In 2019 Matthew Desmond wrote an article for the New York Times “1619 Project” that attributed the brutality of American capitalism to cotton-plantation slavery. There are many types of capitalist societies around the world, Desmond said, “ranging from liberating to exploitative, protective to abusive, democratic to unregulated.” America’s is what University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Joel Rogers calls “low-road. In a capitalist society that goes low, wages are depressed as businesses compete over the price, not the quality, of goods; so-called unskilled workers are typically incentivized through punishments, not promotions; inequality reigns; and poverty spreads.” The US ranks at the bottom in terms of trade union membership, regulation of temporary work arrangements, and ease of firing workers, often without severance pay. Desmond: “Those searching for reasons the American economy is uniquely severe and unbridled have found answers in many places (religion, politics, and culture). But recently, historians have pointed persuasively to slave-labor Southern cotton plantations as the birthplace of America’s low-road capitalism.
Slavery was a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not other parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s willingness to use violence to extract land from Native Americans and labor from African-American slaves. Slavery helped turn a poor, fledgling nation into a financial colossus and created specific economic methods still used today.
Before the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, enslaved workers grew more cotton than they could clean. The gin broke the bottleneck, making it possible to clean as much cotton as you could grow. The other problem with cotton, its quick depletion of soil, was solved by expropriating millions of acres from Native Americans, often with military force, acquiring Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida, then selling the land cheaply to white settlers. As slave labor camps [otherwise known as “plantations”] spread throughout the South, production surged. By 1831, the US was delivering nearly half the world’s raw cotton crop. Southern white elites grew rich, as did their counterparts in the North, who built textile mills to form, in the words of the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, an ‘unhallowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.’ Cotton planters, millers, and consumers fashioned a new global economy whose beating heart was slavery.
Everything you do at work these days is tracked, recorded, and analyzed. This quantification feels like a cutting-edge approach to management, but many of these techniques were first developed by and for large Southern plantations during slavery. Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker, using both precise systems of record-keeping and the threat of vicious punishment for slacking. Overseers recorded each enslaved worker’s yield, not only after nightfall, when cotton baskets were weighed, but throughout the workday. Northern factories wouldn’t begin adopting these techniques until decades after the Civil War. During the 60 years leading up to the Civil War, the daily amount of cotton picked per enslaved worker increased 2.3% a year. That means that in 1862, the average enslaved fieldworker picked 400% as much cotton as his or her counterpart did in 1801. The technology that accompanies modern workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic, but it’s only the technology that’s new. The core impulse behind that technology pervaded plantations, which sought utmost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force. In most cases punishments were authorized by the higher-ups – it was the greed of the rich white planter that drove the lash. The violence was rational, capitalistic, part of the plantation’s design. Punishments were the worst when the price of cotton was high.
The cotton trade and the earlier trade in slave-produced sugar from the Caribbean accelerated worldwide commercial markets in the 19th century, creating demand for innovative contracts (including ‘futures’), novel financial products, and modern forms of insurance and credit. Enslaved people were used as collateral for mortgages centuries before the home mortgage became the defining characteristic of middle America. In colonial times, when land wasn’t worth much and banks didn’t exist, most lending was based on human property. Enslavers weren’t the first to securitize assets and debts in America; the land companies that thrived during the late 1700s relied on this technique, too. But enslavers made use of securities to such an enormous degree for their time, that they created a globalized financial market. As America’s cotton sector expanded, the value of enslaved workers soared. Between 1804 and 1860, the average price of men ages 21 to 38 sold in New Orleans grew to from $450 to $1,200. Because they couldn’t expand their cotton empires without more enslaved workers, ambitious planters needed to find a way to raise enough capital to purchase more hands. Enter the banks. The Second Bank of the United States, chartered in 1816, invested heavily in cotton. In the early 1830s, the slaveholding Southwestern states represented almost half the bank’s business.
When seeking loans, planters used enslaved people as collateral. Thomas Jefferson mortgaged 150 of his enslaved workers to build Monticello. People could be sold much more easily than land, and in multiple Southern states, more than eight in 10 mortgage-secured loans used enslaved people as full or partial collateral. As the historian Bonnie Martin has written, ‘slave owners worked their slaves financially, as well as physically from colonial days until emancipation’ by mortgaging people to buy more people. Global financial markets got in on the action. When Thomas Jefferson mortgaged his enslaved workers, it was a Dutch firm that put up the money. The Louisiana Purchase, which opened millions of acres to cotton production, was financed by Baring Brothers, the well-heeled British commercial bank. A majority of credit powering the American slave economy came from the London money market. Years after abolishing the African slave trade in 1807, Britain, and much of Europe along with it, was bankrolling slavery in the United States. To raise capital, state-chartered banks pooled debt generated by slave mortgages and repackaged it as bonds promising investors annual interest. During slavery’s boom time, banks did swift business in bonds, finding buyers in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Some historians have claimed that the British abolition of the slave trade was a turning point in modernity, marked by the development of a new kind of moral consciousness when people began considering the suffering of others thousands of miles away. But perhaps all that changed was a growing need to scrub the blood of enslaved workers off American dollars, British pounds, and French francs, a need that Western financial markets quickly found a way to satisfy through the global trade in bank bonds. Here was a means to profit from slavery without getting your hands dirty. In fact, many investors may not have realized that their money was being used to buy and exploit people, just as many of us who are vested in multinational textile companies today are unaware that our money subsidizes a business that continues to rely on forced labor in countries like Uzbekistan and China and child workers in countries like India and Brazil. Call it irony, coincidence or maybe cause – historians haven’t settled the matter – but avenues to profit indirectly from slavery grew in popularity as the institution of slavery itself grew more unpopular.
Banks issued tens of millions of dollars in loans on the assumption that rising cotton prices would go on forever. Speculation reached a fever pitch in the 1830s, as businessmen, planters and lawyers convinced themselves that they could amass real treasure by joining in a risky game that everyone seemed to be playing. If planters thought themselves invincible, able to bend the laws of finance to their will, it was most likely because they’d been granted the authority to bend the laws of nature to their will, to do with the land and the people who worked it as they pleased. Du Bois wrote: “The mere fact that a man could be, under the law, the actual master of the mind and body of human beings had to have disastrous effects. It tended to inflate the ego of most planters beyond all reason; they became arrogant, strutting, kinglets.” What are the laws of economics to those exercising godlike power over an entire people?
In 1799 the state of New York passed the first of a series of laws that would gradually abolish slavery over the coming decades, but the investors and financiers of the state’s primary metropolis, New York City, invested heavily in the growth of Southern plantations, catching the wave of the first cotton boom. Southern planters who wanted to buy more land and black people borrowed funds from New York bankers and protected the value of bought bodies with policies from New York insurance companies. New York factories produced the agricultural tools forced into Southern slaves’ hands and the rough fabric called “Negro cloth” worn on their backs. Ships originating in New York docked in the port of New Orleans to service the trade in domestic and (by then, illegal) international slaves. As the historian David Quigley has demonstrated, New York City’s phenomenal economic consolidation came as a result of its dominance in the Southern cotton trade, facilitated by the construction of the Erie Canal. It was in this moment – the early decades of the 1800s – that New York City gained its status as a financial behemoth through shipping raw cotton to Europe and bankrolling the boom industry that slavery made. (In 1711, New York City officials decreed that ‘all Negro and Indian slaves that are let out to hire be hired at the Market house at the Wall Street Slip.’ It’s uncanny, but perhaps predictable, that the original wall for which Wall Street is named was built by the enslaved at a site that served as the city’s first organized slave auction. The capital profits and financial wagers of Manhattan, the United States and the world still flow through this place where black and red people were traded and where the wealth of a region was built on slavery.)
Speculation continued to drive cotton production up to the Civil War, and it’s been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It’s the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs, and abusing the powerless. It’s the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929, and the recession of 2008 – the culture that’s produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism – a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs, and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but rewarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider – one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.”