This essay is an attempt to examine the theoretical and historiographic debates on the development of capitalism in the United States between 1790 and 1877. The realization of the necessary conditions for capitalist production in the United States took place through the articulation, expanded reproduction and transformation of three forms of production, and through a process of political class struggle that culminated in the Civil War. Each of these forms of production—slavery, petty-commodity production and capitalist manufacture—has been the subject of theoretical and historiographic controversy. These debates will be reviewed in order to determine the place of each productive form in the development of us capitalism. The Civil War’s place in the history of us capitalist development has also been the subject of well-known controversy; these discussions will be scrutinized to determine how the class struggle that culminated in the War affected capitalist development in the United States.

The overall question of the relationship between plantation slavery as a social system and the development of American capitalism must be apprehended, first of all, through a survey of discrete historiographic debates on slavery’s profitability, its relations of production, its impact on the South’s social division of labour and industrialization, and its contribution to the total volume of commodity circulation within the boundaries of the antebellum United States. Only through a careful examination of the empirical and theoretical issues posed by each of these debates can we ultimately arbitrate in what manner slavery was either an obstacle or spur to the process of national capitalist development.

The question of slavery’s profitability was initially raised in 1905 with the publication of U. B. Phillips’s article, ‘The Economic Costs of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt’.footnote1 Arguing on the basis of price series for cotton and prime male fieldhands, Phillips claimed that plantation production was an increasingly unprofitable investment in the antebellum period, and that the only profits gained from slave-owning were derived from the speculative purchase and sale of the slaves themselves. Phillips’s thesis remained the orthodox view of the subject for over fifty years until it was contested by Conrad and Meyer in 1955.footnote2 Utilizing the more sophisticated statistical tools of neo-classical economics, Conrad and Meyer asserted that slavery was actually a comparatively profitable investment compared with other sectors of the antebellum economy. While technical questions concerning the exact rate of return on plantation investments remain unanswered,footnote3 it is clear that slave production of cotton was a profitable investment prior to 1860. However the implications of this profitability for the social character of slavery remain open to question.

On the basis of further research into the profitability of slavery, two economic historians, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, have claimed that Southern plantation slavery was a capitalist form of commodity production, governed by profit-maximization and characterized by the efficient allocation of factors of production.footnote4 Leaving aside the massive critical literature on Fogel and Engerman’s ‘cliometric’ techniques and use of evidence,footnote5 we must consider the theoretical implications of the attempt to build a concept of capitalist production on the basis of profit maximization and commodity production. Fogel and Engerman are not alone in conceiving of American plantation slavery as a capitalist form of production. A number of writers from outside the tradition of the ‘new economic history’, including Lewis Gray, Louis Hacker and Immanuel Wallerstein,footnote6 have characterized plantation slavery in the American South as a variant of capitalist production on the basis of its commodity producing and profit-maximizing character. While Wallerstein’s ‘world-systemic’ perspective allows us to grasp the relationship of us slavery to the development of industrial capitalism in England, and in other parts of the emergent capitalist world economy, the notion that slavery is a variant of capitalist production tends to obscure the specificity of slave and capitalist relations of surplus appropriation and their effects on the dynamics of their respective labour processes.

Fogel and Engerman’s arguments concerning the capitalist character of plantation slavery bring out the problems with this conception most clearly. Fogel and Engerman locate the source of plantation slavery’s profitability in the high quality and productivity of black slave labour, which combined with the plantation’s factor combination, made the Southern plantation equally or more efficient and productive than other forms of agriculture in the antebellum period. The source of this high quality, efficient and productive black labour under slavery was the internalization by the slave population, through numerous non-coercive incentives offered by the planters, of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ of the master class.footnote7 Fogel and Engerman’s claims concerning the nature of labour productivity and the determinations of plantation profits are contradicted by both their own evidence and recent research. Gavin Wrightfootnote8 has convincingly argued that the source of the cotton plantations’ profitability was neither the high productivity of slave labour, nor economies of scale achieved under the plantation regime, but the demand for raw cotton by industrial capitalists in England, and the complete domination of the world market for raw cotton by the plantations of the American South. This produced continually high prices for raw cotton prior to the Civil War, which bouyed up the planters’ profits.

In Time on the Cross we are presented with a detailed description of the labour-process under slavery, which is purported to be highly efficient and productive.footnote9 However when one scrutinizes Fogel and Engerman’s description of the plantation labour-process, one finds that it is characterized by gang-labour and the production and appropriation of absolute surplus-labour. The labour-process under slavery was organized to maximize the use of human labour in large, co-ordinated groups under the continual supervision of overseers and drivers. The instruments of production used were simple and virtually unchanged during the antebellum period. Such a labour-process leaves only a few options to the planter seeking to increase labout productivity: increasing the pace of work, increasing the amount of acreage each slave or slave-gang cultivated, or moving the plantation to more fertile soil. These methods of increasing labour productivity expanded absolutely the amount of surplus labour performed by the direct producers, while leaving the amount of necessary labour performed constant. This stands in sharp contrast to the capitalist organization of the labour-process, where labour productivity is increased by the continual introduction of new instruments of production which reduce the amount of necessary labour performed in relation to surplus labour.

Eugene Genovese, fully cognizant of the non-capitalist character of slavery’s labour-process, has attempted to explain this by reference to slavery’s non-capitalist relations of production. While making many advances over those who consider plantation slavery a form of capitalism, Genovese’s analysis remains theoretically unsatisfying. Genovese’s characterization of Southern slavery as non-capitalist rests on a comparison of the ‘rationality’ of capitalism with the ‘irrationality’ of plantation slavery. Relying on Weber’s discussion of slavery, Genovese sees four major irrational features of slavery: ‘First, the master cannot adjust the size of his labor-force in accordance with business fluctuations . . . Second, the capital outlay is much greater and riskier for slave labor than for free. Third, the domination of society by a planter class increases the risk of political influence in the market. Fourth, the prices of cheap labor usually dry up rather quickly, and beyond a certain point costs become excessively burdensome’.footnote10 These irrational features of slavery, combined with the non-bourgeois and aristocratic ideology of the planters, and their propensity toward conspicuous consumption, led to continual investment in more land and more slaves, rather than new and more productive instruments and tools, with consequent technological stagnation and low labour productivity.footnote11