Slavery’s Capitalism A New History of American Economic Development

From William A. Percy
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by William A Percy

I’ve never learned so much from any other work during the last few years as I did from Sven Becket and Seth Rockman's anthology, Slavery’s Capitalism A New History of American Economic Development. Its fourteen specialists produced "Part I Plantation Technologies, chapters 1-3, Part II Slavery and Finance, chapters 4-7, Part III, Networks of Interest in the North chapters 8-10, and Part IV, National Institutions and Natural Boundaries chapters 11-14". The endnotes pages 299-384 contain extraordinary amounts of information. It is the tone of the volume, first in Beckert and Rockman's introduction that I object to most. That rude assertiveness is common among those contributors as well as some other current "experts".

The in-your-face tone of the volume is off-putting. I find the substitution of "enslavers" for the traditional terms of masters or planters shocking. Most of the real enslavers were fellow Africans from the West coast capturing those north or east of them. Supplied with European guns, these Coastal Africans captured their neighbors, brutally conveyed them to the coast in coffles or canoes and cruelly imprisoned them in "factories" as the holding pens were called. Christian merchants picked them up there. A few however operated in East Africa, what is now Mozambique, where the Coastal tribes enslaved some to the west of them to be shipped across the Atlantic. Those atrocities, by fellow Africans, help explain why so few wished to return to Liberia when the opportunity arose.

I wonder whether any of the authors can find a second “whipping machine” to buttress the one they so prominently featured? Surprisingly no one mentioned the house in New Orleans’ French Quarter where a sadistic mistress tortured her slaves. There were always a few crazy masters who tortured their slaves, but most strove to protect their most valuable chattels. The authors of this volume do not consider “house” or “domestic” slaves, whom their masters often treated affectionately, the way Jefferson lavished luxury on his beloved Sally Heming. The authors cite primarily the easily available records from large plantations about field hands. They don't discuss much about house slaves, those trained in specialties, or those held by small farmers, who often worked their own fields alongside their field hands.

This book becomes politically important because it makes a case for reparations for Blacks. What about the other oppressed groups such as Amerindians or for that matter Chinese, Japanese, and Hispanics? Do they deserve reparations too? In addition, who would be assessed to pay for the reparations? Families like mine who held slaves or even recent immigrants from India. Like Elizabeth Warren's plan for a tax on capital. How would it be assessed on whom and by whom? Most significantly missing from the argument. Many contemporaries thought was very crucial: the benefit of converting heathens to Christianity. The authors never consider the overwhelming importance of religion during the 19th century, which both sides, abolitionists and planters, claim was on their side.

There is no mention of the huge number that were imported after 1807 when federal law prohibited bringing in more. The contemporary who got it right was Senator Steven Douglas, whose wife's plantation abutted that of the Percy's near Greenville, Mississippi. Douglas, who knew what he was talking about, gave testimony that has been ignored, as I have discussed in other articles on my website. My great grandfather told his eldest son, my great uncle Leroy, who told his ward, my father, about the illegal imports after 1806. W.E.B. Dubois, who knew thousands of those illegally imported felt the figure was about two hundred and fifty thousand, a figure that no current scholar seems to believe. Howard Zinn, however, got it right in his popular A Peoples History of the United States, Henry Holt, and Company, (1980).

The currently accepted list of all those imported after January 1, 1808, Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, grossly underestimates the numbers. It only cites the documented cases of the apprehended smugglers. It does not consider that most cases did not result in trials. It is therefore as erroneous as so many of the other statistics cited such as "whipping machines" being implied as numerous. They underestimate of kind and reasonable masters. Today many "experts" feel that as many escaped to Canada as were smuggled in after January 1, 1808.

There are motives for these miscalculations. Blacks wish to assert that they were enslaved before 1808 so they can have a longer period of suffering to claim compensation for. The descendants of the southern Whites who bought these imports don't want to admit that their ancestors so routinely broke the laws. The descendants of the Yankees that smuggled them in after 1808 don't want to admit that their ancestors were "blackbirding" (slang for bringing in slaves). Those descended from federal officials don't want to admit how totally inefficient and often corrupt their ancestors' policing was.

Of the various reviews that I've found so far, Stanford Professor of Economics Gavin Wright's is the most important and also the most negative. He asserted that only three of the contributors avoided serious errors about economics. Because he assessed each chapter from that viewpoint, I don't need to and am not qualified to do so. In chapter one Edward Baptist overemphasizes the "whipping machine" and is therefore probably the worst chapter in the book. Besides the critique by the distinguished economist at Stanford, there is an equally telling one by Gordon Wood, the Dean of Historians of British Colonial and Early American and US History. He has replaced the ancient but still living Bernard Baylen. Wood rivals the former history professor at Princeton David Gaub McCullough. Though Wood's critique appears, ironically, on the World Socialist Web Site, "An Interview with Historian Gordon Wood" on the New York Times' 1619 Project. These venerable experts take on and demolish the young Turks manifesto Slavery’s Capitalism. Both single out the editors Sven Becket and Seth Rockman for the extremist enunciation of American slavery.

On Dec 5, 2019, the New York Review of Books published a relevant piece by James Oakes., of three recent works: Reconstruction: America after the Civil War, a PBS documentary produced by Henry Lewis Gates Jr; Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow Henry Lewis Gates Jr, Penguin, (2019); and The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, Eric Foner, Norton (2019). Oakes, who recognized the key position of W.E.B. Dubois, begins by attacking Ken Burns' The Civil War because it featured a charismatic Shelby Foote, spouting reactionary pro-Confederate mythology and gushing about Nathan Bedford Forest, the Southern general who oversaw the massacre of black soldiers during the war and became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan". Incidentally, Shelby lived next door to my father's house in Memphis and had earlier been more or less adopted by my uncle Will. Will's Lanterns on the Levee: Memoirs of a Planter's Son Knopf 1941 came out in the wake of Gone With The Wind. Oakes feels that the period following the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, has been especially ill-served by filmmakers. What about Woodrow Wilson's favorite The Birth of a Nation (1915)?

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