Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Was Abolitionism a Free-Market Triumph?

Template:Anti-Slavery Society Convention 1840 - Wikipedia

The Economic Historian blog has a fascinating discussion at the moment on the “New History of Capitalism” (NHC) school of historiography, and its attempts to grapple with the economic dimensions of slavery. I’ve been extremely critical of the NHC literature on account of its anti-capitalist ideological skew and its misuse of historical evidence, most recently on display in an essay by Matthew Desmond for the New York Times’s 1619 Project.

The Economic Historian blog series makes a conscientious effort to engage this literature with a critical eye, although with an aim of bridging its approach with economic history. This is most apparent in an extended interview with UC-Berkeley professor Caitlin Rosenthal, a historian who sometimes associates with the NHC camp but also works in more traditional topics from economic history.

The whole interview is worth a read, although one passage in particular struck me as being on very shaky historical footing. Asked about the opportunity for dialogue between economists and historians over the much-contested definition of “capitalism,” Rosenthal answered:

I go into much more detail about the slippery politics of the word “capitalism” in my article, but one thing that I particularly push against is reducing capitalism to markets. I see capitalism as being about how capital shapes markets in ways that are often invisible but fundamentally important. Markets are rarely (perhaps never!) equally “free” for everyone — slavery is an extreme example where the market freedoms of enslavers were more important than basic human freedoms for the enslaved. Slaveholders did not see abolition as the triumph of the free market — they saw it as the expropriation of their property and they argued that it infringed on their rights to buy and sell that property as they pleased. They saw the abolition of slavery as encroaching on their own economic freedoms. (emphasis added)

The answer is striking, and particularly so for the underlined section, because slavery’s most prominent defenders from the late-antebellum period did in fact see abolitionism as a triumph of free markets over an alternative labor system.

In fact, this very question is how the study of economics obtained its disparaging moniker – the “dismal science.” The source comes from an 1849 essay by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, himself a defender of slavery who used the occasion to bemoan the economic decline of the British Caribbean colonies after emancipation in the early 1830s.

Economic doctrine, Carlyle contended, was “not a “gay science,” but a rueful – which finds the secret of this universe in “supply and demand,” and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone.” The product of such thinking, he contended, was “a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.”

And where did the “dismal” portion come from in this rendering? From the association between free-market economic doctrine and the British abolitionist cause, referred to at the time as “Exeter Hall philanthropy” after the meeting hall in London where both groups held several high-profile political gatherings. As Carlyle continued:

“These two, Exeter Hall philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by any sacred cause of black emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and make a wedding of it – will give birth to progenies and prodigies: dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto.”

While Carlyle wrote his essay for British audiences, it is notable for having a profound influence upon American pro-slavery theorists. Virginia-based attorney and sociologist George Fitzhugh became one of Carlyle’s most influential disciples in the United States during the decade before the Civil War. Fitzhugh rose to prominence in the 1850s with two book-length defenses of slavery, as well as dozens of articles espousing the same in DeBow’s Review, a leading periodical in the southern states.

Echoing Carlyle, Fitzhugh similarly framed the battle between slaveowners and abolitionists as an intellectual contest between free-market economics and the plantation system. As the opening line from the first chapter of his 1854 book Sociology for the South announced,

Political economy is the science of free society. Its theory and its history alike establish this position. Its fundamental maxim Laissez-faire and “Pas trop gouverner,” are at war with all kinds of slavery, for they in fact assert that individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least. 

Adopting an explicitly Carlylean framing, Fitzhugh continued to mount an aggressive defense of slavery by depicting it as fundamentally opposed to the free market, and particularly the free competition of labor. His 1857 book Cannibals All launched an all-out attack on free-market capitalism, portraying it as an existential threat to the entire slave-based plantation economy:

No successful defence of slavery can be made, till we succeed in refuting or invalidating the principles on which free society rests for support or defence. The world, however, is sick of its philosophy; and the Socialists have left it not a leg to stand on. In fact, it is, in all its ramifications, a mere expansion and application of Political Economy, – and Political Economy may be summed up in the phrase, “Laissez-faire,” or “Let alone.” A system of unmitigated selfishness pervades and distinguishes all departments of ethical, political, and economic science.

In Carlyle and Fitzhugh we have two clear expressions from prominent pro-slavery theorists that directly conflict with Rosenthal’s characterization. At least according to its most vocal and best-known defenders, late-antebellum slavery was fundamentally irreconcilable with market capitalism. Slavery’s practitioners viewed free market political philosophy as a preeminent threat to their labor system’s very existence. And they absolutely considered abolitionism to be a triumph of free market economic reasoning, to be opposed and resisted at all costs.


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