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In the Shadows of Slavery’s Capitalism

"Masterless Men" shows how the antebellum political economy made poor southern whites into a volatile, and potentially disruptive, class.
Cambridge Studies on the American South

In the twentieth century, economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism’s forward march of progress sprang from creativity expressed through entrepreneurship. Innovation led to the creative destruction for which his theories are best known. The resulting economic vibrancy and diversity created widespread opportunities and rising standards of living. That did not happen in the South. Patents for intellectual property are one measure of capitalist creativity as opposed to units of production. In John Majewski’s words, the South was a “creativity desert” where patents for new inventions were rarely filed, in contrast to the increasingly entrepreneurial North.

In the period Merritt investigates, enslavers were foreclosing on the possibilities of Schumpeterian capitalism. Instead of sponsoring public education, enslavers were barring literacy from African-descended people, and the Deep South states were cutting off schooling for whites. Free southern pupils attended school at less than half the rate as their northern counterparts (and counting enslaved people the rate was truly abysmal), and the southern school year was shorter, too. Job opportunities were kept scarce by pervasive slave labor, which depressed wages. A ruthless commitment to slavery’s capitalism undercut entrepreneurship. Slavery’s growth trumped diversification.

That system bred dangerous inequalities. Many poor whites had irregular work, lacked steady incomes, were subjected to predatory farming contracts, and only had seasonal employment. And “poor whites simply could not compete—for jobs or living wages—with profitable slave labor” (63). Instead of diverting some cotton profits to sponsor economic diversity or promote uplift, enslavers punished white poverty. For committing “victimless crimes like vagrancy,” whites’ labor was auctioned off. Some whites were publicly flogged for petty crimes (36). And democracy offered no remedy.

Poor white southerners especially in the cotton South were effectively barred from politics. “For most lower-class white men, having a say in the South’s political matters was an unrealistic dream” (165).  While states got rid of property requirements for voting, hurdles went up to participation like residency requirements and poll taxes. Migrant workers could not hope to surmount that bar even if they could cough up a day’s wages to pay for a vote.

In fact Merritt argues the Deep South’s political economy was so finely calibrated to the interests of enslavers that alternatives to slavery’s capitalism were closed off. Moves to unionize white southern workers were blocked in state legislatures. As steam power overthrew the tyranny of distance, steamboats and railroads bred rootlessness and preyed on disadvantaged white laborers. White Georgia prisoners built some of that state’s railroads, previewing the convict- lease schemes that re-enslaved African-descended Americans after Reconstruction. Bank credit flowed to enslavers, but rural whites had little access to capital.

When emerging northern free-labor capitalism gave rise to the Republican Party in the 1850s, enslavers were dead scared that the mechanics and farmers who supported the party in Illinois and Ohio would make common cause with working whites in Louisiana and Georgia.

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