This is one of the reasons why books like Empire of Cotton and The Half has Never Been Told irritate me so much. People like Harold Myerson start spreading their misinformation in newspapers like the Washington Post. Myerson writes that
“For much of the 20th century, the prevailing view of the North-South conflict was that it had pitted the increasingly advanced capitalist economy of the North against the pre-modern, quasi-feudal economy of the South. In recent years, however, a spate of new histories has placed the antebellum cotton economy of the South at the very center of 19th-century capitalism. Works such as “Empire of Cotton,” by Harvard historian Sven Beckert, and “The Half Has Never Been Told,” by Cornell University historian Edward E. Baptist, have documented how slave-produced cotton was the largest and most lucrative industry in America’s antebellum economy, the source of the fortunes of New York-based traders and investors and of British manufacturers. The rise in profitability, Baptist shows, resulted in large part from the increased brutalization of the slave work force.”
Was the prevailing view that the South was quasi-feudal? No. Anyone who had read any economic history in the last 60 years knew better.
Was slave produced cotton the largest and most lucrative industry? No. Cotton was the largest export, but not the largest product; both wheat and corn exceeded cotton in the value of crops produced (based on estimates from De Bows Statistical View). Cotton production amounted to about 4 % of GDP.
Have they documented how slave produced cotton was the source of the fortunes of New York based traders and investors? No. I think this will be rather difficult for them to do. According to Albion’s Rise of New York Port, in 1860 only $12.4 million worth of cotton was exported from New York, while more than $96 million was exported from New Orleans, smaller southern ports like Charleston and Savanah also exported more cotton than New York. Cotton accounted for a small share of the more than $120 million in exports from New York. Moreover the $233 million in imports that came through New York dwarfed the value of exports from the port. In other words, cotton accounted for a relatively small share of the shipping activity in New York. In addition, while some New York investors no doubt profited from slavery, at least some others saw slavery as a liability in financial markets. When Lewis Curtis of the Farmers Loan and Trust Company wrote to the Rothschilds in June 1838, trying to interest them in bonds to finance railroad construction in Michigan, he underlined that “it is a Free State and Slavery is prohibited.” I do not know that the Rothschilds cared, but Curtis clearly thought they might. The bottom line is that we do not yet know the extent to which fortunes of New York traders and investors were built on cotton. So far, it has only been asserted; it has not been established with evidence.
Maybe I am wrong, but at least I will tell you what evidence I am basing my conclusions on.