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Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development

by Sven Beckert

Series: Early American Studies (2016)

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During the nineteenth century, the United States entered the ranks of the world's most advanced and dynamic economies. At the same time, the nation sustained an expansive and brutal system of human bondage. This was no mere coincidence. Slavery's Capitalism argues for slavery's centrality to the emergence of American capitalism in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War. According to editors Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, the issue is not whether slavery itself was or was not capitalist but, rather, the impossibility of understanding the nation's spectacular pattern of economic development without situating slavery front and center. American capitalism--renowned for its celebration of market competition, private property, and the self-made man--has its origins in an American slavery predicated on the abhorrent notion that human beings could be legally owned and compelled to work under force of violence. Drawing on the expertise of sixteen scholars who are at the forefront of rewriting the history of American economic development, Slavery's Capitalism identifies slavery as the primary force driving key innovations in entrepreneurship, finance, accounting, management, and political economy that are too often attributed to the so-called free market. Approaching the study of slavery as the originating catalyst for the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism casts new light on American credit markets, practices of offshore investment, and understandings of human capital. Rather than seeing slavery as outside the institutional structures of capitalism, the essayists recover slavery's importance to the American economic past and prompt enduring questions about the relationship of market freedom to human freedom. Contributors: Edward E. Baptist, Sven Beckert, Daina Ramey Berry, Kathryn Boodry, Alfred L. Brophy, Stephen Chambers, Eric Kimball, John Majewski, Bonnie Martin, Seth Rockman, Daniel B. Rood, Caitlin Rosenthal, Joshua D. Rothman, Calvin Schermerhorn, Andrew Shankman, Craig Steven Wilder.… (more)
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Essays about how slavery built American capitalism as it was, including by funding Northern development and trans-Atlantic networks of wealth. Many of the essays deliberately challenge the distinction between a “slave society” and a “society with slaves” by highlighting how the latter often benefited from interactions with the former, going well beyond a conspiracy between the “lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” Includes a very interesting analysis of the “limestone” South—portions of upper Kentucky, Virginia, etc. with uncharacteristically rich soils and uncharacteristically well-developed cities—before the Civil War, they were more urbanized (and productive) than the midwest. Nonetheless, the argument is, population growth and public education lagged, dragging down innovation. Even where there was a well-developed white middle class, slave economies, the theory of government they relied upon, and the white men who were powerful in them opposed widespread public education, which capped how much development could occur in the long run. (Fun fact: southerners allocated the funding they did for public education by how many children were in a district, but public schools charged tuition, so the slave states set high tuitions that only wealthy parents could pay, making the publicly subsidized schools into private academies for elites. Tuition existed in the North too, but was much lower and so attendance was far more widespread.) The conclusion: there were no environmental barriers to slavery thriving in the North, and while Northerners may have been wrong about the reasons that slavery slowed growth, they were correct about the depressive economic effects of its expansion on overall economic growth. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Sep 1, 2020 |
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During the nineteenth century, the United States entered the ranks of the world's most advanced and dynamic economies. At the same time, the nation sustained an expansive and brutal system of human bondage. This was no mere coincidence. Slavery's Capitalism argues for slavery's centrality to the emergence of American capitalism in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War. According to editors Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, the issue is not whether slavery itself was or was not capitalist but, rather, the impossibility of understanding the nation's spectacular pattern of economic development without situating slavery front and center. American capitalism--renowned for its celebration of market competition, private property, and the self-made man--has its origins in an American slavery predicated on the abhorrent notion that human beings could be legally owned and compelled to work under force of violence. Drawing on the expertise of sixteen scholars who are at the forefront of rewriting the history of American economic development, Slavery's Capitalism identifies slavery as the primary force driving key innovations in entrepreneurship, finance, accounting, management, and political economy that are too often attributed to the so-called free market. Approaching the study of slavery as the originating catalyst for the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism casts new light on American credit markets, practices of offshore investment, and understandings of human capital. Rather than seeing slavery as outside the institutional structures of capitalism, the essayists recover slavery's importance to the American economic past and prompt enduring questions about the relationship of market freedom to human freedom. Contributors: Edward E. Baptist, Sven Beckert, Daina Ramey Berry, Kathryn Boodry, Alfred L. Brophy, Stephen Chambers, Eric Kimball, John Majewski, Bonnie Martin, Seth Rockman, Daniel B. Rood, Caitlin Rosenthal, Joshua D. Rothman, Calvin Schermerhorn, Andrew Shankman, Craig Steven Wilder.

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