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Factory Made

A history of modernity as a history of factories struggles to see beyond their walls.
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In 1851, De Bow’s Review, a leading journal of the slave-owning class, published a lengthy essay on the “Future of the South” that set out a plan to accelerate this marriage of industrialization and slavery. Cotton, the essay noted, was Britain’s most important manufacturing sector, the cornerstone of the most advanced industrial economy on earth. Cheap cotton cloth had become a staple across Europe and the Americas. Easy to clean, easy to replace, more comfortable than wool, and much cheaper than silk, it had made life easier for millions. The essay posited that although the factories that turned raw cotton into finished cloth relied on free labor, the raw material itself had “bound the fortunes of American slaves so firmly to human progress, that civilization itself may almost be said to depend” upon the preservation of slavery. The essay acknowledged that the Atlantic and the Mason-Dixon separated the slave power from the mills of Manchester and Massachusetts. However, mechanization seemed to promise a dramatic reduction in the number of people required for agricultural labor, freeing up an enslaved industrial workforce. As cotton refineries and cloth factories sprouted in the South, the entire Mississippi Valley would become a giant factory and New Orleans would become Liverpool, “communicating by the father of waters with that vast region which is to be the Manchester of the world.”

The marriage of slavery and factory work proposed in De Bow’s Review might seem incongruous. After all, the story that many white Southerners told themselves after the defeat of the slaveholders’ rebellion was one of a gallant agrarian South crushed by a relentless, soulless industrial North. But on the eve of the war, Northern and Southern businessmen were more frank about the intimacy of free labor and slave labor in the United States. In 1860 Edward Bean Underhill, a prominent British missionary, visited Cuba, where men from both sides of the sectional divide were staying at his hotel. A Southerner told him, “The North depends on the cotton growers of the South”; a Northerner told him, “The South depends on the North for capital, and even for existence.” The meeting itself says something more: Investors from free and slave states alike were keen to sink money into profitable Cuban sugar plantations, worked nearly exclusively by enslaved people.

Moreover, the word “factory” itself was connected in its etymology to the slave trade. In the early modern era, distant commercial outposts were known as “factories,” after the “factor,” the presiding merchant. The most notorious “factories” were the castles and prisons operated by Europeans on the coast of West Africa, where the African slave trade met the transatlantic slave trade, and whence many millions of enslaved people began the Middle Passage to the Americas. In Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, Joshua B. Freeman doesn’t dwell on the bleak fantasies of slaveholders or the connections between early-modern colonial slavery and the rise of industry. And yet, when he argues that the history of factories can make concrete the inchoate “ties between coercion and freedom, exploitation and material advance” inherent in industrialization, he is tapping into something essential about the relationship between forced labor and free labor. The “Future of the South” displayed many of the features of what Freeman calls “industrial gigantism,” a pattern of industrialization through massive, capital-intensive factories with workforces many times larger than the average. Moreover, industrial giants—like the idea of the “Manchester of the world” to slave owners—were symbols of the future. They seemed in their time to represent new models of production, and to employ a new kind of worker.