Calvin Schermerhorn is Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University. This interview is based on his new book The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 (Yale University Press, April 2015).
JF: What led you to write The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860?
CS: The book starts with the premise that some of the most creative people in American history were among the most destructive as well. I was struck by the savvy creativity and intense entrepreneurialism of slavery’s businessmen. And at the same time I was shocked and disturbed by the effects on subjects whose lives were shattered, ended, or turned upside down by the slave trade. That massive forced migration was vital to the production of American cotton and sugar — and to the U.S. and global economy. And that same process of human trafficking was absolutely reliant on chains of credit linking New Orleans and Richmond with New York and London. To tell that story, I looked for a bridge between big-picture history of processes and small-focus history of people and particular events. The Business of Slavery bridges macro-history and micro-history by looking at American capitalism at the level of the firm. Many of the subjects of the book were “Masters of the Universe” to borrow from Tom Wolfe. Several were New Yorkers. But I really wanted to tell the story of those who were trafficked and sold, including kidnap victim Solomon Northup, who published Twelve Years a Slave, and also several obscure subjects like Sam Watts who was bought, sold, and mortgaged with money that traveled oceans.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Business of Slavery?
CS: The slavery business shows the creative destruction of a vital sector of the American economy from the War of 1812 to disunion in 1861. Rather than a localized or marginal process, the process of commoditizing people was deeply enmeshed in a national economy and international finance and shows the process of modern capitalism more strikingly than any other enterprise.
JF: Why do we need to read The Business of Slavery?
CS: It’s a good read about a troubled and troubling history. The Business of Slavery follows the money. In a narrative of seven firms or partnerships, along with the stories of the captives themselves, the book goes beyond traditional questions of slave-labor and production, looking instead at strategies of firms. It’s a business history rather than merely an economic or cultural history. It reassembles chains of supply, chains of credit, and maps international networks responsible for slavery’s growth. It turns out that the hopeful modernity of capitalism, including individual liberty, advancing technology, and the immense social trust and optimism required for the system to work were also components of turning people into products and flinging them across a vast geographic space, from the head of the Chesapeake Bay to the bottomlands of the Brazos River in Texas.
CS: I was pursuing a Master of Theological Studies degree at the Harvard Divinity School when I came across some truly inspirational historians doing work in American intellectual and religious history. I wasn’t very good at theology. And I wrestled (and still do) with the divide between personal faith and what is suitable for classroom instruction and scholarly debate. But I always had an interest in history. I’d gone to historic sites as a kid, collected coins, and even served as a costumed interpreter in a living history museum (I played an English colonist in Maryland among Yaocomico Indians). And the kinds of questions historians asked inspired me to delve more deeply into the past of the Chesapeake region where I grew up, particularly its deep yet scarcely mentioned African American history. It’s been a tremendously fulfilling journey from there.
CS: I’m finishing United States Slavery: A Family History for Cambridge University Press. It delves into American slavery’s history from the Revolution to Reconstruction through the lives of enslaved people, contextualizing family ordeals with the big processes of westward expansion, financial integration, and the upheaval of war and its legacy. In my spare time I’m writing a historical novel on the unintended consequences of human intention and action. The main drama is American slavery and the coming of civil war, particularly around Richmond, Virginia, and Boston, Massachusetts. The novel follows a handful of characters, free and enslaved, telling their personal stories, revealing the secrets and emotions the archives can’t or won’t, all textured with the stuff of history.