Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Vol. I:
Commerce and Compromise, 1820-1850.
By John Ashworth. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. xii + 520 pp., notes, index, paper, $19.95; cloth, $64.95).
Ashworth’s Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics is a major contribution to American antebellum historiography, North and South. If the second volume, which will cover the 1850s, fulfills the author’s promises, this British author may define the slave and Civil War debates into the twenty-first century.
Extremely complex and detailed, Ashworth’s full argument cannot be fully summarized here. Heretofore best known for Agrarians and Aristocrats: Party Political Ideology in the United States, 1837-1846 (1983), upon which the present study builds, Ashworth’s argument is thoroughly Marxist, but neither shrill nor polemical. The commercial revolution, he argues, split Americans into two camps, the commercially-oriented, pro-capitalist Whigs and the essentially Jeffersonian and functionally pro-slavery Democrats. In the 1830s and 1840s the groups, which were “remarkably well balanced in both sections,” clashed over tariffs and banks (494). With the return of prosperity in the mid-1840s, however, differences between the sections became more acute as politicians jousted over the merits of free and slave labor. Free laborers in the North generally accepted the capitalist credo of social mobility and individualism, increasing abolitionist sentiments and forcing Northern politicians, “from the most doughfaced Democrat to the most militant abolitionist,” to believe free labor was superior to slave labor (496). Though not growing economically as fast as the North, the South too was prosperous, much to the detriment of Southern Whigs’ calls for economic diversification. Importantly, unlike wage laborers, slaves made it clear they did not accept their masters’ ideology. This resistance created a fear of servile war that pervaded the Southern mind and left Southern Whigs little room to maneuver. The result was the destruction of national parties and a realignment along sectional lines. Again, Ashworth’s argument is much more subtle and complex and this short summary does not begin to describe his truly masterful analysis of differences between, and within, political parties at various stages in the process.
Marx’s political economy, not Ashworth’s Marxist framework, constitute the weakest part of the book. Though his use of terms like “class conflict” and “hegemony” may be an issue for some, readers will appreciate Ashworth’s insights if they ignore the jargon and try to understand the substance behind the words. A much bigger problem is that, like Marx himself, Ashworth misunderstands the essence of American capitalism — capital markets. His understanding of the antebellum economy is essentially intellectual. Though he treats the economic literature at some length, ultimately he oversimplifies it and concludes what most suits his argument, as when he argues Southern manufacturing was much more remunerative than its agriculture. Ashworth’s related contention that slaveholders were not profit-maximizers, and hence not capitalists, is flawed because it ignores the role slaves played as liquid capital. Slaves were to the South what corporate stocks were to the North — income-generating securities that holders could hypothecate to secure debt. Slaves’ liquidity, their ability, as chattel, to collateralize capital flows, made them much more valuable than Ashworth concedes. Finally, Ashworth erroneously argues bank notes were legal tender, a mistake that suggests he has not fully explicated the antipathy of some Democrats to banks of issue and further highlights his overly theoretical view of economics (310).
These and other issues are sure to arouse controversy, but, for the most part, Ashworth has raised the level of discussion. To increase further our understanding of antebellum America, Ashworth should abandon long linear documents, the costly, cumbersome information conveyances known as books, in favor of electronic, linked hypertext documents like those found in Windows’ help screens or the World Wide Web. This way of presenting research gives writers and readers more options, reduces opportunity costs, and allows for deeper explanations. Ashworth handles issues of organization and extended exegesis by referring readers to other sections of the book, or, more annoyingly, to the next volume, and by providing an appendix of lengthy critiques of economist historians. Though these solutions are awkward, Ashworth clearly feels the need for more detailed treatments. If he considers that most college students now prefer to visit web sites than read books, and that he is unlikely to change the views of older, neo-classically biased historians much anyway, perhaps he will even appreciate the hegemonic possibilities of electronic publishing.