by Gavin Wright (Stanford University)
This research was presented as the Tawney Lecture at the EHS Annual Conference in 2019.
It will also appear in the Economic History Review later this year.
My Tawney lecture reassessed the relationship between slavery and industrial capitalism in both Britain and the United States. The thesis expounded by Eric Williams held that slavery and the slave trade were vital for the expansion of British industry and commerce during the 18th century but were no longer needed by the 19th. My lecture confirmed both parts of the Williams thesis: the 18th-century Atlantic economy was dominated by sugar, which required slave labor; but after 1815, British manufactured goods found diverse new international markets that did not need captive colonial buyers, naval protection, or slavery. Long-distance trade became safer and cheaper, as freight rates fell, and international financial infrastructure developed. Figure 1 (below) shows that the slave economies absorbed the majority of British cotton goods during the 18th century, but lost their centrality during the 19th, supplanted by a diverse array of global destinations.
I argued that this formulation applies with equal force to the upstart economy across the Atlantic. The mainland North American colonies were intimately connected to the larger slave-based imperial economy. The northern colonies, holding relatively few slaves themselves, were nonetheless beneficiaries of the trading regime, protected against outsiders by British naval superiority. Between 1768 and 1772, the British West Indies were the largest single market for commodity exports from New England and the Middle Atlantic, dominating sales of wood products, fish and meat, and accounting for significant shares of whale products, grains and grain products. The prominence of slave-based commerce explains the arresting connections reported by C. S. Wilder, associating early American universities with slavery. Thus, part one of the Williams thesis also holds for 18th-century colonial America.
Insurgent scholars known as New Historians of Capitalism argue that slavery, specifically slave-grown cotton, was critical for the rise of the U.S. economy in the 19th century. In contrast, I argued that although industrial capitalism needed cheap cotton, cheap cotton did not need slavery. Unlike sugar, cotton required no large investments of fixed capital and could be cultivated efficiently at any scale, in locations that would have been settled by free farmers in the absence of slavery. Early mainland cotton growers deployed slave labour not because of its productivity or aptness for the new crop, but because they were already slave owners, searching for profitable alternatives to tobacco, indigo, and other declining crops. Slavery was, in effect, a ‘pre-existing condition’ for the 19th-century American South.
To be sure, U.S. cotton did indeed rise ‘on the backs of slaves’, and no cliometric counterfactual can gainsay this brute fact of history. But it is doubtful that this brutal system served the long-run interests of textile producers in Lancashire and New England, as many of them recognized at the time. As argued here, the slave South underperformed as a world cotton supplier, for three distinct though related reasons: in 1807 the region closed the African slave trade, yet failed to recruit free migrants, making labour supply inelastic; slave owners neglected transportation infrastructure, leaving large sections of potential cotton land on the margins of commercial agriculture; and because of the fixed-cost character of slavery, even large plantations aimed at self-sufficiency in foodstuffs, limiting the region’s overall degree of market specialization. The best evidence that slavery was not essential for cotton supply is demonstrated by what happened when slavery ended. After war and emancipation, merchants and railroads flooded into the southeast, enticing previously isolated farm areas into the cotton economy. Production in plantation areas gradually recovered, but the biggest source of new cotton came from white farmers in the Piedmont. When the dust settled in the 1880s, India, Egypt, and slave-using Brazil had retreated from world markets, and the price of cotton in Liverpool returned to its antebellum level. See Figure 2.
The New Historians of Capitalism also exaggerate the importance of the slave South for accelerated U.S. growth. The Cotton Staple Growth hypothesis advanced by Douglass North was decisively refuted by economic historians a generation ago. The South was not a major market for western foodstuffs and consumed only a small and declining share of northern manufactures. International and interregional financial connections were undeniably important, but thriving capital markets in northeastern cities clearly predated the rise of cotton, and connections to slavery were remote at best. Investments in western canals and railroads were in fact larger, accentuating the expansion of commerce along East-West lines.
It would be excessive to claim that Anglo-American industrial and financial interests recognized the growing dysfunction of the slave South, and in response fostered or encouraged the antislavery campaigns that culminated in the Civil War. A more appropriate conclusion is that because of profound changes in technologies and global economic structures, slavery — though still highly profitable to its practitioners — no longer seemed essential for the capitalist economies of the 19th-century world.