Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation declared southern slaves free, but enforcement depended on the advancing Union army. Thus, it was that Union General Gordon Granger again declared the end of slavery in the remote state of Texas on June 19, 1865, the anniversary of which is now widely celebrated (and federally recognized) as Juneteenth.
And it, along with the Union victory more broadly, should be celebrated, not, of course, for its own sake—war is tragic, none more so than the Civil War—but for what it accomplished. Although many still refer to the Civil War as “the war of Northern aggression,” believing it to have been a conflict primarily about states’ rights, the simple fact is that there can be no right to violate other people’s rights. Yet, southern leaders—who, let’s recall, initiated the aggression—declared again and again their intention of preserving slavery, even enshrining it in the Confederate Constitution.1 Juneteenth is an apt time to reflect on the achievements of those who eradicated this evil, bringing America a step closer to fulfilling the promises of her Declaration.
The vogue among certain historians and public intellectuals, however, is to malign an entire group of people who made an outsized contribution to the North’s victory and the abolition of slavery: capitalists.
In his installment of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 project, Princeton sociologist Matt Desmond popularized the ideas of academics working within the relatively new subdiscipline called new history of capitalism (NHC). Although NHC theorists actively oppose attempts to define capitalism (NHC scholar Seth Rockman said that the discipline “has minimal investment in a fixed or theoretical definition of capitalism”), they simultaneously claim, as an unquestionable absolute, that a defining feature of capitalism is that it grew out of slavery. As Rockman puts it, “the new scholarship recognizes slavery as integral, rather than oppositional, to capitalism.”2 This is the take-home point of Desmond’s 1619 article, titled “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation.”3
Not only have NHC theorists become known for playing fast and loose with facts, flouting basic principles of accounting to inflate the importance of slavery to the economy of 19th-century America, and stonewalling other researchers who question their conclusions. They’ve also routinely ignored the plainly observable historical link between capitalism, the system of free markets, and classical liberalism, the broader philosophy of liberty from which capitalism and abolitionism both stem.4
Adam Smith, whose 1776 The Wealth of Nations is widely considered the founding text of capitalism, opposed slavery and was oft quoted by such abolitionists as William Wilberforce and James Cropper. Whereas freemen can earn property through their efforts and so are incentivized to produce value, Smith observed, “a slave, on the contrary, who can acquire nothing but his own maintenance, consults his own ease by making the land produce as little as possible over and above that maintenance.”5 Not only is slavery inefficient, said Smith, it is the product of a “tyrannic disposition.”6 Capitalism and abolitionism so often went hand in hand that Thomas Carlyle—who hated both for holding that all humans are fundamentally equal—castigated “that unhappy wedlock of Philanthropic Liberalism [i.e., abolitionism] and the Dismal Science [i.e., economics, specifically that of John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith].”7
Desmond relies on sly analogy between the accounting practices of slave drivers and the focus on productivity among today’s corporate managers, mentioning neither the essential difference between physical compulsion and win-win transactions nor the devout anticapitalism—even pro-socialism—of slavery’s supporters. Inspired in part by Carlyle’s famous 1849 essay, pro-slavery intellectual George Fitzhugh opened his 1854 book, Sociology for the South: Or, The Failure of Free Society, writing that “Laissez-faire [is] at war with all kinds of slavery” because it asserts “that individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least.”8 Recognizing that capitalism and slavery are incompatible, he sided with slavery, holding that it is a form of socialism that leaves slaves better fed, clothed, and housed than freemen—and also makes them more moral. “Socialism is the new fashionable name of slavery,” he wrote, and “the master requires and enforces ordinary morality and industry.”9
“Such rhetoric presents an under-acknowledged conundrum for modern historians,” observes economic historian Phillip Magness. Fitzhugh was not some backwoods bigot but, as Charles Sumner said, a “leading writer among Slave-masters” with a national audience.10 His ideas represent a significant strain of pro-slavery thought, one that was avowedly anticapitalist—one that today’s anticapitalists ignore while attempting to smear capitalism as pro-slavery.
On the other hand, what do we learn by examining the deeds of 19th-century titans who, unquestionably, were capitalists?
“Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt donated his largest steamship to the Union navy. The Vanderbilt bolstered a failing Union blockade, keeping the Confederate fleet from threatening Washington, D.C., and other northern coastal cities.
George Westinghouse, the entrepreneur of “current war” fame who would later commercialize AC power distribution, put his mechanical genius to work as a maintenance engineer aboard another steamship, the Union’s USS Muscoota.
In 1861, Andrew Carnegie, who worked in the telegraph and railroad industries before building the greatest steel empire in the world, was appointed superintendent of the Union’s eastern railways and telegraph lines. “I gloried in being useful to the land that had done so much for me,” he later wrote, “and worked, I can truly say, night and day, to open communication to the South.”11
Perhaps even more important were those who, in the decades before the war, seeded the nation with the moral and intellectual case for abolition, including such capitalist/philanthropists as Gerrit Smith, to whom Frederick Douglass dedicated his My Bondage and My Freedom, and Lewis and Arthur Tappan, of whom historian William Lee Miller wrote, “Whenever you hear of an abolitionist project, you find that one of the Tappans was furnishing the money.”12
The Tappan brothers made fortunes trading silk and retail goods, but their primary interest was the moral crusade against slavery. Arthur, the elder by two years, cofounded the American Anti-Slavery Society alongside William Lloyd Garrison in 1831, serving as its first president. As did Frederick Douglass, the Tappans later broke with Garrison over his position that trying to fix the U.S. government from within meant sanctioning slavery. So, in 1840, they founded the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, carrying on their abolitionist work.
The brothers funded the Oneida Institute, which was expressly devoted to training abolitionists and was the first American college to admit blacks alongside whites. They also funded its offshoot, Lane Theological Seminary, headed for a time by Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose 1852 book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, catalyzed antislavery sentiment. After Oneida folded in 1843, the Tappans funded Oberlin College, another hotbed of abolitionism whose president, Charles Grandison Finney, was a disciple of Oneida founder George Washington Gale.
Time and again, the Tappans incurred the wrath of those intent on preserving slavery. Their homes were ransacked and their businesses boycotted by anti-abolitionists, not least for their campaign to free the Africans who resisted their captors and took over the slave ship Amistad in 1839. A regular contributor to—and funder of—the abolitionist newspaper The Emancipator, Lewis wrote daily accounts of the case, which was successfully argued before the Supreme Court by another atlas of abolition, John Quincy Adams.
The Tappans also funded many abolitionist political parties, culminating in the Republican party, formed expressly for the purpose of opposing slavery, the first successful candidate of which was Abraham Lincoln.
In short, prominent capitalists supported abolitionism materially, financially, intellectually, and morally. This is a matter of historical record, not the sort of mental gymnastics some do in their attempts to link capitalism to all things evil.
The role of capitalists—and of capitalism more broadly—in promoting freedom should not surprise us. After all, capitalism is the system based on the recognition of individual rights, a product of the same Enlightenment ideas that have fueled virtually all social, scientific, and technological progress. Nor should we be surprised by the connection between slavery and socialism—given that socialism is, as Fitzhugh recognized, institutionalized slavery.
On Juneteenth, let’s remember the capitalists whose money and moral support made possible the Union victory—and who thereby played a vital role in abolishing slavery in America.
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1. Article 1, Section 8, for instance, reads, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” See Constitution of the Confederate States, March 11, 1861, Avalon Project, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_csa.asp (accessed June 17, 2018); also see Richard Shedenhelm, “The Cause of the Civil War According to Confederate Leaders,” The Objective Standard 10, no. 3 (Fall 2015), https://theobjectivestandard.com/2015/09/cause-civil-war-according-confederate-leaders/.
2. Seth Rockman, “Review: What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?,” Journal of the Early Republic 34, no. 3 (Fall 2014), https://www.jstor.org/stable/24486907, quoted in Phillip Magness, “A Comment on the New History of Capitalism,” Economic Historian, September 15, 2020, https://economic-historian.com/2020/09/a-comment-on-the-new-history-of-capitalism/.
3. Matt Desmond, “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation,” New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/slavery-capitalism.html.
4. Phillip Magness, “Fact Checking the 1619 Project and Its Critics,” American Institute for Economic Research, December 23, 2019, https://www.aier.org/article/fact-checking-the-1619-project-and-its-critics/; also see Phillip Magness, “The Anti-Capitalist Ideology of Slavery,” American Institute for Economic Research, August 16, 2019, https://www.aier.org/article/the-anti-capitalist-ideology-of-slavery/.
5. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations: Books I–III, edited by Andrew Skinner (London: Penguin, 1999), 490.
6. Matthew Lesh, “The Father of Capitalism and the Abolition of Slavery,” Quillette, June 22, 2020, https://quillette.com/2020/06/22/the-father-of-capitalism-and-the-abolition-of-slavery/.
7. Thomas Carlyle, An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, 2nd ed. (London: Thomas Bosworth, 1853), 10, https://bit.ly/2TAXZ2M; also see David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart, “The Secret History of the Dismal Science. Part I. Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century,” Library of Economics and Liberty, https://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/LevyPeartdismal.html (accessed June 16, 2021).
8. George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South: Or, The Failure of Free Society (Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1854), 7.
9. Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, 42, 35.
10. Magness, “Anti-Capitalist Ideology of Slavery.”
11. Andrew Carnegie, The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, and His Gospel of Wealth (New York: Penguin, 2006), 91.
12. William Lee Miller, Arguing about Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 86.