In his new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Edward E. Baptist details how “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich.” Excerpt from the book here. Yglesias puts Baptist’s approach in context, explaining that he is countering “a tradition which views slavery as a kind of archaic institution … a New World form of feudalism that was doomed by the growing tide of industrialization”:
First, he shows that the slave economy was as modern as any other aspect of the mid-19th Century. There were, for example, slave-backed mortgages and other sophisticated financial products. So the genre of social history which pits old-timey southern agrarianism against modernizing northern industrialism is simply mistaken — major proprietors on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line participated in the rise of modern financial institutions.
Second, he argues that the slave economy’s success was critical to the larger success of what we call the Industrial Revolution. This is commonly portrayed as a question of technology — spinning jenny, mechanical loom, etc. — but developing the modern textile industry also required an enormous amount of fiber as inputs. All that technology would have run into fundamental ecological limits if you’d tried to fuel the factories with British wool. There isn’t nearly enough space for all the sheep.
Riding to the rescue was American cotton. In the 70 years between the adoption of the Constitution and the outbreak of the Civil War, US production rose 2,000-fold from 1.2 million pounds to 2.1 billion pounds.
Update from a reader:
The North absolutely profited from slavery, but the United States as a whole became a whole lot richer by ending it. This post from Scott Sumner is a good summary for all the reasons why.
(Photo of a slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864, via Wikimedia Commons)