Before the Civil War, Southern slaveholders used to claim that their labor system was more humane than “wage slavery” in the factories of the industrializing North. They didn’t win that argument, but the idea took root that the South, during and after slavery, did not have a true capitalist economy. In 1930, twelve Southern writers (all white men) published a collection of essays, titled “I’ll Take My Stand,” that opened with a declaration that they “all tend to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way; and all as much as agree that the best terms in which to represent the distinction are contained in the phrase, Agrarian versus Industrial.” To believe that the South was economically different didn’t entail being a defender of slavery or segregation; it didn’t even have to mean you were a political conservative. When I was growing up in New Orleans, among the descendants of antebellum sugar and cotton planters, efficiency and industriousness were not highly valued, and all the general social indicia—income, health, education—were much lower than they were in the North. This condition seemed connected to the exploitation and political disempowerment that went along with a racial caste system. It was worse than capitalism, not part of capitalism.
But for many years now historians have disputed the old Southern agrarian notions about how the South related to capitalism. This form of revisionism, which has blossomed in the academy and beyond during the past decade or so, takes its inspiration from “Capitalism and Slavery,” published in 1944 by Eric Williams, a young historian who later became the first Prime Minister of an independent Trinidad and Tobago. The book, which argued for the centrality of slavery to the rise of capitalism, was largely ignored for half a century; now its thesis is a starting point for a new generation of scholarship. Large-scale Southern slaveholders are today understood as experts in such business practices as harsh, ever-increasing production quotas for workers and the creation of sophisticated credit instruments. Rather than representing an alternative system to industrial capitalism, American plantations enabled its development, providing the textile mills of Manchester and Birmingham with cotton to be spun into cloth by the new British working class. As Walter Johnson, one of our leading historians of slavery, wrote in 2018, “There was no such thing as capitalism without slavery: the history of Manchester never happened without the history of Mississippi.”
The new history of slavery seeks to obliterate the economic and moral distinction between slavery and capitalism, and between the South and the North, by showing them to have been all part of a single system. Inevitably, this view has generated intense arguments, not only about how integral the slave plantation was to the national and global economies but also about whether we should regard the end of slavery as an important breakpoint in American history or merely a rearranging of an oppressive system into an altered but still essentially oppressive form. Critics of the new history of slavery chastise it for downplaying developments like Britain’s abolition of slavery in its colonies and the American Civil War, and for overstating slavery’s importance to the growth of the early American economy, even if the plantation was a particularly ruthless business enterprise.
The arguments about slavery imply larger arguments about America. At least among respectable academic historians, the days of triumphant historical accounts of the greatness of the United States are long past. But for some the national enterprise can still be seen as a slow and often interrupted progression toward a more just and democratic society; for others, it amounts to a set of variations on racial hierarchy and economic exploitation. Once slavery is positioned as the foundational institution of American capitalism, the country’s subsequent history can be depicted as an extension of this basic dynamic. This is what Walter Johnson does in his new book, “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States” (Basic). The study demonstrates both the power of the model and its limitations.