James C. Cobb warns that cleansing American culture of ties to slavery will be harder than you thinkHistorians in the News
Reflecting on recent calls for stripping the name of Robert E. Lee, a slave owner who went to war in slavery’s defense, from Washington & Lee University, historian Emory Thomas has noted that the school’s other namesake, George Washington, was also a slaveholder—and that this raises the awkward possibility that one of the country’s most distinguished liberal arts institutions might be known one day simply as “&.”
Thomas spoke with tongue securely in cheek, but the scenario he posited seemed a logical, if absurd, progression from the current obsession with de-christening institutions named for people with ties to slavery. But recent explorations by several scholars demonstrate that slavery was far more integral to America’s development as a nation than we have chosen thus far to acknowledge—which also suggests the enormous difficulty, if not outright futility, of finding historically prominent institutions and individuals entirely free of its insidiously pervasive touch.
African slave labor had first been introduced on the tobacco plantations of the colonial Chesapeake during the 17th century, but slavery’s emergence as a truly dominant force in national and international commerce awaited the arrival in 1793 of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, which boosted exponentially both the profitability of growing cotton and the demand for—and value of—slaves. With the explosive spread of cotton-growing across the southern interior and into the new states of Alabama and Mississippi, the booming southwestern frontier proved an irresistible magnet for both people, free and unfree, and financial investment. Slave prices rose meteorically in response to soaring demand, stoked as well by a congressional ban on further importation after 1808. Cotton accounted for nearly one-third of the value of U.S. exported merchandise by 1820, and closer to two-thirds by 1860, more than three-fourths of it going to Great Britain.
Maintaining this fibrous connection between southern slave plantations and the voracious looms of Lancashire required myriad supporting ventures in production, trade, services, and financing on both sides of the Atlantic. With the American banking system still wracked with growing pains in the early 19th century, English firms like Baring Brothers marketed high-yield bonds backed by the slaveholdings of planters in Louisiana and elsewhere, while profits from the slave trade supplied vital capital for the nascent Barclays Bank.
As the American financial system matured, a wide range of domestic banks got in on this act. Two of these, Citizens’ Bank and Canal Bank of Louisiana, which accepted roughly 13,000 slaves as collateral and came to own well over a thousand slaves outright, were destined to become cogs in the great financial wheel of J. P. Morgan Chase. Likewise, Moses Taylor, director of the City Bank of New York, the forerunner of Citibank, managed the monetary fruits of the endless exertions of slaves on large sugar plantations and was also deeply involved in the illicit importation of slaves into Cuba. ...
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