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Q&A with Caitlin Rosenthal, Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a historian of 18th and 19th century U.S. history with a focus on the development of management practices, especially those based on data analysis. Her first book, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, was published by Harvard University Press in 2018.

This Q&A explores her new article entitled, “Capitalism when Labor was Capital: Slavery, Power, and Price in Antebellum America“, which was just published in an exciting new journal called Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics. The second issue of Capitalism is available for free through August 14, 2020.

Johnny Fulfer: Could you tell readers a little bit about your new article? What inspired you to write it and what are your main arguments?

Caitlin Rosenthal: The word capitalism often brings more confusion than clarity. I teach an economic history class called “The History of American Capitalism,” and one of the first things we do is to debate the definition. The point of the debate is for students to recognize how many different assumptions people bring to the word and how different assumptions can lead to conflict and confusion. So, when writing my recent book, Accounting for Slavery, I mostly avoided the word. The book is about the history of business practices on slave plantations, and I didn’t want my argument — that slavery was highly compatible with quantitative management practices, and that slaveholders blended sophisticated record keeping with violence — to be lost in broader debates about the relationship between slavery and capitalism.

And yet, the debate about the relationship between slavery and capitalism has continued, sparking particularly virulent disagreement between historians and economists. I think that some of these disagreements could be avoided if we were clearer about what we meant by capitalism. So this paper offers a definition of capitalism that is related not to markets, but to capital. Specifically, I argue that capitalist economies are those where capital is concentrated in the hands of a small class of people, giving them disproportionate market power, including the ability to treat labor as a commodity. I then bring this definition to late antebellum slavery, arguing that slaveholders’ calculations reflect the extent to which they regarded enslaved people as fungible commodities.

To make this argument, the article explores four case studies of how enslaved people were priced and valued. The first three show the process of commoditization, revealing how slaveholders regarded enslaved people not as individuals but as fungible units of capital and labor. These included (1) inventories of enslaved people, (2) graded price lists that sorted the enslaved into marketable categories, and (3) a system of fractional hands that rated enslaved people as ¼, ½, ¾, or full hands — units that could be summed up and standardized, which allowed slaveholders to make comparisons across diverse groups of people. The section of the paper (4) explores self-purchase, examining how pricing worked when enslaved people themselves participated in markets to purchase their freedom. This last genre of negotiation shows that planters turned their power over enslaved people into monopoly power, using it to extract above-market prices from those seeking to purchase their freedom. This case shows that slaveholders actually abandoned commoditization when it suited their interests.

The overarching goal of the paper is to push us to think more about how the ownership of capital — here human capital — shapes markets to give capitalists tremendous power. In capitalist systems, we don’t just have markets, we have markets dominated by capital.

JF: How did you become interested in this area of research?

CR: I became interested in the history of valuation and quantification after working as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company. As the person tasked with building the models, I became interested in the history of how businesses and other large organizations rely on quantitative technologies like spreadsheets to make decisions. By reducing workers to numbers, managers and investors can make sense of scale, but lots of important information is excluded from these calculations. I started looking at plantation account books after realizing that their records were often just as extensive and complex as those kept by the free factories that initially sparked my interest. In some cases, slaveholders actually kept more complete records of things like labor productivity because they didn’t have to worry about workers quitting. This led me to think more deeply about how control over labor — so extreme under slavery — enables both the collection and use of data.

JF: As you mentioned in your article, historians of capitalism have avoided trying to define capitalism. Why do you think historians have avoided this and why is it important to define capitalism?

CR: Definitions can be really limiting. If you set out with a narrow definition then it may lead you to exclude certain things before you get started. For example, if scholars assume slavery could not be capitalist, then they run the risk of ruling the possibility that it could out before they even start to understand how the economy works. So I understand the field’s reluctance to define capitalism. Starting without a definition was a good way for the field to reframe questions in powerful ways. It made it easier to see that many of the things we usually call capitalist (like cotton mills and banks) were closely connected to things we do not usually associate with capitalism — here chattel slavery.

But now, well over a decade since people started trumpeting this new field, our conversations need more clarity. What is distinctive about the system we are describing? And how can we share our findings if we don’t write precisely? This is what I try to do in the paper. I came to my definition by thinking about how capitalism changes the conditions of workers. One way of identifying capitalism historically has been to point to the rise of wage labor — something changed when an hour of labor could be bought and sold without reference to individuals. But wage labor obviously excludes slavery, so I wanted to see if I could think more broadly about what wage labor and slavery had in common, which is how I arrived at my focus on commoditization. Wage labor is highly commoditized. This paper argues that — setting aside the wage — a similar kind of commoditization characterized the variety of slavery that emerged in the late antebellum United States.

JF: You write that “leaving capitalism undefined has contributed to ongoing misunderstandings between historians and economists.” How can a shared definition of capitalism among historians and economists create a productive dialogue?

CR: 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.

Much has been made about how much historians can learn from economists, and I think that this is an area where economists could learn a lot from historians. We are trained to look at things from multiple perspectives and to understand complex contexts. We are trained to read sources against the grain. The field of economics trains people to think about markets in the abstract, and that can lead to them to overlook how essential context (like the history of race-based slavery) continues to shape and distort markets.

JF: In your article, you wrote that one of the central conflicts between history and economics is the different ways these fields frame their questions. This is an important point, so I was wondering if you could say a little more about this. What is the primary difference in the way economists and historians frame their questions and why is it important to acknowledge this difference?

CR: I am not sure if we will ever agree on a single shared definition, but I am optimistic that offering a clear definition will help economists to understand what I am arguing. For me (and for many other historians) the goal is not to answer whether capitalism could theoretically have emerged without slavery. That is an interesting question, but it is not the question my research is seeking to answer. Rather, recognizing that capitalism actually emerged in a world where huge segments of the economy were connected to slavery, I want to understand how those connections shaped capitalism today.

These different questions also reflect different goals and methods. Economics focuses on causal questions and on economic growth — so they are interested in whether, in theory, slavery was necessary for economic growth. To me, the answer to this question about a hypothetical economy is much less useful than understanding the effects of racism and violence on our economy today. Focusing too narrowly on causality can lead you to miss the big picture. The big picture here is simply that slavery mattered, and if our goal is not just growth but equitable growth, then we have to reckon with slavery even if it didn’t “cause” capitalism.

JF: In their critique of specific books within the new history of capitalism subfield, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode (along with John Clegg and Bradley Hansen) point out that cotton produced by enslaved people was not the central driver of economic growth in the United States. Olmstead, Rhode, and Clegg say it accounted for only 5 percent of the national income, while Hanson writes that it was more like 9 percent. For them, slavery couldn’t have been the central driver of economic growth because it only made up a small proportion of the total national income. The tone of their critique comes across as if they are surprised why historians are saying that slavery was such an important part of American capitalism if cotton only made up a small proportion of the national income and thus couldn’t have been the central driver of economic growth. I thought this focus on cotton’s role in the national income was interesting because they are essentially implying that economic growth is capitalism. Historians of capitalism, as you state in your article, are more interested in how slavery shaped capitalism, not whether it was the central driver of economic growth. I think this distinction between economic growth and capitalism is important. What sort of issues you see with the notion that capitalism=economic growth? And did cotton have to be the central driver of economic growth for slavery to play an important role in shaping American capitalism?

CR: I think that this is an area where our failure to agree on the question is leading to a lot of misunderstanding. Are 5 percent and 9 percent big numbers? That depends on the question you are trying to answer. I would argue that those are big numbers — anything that is 5-9 percent of national income today would be considered an exceptionally important part of the economy. Does this mean slavery caused economic takeoff? Not necessarily. But it does support the contention that slavery powerfully shaped the economy we are living with today.

Since my paper is about capital, I think capital offers a useful data point for thinking about how big slavery was. On the eve of the civil war the amount of capital invested in enslaved people was between $3.1 and $3.6 billion dollars. This is about as much as was invested in other non-land domestic capital — so all of the factories and equipment that were driving industrialization. And the records that I analyze in this paper suggest that slaveholders thought about the people they owned in similar ways to how manufacturers thought about other kinds of invested capital, taking inventories and appreciating and depreciating value over time. Does that mean slavery was the central driver of growth? Again, not necessarily. But it certainly meant that the owners of all this human capital wielded tremendous power not only over the people they owned but also over the shape of the economy.

And, as I suggested above, if our goal is not just economic growth but economic justice, then we need to grapple with the legacy of slavery. Is our most important goal really to understand what causes growth in narrow terms? Or can we think more broadly about how to create growth that helps us to overcome the effects of slavery —effects that were perpetuated by conditions like Jim Crow and redlining and have resulted in the persistence of the racial wealth gap more than a century and a half after the civil war.

I am hopeful that both economists and historians can move beyond questioning whether slavery was important to answering more specific questions about how it was important and what enduring effects it created. I would love to see a research agenda that focused on questions of how and how much rather than whether slavery shaped the economy.

JF: In an interview about their critique of the new history of capitalism on Economics Detective Radio, Paul Rhode said, “In some part, it was good that historians were returning to the material world and that the cultural turn in history that began 30 years ago or so was ending and some people were returning to material conditions. In the case of slavery, it was good that people were moving away from the agency view of slavery…but they were not engaging with what economic historians had learned.” I was wondering what you think of Rhode’s statement about the new history of capitalism as a shift away from the cultural turn toward the material world. While the notion of a historiographical “turn” is problematic, as this forum in the American Historical Review demonstrates, do you think the new history of capitalism is actually centered around the analytical frameworks utilized in cultural histories? If so, do you think that some of these critiques might be overlooking the broader picture of what historians are doing, which is analyzing power dynamics and denaturalizing capitalism?

While I understand why economic historians have been critical of historians that haven’t engaged with the more quantitative economic history literature, there seems to be a bit too much focus on what the new history of capitalism is lacking and no focus at all on what it actually contributes to our understanding of capitalism. If understanding the way power works in a capitalist society is important, then it seems like economic historians will have to not only acknowledge the value of analytical frameworks that historians of capitalism utilize, but also engage with this type of historical analysis as well. Do you think I’m wrong to think this? It seems like a constructive dialogue should go both ways and right now, some economic historians have made the assumption that historians of capitalism are the only people that need additional training.

CR: I think both sides could use more training. But even more, I think we need more dialogue — we need to sit in the same room and get a feel for each other’s questions and priorities. I am a regular at our economic history workshop here on campus (in economics) and that workshop along with the economic history workshop I attended as a graduate student have helped me to communicate more effectively across disciplinary boundaries. But it took a lot of time, not only figuring out the questions but also the norms (historians sit quietly and listen, economists less so!).

Right now the two fields feel like they are miles apart. If you look at how grad students are trained, one field is all math and formal modeling the other is all close reading and historiography. By the time people are interested in collaborating, they have really narrowed their questions and speak totally different languages. It’s going to be an uphill battle.

One other thing to note here is that neither field is actually united. To give just one example, economic historians in economics have imagined that the new history of capitalism is a united group working together when really we include a very diverse range of scholars asking a range of questions.

JF: I thought your definition of capitalism was really interesting. You argue that capitalism isn’t just turning people and things into commodities, it is the ability of those who have accumulated capital to commoditize people and things at will. Southern planters, for instance, could turn enslaved people into commodities when it suited their interests and then say the same people were “irreplaceable” when it didn’t support their interests. This ability to choose how and when to commoditize gave them the power to determine price. While a commoditized slave was sold at the market price, the plantation owner could easily increase the price if the enslaved person wanted to purchase their own freedom and then justify this price increase by saying the enslaved person was irreplaceable. Did I get that right? While I think your definition really captures the power that capital has over labor, especially enslaved laborers, I was wondering if you could explain this power over price in a modern context.

CR: This is exactly right — I kind of glossed over this above when I gave the definition. Basically I argue that the commoditization of labor is a sign of capitalism, but that the real story of capitalism is about how capitalists exercise power through markets. It’s about how the accumulation of different kinds of capital — from dollars and machines to racial capital — can dramatically shape the operation of markets. It’s about exposing how coercion — whether due to unequal distributions of capital or to the overt threat of violence — dramatically shapes the operation of markets. Studying markets while ignoring the context they are embedded in can lead them to seem neutral when they are not.

The paper explores the ways power shapes markets in the case of self-purchase. We know — both from price data and also from slave narratives — that many enslaved people had to “overpay” for their freedom. That is, they had to pay more than the commodity price for themselves and their children. I argue that slaveholders’ ownership of capital turned them into monopolists, and they used their ownership over enslaved people to extort these higher prices. As a result, even when enslaved people could raise the funds, they could not access fair prices.

I have been thinking a lot about these issues as we have watched the protests for black lives unfold over the past few weeks. Videos of police violence are a powerful reminder of how overt violence — and the threat of violence — is still a powerful force in our economy. The protests show police protecting property (capital) and the owners of that capital over people. These conditions not only threaten lives, they also make supposedly neutral markets hostile and unequal places.

JF: After reading some of the critiques of the new history of capitalism it is clear that economic historians want historians of capitalism to engage more with the quantitative economic history literature. Beyond this, what other kinds of obstacles make it challenging for economic historians and historians of capitalism to create a constructive dialogue and how do you think scholars can overcome those obstacles?

CR: I do wish more historians would use data. This doesn’t have to be complicated modeling — in fact, I think simpler is often better. As one of my favorite economists, Trevon Logan — someone who takes questions of race and power really seriously — has often tweeted that “counting” is a powerful economic tool. Even when we cannot agree on the questions, I think that economists and historians can collaborate on descriptive research, both qualitative and quantitative. And the more we collaborate, the better we will be at understanding each other’s questions — even if we end up choosing different ones.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.