Ed Baptist gave the Peter Parish Memorial Lecture on Friday evening. For someone who flew in shortly before his talk, I thought he did a great job.
Baptist opened with a summary of Solomon Northup’s life, ending with the observation that overlapping networks and competing claims saved Northup from murder and that financial networks enslaved him and protected him by giving his body a financial present and future.
That story provided the transition to the focus of Baptist’s lecture: the need for 19th-century historians to reintegrate economic history and slavery. He started by explaining why historians don’t talk about financial history. After providing a historiographical overview, he concluded that beginning in the 1970s, historians took a “nap” that left economic history informed predominantly by literary theory and individual stories that lacked an overarching narrative.
Baptist then turned to describing what a new economic history of slavery might look like, emphasizing that it needed to include behavioral economics couldn’t be reduced to just words and numbers. [My notes on this don’t make sense now, but at the time, I knew what the latter part of the last sentence meant.]
The description of his narrative, as described, went something like this:
1st slavery: 1492-1800 witnessed the introduction of the transatlantic slave trade, with an acceleration of scale and profit between 1700 and 1800 (1450-1700: 3 mil. Africans enslaved; 1700-1800: 6 mil.).
2nd slavery (1800-60): Southern slavery made cotton a key commodities product consumed on an industrial scale; indeed, it was the key commodity of the 1st Industrial Revolution. Slave productivity increased 400% between 1800 and 1860, keeping the price of cotton low. The minimum efficiency of slaves’ cotton productivity continually grew during the period, from 50 lbs./day in 1805 to 200 lbs./day by 1850.
From 1804 to 1819, American entrepreneurs and Anglo-Dutch merchant banks built the financial infrastructure for slavery’s growth. The migration of slaves to the cotton frontier allowed the U.S. to gain 50% of global cotton sales and increase cotton-picking efficiency to 100 lbs./day. The Panic of 1819 bubble, which plunged the U.S. into its worst financial depression to date, proceeded from three factors: disappearing regulation; new credit instruments; and American overconfidence.
From 1819-32 [the end date wasn’t clear to me], the 2nd Bank of the U.S. provided financial regulation. Global investors became linked to the cotton market, allowing the emergence of new slave trading firms, such as Franklin & Armfield. These new slave trading firms were run by professionals who moved a plurality of slaves to New Orleans and set patterns for slave trading economics. These men chafed against the Bank’s regulation and supported Jackson during the Bank War.*
Between 1832 [see above] and the 1840s, the Bank War produced a credit free-for-all that drove the spread of cotton, land sales, and slavery in Deep South. Baptist tied this surge of new economic activity specifically to a new slave mortgage that commodified slave bodies. Slave owners wanted credit, banks wanted bonds, and the new slave mortgage satisfied both desires. The resulting financial bubble drove cotton prices down and resulted in the Panics of 1837 and 1839.
Between the 1840s and 1860, northern factors gave planters credit, who distributed it to neighbors. Cotton grew in importance as annual production reached 4.5 mil. bales annually by 1860 and helped entrench the institution of slavery in the South economically.
Baptist rushed the last section of his lecture, probably because he was already over time by this point. Personally, I was interested enough that I wish he had taken his time, but I’m not sure everyone agreed with me. I’ll have some more comments on his lecture in a later post.
* I think a study of the Bank veto and other BUS-related votes that analyzed the connection between slave ownership and opposition/support for the Bank would make a great project for someone.