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.
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.
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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.)
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.