Pursuing Fundamental Questions: James Oakes on the Relationship Between Capitalism and Slavery

The Plantation System | National Geographic Society

This story was originally published by the Davis Humanities Institute on April 17th, 2017, but is no longer hosted there after a website update. I am re-posting it here for that reason.

Is the debate over the relationship between capitalism and slavery over? Many historians argue that it is. But for James Oakes, much work remains to be done. And indeed, his talk focused on complicating one of the arguments made by several scholars: namely, that slavery and rapid economic growth are inherently connected. He did this by demonstrating how slavery only ever constituted a small percentage of economic growth in developing industrial societies. For instance, he says that 10 percent of the Northern United States’ manufacturing economy relied on slave cotton. Significant, but not responsible for the majority of the North’s economic growth.

A key tenant of the relationship between capitalism and slavery is the idea that slavery (as an external factor) can be used to explain economic transformation in England and the Northern United States. But Oakes suggests that this might not be the case. Instead, there may have been internal factors (something akin to Weber’s Protestant Ethic), or other external factors that had a greater influence on the economic dynamism that came to define these regions. Scholars have yet to come to a consensus as to what these other factors may be.

Perhaps slavery only promoted the growth of some industries, while having little to no effect on others. Which is to say, maybe slavery was connected to the rise of capitalism in some ways, but not to the extent that historians have previously argued. Or as Oakes puts it, “was slavery capitalist and not crucial to the North’s development, or was it not capitalist and indispensable to the North’s development?” Answering that question would go a long way in discovering the extent to which slavery and capitalism are related.

Lastly, Oakes discussed the need for a gendered analysis of capitalism and slavery. He says that a study investigating the relationship between “laws of marriage and the family” in the North and South, and how they intertwined with their respective economic systems, might shed further light on the capitalism/slavery debate. One of his more controversial theories is that paternalism may have had more of a role in shaping the North’s economy rather than the South’s, which is the opposite of what historians have traditionally argued.

In the questioning that followed the talk, one professor asked about the political implications of scholars arguing that a system as repugnant as slavery was responsible for creating the modern world. That is, how might such an argument influence politicians whose core beliefs are inextricably tied to the fostering of economic growth? It is difficult to say, but such hypotheticals can be avoided if scholars work to complicate the discourse on capitalism and slavery in the manner that Oakes suggests.