Slavery’s Capitalism:

A New History of American Economic Development

During the nineteenth century, the United States entered the ranks of the world’s most advanced and dynamic economies. At the same time, the nation sustained an expansive and brutal system of human bondage. This was no mere coincidence. Slavery’s Capitalism argues for slavery’s centrality to the emergence of American capitalism in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War. According to editors Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, the issue is not whether slavery itself was or was not capitalist but, rather, the impossibility of understanding the nation’s spectacular pattern of economic development without situating slavery front and center. American capitalism—renowned for its celebration of market competition, private property, and the self-made man—has its origins in an American slavery predicated on the abhorrent notion that human beings could be legally owned and compelled to work under force of violence.

Drawing on the expertise of sixteen scholars who are at the forefront of rewriting the history of American economic development, Slavery’s Capitalism identifies slavery as the primary force driving key innovations in entrepreneurship, finance, accounting, management, and political economy that are too often attributed to the so-called free market. Approaching the study of slavery as the originating catalyst for the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism casts new light on American credit markets, practices of offshore investment, and understandings of human capital. Rather than seeing slavery as outside the institutional structures of capitalism, the essayists recover slavery’s importance to the American economic past and prompt enduring questions about the relationship of market freedom to human freedom.

Contributors: Edward E. Baptist, Sven Beckert, Daina Ramey Berry, Kathryn Boodry, Alfred L. Brophy, Stephen Chambers, Eric Kimball, John Majewski, Bonnie Martin, Seth Rockman, Daniel B. Rood, Caitlin Rosenthal, Joshua D. Rothman, Calvin Schermerhorn, Andrew Shankman, Craig Steven Wilder.

Editorial Reviews

“Some of the best work in one of the hottest fields in American history.”

Gary J. Kornblith, coeditor of Capitalism Takes Command

“The centrality of slavery to the economic development of the United States is revealed here more fully, in more dimensions, than in any other book.”

Edward L. Ayers, author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies

“Reveals the inextricable links between the enslavement of people of African descent and today’s global economy.”

Leslie Harris, Emory University

Author Biography

Sven Beckert is the Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard University. Holding a PhD from Columbia University, he has written widely on the economic, social, and political history of capitalism. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including, from Harvard Business School, the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. He was also a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

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Reader Biography

William Hughes is a professor of political science at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. He received his doctorate in American politics from the University of California, Davis. He has done voice-over work for radio and film and is also an accomplished jazz guitarist.

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