Capitalism and Slavery: A Discussion with Caitlin Rosenthal, Tom Cutterham, and Eric Hilt

Historians in the News
tags: economic history, slavery, history of capitalism

HNN Editor's Note: This section includes a Q&A with Caitlin Rosenthal, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a historian of 18th and 19th century U.S. history with a focus on the development of management practices, especially those based on data analysis. Her first book, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, was published by Harvard University Press in 2018.

This Q&A explores her new article entitled, "Capitalism when Labor was Capital: Slavery, Power, and Price in Antebellum America“, which was just published in an exciting new journal called Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics. The second issue of Capitalism is available for free through August 14, 2020.


Johnny Fulfer:  Could tell readers a little bit about your new article? What inspired you to write it and what are your main arguments?

Caitlin Rosenthal: The word capitalism often brings more confusion than clarity. I teach an economic history class called “The History of American Capitalism,” and one of the first things we do is to debate the definition. The point of the debate is for students to recognize how many different assumptions people bring to the word and how different assumptions can lead to conflict and confusion. So, when writing my recent book, Accounting for SlaveryI mostly avoided the word. The book is about the history of business practices on slave plantations, and I didn’t want my argument — that slavery was highly compatible with quantitative management practices, and that slaveholders blended sophisticated record keeping with violence — to be lost in broader debates about the relationship between slavery and capitalism.

And yet, the debate about the relationship between slavery and capitalism has continued, sparking particularly virulent disagreement between historians and economists. I think that some of these disagreements could be avoided if we were clearer about what we meant by capitalism. So this paper offers a definition of capitalism that is related not to markets, but to capital. Specifically, I argue that capitalist economies are those where capital is concentrated in the hands of a small class of people, giving them disproportionate market power, including the ability to treat labor as a commodity. I then bring this definition to late antebellum slavery, arguing that slaveholders’ calculations reflect the extent to which they regarded enslaved people as fungible commodities.


HNN Editor's Note: The Q&A is accompanied by commentaries by Tom Cuttherham and Eric Hilt.

Read entire article at The Economic Historian

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