The “New History of Capitalism,” Cotton, and Slavery

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM
Centennial Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Paul W. Rhode, University of Michigan
Alan L. Olmstead, University of California, Davis
The "New History of Capitalism" grounds the rise of industrial capitalism on the production of raw cotton by American slaves. Recent works include Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams, Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton, and Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told. These books have returned economic phenomena to historian’s limelight. We show that all make fundamental errors in economic reasoning that affect their major interpretations. What’s more, all these works are marred by serious problems of historical scholarship. In his top-down treatment of cotton’s empire, Beckert mis-identities leading actors, makes misleading claims that cotton capitalists successfully lobbied for legislation that in fact failed, and mischaracterizes statistical trends. Johnson garbles the important biological innovations that propelled the cotton economy, he invents ahistoric and meaningless production metrics, and he ignores major economic history literatures, including that on southern self-sufficiency. Baptist argues that the calibrated use of torture on the American cotton frontier was the key innovation leading to the global industrial revolution. He asserts enslavers employed a ratchet mechanism, whereby increases in current production led to higher future targets. However, Baptist’s account is at variance with the ex-slave narratives that he cites and with evidence drawn from plantation records.
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