Racism, Slavery and War: The Foundations of Capitalism

by Stoney Bird

Part 17

This is the seventeenth in a continuing series of articles that began with the January, 2014 issue of Whatcom Watch. The series addresses the impediments to democracy and well being in American society.

“While many mid-nineteenth-century Europeans had persuaded themselves that the wonders of modern industry were reserved to them because of such unchangeable factors as the local climate and geography, their superior religious beliefs and “culture,” or even their “racial” characteristics, the geographic shifts of the world’s first modern industry [cotton] showed anyone willing to see that essentializing the particular global geography of a particular moment in the history of capitalism was nothing but a self-serving justification for global inequality.”
— Harvard History Professor Sven Beckert1

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.
— Karl Marx2

In the arc of American history, racism, slavery and colonial war have played a fundamental role. In history as it actually was, slave-produced cotton and its subsequent processing by the industrially oppressed played a fundamental part. Not only did racism, slavery and colonial war enable the physical spread of the United States, but they were the foundations of wealth accumulation in this country — indeed of the worldwide capitalist system. The stories we have told ourselves up to now have been rather more forgiving.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, the stories that I heard in school, at home, and in the media were along the following lines: the Industrial Revolution was all about technology. It produced and produced and produced. The result was prosperity for all. The southern slave plantations were bad, yes, but they were a sideshow and “backward,” and in any event, the heroics of the Civil War got rid of them. The epic expansion of the United States across the North American continent was the inevitable reward for the good, wise, hard-working people of European descent with their genius for democracy. It was right for them to scour the continent of “savages.”

It’s time we actually looked in the mirror. We will be aided in our viewing by the work of many recent historians. It is not a pretty picture. Honor, compassion, justice, and interest in the well being of society do not play a part.

“Blood Purity”
It began with the Inquisition. As early as 1449, the Spanish had begun distinguishing between those who by descent were presumed to be “Old Christians” — and therefore above suspicion — and those who had themselves converted or were descended from converts, and therefore suspect. An elaborate system of nomenclature was devised to mark off all the different variants of legitimacy.

In 1478, during the last decades of the Reconquista — the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula — one Alonso de Hojeda, a Dominican friar from Seville, convinced Queen Isabella of the existence of Crypto-Judaism, said to occur when former Jews (conversos) among her subjects claimed falsely to have converted to Christianity. He suggested – and she ordained — the creation of a tribunal to examine those suspected of “false conversion.” When the Reconquista was completed in 1492, both Jews and Muslims were required by law to convert or to leave the kingdom.3 The idea of “blood purity” has been a popular one in Europe and this country ever since.

The Pope Sanctions Empire
At the same time that the Europeans were developing their concepts of “pure blood,” they were increasingly coming into contact with non-Europeans. The leaders in this were the Portuguese, as through one voyage after another they extended their reach down the coast of Africa and then on to Asia. Seeking legal sanction, they applied to Pope Nicholas V, and he duly obliged with the Bull Dum Diversas in 1452.

Dum Diversas was the first of a series of papal Bulls, the cumulative message of which was that Christian European explorers could seize land not already claimed by another Christian power, set up government, seize whatever wealth they might find (or trade for it), enslave the inhabitants, and convert them to Christianity by any feasible means. Their conversion was ostensibly to “save their souls,” but one may note that the new Christians would also be subject to the tithe. The year after Columbus’ first voyage the Pope extended the principle to the Western Hemisphere4 with an enlargement of the Spanish kingdom’s share a year later through the Treaty of Tordesillas.5

Not to be outdone, in 1496 King Henry VII of England granted a patent to John Cabot under which Cabot could take title to land that he came upon in North America if the land was not already claimed by another Christian (European) power. King Henry only required in return that Cabot pay him one-fifth of the value of whatever Cabot brought back from his exploits. Cabot’s patent was the genesis of the British colonial claims in what are now termed the United States and Canada. Thus was a program of violence, land theft and enslavement made “law.”

Collectively these unilateral European decrees comprise the notorious “Doctrine of Discovery.”6 Chief Justice Marshall incorporated the doctrine into the law of the United States in his M’Intosh opinion of 1823.7 The U.S. Supreme Court continues to cite it as a basis of decision, most recently in 2005.8 It is the legal basis of all current property claims in this hemisphere — and in much of the rest of the world.

War Capitalism
Harvard history professor Sven Beckert has won the Bancroft Prize9 this year for his book on cotton as the basis of the capitalist system.10 In Beckert’s view, the violence-based slave-and-ethnic-cleansing complex on which cotton production was based in the U.S. south had been anticipated through the operations of the colonizing chartered companies since the beginning of the seventeenth century. As I described in the July, 2015 issue of Whatcom Watch (see pages 6-7), beginning with the British East India Company in 1600, European governments granted charters to companies to engage in trading, governing and military operations. The companies were the primary means by which North America (among other parts of the world) was colonized. Because the companies were granted powers of government and war, and because they were a major means of accumulating capital for those who held the charters, Beckert, not mincing words, describes the resulting system of exploitation as “war capitalism.” Those not possessing charters were forced to follow in the dust — or be ground into it — as Tom Paine acidly observed (see sidebar, “Tom Paine on Corporate Charters”).11 Another theme of Beckert’s is the collaborative role that government played with commercial interests in setting up these corporations. At every step, government provided juristic cover backed up by the ultimate violence of the state in establishing the capitalist system.

Slavery and the Constitution
These days, slavery is thought to have been a phenomenon of the U.S. South and a sign of its “backwardness” by contrast with the supposed dynamism of the North’s wage labor system. The north, we are often asked to believe, was the home of “freedom.” Yet in 1789, both northern and southern states ratified a Constitution that:

  • protected the trans-Atlantic slave trade from tampering for the next 20 years.
  • opened the way to the Fugitive Slave Act (northerners were often avid hunters of escaped slaves).
  • authorized the federal government to guarantee the states against domestic violence. (The southern states were specifically fearful of possible slave insurrections, which had been occurring at various levels since the creation of the slave system. For example, in Virginia at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, roughly half the population were slaves).
  • guaranteed the southern states a majority in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College (for the explicit purpose of protecting the “peculiar institution”). It did this by requiring slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining the size of a state’s congressional delegation, though not of course treating them as persons for any other purpose.12

The framers of the Constitution had protected a resource (slavery) that they then proceeded to exploit big time.

King Slave Cotton
During the first half of the nineteenth century, cotton became the most important commodity in world trade. It was the explosion in slave-produced raw cotton in the American South that enabled the foundation of the industrial factory system in England, New England and, later, continental Europe. Between 1800 and 1860, the U. S. raised cotton production from a few million pounds per year to more than two billion pounds, raising production a thousand-fold in 60 years.13 From less than one percent of the world’s cotton at the beginning of the period, the American South was producing 75 percent of world production in the 1850s.14 Nearly all of it would go to the newly-established factories in England’s Lancashire.
At the beginning of the century, the bulk of the cotton was produced on the eastern seaboard, primarily in South Carolina. Seeing what could be gained, Andrew Jackson and others proceeded to cleanse what became Mississippi and Alabama of its indigenous population. They applied the readily available Doctrine of Discovery to parcel up the newly-vacated millions of acres, and created a slave camp owner class who were the wealthiest individuals in the land. British and northern U.S. banking interests were financing the purchase of land, equipment, and slaves — the linchpin of the system.15 The financiers of course had the go-ahead from their respective governments.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade had been banned in 1807, although it continued to bring in contraband slaves at a much lower rate. What supplied the new territories was the internal slave trade. Slave labor camp owners in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, having farmed out their own land, could sell unneeded slaves at a premium to the owners of the new slave labor camps in what was then the Southwest. Those who organized the internal trade in slaves took their seats at the tables of the wealthy, just like the slave labor camp owners. During the period of stunning growth, the slave population grew from 700,000 to 4 million, largely from natural increase rather than imports, a factor of about four.
Northerners helped to finance this explosion, to conduct the trade in slaves, to provide insurance, and to ship the cotton. They also began setting up mills to spin, weave and sew the raw cotton that the slaves produced. As in England, the “mills” in towns like Waltham, Lawrence, and Lowell, Massachusetts were the first big industrial establishments in this country, and founded the capitalist fortunes on which much of New England banking, railroads and insurance were based, and which also led to endowments for hospitals and universities, including Harvard and Williams.16 One reviewer of the book “Complicity, How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery”17 says: “The slave-based profits made by the South’s Lords of the Lash were matched in New England by those of the Lords of the Loom ….”18

Whipping Slaves into “Efficiency”
At the root of the system were the slaves. Until the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, a major bottleneck in cotton production was the removal of seeds from the bolls, held firmly in place by the seeds’ stickiness. When the gin made that part of the process 50 times as fast, the new bottleneck was simply picking the cotton. This was not mechanized until the 1940s. Meantime, cotton-picking could be made more efficient by making the slaves work faster. By the beginning of the Civil War, slaves were picking, on average, four times as much cotton per day as they were at the beginning of the century.19

Here’s how they did it. The process was openly described in journals of the day as the “pushing system.”20 Since picking the cotton was the bottleneck, men, women and children all had to participate. Each slave was given a daily picking quota, a certain number of pounds. At the end of the day, what each slave had picked was weighed, and if the slave hadn’t picked the quota, he or she was immediately given a lash of the whip for each pound below what the overseer had assigned. Once a slave was picking the assigned quota with regularity, the overseer would raise the ante. Modern industrial employers are not the first ones who thought of the “speed up.”

Civil War: The End of the Idyll
When the U.S. Civil War started, the South at first imposed an embargo on shipments to England, hoping thereby to force England to recognize the South as an independent country. This gambit having failed, the North imposed its own blockade for the duration of the war. For all that the blockade was not water tight, it successfully upended the general system, and forced the British to scout around the world for other places where cotton growing could be stimulated. During the war, the immediate sources were Egypt, India, and Brazil.

In the U.S. cotton production didn’t recover to pre-war levels until the 1890s. Whip-motivated cotton-picking had been abolished with the adoption of the 13th Amendment. Relatively few freed slaves, however, became independent land owners, or if they did, quickly were relegated by the costs of financing their operations to the role of tenant farmers or share-croppers. The lowest paid became wage-earning farm workers.

Lower still were the members of a newly-created class: convict laborers. Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon tells this part of the story in his book tellingly entitled, “Slavery by Another Name.”21 As part of the Jim Crow system, southern lawmakers invented new and vaguely described crimes such as vagrancy. A potential employer would let the local sheriff know when the business needed more workers, and the sheriff would arrest as many people as the employer required. Once an unfortunate was ensnared in the legal system, costs and fees would mount up. If the defendant lacked funds, the charges would have to be paid off in additional jail time. An ostensible 30-day sentence would turn into months. Local farmers, factory-owners and mine-owners could then rent out the convicts, keeping them in living conditions and under a work regime that could barely be distinguished from the worst of the old slave days, including “discipline” by whipping. This system persisted in parts of the South through the 1930s.

The New Jim Crow
The United States has been through two periods of fundamental legal change in race relations, once with the abolition of slavery in the 1860s, and once with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation of the 1960s. Though the law changed, people’s views and practices did not. After abolition came Jim Crow. After the Civil Rights movement came the War on Drugs. There is not space to go into detail here, but most readers of this journal will know of the discriminatory fashion in which the drug laws are applied. The system of prison labor for “respectable” employers is also alive and well. Again, we will have to explore that issue in a future column.


  • Alexander, Michelle, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness,” Rev. ed., 2012.
  • Baptist, Edward, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of America Capitalism,” Basic Books, 2014.
  • Beckert, Sven, “Empire of Cotton: A Global History,” Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2015. Winner of the Bancroft Prize.
  • Blackmon, Douglas, “Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” Anchor Books, 2009.
  • Farrow, Anne, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank, “Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery,” Ballantine Books, 2005.
  • Paine, Tom, “The Rights of Man,” http://sqapo.com/complete_text__paine__rights_of_man.htm, viewed 6-30-15.

End Notes

1    Beckert, in Resources, p.382.
2    Marx, Karl, Capital, vol. 1, Ch. 31, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch31.htm, viewed 6-28-15. Both Beckert and Marx are correct in describing the violent and exploitative basis of capitalism. Marx, like many others, is distracted into focusing on a hard, “masculine” industry (mining) when cotton growing, spinning, weaving, and sewing (at all stages of which the workers were at least as often women and children) enabled the factory system and created the first great industrial fortunes.
3    One may remark the similarity between the paranoia of the Spanish authorities at this time and the hyperfear of Communism and then of terrorism in our own time.
4    The Bull Inter Caetera, see, e.g /, viewed 6-29-15.
5    Treaty of Tordesillas, http://doctrineofdiscovery.org
6    See, e.g., doctrineofdiscovery.org, viewed May 27, 2015.
7    Johnson v M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543, 1823.
8    City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of NY, 544 U.S. 197, 2005.
9    “The Bancroft Prize is awarded annually by the trustees of Columbia University. Winners are judged in terms of the scope, significance, depth of research, and richness of interpretation they present in the areas of American history and diplomacy.” – http://library.columbia.edu/news/libraries/2015/2015-03-25_Winners_of_the_2015_Bancroft.html
10    See Beckert in Resources.
11    See Paine in Resources.
12    The 13th Amendment of the Constitution abolished slavery and indentured servitude “except as a punishment for crime,” thus enabling the system of convict labor which to this day provides employers with a satisfactorily low cost alternative for slavery.
13    Beckert, see Resources, p. 106.
14    Baptist, see Resources, p. 114.
15    Beckert, see Resources p. 106.
16    Farrow et al, see Resources, p. 35.
17    Farrow et al, see Resources.
18   http://usslave.blogspot.ca/2014/05/complicity-how-north-profited-from.html
19 Baptist, see Resources, p. 127.
20 Baptist, see Resources, p. 117 et seq.
21 See Blackmon, in Resources.

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