Notes on Schermerhorn’s “Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism”

Calvin Schermerhorn’s The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism “details the interstate United States slave trade at the level of the firm.”[1] Schermerhorn investigates slave traders who were business insiders as well as merchants using financial processes that characterized raw ambition. The monetary flows influencing the roots of American capitalism through these complicated trajectories of slavery’s supply chain highlight the “creative destruction that built a commercial empire ushering in a continental one that racked enslaved bodies and murdered the souls of black folk.”[2]

Schermerhorn defines capitalism as “a highly structured system of trade characterized by debt obligations that bound borrowers’ ambitions, expectations, and imaginations to future repayment.” The “debt instruments representing those obligations  were durable, mobile, and ultimately transferable-the basis of paper money.”[3]  Schermerhorn illuminates the “chains of goods and credit linked to enslaved people while investigating decisions at the firm level that responded to the demands of competitive pressures and the drive to gain access to a broader share of the largest-growing markets for enslaved people, adding the dimension of global centered developments to the study of capitalism in slavery. This study foregrounds the exploration of commerce in people rather than commodity production flows from the plantation.

Schermerhorn’s intent is to “demystify abstractions in capitalism and expansion within the slave market. Through a narrative approach he puts faces on the history of slavery’s commercial development. Concretizing the people and processes involved in slavery’s investor backed enterprises reveals how enslaved people, slave traders and commodity chains functioned as contributions to American capitalist development.

[1] Calvin Schermerhorn, The business of slavery and the rise of American capitalism, 1815-1860 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2015)1

[2] Ibid

[3] ibid

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