Slavery Was Money

OK, so I decided to take the plunge and read the first chapter of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. It’s incredibly dense and I will likely have to read it again to more fully grasp the argument. What I do understand is quite fascinating. In the process of showing how future slaveholders gradually supplanted Jefferson’s idea of a west that would guarantee a republican vision of small and independent landowners, Johnson emphasizes the connectedness of the new slave economy to international market forces. For Johnson, slavery must be understood as helping to forge a vibrant capitalist economy.

What held these regional, national, and international economies together over space and time and across time was money. The abstract scale of dollar values allowed business to take place in a space not strictly delimited by the physical properties of the thing being traded. The value of a barrel of salt pork, which would go bad if it sat on the levee waiting for the crop to come in, could be noted and paid off in sugar when it finally did; the value of a young woman in Virginia in May might be compared to that of an old man in Louisiana in September, although their bodies were distant in time and space, and distinct in physical proportion and capacity; the value of either might be compared to a bale of cotton in Liverpool in January, a barrel of sugar in New York in June, or a plot of land that was for sale down the road two days hence. Yet money sometimes moved while things stood still: the ownership of a bale of cotton in a warehouse in New Orleans or a descendant’s claim to a particular slave in a share of an estate on the Red River, for example, might be transferred several times, although the actual bale of cotton or the actual slave was never carried away. Nothing in this economy moved without money. The real problem, it sometimes turned out, was moving the money. (pp. 42-43)

There is quite a bit to unpack in this short passage and the rest of the chapter, which I am not going to do. I suspect that Johnson is not the first historian to emphasize the international economic context in which American slavery existed and thrived. The passage beautifully captures the interconnectedness of it all over time and space. It also leaves you appreciating the extent to which the value of even the most mundane material items was somehow connected to the value of cotton and slaves. More importantly, Johnson is forcing me to reconsider my tendency to think of slavery as somehow backwards or pre-modern. Far from it. Johnson paints a picture of slaveholders engaged in creative speculation in numerous domestic and overseas markets. Yep, sounds pretty modern to me.

Perhaps in a nation that fully embraces capitalism as a moral system we resist the idea that it was responsible for generating an exorbitant amount of wealth and suffering. In other words, there was nothing incompatible between capitalism and slavery.

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12 comments… add one
  • Doug didier Sep 26, 2013 @ 16:41

    Suggest the idea is liquidity. As covered in the book. Liquidity dried up in 1837. 1837 was much like 2008.

  • Michael Chornesky Sep 22, 2013 @ 12:27

    Yeah, this seems to be synthesizing a lot of material which has been developed against the stale Genovese-Oakes arguments of the 1970s and 1980s. To put Johnson’s argument in context, it may be helpful to read John Majewski’s “Modernizing a Slave Economy” and Seth Rockman’s “Scraping By,” which both effectively capture the interconnectedness of these two ostensibly opposing economic conceptions.

    The new wrinkle here, I think, might be a portrayal of the international context in which this American economy operated at the time. It’s possible that widening the view and going for a transnational approach to the antebellum economy might produce different results from those that even Majewski and Rockman could produce. It could certainly do much to get beyond the North-South dichotomy which has dominated the historiography of the subject. I look forward to delving into this some day, because Johnson is a true talent.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2013 @ 12:29

      Hi Michael,

      I am very familiar with the Majewski book and highly recommend it. It is exactly what you point out, which is the international context and the push to move beyond the North-South dichotomy that struck me in reading the first chapter. Thanks for the Seth Rockman reference.

  • Forester Sep 22, 2013 @ 11:29

    That adds an interesting new angle to the old neo-Confederate argument that modern market forces would’ve driven slavery out of existence. Perhaps the Industrial Revolution and the Twentieth Century might have made the Southern slave economy actually expand?

    We do still live in a slave economy: chocolate, coffee and sex being the most obvious examples.

  • London John Sep 22, 2013 @ 1:38

    I must admit I’m a little surprised at “my tendency to think of slavery as somehow backwards or pre-modern”. Surely there’s never been any doubt that slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean was capitalist slavery? Right from the start the Atlantic slave trade was one of the most significant capitalist enterprises, and the plantation economy was a key part of the capitalist system. The industrial revolution greatly increased the demand for slave-grown cotton and so made slavery more important to the capitalist economy.
    An example (although not from America) of how money transcends distance: When Lord Chief Justice Mansfield gave his well-known judgement in 1772 that slavery could not exist in England, his court was less than a mile from the headquarters of the Sugar Interest, an alliance of British companies, mostly with shares held by the public, to defend slavery in the West Indies and the slave trade. Although the plantations were thousands of miles away, slavery was at the heart of British capitalism.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2013 @ 1:59

      Sure, but I don’t mind admitting that I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of slavery as somehow incompatible with modern capitalism even though intellectually I understand otherwise. I think it’s the way Johnson lays out the interconnectedness of various commodities that struck me this time around.

      • Peter Sep 22, 2013 @ 6:32

        Joe Miller’s _The Way of Death_ discusses these points as well. Miller, and many people who are working on the Atlantic World now, would argue that trans-Atlantic slaving was the crucible of capitalism. Slavery was not simply one of a number of capitalist enterprises, but the one that made the whole system possible.

    • Patrick Young Sep 22, 2013 @ 6:45

      London John, in the US were are inculcated with an equivalence of democracy, equality, and capitalism, only we call it “free enterprise.” Slavery is typically depicted as a pre-capitalist holdover from feudalism.

  • M.D. Blough Sep 21, 2013 @ 22:23

    Frederic Bancroft’s classic “Slave-Trading in the Old South” went quite a bit into the economic implications of slavery, both in local economies and the interstate slave trade. Chapter XVI is “High Prices and the Negro-Fever”

  • Peter Sep 21, 2013 @ 18:19

    How does Johnson compare to Rothman’s _Slave Country_?

    Regarding the link between capitalism and slavery, I think it’s important always to remember, as Rothman does, that we act as if slavery is something that’s not around anymore when in fact it underpins much of our global economy. It’s just so far down the supply chain from what we consume here that we can pretend it’s not really involved or not really our responsibility. If you look at resource production, from the mining of rare earth elements to growing organic cotton, slavery is everywhere. Ship-breaking and the reclamation of rare elements from disused electronics also relies upon slavery, and the resources extracted there help keep the cost of shipping and new production down.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2013 @ 2:01

      Always nice to hear from you, Peter. That’s another book that I need to read. Good point. Once in a while we get a Hollywood movie about it, but that’s as deep as most of us go. Good point.

  • acwresearcher Sep 21, 2013 @ 17:01

    I think some of the confusion comes from the use of terms like “slave economy” and “free labor economy.” Capitalism is the economic system, with free labor and slavery being the methods of generating capital within the economy, except slaves both generate capital and are capital assets. This sounds like an interesting read, but I had to read that a couple of times to get my one sentence out of it!

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