The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860


The business of slavery in the early United States was a symphony of creativity and violence. This book details the interstate United States slave trade at the level of the firm. Slave traders investigated here were business insiders rather than social outcasts and were some of the early U.S. republic’s most ingenious merchants. Some of slavery’s financiers and shippers fit exquisitely the term “Masters of the Universe” in their time and place. Through their strategies the slavery business quickened the march of American development, and through their stories I argue that ventures that financed, traded, and transported enslaved people chart the progress of nineteenth-century American capitalism more strikingly than any other enterprise. This book delves into individual entrepreneurship, which textured the slavery business and influenced the trajectory of American capitalism. But the business of slavery was never merely business, and the creative destruction that built a commercial republic and helped usher into being a continental empire was one that racked the bodies, splintered the families, and tried the souls of African-descended Americans. Their stories feature here too.

Capitalism has many varieties, but like religious orthodoxy it is ferociously contested among adherents of particular traditions. For this book’s purposes it was a highly structured system of trade characterized by debt obligations that bound borrowers’ ambitions, expectations, and imaginations to future repayment. Debt instruments represented those obligations, which were durable, mobile, and ultimately transferable, the basis of paper money. Capitalism was built on the trust in promises debtors made to creditors and the expansive resources that those relationships yielded in the service of generating returns
on investments.

Available from Yale University Press and

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