Well, I'm back from a fabulous conference, Slavery's Capitalism. Lots of stuff to talk about here. The first thing, of course, is ... a picture! At right is a picture of a Civil War monument in downtown Providence, which I'm told was the first Civil War monument to depict a slave -- or some such. Kirk Savage's Standing Soldier, Kneeling Slave will have the complete story on it.
The organizers, Seth Rockman and Sven Beckert, assembled a bunch of senior scholars -- including the legendary Stanley Engerman and Lorena Walsh, whose Motives of Pleasure, Honor, and Profit I hope to talk about some this summer. There were some old friends there -- which I guess that means they're (we're) senior folks, too, these days -- like James Campbell, Mike Vorenberg, and Josh Rothman, among many others. And there were a lot of younger folks doing some incredibly creative work.
The conference took inspiration in some ways from the Brown Slavery and Justice Committee's work from a few years back that looked to Brown and Rhode Island's connections to slavery (and to a lesser extent anti-slavery). In contrast to the Emory University conference on slavery and the university from back in February, this one was focused on the economic connections between slavery and the north and Europe, more than the intellectual ones.
The organizers cast the net broadly. Thus, there was a lot of talk about the ways that slavery drove economic and technological development. For instance, to take just two examples from many papers, Bonnie Martin spoke about her work that you may have seen in the Journal of Southern History ("Slavery's Invisible Engine: Mortgaging Human Property") last fall on slave mortgages and Daniel Rood spoke about his most innovative work on how the desire to increase agricultural output (or at least the speed of harvesting) drove technological innovation. There was also talk about how slavery and the products of slavery were important to economic development in the north, the Caribbean, and Europe, among many, many other topics.
The conference has already drawn some stories, including two from the Providence Journal and one in the Brown Daily Herald and another in the Harvard Crimson. What sort of surprised me were the comments to the Projo articles, because the discussion of contemporary issues, like reparations, was just about non-existent at the conference. There was not a single paper that dealt with this as even a side theme and I think the only person who mentioned that word reparations did so in a dismissive way in a single sentence. One commenter mentioned that she hoped to see more of the moral outrage in some of the papers, which suggests that if anything the presenters were tilting in the opposite direction. Obviously some people don't even want to hear about this history at all.
Now, a couple of other thoughts about this. As the Crimson article points out, there were a number of presentations of student work from history department classes at both Brown and Harvard, which focused on individual elements of Harvard and (in the case of the Brown University papers) Rhode Island connections to slavery and Jim Crow. One paper was on debates at the Harvard Divinity School's literary society over slavery -- a topic near to my heart, of course (and here), though my focus is on the southern part of the story.
My paper was on considerations of utility in American legal thought and how those considerations supported slavery both North and South, though more of my examples were drawn from south of the Mason-Dixon line than north of it. I'm interested in a flip on the typical story of how trade and the market led to antislavery results. You may recall, for instance, that long before historians like David Brion Davis began talking about the ways that capitalism caused the growth of anti-slavery values that Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of the powerful effect of trade on pushing down slavery.
The philosopher and lover of man have much harm to say of trade; but the historian will see that trade was the principle of Liberty; that trade planted America and destroyed Feudalism; that it makes peace and keeps peace, and it will abolish slavery. We complain of its oppression of the poor, and of its building up a new aristocracy on the ruins of the aristocracy it destroyed.
Certainly, the market was instrumental in giving free workers in the north and in Europe the power and the incentive to oppose slavery. And I am a firm believer in the ways that affluence can lead to a rise in moral sensibilities and to the power to act on those refined sentiments. Yet, there is also a close connection between trade and the market and proslavery attitudes.
Anyway, here is a podcast of my talk, "Utility, Market, and Slavery in American Legal Thought." I should add that while I am a huge advocate of histories that deal with the ways that African Americans, particularly African American intellectuals, tore down slavery and Jim Crow and also of talk of accounting for the crimes of slavery and Jim Crow that at this conference I was focused on other issues -- that is, I spoke almost exclusively about dead, white, slaveholding men (with an occassional gesture towards an anti-slavery white woman or white man). While I hope that we will have more conversations about how African Americans opposed slavery and, of course, how their forced labor contributed to American (and world) economic development, it is important to understand how the powerful, the wealthy, and the well-educated thought about property rights and law. Amidst some very important papers about how mechanical and financial technology led to economic development, I hope that there will be talk of how the technology of law was mobilized and refined to make the system of slavery as profitable as it was and to drive further economic development. That is a story in which we need to return to the ideas of dead white slave-owning men (and women), and northern judges, lawyers, and merchants, as well as those of the enslaved and the anti-slavery advocates.