5 thoughts on “How Slavery Shaped American Capitalism

  1. The Jacobin article makes an interesting argument that is useful in several ways. Greatest among them, perhaps, is the removal of an incendiary preoccupation with racism from the discussion of the history and economics of American slavery.

    The basic argument is that slavery — seen politically as being about property rights — caused the Founders to create a weak federal system.

    The argument, however, accomplishes more by suggestion and inference than by clear demonstration. Missing, in particular, is strong evidence that the Founders would have designed a different federal system than the one the Constitution implemented had slavery not existed in the colonies.

    Besides, the system the Founders came up with is remarkably strong in certain areas: military defense, foreign relations and monetary policy. To the extent it can be described as weak, as the Jacobin author claims, it is so only with respect to internal governance. And weak for that, in the writer’s view, only because the Constitution’s deference to state and local governance made utopian socialism impossible at the federal level.

    The burden of proof is particularly heavy here but ignored in two ways:

    • The federal system derives organically from first principles; one needn’t assume ulterior motives for its design, such as concern over slavery as capital.
    • Experiments in utopian socialism had been common in both Europe and the colonies in the period leading up to the Revolution. The Founders surely knew of them, and obviously rejected them out of hand. They chose, instead, to promote a different innovation: Liberty.

    If the Jacobin writer wanted to show that American slavery shaped our governance and society, he needed to do more than allude, by correlation, to the perversions in practical affairs that arise from treating human beings as property. He needed to demonstrate motive and intent on the part of the Founders.

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    1. “The argument, however, accomplishes more by suggestion and inference than by clear demonstration. “

      The author cites the published work of major historians to support his analysis.

      What’s interesting here is you’re demanding an insurmountably high burden of proof, or ignoring it where it exists, anytime you’re presented with anything that would challenge America or capitalism’s origin myth. In effect, you’re just appealing to tradition.

      “Experiments in utopian socialism had been common in both Europe and the colonies in the period leading up to the Revolution. The Founders surely knew of them, and obviously rejected them out of hand. They chose, instead, to promote a different innovation: Liberty.”

      Do you have a source for this? I’d love to hear about the Socialism taking place 200 years before the birth of Karl Marx or capitalism.

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    2. RE: “Do you have a source for this?”

      Not a specific one, but the currents of socialist theory predate the Revolution by more than a century. Thomas More, for example, published Utopia in 1516. In the new world, the Plymouth Colony under William Bradford (c. 1620) is often cited as briefly experimenting with socialism.

      RE: “I’d love to hear about the Socialism taking place 200 years before the birth of Karl Marx or capitalism.”

      Try Robert Owen (1771–1858). Owen was a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropic social reformer, and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement (Wikipedia).

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      1. On the other hand, the Plymouth colony burned witches too.

        Without doubt, small pockets of socialism, hell, even communism (although not formalized) were probably tried in remote places throughout the world, but the case in point is the formation of the United States at a time when all that most of the Founding Fathers (TJ, BF excepted) would have known is the difference between the colonial governments and the monarchy.

        It was a matter of practicality that in the Constitution, as well as the previous Articles of Federation, they didn’t toss of British Common law out of hand. The revolutionists were the mercantile class, not the dirt poor. And that made all the difference.

        The comparisons I always look to were the American, the French, and both Russian revolutions even though this last was 200 years later and in the midst of the Industrial Age. You can throw in Romania in the 1990s.

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      2. RE: “the case in point is the formation of the United States at a time when all that most of the Founding Fathers (TJ, BF excepted) would have known is the difference between the colonial governments and the monarchy.”

        There is no shortage of Marxist historians who overlay the dialectical pattern of class struggle onto the early American experience.

        It is a bad fit.

        For one thing, the American colonies, like others elsewhere, were outposts in the wilderness. They were not highly integrated with the governments and societies which sponsored them. As a result, the normal friction of class interaction was less prevalent than the dialectical pattern requires.

        For another, the intellectuals who defined America’s founding were highly educated in the classical tradition. In this they were indistinguishable from the princes of Europe and Britain. The Founders were the elite at the top of the dialectical triad, not the bourgeois or even the proletariat closer to the base.

        More fundamentally, Marx himself and his work was unknown to America’s founding generation and could not have inspired them. The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, Das Kapital in 1867. But had the Founders read either, one imagines they would have scoffed at Marx’s failures of observation and logic. They are that obvious and outrageous.

        Concepts of socialism and communalism had been common in Europe for more than century by the time Marx came along. They had even fueled the French Revolution, but they were marginal to America’s founding.

        Instead, isolated in the New World, and schooled in classical texts, the Founders uniquely developed the first major innovation of political science in history, the concept of liberty as a function of the arrangements for governance.

        This is the main thing that the Marxist historians miss in portraying the American Revolution as just another predictable dialectic.

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