Plantation Kingdom: The American South and Its Global Competitors

AHA Session 231
Agricultural History Society 2
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Plaza Ballroom A (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Anne B. W. Effland, Office of the Chief Economist, US Department of Agriculture
Peter A. Coclanis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Richard Follett, University of Sussex
Barbara Hahn, Texas Tech University
Daina Ramey Berry, University of Texas at Austin and Brian Schoen, Ohio University

Session Abstract

In 1850, America’s plantation kingdom reigned supreme. U.S. cotton dominated world markets, while American rice, sugar cane, and tobacco grew on plantations from Maryland to Texas. Four million enslaved African Americans toiled in the cotton and cane fields, producing global commodities that enriched the most powerful class of slaveholders the world had ever known. They called it the Cotton Kingdom—a vast agricultural empire that supplied the global demand for its plantation staples.  Fifty years later, America’s plantation kingdom lay in ruins. Asian competition flooded world markets with cheaper raw materials, slave emancipation demolished the plantation-labor system, and free trade eliminated protected markets. U.S. farmers struggled to remain competitive, but global competition ultimately brought the plantation kingdom to its knees.

This roundtable debate addresses the rise and fall of America’s plantation economy and features the authors of Plantation Kingdom: The American South and its Global Competitors (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016) and a select group of critics. Authors Richard Follett, Barbara Hahn, and Peter Coclanis will be joined by Brian Schoen, Daina Ramey Berry, and Pete Daniel to interrogate the book and assess the place of plantation agriculture and forced labor within eighteenth and nineteenth century global trade. Panel members will critically assess new scholarly approaches to the history of capitalism, particularly debates relating to ‘second slavery’ – the systematic expansion of slavery, the mass concentration of slave labor devoted to staple crop production, the development of new geographical regions to supply slave-grown plantation commodities to growing world markets, and the use of land and labor on a new industrial scale. Panelists will then consider not just how the market operated, but the degree to which capitalism determined social and economic relations too.

Throughout the South, aspects of this second slavery occurred. Delta cotton rose triumphant, but the old south-western states were not alone in being swept-up in the plantation revolution though as Hahn, Follett, and Coclanis indicate, the growth of the imperial, federal, and local state – together with tariff, regulatory, and free-trade frameworks – conditioned US production and its competitive share of global markets. Turning to labor markets, the panelists will consider not only the axiomatic place of enslaved labor, but the comparatively weak support US staple-crop planters enjoyed in leveraging alternate workers – compared to other tropical cane economies – following emancipation. In practically every economy, however, producers faced undifferentiated markets where US products competed against practically indistinguishable and foreign grown staples. As this panel makes clear, that process – grounded in global markets – lay at the heart of both the rise and the fall of America’s plantation system.

By 1920, America’s plantation kingdom had been dethroned by global competition. As the western economies know only too well, nations rise and fall, new and developing economies emerge, global capital and trade moves to wherever production costs are cheapest, and once-powerful economic kingdoms wither on the vine. Nowhere were those startlingly familiar themes exposed more clearly than in the rise and fall of America’s plantation complex.

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