CRB: Slavery all the way down

Today and tomorrow we continue our preview of the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Subscribe here for the heavily subsidized, ridiculously low price of $19.95 and get immediate online access thrown in for free. As I said yesterday, if you enjoy books and politics, the CRB is the best magazine going. If you enjoy reading about books about politics, ditto.

Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College. He has emerged as one of our most prominent historians of Lincoln, the Civil War, and the Civil War era. His book Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, for example, is the best on the subject. When he answers the call to review a book for the CRB, we can learn something from him.

Sometimes the title – or subtitle – says it all. Consider Cornell historian Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. It is just what you’d imagine, writes Guelzo, — “a teeming, visceral condemnation of capitalism” and an “indictment of capitalism and industry as a whole.”

Slavery is capitalism, capitalism is slavery; the pigs are men, the men are pigs. In “Slavery All the Way Down,” Guelzo takes aim at the kind of Orwellian “new history” of capitalism practiced by Baptist, and scores a direct hit.

According to Baptist, capitalism is inherently tyrannical:

[F]or [Baptist], all capitalist production is “systematized torture,” which was “crucial…to the industrial revolution, and thus to the birth of the modern world.” Critics of slavery might like to bleat that coercion was inherently inferior to free wage labor, but Baptist will have none of it. Plantations are, simultaneously, engines of efficient production and “slave labor camps,” even (borrowing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s metaphor) an “archipelago of slave labor camps, a literal organism of economic production.”

Guelzo carefully takes apart Baptist’s argument, criticizing his narrow definition of capitalism, his refusal to understand slavery as a separate – and far earlier – system of production, and his failure to explain how the brutality of the slavemaster became the “scientific management” of the factory foreman.

More than anything, Baptist ignores the overwhelming witness of both native participants and foreign observers of the Southern economic system. It is simply anachronistic to fuse Southern slavery with capitalism, or prideful, aristocratic Southern mores with the bustling, entrepreneurial Northern spirit.

It is tempting, suggests Guelzo with a wink, to say that the Confederacy was rather the first example of “state socialism” or “war socialism”: “But it is no exaggeration at all to say that the Confederacy behaved more like a pre-capitalist, feudal state than a modern one.”

In Guelzo’s telling, Baptist presents no evidence that forces us to overturn the understanding of the divergent economic systems in the North and South that prevailed as those economies developed. The Civil War pitted a modern, capitalist economy against a premodern, slave-based agrarian economy. Guelzo’s elegant critique of Baptist is “Slavery all the way down.”


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