Aired: March 8, 2014

Slavery: The Rise of American Capitalism

Timothy_H._O'Sullivan_-_Slaves,_J._J._Smith's_Plantation,_South_Carolina_The tribulations of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, are depicted in the popular film 12 Years a Slave. In a soon to be published book, Calvin Schermerhorn (Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Fellow) documents how the business of slavery gave rise to American capitalism. Also featured: With Good Reason producer Kelley Libby checks in on a log cabin-building workshop on the grounds of Montpelier, the former home of President James Madison. The cabin is a replica of a dwelling that once housed enslaved people on Madison’s plantation.

Later in the show: The contributions that Irish nuns made to help destitute immigrant Catholic children in New York City were instrumental in developing modern American social institutions like foster care and welfare. Maureen Fitzgerald (College of William and Mary) says before the nuns aided these children, they were being sent to live with Protestant families outside NYC, often never seeing their parents again. Also: Cindy Hahamovitch (College of William and Mary) compares the history and experience of guest workers in the United States to other countries.

  • Slavery – web extra

    slave dwellingWhy has Joseph McGill slept in old slave dwellings in a dozen states?  Visit The Slave Dwelling Project to find out.

  • Cabin Building feature

    Recently, James Madison’s Montpelier, near Orange, invited members of the public to help build a log cabin. It’s a replica of a slave cabin that once existed on the property. As Kelley Libby reports, one of the men who helped build it has been traveling the country, sleeping in slave dwellings.


6 Comments on “Slavery: The Rise of American Capitalism”

  1. Oscar A Torres=Luqui

    I am interested in following up on the Dred Scott case as one of the causes of the Civil War.

  2. Dr. Herbert L. Green, Jr.

    As a Christian retired university professor who is completing a book about the intersection of Religion and Social Science I have two questions:how did Christianity enable slavery and business to coalesce and grow until the Civil War? Did religion provide a Biblical justification for the institution of slavery and business interests until the Civil War? Thank you.

  3. Calvin Schermerhorn

    Dear Mr. Torres: The Dred Scott case was indeed important, and that was for several reasons. The case involved an enslaved man, Dred Scott, who had been taken to states and territories in which slavery was outlawed. Scott sued for his freedom, lost, appealed, won, and the case was taken by the Supreme Court. The politically-influenced decision was supposed to stop the political damage over the issue of slavery extension in the territories. Instead it inflamed many northerners and failed to mollify pro-slavery southerners. In short, it exacerbated political tensions instead of settling the issue. The majority decision was also sweeping: African-descended Americans had no civil rights, which was judicial overreach in the view of most Republicans and a chilling setback for African-descended Americans already subject to severe restrictions if not outright slavery. The best recent overview of the politics of the decision is in William W. Freehling’s _Road to Disunion, Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861_ , chapter 9. The classic work on the subject is Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance inn American Law_.
    -Calvin Schermerhorn

    Dear Dr. Green: Your book sounds very interesting and important. Let me try to answer your questions succinctly. Strictly speaking, Christianity did not enable firms to conduct the slavery business more efficiently. For instance, many states had usury laws prohibiting interest rates above a certain percentage. Bankers, slave traders, and shippers may have been Christian as a matter of confession and conscience, but I do not see their religious beliefs at work promoting their traffic in human beings. On the other hand, abolitionist evangelicals were among the most vocal critics of the immoral business of selling and buying human beings. Activists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison preached the Bible against slavery, as you are no doubt aware.

    To your second question, some evangelical slave owners gave Biblical justifications for enslaving fellow human beings, but there were very few (none come to mind) who used the Bible to justify actually selling enslaved people. Those who did, like Charles Colcock Jones of Georgia, tended to set the bar fairly high for their own conduct toward enslaved people, even if they tended to fall far short. A few evangelicals did manumit bondspersons because of their Christian convictions.

    Most slave traders whom I have come across gave reasons of racial inferiority as reasons that helped them buy and sell fellow human beings. In sum, therefore, I do not think that the Bible or American Christianity gave tools to those plying the business of slavery. By the same token, some slave traders were practicing Episcopalians, Catholics, et cetera, who managed to set aside Christian theology when doing business. In the end, I think one could argue that Christianity tended to favor abolition and equal rights even though a minority of pro-slavery Christians claimed Biblical justifications for enslavement.
    -Calvin Schermerhorn

  4. Betty Chapple

    How can I obtain a copy of With Good Reason Show on March 13, 2014 (Kelly Libby) Slavery: The Rise of American Capitalism

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