By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
A new wave of scholarship on slavery seems to be breaking, which feels to me like coming full circle to the work I read as a young adult: The Genoveses (The World the Slaveholders Made, The Mind of the Master Class) and Fogel and Engerman (Time on the CrossVery subjectively, however, let me say two topic areas seem new to me, or at least more salient: The first is the globalism of the American Slave Power, and the second is a focus on the lived experience of those who served that Power, or were enslaved by it. (I know that there are many books, even from my time, that treated slaves and masters as subjects and not objects, but these treatments were book-length; what seems new to me is the willingness to shift perspective from object to subject at the paragraph or even the trope level. Story-telling is intermingled with scholarship in a much more granular way.)
I propose to excerpt and give brief commentary on material from two books, both appropriate for Labor Day and the current political moment:
1. Karp, Mathew. This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016;
2. Beckert, Sven and Seth Rockman, eds. Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
(To the publishers: Both books are beautifully typeset and indexed, and I especially appreciate that the running heads for the back-of-the-book notes include page numbers, so that if I’m looking for note 3 on page 16 I can skim to the Notes to Pages 16-17). There’s nothing more frustrating than flipping through the notes not being sure which note 3 one has encountered. These books are not crapified! They’re also reasonably priced, especially for trade hard covers.)
This Vast Southern Empire
Harvard University Press summarizes Karp’s thesis:
When the United States emerged as a world power in the years before the Civil War, the men who presided over the nation’s triumphant territorial and economic expansion were largely southern slaveholders. As presidents, cabinet officers, and diplomats, slaveholding leaders controlled the main levers of foreign policy inside an increasingly powerful American state. This Vast Southern Empire explores the international vision and strategic operations of these southerners at the commanding heights of American politics.
For proslavery leaders like John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, the nineteenth-century world was torn between two hostile forces: a rising movement against bondage, and an Atlantic plantation system that was larger and more productive than ever before. In this great struggle, southern statesmen saw the United States as slavery’s most powerful champion. Overcoming traditional qualms about a strong central government, slaveholding leaders harnessed the power of the state to defend slavery abroad. During the antebellum years, [slaveholding leaders] worked energetically to modernize the U.S. military, while steering American diplomacy to protect slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the Republic of Texas.
It’s richly ironic, for example, the Jefferson Davis, when Secretary of War in the Franklin Pierce administration, successfully expanded the Army (after the so-called “Fort Laramie Massacre”). And not merely to “protect” slavery, pace HUP as Publishers Weekly urges:
Karp further argues that this aggressive approach was a major factor in the Mexican-American War, the secession of the South, and the Civil War, as these leading policy makers were unwilling to relinquish their chance at constructing “the global order they envisioned—based on racial hierarchy, coerced labor, and aggressive state power.”
So now let’s talk about 1860. Quoting a great slab of Karp (pp 226-228):
The election of 1860 constituted a recvolution in American politics. For the first time in the nation’s history, a President was elected on the basis of a purely sectional vote. Abraham Lincoln carried virtually every state in the Union where slavery had been outlawed; he lost every state where slavery endured. The national triumph of the Republican Party, a political organization that existed almost entirely in the nonslaveholding North, had no precedent in the history of the United States. The electoral arithmetic alone made the Republicans unique, but their vocal antislavery political platform made them revolutionary. Never in eighty years of American existence had the country been governed by a chief executive who openly opposed black servitude.
This revolution of 1860, among its many reversals and disruptions, contained dire implications for the foreign policy of slavery…. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, slaveholding fingerprints remained especially prominent on the levels of executive power that dealt with international relations. In foreign and military affairs southerners could still look forward to a central role in shaping national policy.
The incoming presidential administration offered none of these inducements. In fact the organizing principle of Abraham Lincoln’s entire party was resolute opposition to the fundamental beliefs, interests, an aims of the proslavery South. Certainly, there could be no such thing as a foreign policy of slavery in a Republican administration. Southern elites, understanding themselves as the leading architects and principal stakeholders in U.S. international power for the last three decades, now found themselves cut off from their own creation. …
Worse yet, the mighty organism that southerners had built now threatened to turn its formidable energies against the institution they held most dear. “The crisis of the 1850s,” Steven Hahn has written, “was no longer a battle between expansive and restricted conceptions of Federal power. It instead unleashed a full-scale struggle over who would control the state itself.”
But among the many disturbing consequences of Lincoln’s victory, perhaps the most immediate was the Republican Party’s capture of the outward-looking American state. Under President Lincoln, the United States suddenly assumed the shape of an antislavery world power. Slaveholders from Matthew Maury to Jefferson Davis had made heroic efforts to enhance American power in a global context, but now those efforts appeared to have been wasted, or actively misspent. …
After January 1861 the antebellum South’s most experienced proslavery statesman accepted the dissolution of the republic they had worked so hard to build. Why did these powerful leaders accept a leap into the unknown? They had many reasons, but the future international career of the United States counted among them…. The secession crisis involved not only the fate of the existing slave states, but also the “vast domain” from the California coast to the Amazon Valley–and, given the rising power of the United States, the wider world beyond.
The triumph of the Republican Party in 1860 meant that the overarching question of empire could no longer be resolved through a struggle for control of the American state. Slaveholders had lost that battle; they now resumed the contest within the hastily constructed apparatus of a proslavery state of their own.
As Karp sums up (page 9):
Southern secession was a kind of foreign policy decision. The election of an anti-slavery president snapped the last and strongest bonds connecting the South to the Union–access, through the executive branch, to foreign affairs, the army, and the navy. Deprived of any further investment in the United State’s international clout, southern elites found the appeal of an independent career irresistable. … [However, after] Davis and the antebellum master class were long gone, key elements of the global order they envisioned–based on white supremacy, coerced labor, and aggressive state power–continued to shapre world politics at the turn of the twentieth century
Comment: It’s fascinating to see the similarities between 1860 and today: A legitimacy crisis, globalization, empire, state power, and white supremacy. (Obama giving Malaysia a free pass on slavery in exchange for their TPP vote might be viewed as an experiment in running an empire without white supremacy). Another similarity is seemingly intractable divisions based on faction — that is, on property interest (slavery being a property interest in human beings), with coastal elites participating a vast program of rental extraction based on globalization and control of the rentier state, and the “flyover states,” well, not. However, the factionalism and fragmentation of “the heartland” isn’t nearly so simple as North vs. South, or the latter-day Red States vs. Blue states; there’s nothing so simple as a Mason-Dixon line along which a new approximation of an 1860-style sectional split could take place. Readers may, of course, speculate freely!
Slavery’s Capitalism is a collection of essays, of which I will look at two:
1. Martin, Bonnie. “Neighbor-to-Neighbor Capitalism: Local Credit Networks and the Mortgaging of Slaves.” Slavery’s Capitalism, pp. 107-121.
2. Baptist, Edward. “Toward a Political Economy of Slave Labor: Hands, Whipping Machines, and Modern Power.” Slavery’s Capitalism, pp. 31-61.
Quoting, once again, a great slab, this time from Bonnie Martin (pp. 108-119):
This chapter draws on data collected from more than 10,000 Virginia, South Carolina, and Louisiana loans in which slaves served as collateral.
(Martin does focus on individuals as subjects with stories, but I’m leaving them out. What I like is the methodology, which not only reminds me of Fogel and Engerman, but of the wonderful work by E.P. Thompson on the London corresponding societies in The Making of the English Working Class and with legal records in Whigs and Hunters.)
While the recent research of Edward Baptist has highlighted human collateral in transatlantic financial networks, it was ordinary southerners, not international bankers, who made the most of this fiscal strategy. …
Data from St. Landry Parish reinforce the activity pattern of the region’s creditors, the evidence that lenders were much more likely to be fellow residents that institutions. Credit flowed from neighbor to neighbor in overlapping local and regional webs of borrowing and lending. The data show that the parties to the contracts were individuals acting in a private capacity, not as agents for institutions. In a fifteen-year sample of St. Landry credit relations, banks appeared as parties to purchase moeny and equity mortgages in only 2 percent of the total transactions, and these mortages raised only slightly more than 5 percent of the total capital and accounted for only 10 percent of all the slaves used as collateral. There are similar results for merchants.
“[S]laves used as collateral.” Ponder that.
Mortages on slaves were part of the financial fabric across the South in the nineteenth century. Neighbors lending to neighbors kept the flow of credit from completely drying up during the panics of the nineteenth century. …
Today, we call that “resilience.”
The documentary record shows that community networks remained active throughout the crises of the Panics of 1819, 1837, and 1857, helping to fill voids left by bank closings and tighter lending restrictions. For example, while the Bank of State of South Carolina approved equity loans totaling just over $9 million during the fifteen year sampled in the nineteenth century, accepting 1,120 slaves as collateral, this represented only 9 percent of the slaves that appeared in the sampled South Carolina mortgages, and only 7 percent of the capital raised by loans secured by human property.”
“Loans secured by human property.” Martin sums up:
The data on local lending networks reveal that perhaps the most consistent credit that allowed the slave economy to grow efficiently and rapidly was the amalgamation of the tens of thousands of quiet transactions between neighbors like Armand Duplantier and Juan Bautista Massi. The continuities in these practices over time are striking. The boom-and-bust decade of the of the 1830s was transformative both for regional and national banking and for international finance. In contrast, local credit networks in the South functioned in highly consistent ways to use slaves to finance their own purchase and that of additional enslaved workers, land, and personal property….
Projections from the data support the conclusion that the capital raised using human collateral had a powerful impact on local, regional, and national economies.
There is still much to discover about slavery’s capitalism, yet all the chapters in this volume share an image of capitalistic sophistication that runs counter to the traditional assumptions about the economy of the South… Rather than putting North and South on a sliding scale that is preset to rank the North as a model of complex nineteenth-century capitalism and the South as an inferior replica, it may be more useful to think of northerners and southerners as performing various social and economic experiments in capitalism.
Comment: What I found more than a little disturbing in Martin’s account was that the challenged posed to localism and subsidiarity. From my experience with the economic debacle of the 2008 Crash, I’m used to thinking of “neighbor-to-neighbor,” local credit, and even State banks as unqualifiedly good things. Clearly, that’s just vacuous and due for a rethink. It’s entirely reasonable, for example, to posit local co-operatives bootstrapping themselves with human collateral (and for all I know, examples exist). Martin also reminds us that it’s important to focus on local financial flows, besides the sportier flows of international capital.
Toward a Political Economy of Slave Labor
Baptist’s essay is beautifully layered and complex (and full of irony and fellow feeling). I am going to focus on one theme: The site where profit is extracted from labor, that, the workplace, in this case the fields. As with Martin’s contracts, Baptist’s account books will be central. I’m going to pluck out the components of what today we would call workflow, starting with the field itself (pp. 32-51):
Pushing men like [Charles] Ball’s owner… deployed several innovative techniques of labor control to fill new fields with ever-greater quantities of cotton. One such technique was that of forcing fast workers like Ball’s captain, a man named Simon, to “carry the fore row” — to work at top speed, and thus set a pace that the others had to match. “By this means,” Ball decided, “the overseer had nothing to do but keep Simon hard at work, and we was certain that all the others must work equally hard. If not, their slowness would be visible in the line of workers.
“A good part of our rows are five hundred and fifty yards ong,” wrote one Tennessee cotton planter in the 1820s. Not only had he created a kind of space where he could easily identify stragglers, he could also use it a a stage on which to inflict immediate and exemplary punishment in front of a large audience.
So you can already see the incentives, which we will get to in more detail. Contrary to much conventional wisdom then and now, the plantation system was very efficient:
The amount of cotton enslaved people harvested increased dramatically over time. In 1801, 28 per day per picker was the average in the South Carolina labor camps…
…for which we have records. In 1846, the hands on a Mississippi labor camp averaged 341 pounds each on a good day, and in the next decades averages climbed higher still. A study of planter account books that recorded daily picking totals for individual enslaved peopeke on labor camps across the South finds a growth in daily picking averages of some 400% between 1800 and 1860, or a 2.1 percent growth in productivity each year.
But why? Baptist disposes of various explanations, including better strains of cotton, before returning to the workplace:
Any persuasive explanation for the rise in picking efficiency must take seriously something that the economists in question admit they never considered. Those who survived the incredible increase in labor efficiency knew that something well, however, and focus on it in the testimony they left for history. Using their testimony, I will explain why picking totals actually rose, and what that meant. …
A system of measurement, accounting, and torture was used to coerce enslaved people to pick large amounts of cotton. … [This incentive system was structured by whip, scale, and ledger—and not only by the existence of thousands of pages of cotton-picking records.
[A Natchez doctor describes it. in 1835, After dark, “The overseer meets all hands at the scales, with lamp, scales, and whip. Each basket is carefully weighed, and the nett weight of cotton set down on the slate, opposite the name of the picker.” “The countenance of an idler may be seen to fall,” for the penalty for failure to meet his or her quota was coming out of their back. Or, as travelers less friendly to the enslavers report hearing: “So many pounds short, cries the overseer, and takes up his whip, exclaiming ‘Step this way, you lazy scoundrel.’. …. ‘Short pounds, you bitch.'”
Once enslaved people learned how to meeet the quota consistently [picking cotton isn’t easy, as Baptist shows] the enslaver erased his chalk and wrote a higher quota on the slate for the next day.
The whip made cotton.
Comment: I’m sure this comparison has already occurred to others, but the comparison between the Nazi concentration camps and the Slave Power’s labor camps seems reasonably exact, at least if we’re looking for avatars of evil. However, I find it ever more disconcerting to understand that slavery was profitable, successful as a business. On the left, there seems to be a sort of teleology that holds that feudalism withered away, to be replaced by capitalism, and that slavery, under capitalism, failed to meet wage labor’s challenge, because slavery was less efficient. Clearly, the story is not so simple. Even more disconcertingly, if the triumph of capitalism as wage labor with the victory of the North was not “inevitable,” but contingent, that implies that slavery could rise again. Here, as a matter of methodology, I think that Bapist’s focus on the exact means by which profit is extracted is very important; in today’s rentier economy, we might find metaphorical whips not only in the workplace — Bapist mentions Amazon in a note — but in every transaction from which a rent can be sucked out (including complex societal and multi-decadal systems taking their cues from epigenetics. But that is a topic for another day). Speculate freely!
I should have a grand conclusion, but I do not. These books are both wonderful works of scholarship, and despite their horrific subject matter, they are a joy to read. I encourage readers to look further into the new wave of scholarship on slavery.