to sell private merchants.[8] Secondly, the forts acted as important signs of possession to deter European rivals from establishing trade on the coast. This meant that the forts were supposed to have working armaments. Chiefs were also supposed to raise the British flag to help as a deterrent. Thirdly, company officers were to maintain friendly open relations with the local African communities. This involved paying rent, giving presents (dashees), participating in local courts (palavars), and complying with other Fante norms. The British established themselves on the coast at the invitation of African merchants and the Fante made sure the company knew that they [the Fante] were in charge.[9]

Payment of coastal officers created problems for the company and prevented officers from fulfilling the three main goals of the CMTA mentioned above. Private merchants accused officers of trading slaves for their own private profit. Joint-stock advocates accused chiefs of neglecting their duties, by letting the forts fall apart, thereby endangering the trade against European rivals.

Europeans and Africans on the Gold Coast traded in goods not species.  The Governing Committee, in England, provided coastal employees with goods, which they were supposed to trade for slaves.  Which goods the Committee sent depended on Fante demand, but there was often a lag between when the goods were purchased, sent, and the changing demand of the Fante.  This meant that employees often received goods that were out-of-fashion.  To make matters worse, employees were also paid in tradable goods. To keep the forts filled with slaves, the forts had to be supplied with enough goods that were in high demand on the coast or else the forts would not be able to purchase slaves from the local community. The Committee, also, paid the officers in goods, which they were supposed to trade with the Fante for their income. Thee Fante did not depend on Europeans for subsistence economy, they traded with Europeans for luxury (or non essential items), if a certain good went out of fashion, company officers were in trouble. Officers found that it was easier to trade slaves using company stores. Although some officers greatly benefited—such as Richard Brew—others traded merely to survive—Philip Quaque.  Either way, officers spent much of their time trading for their own sustenance or livelihoods, which lead to competition with private merchants.

The extensive complaints against the company created debates in England about the role and merits of free trade, joint-stock trade, and the government’s responsibility in a commercial Empire. As mentioned above, the complaints were often leveled at company officers. In the public sphere, contemporaries did not take into account the effects of the Fante on the company or the overall mismanagement of supplies.  Historians, until recently, also overlooked the power of the Fante on the coast and the effects of their dominance on political debates involving the CMTA in England.  For instance, when slave prices rose, new goods were needed, and payments to the Fante increased for various reasons, the Committee would have to ask for more money from Parliament, which lead to heated debate over the company and the conduct of its employees on the coast.  These debates raised questions about who and how to govern and protect the Empire’s trade–joint-stock companies?  Regulated companies?  The state?   In other words, a transnational study of the CMTA from 1750 to 1777 should provide insight about how cross-cultural interactions affected English politics.[10]

The following is a list of works about cross-cultural relations on the African Gold Coast involving the CMTA

Martin, Eveline Christiana. “The English Establishments on the Gold Coast in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,.”5 (1922)

Reese, Ty M. ” Eating” Luxury: Fante Middlemen, British Goods, and Changing Dependencies on the Gold Coast, 1750-1821.” The William and Mary Quarterly 66, no. 4 (2009): 851-872.

———. “An Economic Middle Ground?: Anglo/African Interaction, Cooperation and Competition at Cape Coast Castle in the Late Eighteenth Century Atlantic World.” Interactions: Regional Studies, Global Processes, and Historical Analysis

———. “‘Sheep in the Jaws of So Many Ravenous Wolves’: The Slave Trade and Anglican Missionary Activity at Cape Coast Castle, 1752-1816.” Journal of religion in Africa 34, no. 3 (2004): 348-372.

———. “We Must Keep Black Men of Power in Our Pay”: The Reliance of the English Slave Trade on African Labor.” Proceedings of the Ohio Academy of History (1999): 51-62.

Reese, Ty M.. “Controlling the Company: The Structures of Fante-British Relations on the Gold Coast, 1750–1821.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41, no. 1 (2013): doi:10.1080/03086534.2013.762162.

———. “Facilitating the Slave Trade: Company Slaves at Cape Coast Castle, 1750–1807.” Slavery & Abolition 31, no. 3 (2010): doi:10.1080/0144039x.2010.504538.

Shumway, Rebecca. The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Boydell & Brewer, 2014.

Sparks, Randy J. Where the Negroes Are Masters. Harvard University Press,

[1] Eveline C. Martin, “The English Establishments on the Gold Coast in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5 (January 1, 1922): 167–208; Ty M. Reese, “Facilitating the Slave Trade: Company Slaves at Cape Coast Castle, 1750-1807,” Slavery & Abolition 31, no. 3 (September 2010): 363.   The forts and other settlements under the companies jurisdiction lied “between the Port of Sallee in South Barbary, and the Cape of Good Hope,” see: Geo. II. c. 31. See: Donnan, Elizabeth. Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America. The Eighteenth Century Volume II Volume II. 1931, 474ff.

[2] Leonard W. Hein, “The British Business Company: Its Origins and Its Control,” The University of Toronto Law Journal 15, no. 1 (January 1, 1963): 144, doi:10.2307/824910; M. Schmitthoff, “The Origin of the Joint-Stock Company,” The University of Toronto Law Journal 3, no. 1 (January 1, 1939): 77, 79, 80, 81, 92, 94, 95,

[3] Christopher Leslie Brown, “The British Government and the Slave Trade: Early Parliamentary Enquiries, 1713-83,” Parliamentary History 26, no. 4 (2007): 27.

[4] For more information on the classification of African Companies, please see: Jenkinson, Hilary. “The Records of the English African Companies,.”6 (1912).

[5] Martin, Eveline Christiana. “The English Establishments on the Gold Coast in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,.”5 (1922)

[6] Martin, Eveline Christiana. “The English Establishments on the Gold Coast in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,.”5 (1922), 172.

[7] Ibid., 174.

[8] Slaving voyages were funded by plantation owners and other merchants, they set a quota for the amount of slaves they wanted to purchase. Someties, the slave ship captain would coast up and down the shore until he purchased enough slaves to fill the quota. Coasting could take weeks or months, during which time, captains would have to purchase provisions for the crew and slaves they already had on board. The settlements were meant to help expedite the voyages. A chief was supposed to keep the fort “stocked” with slaves using goods provided by the governing Committee in England, who received finances from Parliament.

[9] Ty M. Reese, “Controlling the Company: The Structures of Fante-British Relations on the Gold Coast, 1750–1821,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41, no. 1 (2013): 105, doi:10.1080/03086534.2013.762162.

[10] Global Determinants of the English Constitution

Review: Capitalism: The Reemergence of a Historical Concept, edited by Jurgen Kocka and Marcel van der Linden

The 2008 stock market bubble gave impetus to an already growing interest in the history of capitalism.  An interest long overdue–according to some scholars.  Economic history did not fare well in the cultural turn of the 1980s and 1990s.  Myriad nuances of power relationships undermined Marxist’s traditional materialist determinism.  Scholars such as Michele Foucault reimagined power as a dynamic symbiotic loop between subjectivities and external discourses about those subjectivities, thereby undermining the more traditional dichotomy between the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.  Growth of the white color managerial class further complicated this dichotomy.  From where does power emanate?  Power the subject of culture studies and class (in America–U.S.) slipped away.

Although Francis Fukuyama announced the triumph of Liberalism in “the End of History,” teleological grand narratives had become unpopular.  During the same time, the temporal walls of historical research became confined, according to Jo Guild and David Armitage, the scope of history rarely extended past the life span of an average person, creating what they call short-sightedness.  This left the long span of economic development by the wayside.

Over the past few decades, however, scholars are approaching economic history, but they are doing it in a new way.  Partly inspired by New Institutional Economics, scholars such as Sheryllyne Haggerty, in ‘Merely for Money’? Business Culture in the British Atlantic, 1750-1815 (2012), and others are reconceptualizing the role of cultural belief, race, and gender in the development of economics.  As Susan Buck-Morss has argued, the professional specification of departments kept liberal arts and the social sciences at arm’s length from economics.  During the neoliberal era (beginning in the 1970s) economic historians became more quantitative and mimicked methodologies found in economic departments, but during the cultural turn of the 1980s and 1990s, cliometric economic history fell out of favor.  Today scholars are broadening their scope to include social and cultural relationships economic institutions.

Jurgen Kocka and Marcel van der Linden have recently edited a collection of writings, Capitalism: The Reemergence of a Historical Concept.  They begin by defining capitalism and how the contributors use the term in their writings.  Capitalism includes writings by Youssef Cassis; Andrea Kolmosy, Victoria de Grazia, Immanuel Wallerstein, Sven Beckert, and others. Topics span from financial crisis, labor relations, business history, modernity, the new history of capitalism, and others.

n the introduction, Kocka, provides a historiography/ etymology of the term capitalism, while also offering the definition used throughout the book.  He claims that although “capital” and “capitalist” appeared before the nineteenth century, “capitalism” did not emerge “before the second half of the nineteenth century.”[1]  Some of the earlier uses of “capitalism,” defined it as “appropriation of capital by some to the exclusion of others,” 1850 Louis Blanc.  According to Kocka, although Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used “capital” and “capitalism” ubiquitously, they only used “capitalism” marginally.  It was not until 1902 when Werner Sombart published Der Monderne Kapitalismus, that the German speaking world began used “capitalism” regularly.  In England, “capitalism” came much earlier, the concept was in use by 1855 and continued to grow thereafter.[2]

The primary attributes of “capitalism” featured:  “individual property rights,” factors of production, such as land, labor, and capital; competition; market commodification; rational laws of the market; social stratification; and other similar attributes.  Kocka makes a point to suggest that the main characteristic for writers writing about capitalism is that they considered “capitalism” relationally in regards to time and other economic systems. that distinguished modernity from feudalism or the Ancien Regime.  “Capitalism” was the rational, progressive stage in the Enlightenment Project and essential to modernity, but it also acquired its meaning through its relation to non-“capitalist” systems such as socialism.  Kocka, here, is trying to convey that contemporaries saw capitalism as a break from the past; a system founded on rational laws similar to a science.  But his statement that “capitalism has always been a concept of difference” is not only uninformative, but boarders on being a tautology–after all are not the meaning of all words contingent on relations and difference?

Capitalism went through several stages of popularity and meaning for policy makers and the public.  For instance, during the Cold War capitalism became synonymous with freedom.  From WWII to the 1970s is often considered the Gold Years of American capitalism, this is largely because of Keynesian economics, which Kocka fails to mention.  Industrial jobs and pay kept pace with inflation and it appeared that capitalism could provide abundance and enrich the masses, but this was after the depression, this was a mixed capitalism with regulation and government interference.  Policy makers believed that long scale economic plans implemented by the government and work programs could enrich the people and the American (U.S.) nation.  But in the 1970s, stagflation struck a blow to Keynesian economics and neoliberalism rose from the ashes.  Neoliberalism, also supply side economics, promoted austerity programs and gave preference to manufacturers instead of consumers.  The Gold Years were over, but “capitalism: was still seen as the barer of freedom of democracy.  Globalization, however showed a different side.  As capital was allowed to flow overseas, so did high paying jobs and American often found themselves in debt.  In third world nations, capitalism did not bring democracy or freedom–especially under Pinochet–and later austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund on “developing” countries.  After the Soviet Union collapsed, capitalism grew without restraint.  According to Kocka, it had a positive or simply neutral effect on policy makers and the public—at least until the Great Recession of 2008.  The housing bubble, coupled with comments by Alan Greenspan, and the International Monetary Fund second guessing their faith in free markets, the general public looked at capitalism in a new light.  This new—critical—light “contributed to a rising scholarly interest.”[3]

His refined definition of “capitalism” come in three parts and is as follows:

  1. “First, in capitalism, it is essential that individual and collective actors dispose of right which enable them to make economic decision in a relatively autonomous and decentralized way.”[4]
  2. “Second, in capitalism, the coordination of the different economic actors takes lace primarily through markets and prices, through competition and commodification of resources and products is central, including the contractual (“free”) labor for wages and salaries.  This is where the tension between classes is built into the definition of capitalism as a potentiality.”
  3. “Third, capital, is central for this type of economy.  This entails the investment of savings and returns in the present with the perspective of higher gains in the future, the importance of profit as a major yardstick of success, and accumulation with the perspective of innovation and growth.  Accepting uncertainty and risk is implied, as well as the notion of profitability and its systematic control over time.  The time factor–a certain relation between life in the present and expectations as to the future–is important.”[5]

He reminds readers that this is an ideal type.  His definition of “capitalism,” in other words, is a broad generalization, “which can be used even though one knows that historical reality is never fully identical with it.”  “Capitalism is not only an economic phenomenon, but certain legal elements, social elements, and cultural elements are integral.”  This is where the new history of capitalism differs from the traditional quantitative models common to cliometrics.  He comments that “capitalism” can help us understand connections between the micro and macro-economic processes, while hopefully bringing together economic historians with other historians whose paths diverged in the 1980s and 1990s.

Kocka makes sever last remarks about the “capitalism” and the contributions to the text.  Several of his comments are worth our attention.  First, studies of “capitalism” have focused on the “unstable character of economic processes” and the “tensions and contradictions inside the economic and social worlds that account for instability.”  It is worth noting the Americans proselytize a dichotomous narrative of stability–for the home, for their children, and family–while at the same time the economic seeks expansion and cheap labor, thereby undermining the very fabric of stability itself.  Secondly, the inherent “contradictions” in capitalism should not be seen as just that i.e. “contradictions,” but instead part of the whole of capitalism as historian Seth Rockman comments in “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism.”  For instance, Rockman states “the so-called ‘contradictions of capitalism in the early Republic are better understood as constitutive elements of American economic development.”[6]

Kocka ends the introduction with a series of questions, which the contributors explore.  “Does business and labor history appear in new light if pursued with the concepts given above?  Is there a re-emergence of the concept in the specific fields? Should there be such a re-emergence?  … Should the concept be modified, and if so, how in order to increase its usefulness in different areas?”


[1] Kocka, Jürgen, and Marcel van der Linden. Capitalism: The Reemergence of a Historical Concept. 2016, 1.

[2] Ibid., 1-2.

[3] Kocka seems to ignore the wealth and breadth of anti-capitalist literature and movements dating as far back as pre-capitalist exploitation.  I’ve added details Kocka left out in his overview of the different “stages” or epochs of “capitalism.”  Ibid. 3-4

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 7.


Corporatism, Liberalism, Slavery, and the ‘New Economic History’

In 2008, neo-liberalism struck a major obstacle large enough to shake the global economy and catch the attention of mainstream media.  Explosion of the 2008 housing bubble even forced proponents of liberalism, such as Allan Greenspan, to cast doubt on the “laws of the market.”  Many scholars had known for a long time that the laws of the market were short-hand for naturalizing capitalism.  Doubts about neo-liberalism were alive and well within academia, regardless, the 2008 stock market debacle influenced historians to reimagine the history of capitalism—a project long overdue.  Historians of the ‘new history of capitalism’ reimagine economic history by focusing on the influence of human agency on markets instead of the influence of market agency on human relations and institutions.  Although the ‘new history of capitalism’ primarily focuses on the development of American (U.S.) capitalism, similar approaches to economic history can be found in other fields of history—such as history of the eighteenth century British political economy.

British imperial historians are re-interpreting the political economic history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Like the historians mentioned above, imperial historians are approaching the economy through a socio-political perspectives rather than a narrow economic point of view.  These writings emerge from revisions in the history of the English/ British state more so than from the 2008 stock market debacle.[1]  Although, the 2008 incident does play a factor, as can be evidenced by historian Michael Braddick’s comments on the back cover of Philip K. Stern and Carl Wennerlind’s Mercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and Its Empire (2013).

According to Max Weber, “the state is a centralized, differentiated set of institutions enjoying a monopoly of the means of legitimate violence over a territorially demarcated area.”[2]  This was the traditional concept of the state, but sociologists and historians began revising the history of the state in the 1980s.  Braddick, in “State Formation and Social Change in Early Modern England: A Problem Stated and Approaches Suggested,” argued that state formation was “the product of a negotiation between various interests.”[3]  This differs from the traditional fiscal-military view of the state, which argues that the state emerged as a cohesive force and subsumed the outer provinces.  The Stuart monarchy did not have the power or resources to annex the provinces, nor did they want too.  English provinces were very proud of their semi-sovereignty and self-governance.  Problems regarding poor-law unions in the late seventeenth century can attest to provinces’ reluctance to give up power.

The same concept of negotiated state building can be applied to the expansion and maintenance of the British Empire.  The Stuart’s outsourced Empire to joint-stock companies by granting companies monopolies on specific areas of trade.  Companies such as the East India Company and the Royal African Company received monopoly charters and in return they provided the Crown with finances and oversaw national interests overseas.

Outsourcing Empire occurred during the era of mercantilism.  However, one of the tenants of mercantilism argues that the state oversaw and regulated trade, but with the new perspective of the English/ British state, this is no longer a tenable.  This conundrum lead to Steve Pincus’s symposium in the William and Mary Quarterly,” Rethinking Mercantilism: Political Economy, the British Empire, and the Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries” and Philip K. Stern and Carl Wennerlind’s Mercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and Its Empire (2013), featuring a collection of essays by well-noted historians on the political economy.

Pincus argued that historians conceived of mercantilism as having a hegemony over pre-Smithian economic theory, thereby leading historians to consider early modern economics as apolitical.  For instance, if early modern statesmen agreed on one trade policy, they would not engage in political arguments about economic policies, because there would be no other policies.  Pincus claims that contemporaries might argue over degrees of mercantilism, but differences between contemporary positions would be a matter of degree not kind.  Pincus encourages scholars to revisit the era of ‘mercantilism’ and consider the different commercial policies.  This would amount to conjoining political history with economic history, thus regarding social and political aspects of the economy before Smith.  Philip K. Stern and Carl Wennerlind make a similar argument in Mercantilism Reimagined (2013), though they did not go so far as arguing that historians perceived pre-Smithian economic issues as apolitical.

Traditionally, the next stage in the history of economic development is free trade liberalism—often associated with writers of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as Adam Smith.  Free trade liberalism was not so much about merchants challenging the authority of the state as it was about merchants challenging corporatism.  In the late seventeenth century for instance, private merchants successfully prevented the Royal African Company from renewing its monopoly charter on the African trade.  As William Pettigrew, has written in Freedom’s Debt, free trade and English liberty was set against the backdrop of the antithesis of freedom—chattel slavery.

This bring us back to the history of liberalism and capitalism.  Many of the scholars writing the new history of capitalism are focusing on America—especially in the nineteenth century, but if we expand our view just a little further, we might find that the history of liberalism and capitalism in the long duree, might help us rethink our faith in markets and the rhetoric of the alleged ‘free world,’ whose history is steeped in corporatism, slavery and violence.

–Todd Burst

[1] I use English to refer to present day England before the union of Scotland and England in 1707

[2] “State and Society” Max Weber 166.

[3] Michael Braddick, “State Formation and Social Change in Early Modern England: A Problem Stated and Approaches Suggested,” Social History 16, no. 1 (January 1, 1991): 6.  Braddick wrote about the seventeenth century English state.  For further information on the history of the English/ British state please see:  Brewer, John. The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State 1688-1783. Routledge, 2002.