History Killers: 'New Historians' Ignore Anti-Capitalist Arguments by Southern Slavers

Third article in a series about the manipulation and erasure of history.

[Also published at New Discourses.]

In his “Letter from a Pennsylvania Farmer, Letter VII” (1768), John Dickinson argued—in protest to the taxes imposed by England’s Parliament against those living in the American Colonies, that those “who are taxed without their own consent, expressed by themselves or their representatives, are slaves. We are taxed without our own consent, expressed by ourselves or our representatives. We are therefore—SLAVES.”[1]  The language of slavery by resistors and revolutionaries during the years that preceded the American Revolution challenges modern sensibilities due to the overt hypocrisies involved in a slave-practicing society arguing for natural rights while simultaneously denying those very liberties to others in their midst. It is an enormous task in the field of American Revolutionary History to recognize this challenge and not attempt to evade it. The discipline required for reasoned and rigorous scholarship regarding the matter means approaching the subject with sober analyses and dispassionate observations. It is not a historian’s role to deify nor to vilify, but to elucidate the inherent complexities of a difficult past. The intersection of slavery, the American Revolution, and the founding of the constitutional republic of the United States can also inspire, for some, an impulse to assume the worst of the revolution’s participants, and conclude that their language of liberty was nothing more than self-serving rhetoric. To do so is to offer a reductionist view lacking in nuance or insight, and only serves to provide for a politically convenient though historically dubious position. Facts counter to a particular narrative are dismissed and surface-level evidence is amplified. Enter: the new historians of capitalism.

A so-called new history of capitalism is currently very much in vogue and has been in ascendance over the past decade or so. It is promoted by various prominent academics, including Sven Beckert and Christine Desan at Harvard University. The introduction in their book, American Capitalism: New Histories (2018), declares, “Slavery’s relocation into capitalism is only the beginning point for a group of scholars studying racialization as an enduring American strategy for the coercion and control of labor, particularly African American labor.”[2]  There may well be quality scholarship within the work of the new historians of capitalism but the assertion above obscures rather than explicates the relationship between natural rights, capitalism, and slavery in Colonial America and United States history.

Capitalism, as market economies came to be known, was advocated by seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke through his championing of private property rights. Locke promoted the cultivation of land as a means of self-fulfillment and as part of a natural human impulse to facilitate a private sphere. He asserted that the labor “of [man’s] body and the ‘work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”[3]  Locke also believed that reciprocal trade was beneficial to humankind and fostered good relations. Eighteenth century Scottish philosopher and economist, Adam Smith, made similar arguments for what he called the invisible hand of the free market. Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) would prove to be influential upon American thought. Through the influence of Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Smith, the United States became a nation designed upon natural rights principles which included free markets and private property rights.

Some Marxist scholars, including participants in the new history of capitalism, seek to conflate market economies, private property rights, and the history of American slavery. Doing so encourages a narrative that capitalism is a tool of oppression and that slavery is merely a market economy in its most naked form. It presumes a disingenuousness among American founders who struggled publicly and privately to address the institution of slavery, particularly framers like Thomas Jefferson and George Mason who confessed to slavery’s immorality even as they participated in the practice. Worst of all, the new history of capitalism ignores well-documented evidence that the natural rights thesis which gave birth to liberal capitalism and individual rights was at its core antithetical to slavery. Framers like James Wilson saw the birth of the new republic and the reining in of the slave trade, outlined in the Constitution in 1787, as a sign that slavery in America would soon be in decline. Furthermore, his state of Pennsylvania had passed legislation that put slavery on a gradual path of extinction and Massachusetts had ended slavery by decree of its highest court a few years earlier. Perhaps most damning of the new history of capitalism’s scholarship is the ignoring or diminishing of the fact that some of slavery’s most vocal defenders in the nineteenth century were themselves critics of capitalism. As the institution of slavery exploded in the American south in the decades following the American founding, slave apologists identified themselves as ardent critics of both natural rights and market economics.

Possibly the best case for discounting the premise that slavery was a capitalist scheme (or is it that capitalism was a slavery scheme? The new historians essentially argue both theses simultaneously) is the writings of nineteenth century slavery apologist, George Fitzhugh. Fitzhugh’s 1856 book, Cannibals All! Or, Slaves Without Masters, is three hundred pages of anti-capitalist/pro-slavery prose. His condemnation of free labor in the North rests upon an explicitly anti-Lockean, anti-natural rights thesis:

“It seems to us that the vain attempts to define liberty in theory, or to secure its enjoyment in practice, proceed from the fact that man is naturally a social and gregarious animal, subject, not by contract or agreement, as Locke and his followers assume, but by birth and nature, to those restrictions of liberty which are expedient or necessary to secure the good of the human hive, to which he may belong. There is no such thing as natural human liberty, because it is unnatural for man to live alone and without the pale and government of society.”[4]

Fitzhugh, incredibly, asserted that slaves were treated better by their masters in the South than they were under free labor by their employers in the North. He recommended that people in the North:

“set your miscalled free laborers actually free, by giving them enough property or capital to live on, and then call on us at the South to free our negroes. At present, you Abolitionists know our negro slaves are much the freer of the two; and it would be a great advance towards freeing your laborers, to give them guardians, bound, like our masters, to take care of them, and entitled, in consideration thereof, to the proceeds of labor.”[5]

Fitzhugh’s paternalistic tone betrayed the egregiousness of his message. Free labor, he argued, should not be free, and should instead be cared for by their employers through property and other accommodations. On the surface the message appears empathetic, but at its heart is a declaration that slavery is a more generous and moral institution than a laissez faire market economy.

Among the most glaring and explicit pieces of evidence among Fitzhugh’s polemic that counters the new historians’ thesis is his overt denunciation of the American founding and its principles:

“We do not agree with the authors of the Declaration of Independence, that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” … All governments must originate in force, and be continued by force. The very term, government, implies that it is carried on against the consent of the governed[6] … Physical force, not moral suasion, governs the world. The negro sees the driver’s lash, becomes accustomed to obedient cheerful industry, and is not aware that the lash is the force that impels them.”[7]

Natural rights principles, including property ownership and liberal capitalism, were tenets that broke history out of the long tradition of slavery and the supposed necessity of human bondage. Once natural rights was overtly asserted and a new nation was founded on such principles, the conflicting character of slavery stood in stark contrast. Justin Buckley Dyer observes, “What seems obvious to us now – that it was a gross contradiction to hold some men in chains while declaring the right of all men to live free – was equally obvious to many during the founding era.”[8]  If anything, the language of natural rights and the system of government instituted during and after the American Revolution to carry out such a philosophy shed further light on this blatant hypocrisy and subverted slavery’s legal and moral legitimacy.

One of the most important voices of abolition in the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass, argued that slavery was not a feature of the American project, but a bug. His arguments reveal that the case against slavery was the same American, natural rights case against indiscriminate power. The evil of slavery was not due to its force alone but in its violation of natural rights. Douglass observed, “you may surround the slave with luxuries, place him in a genial climate, and under a smiling and cloudless sky, and these shall only enhance his torment and deepen his anguish… [It is] absolute power over the body and soul of his brother man… [that degrades the] moral nature.”[9]

As Justin Buckley Dyer observes, “The Constitution, according to Douglass, was morally justified as supreme law because it was, in its essence, opposed to the exercise of arbitrary power.”[10]  Furthermore, Douglass saw the American system as an emancipating influence and referred to the Constitution as a “glorious liberty document.”[11] Douglass’s condemnation of slavery was thus part of the legacy of natural rights arguments against capricious rule.

One need not be a free market absolutist to recognize that the new history of capitalism, not unlike the 1619 Project, seeks to manipulate history—and exploit the historical illiteracy of many Americans—to forward a particular Marxist narrative. The practitioners of this project have every right to do so, as free expression and academic freedom are hallmarks of a healthy, liberal society. Conversely, other historians should be prepared to provide some public peer review of such scholarship and note the historical inaccuracies and evasions within the work.

Conflating slavery with capitalism may appear to possess some surface-level sense upon first glance. There is a record of institutions exploiting their labor force for the sake of profit and there is no more blatant example of the exploitation of labor than slavery. That is where the similarities begin to fray, however, as the history of liberal capitalism also includes slave apologists who attacked both capitalism and natural rights, while figures like Frederick Douglass—who experienced slavery first-hand—defended natural rights, the Constitution, and the role free labor and property rights played in empowering free people. The new history of capitalism is an argument well-suited for the kind of shallow-thinking activist who reads nothing more than headlines and can’t be bothered with the details. It is not worthy, however, of the kind of deep analysis and evidence-based scholarship that academic history requires. By that metric, the new history of capitalism deserves a failing grade.


     [1] John Dickinson, “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, No. VII,” reprinted in The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate, 1764 – 1772, edited by Gordon S. Wood (New York: Penguin Random House, 2015), 450.     

[2] Sven Beckert and Christine Desan, American Capitalism: New Histories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), reprinted at Harvard Business School site: https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/the-new-history-of-american-capitalism.     

[3] Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, 85.     

[4] George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All!, Or, Slaves without Masters (1856) (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988), 71. https://hdl-handle-net.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/2027/heb.04951. EPUB.     

[5] Ibid., 223-224.     

[6] George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All!, Or, Slaves without Masters (1856) (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988), 243. https://hdl-handle-net.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/2027/heb.04951. EPUB.     

[7] Ibid., 248-249.     

[8] Justin Buckley Dyer, Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 17.     

[9] Frederick Douglass, The Frederick Douglass Papers , Blassingame, ed., 3:8.     

[10] Justin Buckley Dyer, Natural Law and the Antislavery Constitutional Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 180.     

[11] Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” Life and Writings Volume 2 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 202.