If you're been watching Roots, then you've seen a lot about slavery and the market economy the last two nights. This August the University of Pennsylvania Press will publish an important volume edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman that deals with recent work on slavery and capitalism. It's called Slavery's Captialism: A New History of American Economic Development. Close readers of the faculty lounge may recall that I blogged about the conference with the same title, "Slavery's Capitalism," where a bunch of these papers originated. This is a vibrant area of discussion among historians -- and legal historians. For the market (as I refer to it rather than capitalism) had a lot to do with the growth of slavery. (The market also had a lot to do with its decline; one of my favorite quotes along these lines comes from Emerson who said of trade that it pushed down feudalism and would do the same to slavery -- but that is also came along with a lot of hardship.) You may have seen Jenny Schuessler's piece on historians' new takes on capitalism in the New York Times, which deals in part with the discussion of slavery. And here's an accessible essay Sven and Seth published on this over at Bloomberg.
It's astonishing to me how long many historians clung to the idea that the south was in some ways anti-market. I think a lot of it has to do with the over-hang of ideas that plantations were like families -- an absurd idea, to be sure, but one that was popular for decades in the "moonlight and magnolia" school. But there was another reason -- rooted in antislavery , too. The only type of criticism allowed of slavery in the south for much of the ante-bellum period was that slavery was bad for white people. And so slavery was depicted by antislavery advocates as economically disastrous for the southern economy. That interpretation fit well -- perversely -- with the proslavery interpretation that slavery was about a loving relationship between the owners and their enslaved human property. Both sides had an incentive to talk about how bad slavery was for the southern economy. And I think that interpretation has proven very sticky. While there have been some powerful interpretations of slavery as economically beneficial for the slave-owning class over the years, it's only been in the recent past that we've been fully embracing just how much slavery contributed to the economy. And this book looks at many places to see how the system worked to extract labor at the lowest cost and how much the rest of our country benefited from this.
I'm honored to have a chapter in Slavery's Capitalism; my chapter deals with the southern legal system's market-orientation. I discuss some cases involving slaves, running from the limitation of tort liability of slave-owners for torts committed by their slaves to the use of trusts to manage enslaved people effectively, as well as the ideas of judges who linked slavery, economic development, and law. A lot of this will sound familiar to legal historians -- it's in large part an expansion of themes in Morton Horwitz' Transformation of American Law to the context of the slave-owning south. Those themes, which appear in judicial opinions and in speeches and books by judges and lawyers, reveal the centrality of slavery to southern law and vice versa.
The table of contents is as follows: