I’m not sure how much of an impact the
1619 Project will have on the public, but it has certainly gotten a lot of academic
historians wound up. Historians at the American
Institute for Economic Research and the World
Socialist Web Site have both criticized the Project. Talk about politics
making strange bedfellows. Peter
Coclanis is the latest to criticize it. And, of course, everyone with a
Twitter account has an opinion. More than a few seem to be of the opinion that
the entire project is tainted by bias and invalid. Others are certain that the
biases of the critics are the problem.
not an opponent of the project. I agree with Beckert and Rothman that “American
slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism,” And there
is a lot of recent and ongoing research that demonstrates the fruitfulness of
this research program. For a small sample of recent work related to economics
and politics see Acharya,
Blackwell and Sen; Yeonha Jung,; and Jhacova Williams. And some of the quibbling about things like whether or not the people transported against their will from Africa and sold in Virginia were "slaves" just does not make sense to me.
said, I do think there are some significant errors in the Desmond essay and the
shorter essays that were incorporated into it. These are the essays most
closely related to American economic history, my own field of research and
teaching. What I mean by errors are claims that are not supported by the available
evidence. There are other things I could argue with. For instance, Desmond
talks a lot about capitalism, but doesn’t tell us what capitalism is. This is a
problem because there are a lot of different definitions of capitalism and
people disagree strongly about them. Personally, I think this renders it more
of a distraction than a useful category of analysis. But that is something
people can argue about. What I mean by error here are specific claims that are
not supported by evidence.
Quoted material is in bold.
Describing the Panic of
1837, Desmond writes that “When the price of cotton tumbled, it pulled down
the value of enslaved workers and land along with it. People bought for $2,000
were now selling for $60. Today, we would say the planters’ debt was “toxic.”
The figure below shows the
price of slaves during the antebellum period (Historical Statistics of the
United States Millennium Edition Series (series Bb211 and Bb212). It has both the average and the price for
prime field hands. There is a large decrease in prices after the Panic of 1837,
but nothing on the order of what Desmond suggests. The high figure that Desmond
cites is well above the highest price for prime age field hands, and the lowest
price is well below the lowest average. It may be that Desmond has evidence
that would support this claim, but there is nothing indicating what the claim
is based on.
Mehrsa Baradaran writes that
“At the start of the Civil War, only states could charter banks. It wasn’t
until the National Currency Act of 1863 and the National Bank Act of 1864
passed at the height of the Civil War that banks operated in this country on a
national scale, with federal oversight.”
The federal government could
charter banks before the Civil War. It had chartered banks: the Bank of the
United States and the Second Bank of the United States (and I think a couple of
banks in D.C.). The two Banks of the United States operated on a national scale
(they had branches in multiple states), but the national banks chartered under
this new legislation did not operate on a national scale. Like most state
banks, national banks did not have branches.
Desmond suggests that “When
an accountant depreciates an asset to save on taxes or when a midlevel manager
spends an afternoon filling in rows and columns on an Excel spreadsheet, they
are repeating business procedures whose roots twist back to slave-labor camps.
And yet, despite this, “slavery plays almost no role in histories of
management,” notes the historian Caitlin Rosenthal in her book “Accounting for
Slavery.” Since the 1977 publication of Alfred Chandler’s classic study, “The
Visible Hand,” historians have tended to connect the development of modern
business practices to the 19th-century railroad industry, viewing plantation
slavery as precapitalistic, even primitive. It’s a more comforting origin
story, one that protects the idea that America’s economic ascendancy developed
not because of, but in spite of, millions of black people toiling on
plantations. But management techniques used by 19th-century corporations were
implemented during the previous century by plantation owners. It was rational,
capitalistic, all part of the plantation’s design.
This is drawn from the work
of Caitlin Rosenthal. I really like Rosenthal’s book, but she is very explicit
that she is not telling an origin story. She demonstrates how slave owners
developed management practices to increase their profits and how those ideas
spread. But she states that she does not claim that they were the source for
modern management practices.
Desmond also claims that “A
majority of credit powering the American slave economy came from the London
I don’t think we know this. We
know that some English credit went toward financing the shipment of cotton, as
well as the purchase of land and slaves, but, to the best of my knowledge, no
one knows what proportion of credit originated in England. It may be true that
most of the money came from London, but we do not know. If Desmond actually has
evidence to support this I hope that he publishes it.
Regarding the Industrial
Revolution Desmond claims that “The large-scale cultivation of
cotton hastened the invention of the factory, an institution that propelled the
Industrial Revolution and changed the course of history.”
This statement reverses the chronology. Cotton mills
mechanized and powered by water or steam preceded the large scale cultivation
of cotton in the United States by decades. It would be more accurate to say
that the factory hastened the large scale cultivation of cotton by enslaved
people in the United States.
Writing about New York City,
Tiya Miles states that “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.”
First, it is not clear how
the Erie Canal facilitated New York’s dominance of the cotton trade. Second, does
Quigley provide evidence to demonstrate that New York’s economic consolidation came
as a result of its dominance of the cotton trade.
Quigley argued for the importance
of the South to New York’s economic development in “Southern Slavery in a Free
City: Economy, Politics and Culture,” in Slavery in New York, edited by
Ira Berlin and Leslie Harris, The New Press, 2005 (companion volume to major exhibition
at the New-York Historical Society, 2005-2007). In this essay, he does make
strong claims about the role of slave produced cotton in the economic evolution
of New York City. For instance, he writes:
slave produced goods helped propel the city’s prosperity throughout the early
nineteenth century. The records of the city’s cotton exchange and individual
trading houses illuminate the centrality of the Southern trade to New York’s
booming antebellum economy. Alongside the opening of the Erie Canal in the
1820s, local merchants’ success in establishing and maintaining long term business
ties to the Southern planter class fueled New York’s financial ascendancy. The
city’s merchants came to dominate the export market for cotton and served as
critical middlemen for the domestic cotton trade, and metropolitan tradesmen
disproportionately benefited from Southern consumerism by mid-century” (page 266).
differs from Miles. In Quigley, the Erie Canal is not presented as a means of garnering
the Southern trade. The Southern trade is presented as adding to the effects of
the opening of the canal. Consequently, the Southern trade is not “the” cause
of New York’s rise to economic prominence. But does Quigley’s evidence support
even these milder claims?
Guigley relies mostly upon other
secondary sources, particularly the work of Richard Albion and an essay by
Lampard (Lampard, Eric E. "The
New York metropolis in transformation: history and prospect. A study in
historical particularity." The Future of the Metropolis. Berlin: Walter
de Gruyter, Inc (1986): 27-110). But these citations do not provide evidence that would support the conclusion
that New York’s dominance of the cotton trade propelled its economic ascendancy.
In fact, it is difficult to make a case that New York dominated the cotton trade.
Consider the following graphs.
The first shows the number of bales exported from leading ports (Donnell,
Ezekiel J. Chronological and statistical history of cotton. 1872.). The
second shows the exports and imports of New York and New Orleans in millions of
dollars (Albion Rise of New York Port Appendices II and III). Most cotton
was exported from New Orleans. And its share was growing over the antebellum period.
The trade that New York dominated was imports (and immigration). Imports, not
exports, were what made New York the largest port in the United States.
Some people will argue that the
South needed to use New York, ships, banks, and insurance companies? But the
size of these connections have been asserted rather than established with
evidence. Again, this is one of the areas in which we know there were
connections, but to the best of my knowledge no one has estimated the extent of
these connections or their relative importance to the New York economy. It
should, however, be noted that the South was not entirely dependent on the
North, let alone New York. Much recent research has noted the role of significance
of financial development in the South. As Desmond noted in his essay, New
Orleans was one of the most banked cities in the country. Richard Kilbourne
concluded that much of the finance for slave purchases in Louisiana came from
local sources. Sharon Anne Murphy and Karen Ryder found that insurance
companies in the South took a leading role in the sale of policies to insure
enslaved people. People and corporations in New York were involved in the
cotton trade (and tobacco, rice and sugar) but we don’t have good estimates of
the size of this involvement. Given margin of imports over exports and the fact
that most cotton left through New Orleans it is hard to support a claim that New
York’s economic rise was du to its dominance of the cotton trade.
Finally, I do have to say
that I think that presenting Edward Baptist as reliable authority on the
history of slavery in America is also an error because it is not supported by the
available evidence. See here