Source Debates/Questions

The central goal of my historiography is to trace the ways in which slave owners, traders, or governments established capitalistic modes of efficiency in the slave system. The central question should rest on how historians have viewed the claim that the slave system was a backwards, feudalistic structure that kept the plantation system technologically and economically behind the rest of industrialized societies. There are three clear debates between my various sources dealing with how slaves are viewed or used by traders and planters. The first major debate centers around methodical decisions made by those involved in the slave trade. Historians such as Beckert and Rockman, Stephanie Camp, and Rees, Komlos, Long, and Woitek make clear arguments for the intentional ways in which slave plantation owners maximized output of their slave populations through food allotments, quota systems, and detailed record keeping. All of these historians agree that the slave system was not random or feudalistic, but intentionally attempting to maximize efficiency of production and output much like industrial factory. The second major debate follows technological advancements and incentives in order to reach peak production. Walter Johnson, John Majewski, and Chad Morgan all argued that there were very specific advancements in technology or economic structure that pushed slavery forward in its efficient modes of production. These could be as simple as steamboats  to expand southern cotton empires and production capabilities or active pursuit of a southern modernization of factories. Some southern governments even pushed for tax incentives and incorporations in order to modernize the southern structures. The last area of discussion centers around the slave trade and its efficient structures of transport and space usage. Robert Harms, Marcus Rediker, Greg O’Malley, and Stephanie Smallwood all clearly argue that the slave trade created a commodified product of human beings that were treated like other goods for sale (whether on the slave ship itself or in port). The commodification that occurred allows these historians to argue for an intentional capitalistic system that dehumanized the commodity of transport and increased the efficiency of the system.

I will also provide one voice from an early history that challenges the above assertions by various historians. Douglas Egerton’s work was much earlier than the above historians and really might be the voice that they were attempting to silence. His assertions center on the idea that slavery cannot inherently be capitalistic due to its hierarchical society that was established. Edgerton believed that the paternalistic natures of the system and lack of wage for laborers could not create a capitalistic or advancing southern economy.