Thursday, April 1, 2021

Abolitionists, Political Economists, and Capitalism

Abolitionists, Political Economists, and Capitalism 

James L. Huston

Journal of the Early Republic , Autumn, 2000, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 487-521

(resides on JSTOR)

The relationship between abolitionism and capitalism in the United States remains for historians a contentious subject. At the moment four general interpretations dominate. Neomarxists argue that abolitionism was the key movement that legitimated market social relations in the United States, in particular the supremacy of wage labor as the institutional means of fixing the economic position of manual labor. In this interpretation, the abolitionists wittingly or not paved the road for the conquest of industrial capitalism and oppression of the working class. Thomas Haskell offers a second approach, ideologically opposite the neomarxists, that found human sensitivity to others originating in market transactions: because individuals in a commercial economy learned to obey their promises when written down in legal contracts, they learned to deal with others without resorting to physical coercion, thereby inculcating a humanitarian sensibility. A third rendition emphasizes republicanism in abolitionist thought. Abolitionists were heirs of the American Revolution and republican thinking; their attack on slavery was based on denial of selfishness and an advocacy of public virtue. From this perspective, the abolitionists were anticapitalists because they denied the role of self-interest that lay at the core of capitalist thought and behavior. Finally, the evangelical interpretation insists that the abolitionists were Christian zealots and moralists, opposed to capitalism either because morality superceded the economic process or because they would not place the worship of mammon above worship of the deity. [1]

The main contenders at the present seem to be the neomarxist and evangelical renditions. In 1998 the publication of two important works showed how vividly these two interpretations clashed. Amy Dru Stanley insisted that abolitionists trumpeted the key doctrines of liberal capitalist doctrine: self- ownership, voluntary economic arrangements, social relations governed by contract, and the correctness of wage labor. "Legitimating wage labor was a central part of the abolitionist project, but never its sum total," she argued; "for most abolitionists, the autonomy expressed in wage labor was but an offshoot of the underlying right of property in the self that constituted the taproot of contract freedom." At the same time, the late Paul Goodman portrayed abolitionism as a reaction against capitalism (or the market transformation). "Abolition," he wrote, "was a struggle to impose on social and economic relations the moral principles that were rooted in Christian teachings." [2] This article seeks to refine historical understanding of the ties between abolitionism to the emerging capitalism of the United States in the nineteenth century and generally sides with Goodman's perspective. Abolitionists possessed a biblical political economy, not a classical liberal one....

[1] For the emphasis upon abolitionists' role in legitimizing wage labor in capitalism, see John Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic: Vol. I: Commerce and Compromise, 1820-1850 (New York, 1995), 82-84,131-81; David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca, 1975), 45-47; and Davis, "Reflections on Abolitionism and Ideological Hegemony," American Historical Review, 92 (Oct. 1987), 797-812. For Thomas Haskell, see Haskell, "Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility," parts 1 and 2, American Historical Review, 90 (Apr. 1985) 339-61 and (June 1985), 547-66. For a treatment of abolitionism utilizing the republican synthesis, see Daniel J. Mclnerney, The Fortunate Heirs of Freedom: Abolition and Republican Thought (Lincoln, 1994). On the abolitionists and religion, consult John R. McKivigan, The War Against Proslavery Religion: Abolitionism and the Northern Churches, 1830-1865 (Ithaca, 1984); also, James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery (New York, 1976; 2d ed., 1996). A recent synthesis of work on reformers has reduced the stress on modernization that filled earlier works: Steven Mintz, Moralists and Modernizers: America's Pre-Civil War Reformers (Baltimore, 1995), xiv-xx, 9-10. 

[2] Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (New York, 1998), 20; see also 105, 160; Paul Goodman, Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality (Berkeley, 1998), xiv, 140.

Read entire article on JSTOR (Requires a subscription, which your local library might have. Most college and university libraries have subscriptions--you can go there and download it through their wireless internet connection.)

No comments:

Post a Comment