Rewriting the history of capitalism

By MARION DAVIS  |  March 30, 2011

Brown University president Ruth Simmons has made it hard to ignore the school's ties to slavery — and by extension, the ties of well-known Providence families. Brown faculty, staff, and students have delved deep into historical records, and they've worked to educate the campus and the public.

But for most, it's still just a blip in Rhode Island history. By the 1800s, New England was an industrial powerhouse, and capitalism was flourishing across the North. Slavery was a problem of the backward, agrarian South.

Or was it really?

Next week, April 7-9, Brown and Harvard University are hosting a conference that questions those distinctions. Titled "Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development," it will feature research on banking, finance, manufacturing, and other fields that reveals how tightly integrated the North's and South's economies really were.

"We're trying to move the history of slavery from being merely a topic in Southern history to figure out its role in the national economy," says Seth Rockman, a Brown historian who organized the conference with his Harvard colleague Sven Beckert.

Not only did New England merchants invest in Caribbean sugar plantations that relied on slaves, Rockman notes, but some local companies specifically catered to slaveholders — a mill in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, for example, made nothing but slave shoes.

Then there's the textile industry: "Cotton doesn't grow in Massachusetts; it grew in slave plantations in the American South. So the entire history of the New England textile industry is somehow connected to the labor of enslaved men and women."

Cotton was also a top commodity traded in world financial markets, Rockman says, and New York banks, insurance companies, arbitrage firms, and brokerages built fortunes around it.

"This doesn't mean the entire economy was built on blood money," he stresses. "It doesn't mean that the owners of mills were equally guilty of the crimes of slavery as the owners of plantations. But it means that if we're going to study why the American economy took off in this period, we'd better remember that slavery had something to do with it."

Rockman also sees connections between 18th-century US history and today's ethical dilemmas. Consumers are increasingly aware of the impact of their choices on the environment, the world economy, and other people's livelihoods, and it turns out those are not new questions.

"The same was true then," he says. "The decisions made by New England entrepreneurs, by New York bankers, by Southern slaveholders, all reverberated in the lives of one another."

The researchers presenting their work at the conference also want to change how people think about US history, Rockman adds — and not let the North off so easily.

"I think it's really important that we see the economy as a system, rather than as discrete parts," he says. "Because if you see it as discrete parts, it's too easy to say slavery was something that took place in the South . . . and it allows the North to wash its hands of any kind of involvement."

The conference is free and open to the public. Simmons will give the keynote address on Thursday, April 7 at 4 pm. To learn more, visit

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