February 16, 2017

Effects of Slavery on Western Economies Remain, Professor Says

Print More

Slavery had a crucial, but often overlooked effect on rise of Western capitalism, argued Prof. Edward Baptist, history, at a talk Thursday at the Center for Intercultural Dialogue.

“Something clearly happened to Western societies between 1750-1800,” Baptist explained. “They started to shift from rural to urban populations, from agricultural to increasingly industrial kinds of production, from hand labor to machine production of goods, but why?”

Baptist argued that the dramatic rise of cotton production in the United States helped spur its economic growth and industrialization, but historically, many economists have disagreed.

Early economists, like Adam Smith, maintained that slavery’s inefficiency caused the shift from agriculture to industry. Karl Marx, while acknowledging that slavery was significant to western capitalism, said that the West became rich because of its shift to industrial and factory systems. There were others still who suggested that the growth and development of the West had nothing to do with slavery, or was hindered by it, according to Baptist.

Baptist, however, argued that slavery itself was the main driving force behind the boom of capitalism. He also pointed out that all these viewpoints left out what slaves had to say about the institution they were trapped in.

One enslaved person, Charles Thompson, described in his autobiography the practices that slave owners put in place to boost cotton production: weighing the amount of cotton picked each day, assembling this data into detailed ledgers and setting quotas to maximize production.

Using methods like these, Baptist said, the average amount of cotton picked in the South grew dramatically over time and the United States became the largest producer of cotton in the world.

“By the 1840s the two most widely traded commodities in the global economy were raw cotton from the United States and factory produced cotton cloth from places like Britain,” he said, adding that the demand for cotton thrust the United States and other European countries into positions of great economic power.

“Think of the role of oil in the world economy today,” Baptist said. “It’s not the only commodity that exists but it’s a very crucial one that often helps drive prices up or down in other areas. The U.S. was in a position, in terms of the amount of cotton it produced, that OPEC is today.”

But when the United States started to overproduce cotton, cotton producers began an aggressive advertising campaign to make sure that demand stayed high.

“The demand for cloth often didn’t keep up with the amount of cotton and then cloth produced, which led to a series of financial crises,” Baptist said. “As a result we saw the emergence of fashion magazines as a way to market cotton cloth.”

Producers started to convince middle class American and European women that they needed a different outfit for every day of the week and that clothes go out of style every season. When people started to believe this, a culture of materialism and consumerism followed.

That culture remains to this day, Baptist said.

“When we look at the development of western industry from the perspective of people like Charles Thompson, who picked cotton in the fields, it’s a lot easier to see that despite what Smith, Marx and U.S. historians have often said there is a very clear connection between the labor that Charles Thompson was doing and the rise of the industrial West.”

Historians too can get a more realistic understanding of the connection between Western capitalism and slavery by consulting the precise words of former slaves, like Thompson, according to Baptist.

“There are a lot of documents that tell us what enslaved people — once they were emancipated — said about their experiences” he said. “In the 1930s about 2,300 formerly enslaved individuals were interviewed by government workers during the Depression and almost 100 autobiographies were published by formerly enslaved people in the 19th century.”

Baptist says that the impact of slavery on the development of the industrial world is something that has been to a large extent written out of U.S. history. Many African American historians and scholars, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, have put forth these arguments, but still there is strong resistance from the mainstream to leave enslaved people’s connection to the country’s economic success out of the narrative, Baptist said.

“We have reminders about this history, but often that history is literally kept out of sight,” he said.