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Capitalism and Slavery and the Civil War
James Oakes
The Graduate Center, City University of New York
Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton
Kingdom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. 561 pp. $35.00.
Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of
American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 528 pp. $35.00.
Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
2014. 640 pp. $35.00.
Calvin Schermerhorn, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American
Capitalism, 1815–1860. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 352
pp. $65.00.
They push in different directions, these two great debates. The first, on the 
between capitalism and slavery, invites us to consider how closely the
two systems were connected, to the point where more and more scholars
argue that slavery itself was a form of capitalism. The second, on the origins
of the American Civil War, highlights the fundamental difference and
growing divergence between the free labor system of the North and the slave
society of the South, to the point where some scholars see an irreconcilable 
flict between the two. Can these competing tendencies be reconciled? Is it 
to define southern slavery as essentially “capitalist” without losing sight of
the crucial distinctions between free and enslaved labor? A number of recent
books suggest that scholars have begun to recognize the problem but have
not quite figured out how to solve it.
There are actually two distinct debates about capitalism and slavery, one
over whether the slave trade and the profits of plantation slavery played a 
role in the Industrial Revolution, and the other about whether plantation
slavery itself was or was not capitalist.

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