Sven Beckert’s List of the Ten Books on Slavery You Need to Read

Historians in the News
tags: slavery



Sven Beckert is professor of American history at Harvard and author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History, just published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Without understanding the past, it is difficult to grapple with the present. This became quite clear in the wake of the tragic attack in Charleston, when public dialogue swirled with myths, wishful thinking and deeply ideological readings of history, all too often camouflaged as solid historical analysis. Now, 150 years after emancipation, it is high time to confront the legacy of slavery. No one alive today was enslaved or enslaved others, and no one bears personal responsibility for the brutal institution—but we live in its shadow, and contemporary debates on race relations cannot proceed without first acknowledging that.

Indeed, without understanding slavery, it is impossible to understand the history of the United States. Over the course of more than two centuries, millions of Americans were enslaved, producing most of the commodities—from tobacco to rice, sugar to cotton—that established America on the world scene. As I write in my book, Empire of Cotton, American slavery (and the cotton it produced) was crucial to the development of global capitalism. Slavery transformed the nation’s politics, too, eventually resulting in a devastating civil war—the most deadly war in the history of the United States. As we know, slavery left a deep legacy of inequality and racism, one that is still visible today a century and a half after emancipation. But the struggle against slavery also inspired some of the finest values and politics in American history, from Republican Thaddeus Stevens’ determined fight for emancipation to Frederick Douglass’ eloquent appeal to the enlightenment tradition of equality.

Considering the importance of “the peculiar institution” to the United States, it is not surprising that the writing on the history of slavery is rich—it is, in fact among the best researched stories of the American past. American historians have been at the forefront of disentangling slavery’s history, producing some of the most original, important and freshest historical works of the past century. These works all emphasize the centrality of slavery to the American experience, show that slavery needs to be understood as the national story that it was, describe in harrowing detail the unfathomable violence that descended upon enslaved African Americans, and demonstrate conclusively how the theft of enslaved workers’ labor and a sharpening racism has affected the nation’s society, politics and economy.

It is almost impossible to identify just 10 “must read” books—there are scores of indispensable studies—but to understand the impact of slavery on the economy, politics and society of the United States and its colonial antecedents, the following books are crucial. They take the reader into the slave quarters of Virginia and onto the cotton plantations of South Carolina, explore the most intimate gender relations within plantation households and the broader political struggles in the halls of power in Washington D.C., and illuminate the role of American slavery in the global economy as well as its role in creating some of the nation’s most cherished institutions.





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