This post is an expanded version of a comment that I submitted over at The Junto in response to Benjamin Park’s review of Matthew Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire. The Introductory paragraph states that “A generation ago it was common for historians to talk about the “regressing” southern states in the decades preceding Civil War,” but that “scholarship from the past couple decades have put that myth to rest. Michael O’Brien demonstrated that southerners were intellectuals who contemplated the most sophisticated issues of modernity. Edward Baptist showed how the slave institution increased in strength as the financial staple in America’s capitalistic order. Walter Johnson and Sven Beckert displayed how slaveholders were at the forefront of an increasingly global economy.”
My only concern in regard to this very informative and well written review is the introductory paragraph. I think the introduction buys into a false historiography of slavery that some authors, most notably Edward Baptist, have been trying to sell. I don’t believe that it accurately characterizes the state of history a generation ago.
I suppose we could argue about what constitutes a generation ago, but I happened to have a copy of an undergraduate American History textbook from almost 30 years ago: George Brown Tindall’s America: A Narrative History Volume, 2nd edition (1988). Tindall wrote on page 371 that “More often than not the successful planter was a driving newcomer, bent on maximizing profits. While the profitability of slavery has been a long standing subject of controversy, in recent years, economic historians have reached the conclusion that the slaves on average supplied about a 10 percent return on their cost.” He went on to note that slaves were the most profitable investment available in the South, and that incomes in the South were not only comparable to the wealthiest countries in the World, but that in the newer cotton lands incomes were among the highest in the United States. The view that he presented to undergraduates almost 30 years ago was of a thriving and successful southern economy based on slave labor. There is no indication that he thought this was a controversial interpretation.
Unlike Tindall, some more recent authors have tried to present a version of the historiography of slavery that has been stripped of a half century of research by economic historians, as well as the fact that much of that research had been incorporated into history texts.
My comment ended at this point, but I will add some detail about the aspects of research in economic history that have been neglected in some recent work on the history of slavery.
There are three areas of research that have been largely ignored in a number of recent works on the history of slavery:
1. Research on the economic nature of slavery. Beginning with the work of Conrad and Mayer in the 1950s and extending through the work of Fogel and Engerman in the 1970s and Fogel in the 1990s, economic historians had accumulated a mountain of evidence that slaveholders were profit maximizing capitalists, that they were able to generate increases in productivity over a long period of time, and that they were optimistic about the future of their economic system. To the extent that recent historians have claimed credit for demonstrating that slavery in the American South was a dynamic capitalist system they are taking credit for something that had already been done.
2. Research on the role of slave produced goods, particularly cotton, in American economic development. Recently, I noted that several authors in Slavery’s Capitalism rely upon Doug North’s theory of economic growth through interregional trade driven by the South’s specialization in cotton export production. Yet numerous economic historians had compiled evidence that North’s interpretation overestimated the role of interregional trade and underestimated the role of intraregional trade for economic development. The evidence did not support the conclusion that cotton was the driving force behind economic growth. Second, much of the work done on early industrialization has emphasized the role of intraregional trade. Much of early industrialization appears to have been directed at local demand not demand from the South or Europe. See Robert Gallman,"Self-sufficiency in the Cotton Economy of the Antebellum South." Agricultural History 44, no. 1 (1970): 5-23; Lawrence A. Herbst, "Interregional commodity trade from the North to the South and American economic development in the antebellum period." The Journal of Economic History 35, no. 01 (1975): 264-270; Colleen M. Callahan, and William K. Hutchinson. "Antebellum interregional trade in agricultural goods: preliminary results." The Journal of Economic History 40, no. 01 (1980): 25-31; Diane Lindstrom Economic Development in the Philadelphia Region and, more recently, David Meyer Roots of American Industrialization or see his essay on Industrialization in EH.Net’s Encyclopedia.
Ignoring the vast scholarship on the subject leads to things like Baptist’s attempt to quantify the relative importance of slave produced cotton, which should be regarded as one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of American history, as he spends two pages making up numbers and then summing them. See here.
3. Research on the negative consequences of slavery for long term economic development. Gavin Wright. "Old south, new south." NY: Basic Books (1986); Stanley Engerman and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. Economic development in the Americas since 1500: endowments and institutions. Cambridge University Press, 2012; Nathan Nunn. "Slavery, inequality, and economic development in the Americas." Institutions and economic performance (2008): 148-80. As Robert Wright has recently argued, the fact that enslavers grew rich does not necessarily imply that slavery enriched the economy as a whole.
While there is a lot of good work being done on the history of slavery, progress will be limited to the extent that new scholars buy this false historiography and fail to address the work done by economic historians over the last half century.