The 1619 Project and the debate it spurred have both been fraught with conceptual and historical misunderstandings about the relationship between slavery and free markets.
The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project has opened, perhaps reopened, a debate about the relationship between slavery and capitalism—and, by extension, slavery and classical liberal, libertarian, and free trade thought and ideology. Contributions like Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond’s “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation” have attempted to develop the historical connection between America’s “low‐road capitalism” and slavery, seeing slavery as at the foundation of an economic “culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless.” Desmond’s work for the Project is part of a broader tradition of research on this connection, notably associated with the work of historians such as Cornell’s Edward Baptist and Harvard’s Sven Beckert, both of whom Desmond cites.
Classical liberal scholars like Phillip W. Magness, among many other historians, have argued that much of the Project’s content is predicated on tendentious or just plain factually incorrect historical work, on errors that “suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Indeed, on all sides, political ideology seems to be at the center of what is masquerading as a debate about historical facts. Even before the 1619 Project, libertarians have been keen to defend capitalism from claims like that of Blake Smith, that “the founding fathers of laissez‐faire saw the slave trade as a showcase of liberty.” So who is right? Or are both sides right and wrong? Historian Marc‐William Palen further contextualizes the ongoing debate:
Nowadays, historians and political scientists tend to associate American free trade ideology with Jeffersonianism, which became tied to a defense of Southern slavery by the time of the American Civil War. However, what I’ve found is that a number of America’s leading abolitionists—among them, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, Joshua Leavitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson—were subscribers to a very different strand of free trade ideology: the Victorian ideology then famously known as Cobdenism, named after Victorian England’s apostle of free trade, Richard Cobden.
As Palen points out, “the primary underlying cause” of the Civil War was not immediately clear to English onlookers, particularly given “the North’s initial unwillingness to make emancipation a war aim.” Early on, it was easy to see the Civil War as a contest between free‐traders in the South and protectionists in the North. In Cobden’s words: “On the one side protectionists, on the other slave owners. The protectionists say they do not seek to put down slavery. The slave owners say they want Free Trade. Need you wonder at the confusion in John Bull’s poor head?” But, owing in no small part to “the propaganda efforts of various transatlantic Cobdenites,” it soon became clear to principled abolitionists in England that the slavery question was at the very heart of the war. The choice was thereafter clear. Cobden’s was always the “free trade peace message,” principled and therefore durable:
His practice was to apply the non‐intervention principle to whatever was the question at hand, to state the connection of his position to his others on different questions, to demonstrate his consistency, to stand his ground, and not to waver.
Cobden decided and voiced his position on slavery in the same fashion .… 1
It would be difficult to overstate the extent to which nineteenth century political taxonomies were different from those in popular use today. The contemporary left seems to want to erase libertarian/anti‐state abolitionism from history because it doesn’t fit their ideological narrative, which inexplicably sees the race‐based enslavement of human beings as an expression of radical libertarian ideology. The obvious truth—abolitionism was a libertarian cause, the abolition of slavery a great libertarian victory (indeed, the great libertarian victory)—just doesn’t square with accepted goodthink, which quite mistakenly places free‐market libertarianism on the political right.
The “Cobdenite abolitionist” Garrison was one of several prominent northeastern abolitionists—many of whom were Christian non‐resistants who saw in free trade an expression of their philosophical nonviolence—to embrace free trade. 2 The American abolitionist movement and the Manchester School free‐traders were indeed very closely related, often even familially (Bright’s brother and sister were affiliated with Garrisonian abolitionists). 3 Garrison even served as Vice President of the American Free Trade League, remarking, “I avow myself to be a radical free trader, even to the extent of desiring the abolition of all custom‐houses, as now constituted, throughout the world.”
As Phillip W. Magness observes, the mere conception of such principled libertarians—both abolitionists and champions of the free market—becomes impossible if we blindly accept, as so many in today’s academy do, the “axiomatically asserted market‐and‐slavery partnership.” Thus are some of the most prominent and important abolitionists simply read out of history, ignored as a poor fit with the confused theses of anti‐capitalists in the history profession. Palen notes that “economic historians have only just begun to re‐explore the close connection—rather than opposition—among antebellum tariff debates, transatlantic abolitionism, and religious revivalism.” But reformers of the time had no trouble recognizing the close ideological kinship uniting these two liberal causes, their common extraction from a principled focus on the freedom of the individual. In 1838, John Benjamin Smith argued that the Anti‐Corn Law Association (the name of the organization was later changed to the Anti‐Corn Law League) was “established on the same righteous principle as the Anti‐Slavery Society. The object of that society was to obtain the free right for negroes to possess their own flesh and blood—the object of this was to obtain the free right of the people to exchange their labor for as much food as can be got for it.” 4
Still, we libertarians are not entirely without blame. As I argue here and in other articles at Libertarianism.org and elsewhere, the sad state of the current scholarly discourse on the relationship between market institutions and the abominable crime of slavery is at least partly attributable to libertarians’ own unwillingness to accept the fact, glaring though it is, that “capitalism” does not mean “free market,” at least not necessarily. Today’s libertarian movement arguably employs the term “capitalism” in an exceptional and even intentionally provocative way, much as individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker used “socialism” in a way that was largely unique to their small circle of like‐minded people, in a particular time and place. All sides of the debates touched off or reignited by the 1619 Project ought to aim with honesty to prefer substance to form, ideas to ideology, and historical rigor to jargon or bare terminology. The left, broadly defined, should appreciate the manifest historical connections between liberal and reform causes such as free trade, the peace movement, women’s rights, and abolitionism, among others. As Magness points out, the adoption of “an intentionally vague terminology” has allowed New History of Capitalism scholars to selectively import “disparaging characteristics” when it suits them, only to decline to define the term capitalism when doing so would call their claims into question.
Capitalism is, of course, a notoriously slippery term, fraught with ambiguities; its defenders, when they invoke it, tend not to mean what its detractors do, and both groups frequently and earnestly disagree amongst themselves. So while it may be that it is possible to reconcile slavery and capitalism, or even to say that the former is a central feature of the latter’s history, the free market that libertarians endorse must exclude slavery just by definition, slavery being the most extreme violation of the fundamental principles on which a genuine free market system is based.
Nineteenth century free‐traders, forerunners of today’s libertarians, understood this well, even if the era’s capitalists (however indeed we define them) did not. It cannot be stressed enough that the period’s most outspoken and principled free‐traders consciously and explicitly did not identify their free‐trade philosophy with capitalism or with capitalists and their interests. Cobden decidedly did not see free trade as “a matter of advantage to the capitalists”—indeed the idea was “anathema to [him].” 5 Present‐day arguments from left‐wing scholars on the relationship between capitalism and slavery demonstrate a serious misunderstanding or outright ignorance of the basic fact that “the liberal principles of free trade” were frequently treated by free‐trade advocates themselves as at odds with the interests of capital. It should not surprise us that some of the nineteenth century’s most articulate endorsements of free trade come from critics of capitalism like Thomas Hodgskin and Henry George. 6 American individualist anarchists like Lysander Spooner also number among those who saw the obvious philosophical connection between free trade and the abolition of slavery, emphatically favoring both libertarian causes. Spooner was an anti‐capitalist who championed “free competition, and freedom from all arbitrary interference,” that is, radical laissez faire. Where today’s socialists reflexively bristle at the idea of international free trade, even many who counted themselves socialists in the nineteenth century joined with laissez‐faire liberals, at least in principle, in regarding global free trade as the pathway from privilege, monopoly, and war to peace and prosperity. In his famous book Politics Among Nations, eminent scholar Hans J. Morgenthau, whose work pioneered political realism in the field of foreign policy and international relations, even grouped the libertarian socialist Proudhon with the liberal Cobden as among their generation’s 7 most principled “adherents of free trade.” Morgenthau argues that both Cobden and Proudhon “were convinced that the removal of trade barriers was the only condition for the establishment of permanent harmony among nations and might even lead to the disappearance of international politics altogether.” Today’s left doesn’t understand this part of its own history, and doesn’t care to.
As I’ve discussed in previous articles on this site, the political spectrum in use today simply does not give us language or concepts with which to make sense of thinkers like Hodgskin, George, Garrison, Spooner, Proudhon, and others. The notion that their libertarianism and support for free trade would put them on the political right is beyond absurd, underscoring the defects of the left‐right spectrum more generally. As Matt Ridley writes, arguing for “free‐market anticapitalism,” “Somewhere along the line, we have let the market, that most egalitarian, liberal, disruptive, distributed and co‐operative of phenomena, become known as a reactionary thing.”
Principled libertarians should recognize that both propositions may indeed be true: (1) modern capitalism is stained with the legacy of slavery, and (2) left‐wing scholars who have, perhaps unwittingly, adopted the ridiculous and tacitly racist, pro‐slavery idea that slavery worked as an economic system—that it was “the indispensable causal driver behind America’s wealth today”—have committed a grave error. Like so many of the arguments of the anti‐market left, this one turns back on itself, on the egalitarian ideals that are supposed to motivate the left in the first place. It is akin to the strange claim that free‐market competition is harmful to workers, the protection of whom requires special legislation; though the left fails to see it, this kind of argument suggests that the left’s villains, giant multinational corporations and the rich generally, are actually just the deserving winners in a free and fair system of competition. As Henry George noted, “To admit that labor needs protection is to acknowledge its inferiority; it is to acquiesce in an assumption that degrades the workman to the position of a dependent .…” The left should argue, as many left‐wing free market anarchists once did, that as a matter of fact we’ve never seen a free market, that the consistent and widespread adoption of free market principles would be a boon to labor and the poor. Why concede that corporate power as it exists has the moral high ground, that existing inequalities are the product of wins and losses in a good, clean game? As I have argued elsewhere, that the left should want to absolve U.S. government power of all responsibility for creating and protecting the peculiar institution of slavery is baffling. Both the pro‐ and anti‐free market voices in the 1619 Project debate would benefit from at least attempting to define key terminology (such as notoriously equivocal words like capitalism) up front, which would enable participants in the debate to home in on actual points of disagreement rather than talking past one another.
1. Anthony Howe and Simon Morgan, eds., Rethinking Nineteenth‐Century Liberalism: Richard Cobden Bicentenary Essays (Routledge 2018).
2. Marc‐William Palen, “British Free Trade and the International Feminist Vision for Peace, c. 1846–1946” in Imagining Britain’s Economic Future, c.1800–1975: Trade, Consumerism, and Global Markets, edited by David Thackeray, Andrew Thompson, and Richard Toye (Palgrave Macmillan 2018).
3. W. Caleb McDaniel, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform (Louisiana State University Press 2013).
4. Simon Morgan, “The Anti‐Corn Law League and British Anti‐Slavery in Transatlantic Perspective, 1838–1846” in The Historical Journal, Vol. 52, Issue 1 (Cambridge University Press March 2009).
5. David Stack, Nature and Artifice: The Life and Thought of Thomas Hodgskin (1787–1869) (The Boydell Press 1998).
6. We must note here that “capitalism” (capitalist was far more common) was not yet a term in popular or widespread use for most of the nineteenth century. To the extent that capitalism was in use during the middle part of the century and the Civil War era, the term was not yet associated with free markets, but with privilege and the power of capitalists themselves. It was not until well into the following century that those who support free markets and free trade began to use the word capitalism favorably, as meaning free markets and free trade.
7. Proudhon was born in January of 1809, Cobden, June of 1804.