On Our Minds: Slavery and Capitalism

February 22, 2015

National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution

When we think of slavery, many of us think of it as an historic trauma—something in the past that the nation"overcame" to become what it is today. But according to Edward Baptist, the instution of slavery drove the economic development and modernization of the United States, and laid the groundwork for American capitalism as we know it today.



I am all for freedom, but this argument is an astonishing failure of quantitative analysis. Slavery enriched the north and south, was baked into the constitution, and was a great moral failure then, as it is now around the world. To argue that this is the source of wealth and power in 19th 20th and 21st century US capitalism just fatuous. This sort of mindlessness just weakens the argument for those who would condemn slavery. "Do the math", Mr. Baptist.

I am glad that this author and others are bringing this topic to light. Of course slavery "is the source of wealth and power in 19th, 20th and 21st century US capitalism". America would be a very different place today without the cheap and powerless labor that slavery provided. I ask Mr. Owen to "Do the math." How much profit and reinvestment would have occurred if slave owners actually had to pay for the labor that they received? Also, how much interest would their future generations would have been denied?

I am amazed that the interviewer seemed incredulous about the idea that white early Americans and their future generations benefited unfairly from the wealth produced by slavery. He also seemed to have a hard time accepting the idea that the treatment of slaves was torture. How else could it be described? I usually applaud public radio hosts for their depth and breadth of knowledge, so this was quite a disappointment.

Again, Mr. Baptist, thank you for your work!