Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

One of the leading economic historians of the American south, Stanford’s Gavin Wright, observes in a recent Journal of Economic Perspectives article that both 19th-century defenders of slavery and 21st-century critics of slavery credit it for the rise of modern industrial capitalism. Southern “King Cotton” was, goes the argument, the cheap ingredient that grew the critically important northern textile factories that propelled industrialization.

The 19th-century group claiming slavery’s necessity was trying to preserve the South’s “peculiar institution.” The 21st-century group, composed of “New Historians of Capitalism” and many writers on the Black experience (such as contributors to the New York Times1619 Project”), is trying to show that American affluence today was built on the backs of slaves and, by extension, to show how much Americans today owe the descendants of those slaves.

Wright, while never underestimating the moral abomination of slavery and, later, serfdom, their long-lasting harms, and the complicity of Americans beyond the slave-owners themselves, objects: The proposition that slavery powered industrialization “has been rejected by virtually every economic historian who has examined the issue.” In the end, “slavery enriched slave-owners, but impoverished the southern region and did little to boost the US economy as a whole.” (Another historian of the South has a harsher rejection here.) Wright tip-toes around the connected reparations issue. But on this Juneteenth, the connection warrants more attention.


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Slavery’s Heavy Hand

In an earlier post, I mused about the notion of the “heavy hand of history,” the idea that long-past conditions pull us in certain directions even generations after the fateful events. One of the very earliest users of the phrase, in 1944, was an eminent psychologist who was trying to understand the situation of African Americans 80 years after Emancipation.

Slave Family 1862_LC-USZCN4-280

Now, a just-published study reinforces the point, showing that the deeper a southern county’s immersion in slavery in 1860, the greater the black-white inequality in that county in 2000.


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Was Slavery, Is Slavery

A recent story on plans across the South to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the secession that sparked the Civil War reported that its advocates dismissed the issue of slavery as irrelevant.


One planner said “our people were only fighting [the Civil War] to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.” Another, while “not defending slavery, which he called an abomination, [said] ‘But defending the South’s right to secede, the soldiers’ right to defend their homes and the right to self-government doesn’t mean your arguments are without weight because of slavery’ . . .”

Such efforts to deny that slavery brought on the Civil War come from the Right, but they eerily connect to similar denials from the Left. Both positions are wrong. It was slavery; it still is slavery.

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Juneteenth: Race? Slavery?

Juneteenth celebrates the announcement of emancipation in Texas on June 19, 1865.

source: jessamyn's photostream

Its 145th anniversary prompts reflection on how race and slavery got entangled early in American history. In those days, being black and being a slave did not necessarily go together. That association developed and then tightened over several generations.

The almost accidental entanglement of African origin and slavery has shaped our understanding of race ever since. And now the two are being disentangled, which raises tricky questions such as: What explains the disadvantages of African Americans?; Who should benefit from affirmative action?; and Is Barack Obama is really “black”?

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