Capitalism and Chains

We’re continuing our series on capitalism by going back to its unspeakable origins.

A new wave of  historians say that the  “peculiar institution” of slavery explains more about the present than we’d care to admit: not just how the West got wealthy, but the way that global capitalism evolved in the first place.

At the beginning of his biography of John Brown, W. E. B. DuBois put slavery in terms of the eternal dream of free labor: “These black men came not of their own willing, but because the hasty greed of new America selfishly and half-thoughtlessly sought to revive in the New World the dying but unforgotten custom of enslaving the world’s workers.”

It was the global slave trade that helped make America rich, and yet no part of our history was more brutally unequal, more lucrative and less regulated than the slave-and-cotton empire.


The dream of cheap labor is alive and well, but are we comfortable knowing that it came in part from the empire of slaves and cotton? How should we take account of this unspeakable past? Leave us a message by clicking on the microphone, or comment below.

‘Like a Dog’

We’ve pulled two clips from the Library of Congress’s “Voices from the Days of Slavery’ project. They make for grim but human testimony: first from Fountain Hughes, a grandson of a slave belonging to Jefferson himself, and second from Harriet Smith, a woman who was thirteen when the Civil War ended in ‘the breakup’. The recordings are from 1941; you can listen to the entire small audio collection here.

‘Hancock Degraded’

At the spur of Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy we took up a search for records of Harvard’s slave history.

Rebecca Panovka surface one pair of notes that brings across the darkness of one terrifically unruly period in the middle of the 18th century, when undergraduates were toting pistols and sleeping with professors’ daughters, then running off into the night. These episodes have surfaced in several places, but here you can see the notes, thanks to the permission of the Harvard University Archives.

[pdfjs-viewer url= viewer_width=600px viewer_height=700px fullscreen=true download=true print=true openfile=false]

On March 21, 1740, President Edward Holyoke and tutors agreed “that the scholars be again warned, by no Means & upon no pretence [what]soever, to presume either to Entertain or associate with, either […] Woodhouse of this Town, or Titus, a Molattoe slave of the late Rev’d Pres. Wadsworth’s.” They further ask that ‘the Buttery’ put up a sign advising students of the new restriction.

Now, in Samuel Eliot Morison’s much-admired Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636 – 1936, Titus is presented as a source of this trouble: “[he] was a frequent guest and entertainer on these festive occasions. Finally he was forbidden to enter the Yard” at the same meeting recorded above. (Titus was not a free man at this point, but outlived his master in what is now called Wadsworth House, still standing the round western corner of Harvard Yard.)

Wadsworth House, Stuart Dempster

Then again, eleven years later, we see several well-born men of Boston punished for making a slave the object of the fun — for intoxicating “a negroe-man-servt belonging to Mr. Sprague… to such Degree as greatly indanger’d his Life.” Among those ‘degraded’ was John Hancock: smuggler/financier, first signatory to the Declaration of Independence, and one of the first Harvard alumni to blaze a path into big business.

Edward Holyoke, the oldest-ever President of Harvard, who presided over this period, said on his deathbed: “If any man wishes to be humbled and mortified, let him become President of Harvard College.” No kidding. 




Guest List
Sven Beckert
Laird Bell professor of history at Harvard, chair of Harvard's Program on the Study of Capitalism, and author of the forthcoming book, Empire of Cotton.
Craig Steven Wilder
professor of American history at MIT, and author of Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities.
Reading List
Where slavery thrived, inequality rules today
Stephen Mihm, The Boston Globe
A profile of reports showing that localities with a history of slavery still suffer from greater economic inequality and low social mobility, and an attempt to explain the slavery effect.  
Partners in Inquity
Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, The New York Times Disunion blog
Our guest Sven Beckert, writing with Seth Rockman, makes clear that the conventional narrative of the Civil War doesn't stand up to historical criticism:
Told this way, the Civil War seems a fait accompli, the inevitable outcome of the economic incompatibility of slavery and capitalism. Moreover, such an account has allowed Northerners to hold themselves blameless for the crime of American slavery: the South was, in this telling, practically a different country. Yet historians increasingly understand that slavery was not just important to one region of the United States, but to the economic development of the United States as a whole. This realization changes everything: by recognizing the economic interdependence of North and South and slavery’s centrality to American capitalism itself, it becomes possible to see the outbreak of the Civil War as more surprising than predictable.
Slaves: The Capital That Made Capitalism
Julia Ott, Public Seminar
A long, harrowing, well-worth-reading review of the ways slavery in which begat capitalism of the modern type:
Slavery proved crucial in the emergence of American finance. Profits from commerce, finance, and insurance related to cotton and to slaves flowed to merchant-financiers located in New Orleans and mid-Atlantic port cities, including New York City, where a global financial center grew up on Wall Street. Cotton Kings themselves devised financial innovations that channeled the savings of investors across the nation and Western Europe to the Mississippi Valley. Cotton Kings, slave traders, and cotton merchants demanded vast amounts of credit to fund their ceaseless speculation and expansion. Planter-enslavers held valuable, liquid collateral: 2 million slaves worth $2 billion, a third of the wealth owned by all U.S. citizens, according to Ed Baptist... The Cotton Kings did something that neither Freddy, nor Fannie, nor any of “too big to fail” banks managed to do. They secured an explicit and total government guarantee for their banks, placing taxpayers on the hook for interest and principal.
Apostles of Growth
Timothy Shenk, The Nation
A review of, and a response to, historians of capitalism like Sven Beckert and Edward Baptist of Cornell:
...Recent histories of slavery aim to do more than prove that the institution was growing; they want to show that it was indispensable to the emergence of modern economic growth itself. Baptist provides the crispest exposition of this argument: “the move from arithmetical to geometric economic growth,” he contends, “would have been short-circuited if embryo industries had run out of cotton fiber,” which could have occurred if not for an astonishing rise in productivity among the slaves who labored in the cotton fields of the South. Historians already know that productivity climbed during these years, but Baptist offers a novel explanation for this upswing: torture of the enslaved, a process refined over the decades by planters (or, as Baptist refers to them, “entrepreneurs”) desperate to satisfy the demands of cotton markets and keep ahead of their otherwise crippling levels of debt. This is the ultimate payoff of interweaving slavery and capitalism: a history that puts slavery not just at the center of our understanding of the South, or of the United States, but of global capitalism.
Negroes and the Crisis of Capitalism
W. E. B. DuBois, Monthly Review (1953)
A forceful essay from the eminent Black sociologist, in a socialist vein that now reads as more aspirational than analytical:

A Negro of talent, education, and money may not live in a Negro ghetto; he may not attend a Negro church, and he may welcome whites to his home and table. Less often, but now and then, his children or friends may marry white persons. He may be elected to public office with the help of white votes and be referred to in the public press without being carefully designated as “colored.” But such cases will be exceptional. For the most part, the educated well-to-do American Negro is firmly bound to his powerful group. His memories are memories of its oppressions, insults, and repressions. He rejoices in its victories. He cannot break off from the Negro church entirely and the Negro vote will be his chief dependence in elections. His family will chiefly marry Negroes, and Negroes will constitute the main body of his friends and acquaintances. Consequently no matter how self-centered he may be, he will not be able to avoid exercising some leadership in the group of which he is a part, not only by inner attraction but also by outer force.

Slave Capitalism
Gabriel Winant, n+1
Another polemical essay, this one written in response to Walter Johnson's new book River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom:
For Johnson, slavery is not something outside of capitalism or the American liberal tradition but the clearest instance of each. (John Locke lodged no complaints against human bondage.) Slavery should be seen not as a sure sign of economic backwardness, but as a technically refined system for coordinating abstract knowledge and bodily violence: intelligence and torture, free trade and imperial war, financial data and brutal physical toil—all adding up to booming world trade, accumulating wealth, and ecological degradation. In this picture, the Cotton Kingdom looks like nothing less than the homeland of neoliberalism, and master and slave, the origin story of contemporary America.

Related Content

  • commonwealth

    What interests me about slavery and capitalism is the mentality of those who believe they have the right to earn great wealth at the expense of others’ labor without any more consideration than a mechanic has for the parts of his engine. When did men come to believe that they had a right to take such advantage of others? How does the idea of slavery in the ante-bellum years affect the idea of labor from the post civil war era to the present? Is there a thread that needs to be identified? It is a given that men have always been greedy, but there seems to be a scale of greed and a hard-heartedness which slavery permitted and perhaps required that still seems present in contemporary capitalism. How did the wealthy come to think of their employees and the people who suffer from their wealth-making as insufficiently human to be concerned about?

  • Cambridge Forecast


    Take the very suggestive ROS discussion on slavery, capitalism, and the role of universities (ie the destruction of Charles Follen, as an example) and one can “dive deeper” and ask
    about linkages:
    Consider these two passages from the classic work “The Triumph of the Middle Classes” by Professor Charles Moraze:
    1. “In 1890 the stock exchanges of London, Paris, Berlin and New York controlled the economic progress of the whole world.”

    (“The Triumph…” Anchor Books, 1968 paperback page 525)

    2. “Although Indian rural life was transformed, the old spells of famine persisted.
    …in 1868 in the Punjab, there were more than a
    million dead. Over a million more died in the plains of the Ganges, a region
    which contained the poorest peasants, though it also had the biggest estates
    and the richest lands in India.
    In 1877, all the previous appalling records of disaster were broken, and
    several million people died; whole districts were depopulated and corpses strewed the towns and villages of Hyderabad, yet at the same time Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta were loading on to English ships cargoes of rice and corn destined for export. Profit took precedence over all
    other considerations.

    With a monetary system replacing the old regime of collective mutual help, it was
    probably the poverty of the Indian peasants rather than insufficient production
    which was at the root of these great catastrophes.
    (“Triumph…” book, page 436)

    In other words, there isn’t economics by itself. What there is is “power-nomics”
    with poverty as the level of powerlessness which leads potentially to mass starvation. Powerlessness is a kind of poverty and poverty is an acute form of powerlessness and this involves governments, nation states and access to policy and influence along with economies.

    For example, many merchants in India (Parsees and Marwaris and compradores) did very well while the peasants died. Parsees and marwaris are not in the same boat as landless peasants.

    (Amartya Sen’s essay “Poverty and Famines” from 1981(?) is obviously relevant.)

    Guns and dollars are two types of coerciveness and entwined as Ronald Findlay and his co-author try to show in their “Power and Plenty” classic put out by Princeton a few years ago.

    Now if you re-read these two points just given, you begin to glimpse the missing
    dimension of linkage-making or pattern-recognition: was the triumph of Western global financialization dynamics as explained in point 1 above linked to the famine deaths in India discussed in point 2 above? (you could raise the same question for the Irish famine of course since Ireland was an “internal-to-Europe colony). What was the “power-nomics” linkage to African slavery in the preceding centuries?

    The famous Eric Williams argument that “Europe underdeveloped the Third World” is
    mechanical and not defensible but the fact that early globalization (ie the
    nineteenth century variety used in this comment) was a kind of “inequalizing”
    or “immiserizing” or polarizing process with all kinds of winners, losers,
    victims and bystanders needs to be explored and would round out the very
    intriguing ROS discussion.

    All of this “thrusting up of some” and thrusting down of some” is built on a
    background of military coercion and there is in the world the “double helix” of
    violence as such and “economic violence” ie guns and dollars behind slavery and famines. Slavery and famines are footnotes to “power-nomics” on a global scale.

    “Shock and Awe” didn’t originate in Iraq 2003. Commodore Perry in Japan in 1853 with is “trade or die” ultimatum as the shock and awe of its decade.

    Lastly: ROS had a guest a few years ago, Prof. Arnold Weinstein of Brown(?) who highlighted Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno” as a shoehorn into the issues of slavery, race, commerce.

    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast


    To enrich the highly suggestive ROS discussion you might want to look at several analytical slavery studies which are “cliometric”.

    Cliometrics, or the attempt to quantify history, when applied to slavery, is
    captured by several classic works of which three are representative:

    1. “Time on the Cross” by Fogel and Engerman
    (Robert Fogel won the Nobel Prize circa 1993)

    2. “The Economic Consequences of the Atlantic Slave Trade”

    By Barbara L. Solow Lexington Books, 2014

    Overview of Solow book:

    “ ‘The Economic Consequences of the Atlantic Slave Trade’ shows how the West Indian slave/sugar/plantation complex, organized on capitalist principles of private property and profit-seeking, joined the western hemisphere to the international trading system encompassing
    Europe, Africa, North America, and the Caribbean, and was an important
    determinant of the timing and pattern of the Industrial Revolution in England.
    The new industrial economy was no longer dependent on slavery for development,
    but rested instead on investment and innovation. Solow argues that abolition of
    the slave trade and emancipation should be understood in this context.”

    See: Chapter 1 of this book:

    ‘Capitalism and Slavery in the Exceedingly Long Run’

    3. “Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System”
    Editor: Barbara L. Solow November 1993

    “The inclusion of the New World in the international economy,
    among the most important events in modern history, was based on slavery.
    Europeans brought at least eight million black men, women and children out of
    Africa to the Western Hemisphere between the sixteenth and nineteenth
    centuries, and slavery transformed the Atlantic
    into a complex trading area. This trade united North and South America, Europe,
    and Africa through the movement of peoples,
    goods and services, credit and capital. The essays in this book place slavery
    in the mainstream of modern history. They describe the transfer of slavery from
    the Old World, its role in forging the interdependence of the economies
    bordering the Atlantic, its effect on the empires of Portugal,
    the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain, and its impact on Africa.”

    These are “cliometric” analyses which attempt to come up with arithmetical and accounting
    approximations to sharpen the discussions and to get away from “argument by
    assertion’ alone since anyone can assert anything.

    Conservatives like P.K. O’brien try to argue that in the rise of the West, “the periphery was peripheral” while others argue the periphery was key, if not the key. These are perhaps what Peter Geyl, the Dutch historian, calls “arguments without end.”

    Richard Melson

  • Gerry

    After listening to the show I am curious about the history of moral objections to slavery. What are the earliest examples of this kind of discussion? Are there any polemics against slavery pre-dating the 17th century, from within or outside the U.S. and Europe? Did anyone in ancient Greece or Rome register moral objections, or debate the economic and social implications of slavery? What about ancient India or China?

  • Cambridge Forecast



    We wish to say something about the question posed by the ROS commenter “Gerry” in this thread about slavery on a comparative scale, on a larger canvas:

    To introduce this dimension, remind yourself of these two facts:
    1. In the Anthony Hopkins version of “Mutiny on the Bounty” from a few decades ago, the purpose of the voyage is explained by “Captain Bligh” (Hopkins) to “Fletcher Christian” (Mel Gibson): to bring breadfruit saplings from Tahiti and environs to Jamaica to create a new food source for the African slaves there who were becoming too expensive to maintain. This tells you that the Jamaican sugar planter lobby may well have got the British government and navy to serve their purpose in this way. Caribbean slavery was in the sugar economy long before the rise of King Cotton. This would be circa 1790.

    2. Think of Jane Austen’s novels (Austen died in 1817) which always depict romantic
    entanglements in a world of annuities and West Indies “business.’ (ie sugar plantations). “Mansfield Park” with “Fanny Price” and “Thomas Bertram” is all about this world with Antigua
    and sugar as the “goldmine” in the background.

    In the classic work, “Sugar and Slaves,” the author Richard Dunn writes:

    “Slavery in one form or the other is the essence of West Indian history.”

    “The seventeenth century English sugar planters created one of the harshest systems of servitude in Western history.”

    “Most fundamental is the question as to whether New World slavery differed essentially from older forms of bondage in classical antiquity, medieval Europe, and the Arabic world. It seems to me there was (Italicized-RM) an essential difference, that America Negro slavery of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century because of its starkly racial character, was more profoundly oppressive and more socially divisive than Graeco-Roman slavery or medieval

    (“Sugar and Slaves,” Norton Library paperback, page 224-225, paperback, 1973, Richard S. Dunn)
    One might well have added how the Toussaint L’Ouverture success in Haiti caused a tremendous panic in the then contemporary global “white Establishment” from Napoleon who explicitly set out to undo the Haitian “black” success in their struggle against the Haiti plantocracy as well as Thomas Jefferson who feared that American blacks might draw inspiration from the Haitian blacks.

    Richard Melson

  • Brasscheck TV

    Great stuff! Thanks.

    Remember that early on piracy and slave trading (delivering slaves to the Spanish) were big money makers for the Crown and its agents. In fact, these people were legally-sanctioned professional criminals.

    When they saw the money sugar could make, they started their own plantations. Barbados made more money than all the 13 colonies combined. At first slaves included a large percentage of children “kidnapped” from the streets of London, Dublin and Edinburgh. (Jamaicans speak the English way they do because they were worked with Irish.)

    Cotton was the second wave. The Delta was “cleared” of Native People and then the gold rush was on. How was this massive build out financed? Slaves – not land – were used as security for the loans needed to get plantations started. If a plantation failed, the lenders took the slaves not the land. Many plantation owners made significant income from “breeding” and selling slaves.

    Much of the US cotton went to the UK to Liverpool and then Manchester where another variation of slavery was practiced. Children whose parents could not feed them after they were thrown off the land by the theft of the Commons were taken “for care and training” and then delivered to the satanic mills. It was not uncommon for these children to be worked to death. Transcripts of testimony of conditions in these mills is available and is as horrifying as anything you can imagine. Hours were crushing. Foreman walked the floors whips in hand lashing any child workers that did not keep up the pace.

    Finished cotton from the Manchester mills became a potent economic weapon. At one point, the UK produced 80% of the world’s finished cotton. Cheap cotton destroyed cottage industry first in Britain and then throughout the world. Note that Gandhi often posed in front of a spinning wheel and is quoted “If you want progress, turn the wheel.” He was being literal.

    Interestingly, in the midst of the “cotton famine” caused by the US blockade of the Mississippi during the Civil War, Manchester mill worker labor leaders wrote Lincoln a letter of encouragement in spite of the very real suffering the war-caused shortage of cotton was causing in the form of massive unemployment. (A statue of Lincoln sits in a Manchester park with his reply engraved around its base.)

    How do things like this happen?

    Heartless greed and the willingness of preachers, academicians, and even philosophers to look the other way – as they still do today.

    Pirates and slave traders became plantation owners who generated the capital for the mills in Manchester who in turn financed the universities which then justified the whole operation. See Upton Sinclair’s “The Brass Check” for a detailed and unflinching look at the corruption of universities by big money interests. He considered it as important as “The Jungle”, self-published it, and sold 300,000 copies. I doubt there is even one college course anywhere in the US that teaches its existence, let alone makes it an object of study.

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The ROS discussion was very educational and rich.

    Let me add the following ‘flashlight” on the cotton industry in Britain:

    “Inventions did not initiate cotton’s explosive expansion…The hundred-fold growth in production between 1760 and 1827 could not have been achieved by a hundred-fold increase in the
    labor-force, but only by the rises in productivity which the spinning machinery
    and eventually the power looms provided. The improved quality, as well as the lower
    prices, of the yarn produced by the new machines enabled cotton to take the
    place of linen and silk for may purposes and British cotton to oust its competitors from practically every market—and so the hundred-fold increase could be sold.”

    No other industry underwent the explosive growth of cotton. But in two cases—iron and steam power—a long, slow or hesitant evolution, throughout the century and beyond, produced changes which in the long run were perhaps more significant. During the last two-thirds
    of the seventeenth century and the first third of the eighteenth, the British
    iron industry had been in slow decline. If the trend had continued, there would
    have been small chance of the Industrial Revolution ever getting beyond the
    preliminary cotton outburst.”

    ‘The Fontana Economic History of Europe: The Industrial Revolution’,

    Editor: Carlo Cipolla, September 1980, paperback edition, page 197.

    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast


    Western economic theory a la Ricardo, Malthus, etc tends to be atomistic without global
    contextualization. Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” is the bible of this atomized

    Notice how the ROS discussion is illuminated by these excerpts from Defoe’s book, 2008
    Oxford World Classics edition:

    “…so that I might say, I had more than four times the Value of my first Cargo, and was
    now infinitely beyond my poor Neighbour, I mean in the Advancement of my
    Plantation; for the first thing I did, I bought me a Negro Slave, and an European Servant also; I mean another besides that which the Captain brought me from Lisbon. (page 33)

    “…and after enjoining me Secrecy, they told me, that they had a mind to fit out a
    Ship to go to Guinea, that they had all the
    Plantations as well as I, and were straiten’d for nothing so much as Servants;
    that as it was a Trade that could not be carried on, because they could not
    publickly sell the Negroes when they came home,
    so they desired to make but one Voyage to bring the Negroes
    on Shoar privately, and divide them among their own Plantations; and in a Word,
    the Question was, wehter I wold go their Super-Cargo in the Ship to manage the
    Trading Part upon the Coast of Guinea? And they offer’d me
    that I should have my equal Share of Negroes without providing any
    Part of the Stock.” (page 35)”

    Richard Melson