A Comment the ‘New’ History of American Capitalism

15 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2019

Date Written: August 17, 2019


This essay reviews the "New History of Capitalism" (NHC) literature with specific attention to its claims about the relationship between capitalism and slavery. While others have critiqued severe deficiencies in the empirical dimensions of this literature, I focus upon the shortcomings in its conceptualization of "capitalism." In addition to being plagued by definitional imprecision surrounding its use of the term that causes NHC scholars to conflate the slave system with laissez-faire economic doctrines, this literature generally neglects the close historical association between classical economists and abolitionism. The ensuing confusion over the intellectual history of capitalism and its relationship to the emergence of economics as a social science leads several practitioners in the NHC literature to unwittingly adopt a modern iteration of the "King Cotton" economic thesis that was advanced by radical pro-slavery "fire eaters" on the eve of the American Civil War. While the two service opposite objectives with regards to slavery itself, they are shown to adopt eerily similar diagnoses of slavery's economic position in the world. As with its Confederate-era precursor, the NHC variant of this thesis errs in its attempt to reduce the complexities of an economy to a simplistic causal relationship based upon a single slave-produced crop.

Keywords: Slavery, Capitalism, New History of Capitalism

JEL Classification: N11, B12

Suggested Citation

Magness, Phillip, A Comment the ‘New’ History of American Capitalism (August 17, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3438828 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3438828

Phillip Magness (Contact Author)

Independent Institute ( email )

100 Swan Way
Oakland, CA 94621
United States

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