Conference Overview

This conference is intended to explore the centrality of slavery to national economic development in the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War. New archival research on banking, finance, manufacturing, migration, and transportation reveals greater integration and greater complexity in the economic relationship of North and South. Presentations will explore New England investment in the plantation economies of the Caribbean; the technological and managerial innovations in plantation management that coincided with northern industrialization; and the origins of modern finance and credit in the buying and selling of enslaved men and women and the crops they produced. The papers convey that slavery was a national institution whose importance reached far beyond the boundaries of plantation lands. Moreover, this new research suggests that the hotbeds of American entrepreneurship, speculation, and innovation might as readily be found in Mississippi or Virginia as in New York or Massachusetts. The issue is not whether slavery was or was not capitalist (an older debate), but rather the impossibility of understanding the nation's spectacular pattern of economic development without situating slavery front and center. The result is a new history of American capitalism that recognizes slavery as a constitutive element of the nation's economic rise in the nineteenth century.

Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman are the conveners of this conference and would like to call particular attention to slavery's importance to the institutional histories of both Harvard University and Brown University. This conference marks the continued investment of both universities in recovering and publicizing this history.