Slavery and Anglo-American capitalism revisited

by Gavin Wright (Stanford University)

This research will be presented in the Tawney Lecture during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.

 

Slaves_cutting_the_sugar_cane_-_Ten_Views_in_the_Island_of_Antigua_(1823),_plate_IV_-_BL
Slaves cutting sugar cane, taken from ‘Ten Views in the Island of Antigua’ by William Clark. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

For decades, scholars have debated the role of slavery in the rise of industrial capitalism, from the British Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century to the acceleration of the American economy in the nineteenth century.

Most recent studies find an important element of truth in the thesis associated with Eric Williams that links the slave trade and slave-based commerce with early British industrial development. Long-distance markets were crucial supports for technological progress and for the infrastructure of financial markets and the shipping sector.

But the eighteenth century Atlantic economy was dominated by sugar, and sugar was dominated by slavery. The role of the slave trade was central to the process, because it would have been all but impossible to attract a free labour force to the brutal and deadly conditions that prevailed in sugar cultivation. As the mercantilist, Sir James Steuart asked in 1767: ‘Could the sugar islands be cultivated to any advantage by hired labour?’

Adherents of an insurgency known as the New History of Capitalism have extended this line of analysis to nineteenth century America, maintaining that: ‘During the eighty years between the American Revolution and the Civil War, slavery was indispensable to the economic development of the United States.’ A crucial linkage in this perspective is between slave-grown cotton and the cotton textile industries of both Britain and the United States, as asserted by Marx: ‘Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry.’

My research, to be presented in this year’s Tawney Lecture to the Economic History Society’s annual conference, argues to the contrary, that such analyses overlook the second part of the Williams thesis, which held that industrial capitalism abandoned slavery because it was no longer needed for continued economic expansion. We need not ascribe cynical or self-interested motives to the abolitionists to assert that these forces were able to succeed because the political-economic consensus that supported slavery in the eighteenth century no longer prevailed in the nineteenth.

Between the American Revolution in 1776 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the demands of industrial capitalism changed in fundamental ways: expansion of new export markets in non-slave areas; streamlined channels for migration of free labour; the shift of the primary raw material from sugar to cotton. Unlike sugar, cotton was not confined to unhealthy locations, did not require large fixed capital investment, and would have spread rapidly through the American South, with or without slavery.

These historic shifts were recognised in the United States as in Britain, as indicated by the post-Revolutionary abolitions in the northern states and territories. To be sure, southern slavery was highly profitable to the owners, and the slave economy experienced considerable growth in the antebellum period. But the southern regional economy seemed increasingly out of step with the US mainstream, its centrality for national prosperity diminishing over time.

Indeed, my study asserts that on balance the persistence of slavery actually reduced the growth of cotton supply compared with a free-labour alternative. The truth of this proposition is most clearly demonstrated by the expansion of production after the Civil War and emancipation, and the return of world cotton prices to their pre-war levels.

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