In conservative political circles, the idea of “free enterprise” is revered with a religious zeal. This is especially interesting as these political ideals are often held by evangelical Christians. Host John Fea explores American religious history’s “business turn.” They are joined by Cornell historian Lawrence Glickman (@LarryGlickman), the author of Free Enterprise: An American History.
Cornell University history professor Ed Baptist talks with Vox‘s P.R. Lockhart about his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Here is a taste:
When you talk about the sort of myth-making that has been used to create specific narratives about slavery, one of the things you focus on most is the relationship between slavery and the American economy. What are some of the myths that get told when it comes to understanding how slavery is tied to American capitalism?
Edward E. Baptist
One of the myths is that slavery was not fuel for the growth of the American economy, that it actually the brakes put on US growth. There’s a story that claims slavery was less efficient, that wage labor and industrial production wasn’t significant for the massive transformation of the US economy that you see between the time of Independence and the time of the Civil War.
And yet that period is when you see the US go from being a colonial, primarily agricultural economy to being the second biggest industrial power in the world — and well on its way to becoming the largest industrial power in the world.
Another myth is that slavery, in and of itself as an economic system, was unchanging. We fetishize machine and machine production and see it as quintessentially modern — the kinds of improvements in production and efficiency that you see from hooking up a cotton spindle to a set of pulleys, which are in turn pulled by a water wheel or steam engine. That’s seen as more efficient than the old way of someone sitting there and doing it by hand.
But you can also get changes in efficiency if you change the pattern of production and you change the incentives of the labor and the labor process itself. And we still make these sorts of changes today in businesses — the kind of transformations that speed up work to a point where we say that it is modern and dynamic. And we see these types of changes in slavery as well, particularly during cotton slavery in the 19th-century US.
The difference, of course, is that this is not the work of wage workers or professional workers. It is the work of enslaved people. And the incentive is not “do this or you’ll get fired” or “you won’t get a raise.” The incentive is that if you don’t do this you’ll get whipped — or worse.
The third myth about this is that there was not a tight relationship between slavery in the South and what was happening in the North and other parts of the modern Western world in the 19th century. It was a very close relationship: Cotton was the No. 1 export from the US, which was largely an export-driven economy as it was modernizing and shifting into industrialization. And the slavery economy of the US South was deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves and were certainly extracting money from the labor of enslaved people.
So those are the three myths: that slavery did not cause in any significant way the development and transformation of the US economy, that slavery was not a modern or dynamic labor system, and that what was happening in the South was a separate thing from the rest of the US.
Read the entire piece here.
Caitlin Rosenthal is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. This interview is based on her new book Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Harvard University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Accounting for Slavery?
CR: Right out of college I worked as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company. As one of the most junior people on my teams, I was often tasked with running the spreadsheets that we analyzed to help make our decisions. Some of these companies had tens of thousands of employees. As a result, I became interested in the history of scale: What happens when a manager or owner knows workers as cells in a spreadsheet, and not as individuals? This question sparked my interest in American business history and, more specifically, the history of quantitative management. As I began studying archival account books, I was surprised to discover that some of the most complex records I found were from slave plantations. So I decided to write a book that grappled with the business history of plantation slavery.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Accounting for Slavery?
CR: Slaveholders used many advanced, quantitative business practices, ranging from calculating depreciation to measuring output per slave. In some cases, they developed these practices not despite, but because of the circumstances of slavery.
JF: Why do we need to read Accounting for Slavery?
CR: Coming face to face with the precise ways that slaveholders extracted wealth from people can help us to understand the intersections of violence and innovation. During my few years working in the business world, I was often struck by how many business leaders were interested in economic history. But the stories that reached them tended to feature railroads, steam engines, and computers–not slave plantations. Confronting more uncomfortable stories can be a cautionary tale for what profit-seeking can look like when everything, including human lives, is up for sale.
I think that studying plantation business practices is also absolutely essential for understanding what enslaved people were up against. In antebellum America, they faced a brutal, centuries-old institution that was increasingly infused with highly modern technologies of control.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CR: As an undergraduate, I was a political science major who incorrectly believed that history was mostly about memorizing dates. During my junior year I took an amazing U.S. Intellectual History class with Thomas Haskell at Rice University. The class helped me to see how powerful history could be for understanding not just modern institutions but also patterns of thought and, especially, how we see ourselves. In a sense, “Accounting for Slavery” is an intellectual history of slaveholders’ management practices and what they can tell us about management more generally.
JF: What is your next project?
CR: I’m currently researching the “business of business education.” The project starts with the relatively unknown history of nineteenth-century commercial colleges, the hundreds of for-profit schools that taught business skills like bookkeeping for a fee. I am interested in what this history can tell us about the scope of business education: who can access it, and what kind of practical and ethical questions are (and are not) included in the curriculum.
JF: Thanks, Caitlin!
Lawrence B. Glickman teaches American history at Cornell University. In this very interesting piece at Boston Review, he wonders why the Supreme Court continues to treat businesses as people. And why does the Court continue to favor the rights of businesses over the rights of individual consumers and employees?
Here is a taste:
Is there a meaningful distinction between Jack Phillips, “an expert baker and devout Christian,” as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy described him, and the company he owns, Masterpiece Cakeshop, a limited-liability company? The Supreme Court’s 7–2 ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission suggests not. The New York Times called the decision—which favored Phillips’s right to refuse service for religious reasons—“narrow” because it did not rule on the broader issue of discrimination against gay men and lesbians based on rights protected by the First Amendment. However, in terms of the relationship between capital and labor, the decision was anything but narrow. The Court’s majority opinion, written by Kennedy, is remarkable for its uncanny and unproblematic conflation of Phillips, the baker, and his business, the bakery. By insisting that the key issues in the case are Phillips’s artistic expression and his religious liberty, the Court was silent on the question of how a company can possess these rights. It did so by assuming not only that corporations are people, but that the cakes made by Masterpiece Cakeshop are produced by Phillips alone, when in fact we know that the bakery has other workers.
The Court saw fit to mention Phillips’s employees only once, in a remarkable sentence written by Clarence Thomas (joined by Neil Gorsuch) concurring with the judgement of the majority but making much broader claims about the rights of businesses to handpick their customers. Seeking to show both that Phillips is a sincere Christian and that his bakery reflects Christian values, Thomas wrote, “He is not open on Sunday, he pays his employees a higher-than-average wage, and he loans them money in times of need.” The last two clauses of the sentence are meant to demonstrate that Phillips is a good and generous employer, although one might wonder why well-compensated employees would need loans from their boss in order to make ends meet. But the first part of the sentence is particularly jarring. Presumably, Thomas meant to suggest that Phillips did not open his business on Sunday. But Thomas literally wrote instead that Phillips himself “is not open on Sunday.” Since it is impossible for a person to close or be open on Sunday or any other day of the week, Thomas here marked the extent to which the Court identified Phillips with the bakery.
The significance of this sentence is enormous and not just because, for Thomas and the other justices who sided with the majority, there is no appreciable difference between the baker and his company. (In this, the Court mimicked the language of Phillips himself, who in a 2014 video for the New York Times alternated between using “we” and “I” to describe the work of the bakery.) By extension, this means that the religious views and artistic contribution of the company’s workers are irrelevant. Phillips’s employees are merely props in Thomas’s morality tale—figures who receive the boss’s Christian charity but are otherwise unmentioned and invisible. The decision renders their status as workers for Phillips’s limited-liability company morally and legally immaterial.
I am not a legal scholar, but I find the question of how the Supreme Court defines personhood to be very interesting. Back in 2014, the American Historical Association asked me to write a response to the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case. I am not suggesting what I wrote back then applies directly to the Masterpiece case, but I will throw it out there anyway. Here is a taste of my “‘We Hold These Truths to Be Self Evident, That All Corporations Are Created Equal“:
Ginsburg’s historical argument is a strong one. Indeed, religious liberty or the Free Exercise Clause has never been directly applied to a for-profit corporation. But this does not mean there is no precedent for considering a for-profit corporation a “person.” As the prominent American historians at Backstory have recently reminded us, the post-Civil War Supreme Court affirmed on multiple occasions that corporations (mostly railroads) are covered under the Fourteenth Amendment. Corporate personhood has a long history.
But can a corporation have religious liberty? I obviously don’t know how Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, James Madison, or Thomas Jefferson—the great early American defenders of religious liberty—would have responded to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, but there is little doubt that they would have considered such a proposal to be very strange. For these men, religious liberty was a very personal thing. Religious liberty was meant to protect deeply held spiritual convictions that found their home in the “soul” or “conscience.” Religious liberty was an inherently Protestant concept. It stemmed from the belief that people could read the Bible for themselves and draw their own religious conclusions. It has always been a religious idea applied to individual human beings. Can a for-profit cooperation have a soul? Can it truly practice liberty of conscience?
We might also ask, as political scientist Patrick Deneen has done so brilliantly, whether a big box store such as Hobby Lobby, located in a massive shopping center constructed on a slab of asphalt at the edge of town, can be considered a person. And if it is a person, can it exercise religious liberty? What happens to a traditional and historical understanding of a person—a human being embedded in political, religious, and local communities exercising virtues such as friendship, love, duty, and citizenship—when it is defined in the context of a soulless corporate world with the primary purpose of maximizing profits?
Amanda Porterfield is Robert A. Spivey Professor of Religion at Florida State University. This interview is based on her new book, Corporate Spirit: Religion and the Rise of the Modern Corporation (Oxford University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write Corporate Spirit?
AP: This book began with a question. How did corporations become such a prominent feature of American life? As I listened to complaints about corporations and their legal rights, the prevalence of these institutions in American society seemed to require some explanation. The search for answers took hold of me once I realized that corporate forms of organization dominated American religious as well as commercial life. Where did corporate approaches to social order originate? How did corporate forms of religious and commercial organization develop in relation to one another? How did events in one sphere affect events in the other?
JF: What is the argument of Corporate Spirit?
AP: The book argues that corporate organizations have shaped American economic and religious life, and that a long history of corporate organization precedes American innovations in both business and religion. The book argues that a key element in this checkered history is the management of corporations as if they were persons, with real people belonging to them as members of a body, or corpus.
JF: Why do we need to read Corporate Spirit?
AP: The book explains how corporations organize people into groups that transcend kinship, and how they have often succeeded as effective, though not always salutary, forms of social organization. Building on this organizational focus, the book shows how developments in corporate organization from ancient Rome and medieval Christendom led to corporate institutions in British America that, in turn, laid important groundwork for American political independence. The book goes on to show how rapid growth in commercial and religious organization in the early United States contributed to the development of modern corporations later in the 19th century, and how the Christian idea of corporate personhood took on new, secular life when the 14th Amendment was interpreted to protect the rights of corporations as legal persons. Perhaps most important, the book offers a way to understand recent problems of corporate accountability in light of a long history of complaint about corporate behavior.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AP: I decided to become a historian at the height of the Vietnam War when I was profoundly confused about America, and could not think of a better idea of what to do with myself. The book is the latest result of my effort to understand how the world we live in came to be. This effort led me to become a historian, and brought me to study religion as a revealing window into people and historical change.
JF: What is your next project?
AP: I have begun to explore the role of religion in modern dance and American jazz, and to consider the historical relationship between the emergence of these arts and religious practice. Music and dance have long been avocations for me, and I am eager to better understand their historical development in modern America.
JF: Thanks, Amanda!
Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Conn makes his case.
Here is a taste:
It is hard to shake the conclusion that business schools have largely failed — even on their own terms, much less on other, broader social ones. For all their bold talk about training tomorrow’s business leaders, as institutions they have largely been followers. “In reviewing the course of American business education over the past fifty years,” wrote one observer, “one is struck by its almost fad-like quality.” That was in 1957. Despite their repeated emphasis on innovation and “outside the box thinking” business schools exhibit a remarkable conformity and sameness. Don’t take my word for it. That Porter and McKibbin study from 1988 found “a distressing tendency for schools to avoid the risk of being different … A ‘cookie cutter mentality’ does not seem to be too strong a term to describe the situation we encountered in a number of schools.” Finally, while honest people can disagree over whether American business is better off for having business schools, they have provided scant evidence that they have done much to transform business into something more noble than mere money-making. Indeed, by the late 20th century, they stopped pretending they could.
Read the entire piece here.
JF: What led you to write Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?
EG: There are really two answers to that question. The first is that I wanted to write a book about a familiar figure. My previous book was about the Connecticut traveler John Ledyard, somebody few had ever heard of. I got tired of trying to justify a book-length project on such an obscure person. The second is that I had been teaching Paine’s famous 1776 call-to-arms, Common Sense for years. When I finished the Ledyard book, I decided to re-read the rest of Paine’s oeuvre. That process led to my discovery of Paine’s interest in iron bridges. It seemed weird that at the height of his powers as revolutionary propagandist, Paine turned to architecture. A little further reading made it clear that for Paine, this interest was not just a typical enlightenment-era gentlemanly divergence. I began to wonder what this iron bridge business was all about? I didn’t find a satisfactory answer in any of the many Paine biographies or other studies of his life and thought. After a few summers fishing for clues in British archives, I concluded that there was a book to be written.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?
EG: Thomas Paine is not generally thought of as a state builder. But his iron bridge demonstrates that that is exactly what he was.
JF: Why do we need to read Tom Paine’s Iron Bridge?
EG: I think the book has a great deal of contemporary resonance. Politicians are constantly trumpeting the need for improved infrastructure. In general, they defend that need as an economic one: without adequate transportation infrastructure, America’s commercial primacy will suffer. What they don’t talk about, but what seems very much the case, and what obsessed Paine and most of his revolutionary contemporaries, is the fact that infrastructure has a political function as well. Insofar as the fractious United States constitutes a political community, it does so as a function of its capacity to draw together its distant and diverse parts. Whether Paine’s iron bridges or modern high-speed rail, functional and efficient infrastructure makes this possible.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
EG: It happened in college. I tried out a bunch of different majors, but history appealed to me. Its best practitioners achieved a combination of literary ambition and empirical rigor that I found captivating. Initially, I was interested in French history. I wrote a few papers about Jews and Judaism in nineteenth-century France and then I got interested in the French Revolution. When I raised the possibility of going to grad school, one of my professors urged me to avoid all things French. This was in 1986 or 1987; the eve of the French Revolution’s bicentennial. Everybody, it seemed, was doing something on the French Revolution. Over the course of the next few years, I started reading books about the American Revolution. I discovered, in particular, Gordon Wood’s Creation of the American Republic and that was that.
JF: What is your next project?
EG: I’m working on a history of the Mason-Dixon Line, from the seventeenth century through the Civil War Era. I’ve also been working on a smaller project about Henry Laurens’s 1780 imprisonment in the Tower of London.
JF: Thanks, Edward!
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.
A very cool graphic can be found here.
Whether you bought a Chick-fil-A sandwich yesterday or decided to boycott the chain, you might find Darren Grem’s post at Religion in American History to be informative. Grem, who teaches southern U.S. history at the University of Mississippi, is writing a book on evangelical corporate America that features Chick-fil-A and the Cathy family. His very thorough post is the best thing I have read on this whole controversy. It even includes a Chick-fil-A “cashflow map.”
Here is a taste:
Operators at Chick-fil-A are like independent small business owners, giving a certain cut to the front office in Atlanta but generally recycling whatever they earn each quarter back into their own restaurant. Few operators own or operate more than one CFA location. Hence, they retain a certain independence in hiring and firing decisions and even in whether they parrot or object to upper management’s take on business decisions or the current controversy. (Case in point: The CFA location in Decatur, a relatively diverse community in east Atlanta, tried to come out in front of the story and defuse any public perception that they were discriminatory, at least in terms of in-store service or public service. It stopped short of gay rights advocacy, though they certainly went farther than Cathy in noting “sexual orientation.”) Most operators are married men. None, I would guess, are gay. Most restaurants shoot for the “kid-friendly” vibe common in other national fast-food chains (play ports, kids’ meals, etc.) without being exclusively a “family” branded place and space like, say, ChuckECheese. They want teenagers, single adults, and, yes, people of any sexual orientation to come through their doors and buy the chicken. The bottom line is a bottom line, of sorts.
…a decision to boycott a local CFA will most likely directly affect that location first and the larger company last, although as YouGov recently reported, just the threat of boycott and public discussion of Cathy’s comments have had an effect. More specifically, boycotts would generally lead to the cutting down of hours or firing for floor workers first, operational costs second, the larger company third, and the Cathy family last. This is because CFA places most of the risk and cost for running a CFA to the independent owner. This insulates the broader company from systemic risk; hence, the point of a franchise model they’ve adopted. The opposite is also true for any “buy-cotts” that Mike Huckabee or other conservative organizations may have planned. It would probably go first to the operator and floor workers, operations second, and so on.
This might seem odd, given Americans’ long romance with wealthy entrepreneurs and the enterprises they build. But a talent for developing private companies and making big profits seldom translates into wooing a majority of voters or governing a contentious republic. It may, in fact, blind one from recognizing critical differences between those equally difficult endeavors.
The most famous example of this disconnect was Herbert Hoover—a multi-millionaire who, like Romney, believed that America needed a shrewd capitalist at the helm of state. By the age of forty, the dour Quaker from rural Iowa had made a sizeable fortune as a metal engineer and developer of mines in several foreign countries. During World War I, Hoover employed his skills for a large, humanitarian purpose, arranging for food to be funneled to the millions of Europeans impoverished by the war. Then, in the 1920s, he became a high-profile Commerce Secretary, bringing industries together in trade associations where they could regulate themselves. Thus, Hoover had gained fame as an unelected public servant as well as one of the richest businessmen of his day—in contrast with William Randolph Hearst and Henry Ford, self-serving contemporaries who had earlier flirted with presidential runs.
Congratulations to Darren Grem, the 2011 recipient of the C. Vann Woodward Dissertation Prize from The Southern Historical Association. Grem recieved his Ph.D at the University of Georgia in 2010 and is currently doing a post-doc at Emory University.
Paul Harvey of “Religion in American History” fame (and one of our finest historians of southern religion) will be in Baltimore to present Grem the award. Here is a snippet of the remarks that Harvey will deliver on Friday:
Dr. Grem’s dissertation “follows the money” of American evangelicalism through the twentieth century, focusing on the relationship between corporate capitalism, southern entrepreneurs, and the rise of evangelical institutions. Individual chapters trace the innovations in funding and Christian entrepreneurship from figures as diverse as Billy Graham, R. G. LeTourneau, the founder of Chic-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby, and evangelists such as Billy Graham and the Wycliffe Bible Translators. The result is a rich and complex analysis which places corporate capitalism squarely within the world of southern evangelicals through the twentieth century, much like C. Vann Woodward himself did with the world of the “Redeemers” and the New South movement. It’s one of the finest and most important works in American religious, intellectual, and economic history that I’ve read in a considerable time, and the fact that it combines all three of those fields I’m sure is one of the things that made it so attractive to Oxford University Press.