Property in People and the Complexities of Capitalism (SHEAR)

Society for Historians of the Early American Republic Annual Meeting, Cleveland, OH, July 2018

11 Pages Posted: 22 Apr 2021

See all articles by Holly Brewer

Holly Brewer

University of Maryland, College Park

Date Written: July 20, 2018


My years of research on the emergence of slavery in the British Empire not only supports the argument that all markets are regulated, but shows that the character of that regulation can lead to an extraordinary form of capitalism, a form that strikes at the heart of the idea of free markets. This paper explores the dilemma of slavery in the seventeenth century British Empire focusing on questions of its legality and the implications of that legality for finance. Without the ability to maintain that a person could be property, attempted claims at ownership or sale were often legally dubious, difficult to maintain and impossible to finance. England’s Royal African Company—run by the king’s own brother, James, Duke of York, went bankrupt as a consequence in 1667.

The paper shows how England’s high court stepped in to legitimate the legal process of treating people as property, and explains its impact on finance and trade in enslaved people across the empire. It then connects those court decisions to the military force necessary to uphold them, and argues that there is no such thing as a “free market” in forced labor, and that all markets have to be regulated and the rules of exchange enforced. While slavery is perhaps the most crucial example of how such regulation works, this case study from the era of its emergence illuminates how modern assumptions about free markets seriously underestimate the ways in which different regulation combined with the instruments of political power can create radically different kinds of society.

Of course slavery was part of capitalism—and an important part—in nineteenth century America. But slavery did not define capitalism. Nor was slavery only capitalism; as an examination of its origins reveals, it was in many ways part of an older ideal of hierarchical society that contemporaries called feudalism and that had very particular legal expression. In this paper I explore the origins of slavery in England’s 17th century empire to argue that “property in people” was a concept that to flourish needed a very particular legal basis, one that built on feudal law but then took a dramatic turn towards fictionalizing people as property. Once such a basis was created, it created almost a new form of money and credit. Without such a legal definition, slavery was profoundly unstable.

Keywords: slavery, capitalism, free markets, mercantalism, feudalism, property, courts, law, regulation of markets, finance, torts

JEL Classification: J00, J24, J41, J47, G00, G14, K00, K11, K13

Suggested Citation

Brewer, Holly, Property in People and the Complexities of Capitalism (SHEAR) (July 20, 2018). Society for Historians of the Early American Republic Annual Meeting, Cleveland, OH, July 2018, Available at SSRN: or

Holly Brewer (Contact Author)

University of Maryland, College Park ( email )

301-405-9442 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics