The American Slave Coast by Ned and Constance Sublette is a massive labor of love and scholarship that focuses on our peculiar institution, American chattel slavery. Reading this book, the foundation of so many of our current problems are revealed as having been laid hundreds of years ago.
The American Slave Coast focuses on the full economic implications of the slave trade and slave breeding and what it really meant to create an economy where children are a return on investment, where people are commodities to be capitalized as collateral for loans.
I have probably driven a few of my friends batty while I have been reading The American Slave Coast by constantly sharing something new to me. For example, many of the states in the North are often a bit smug about being free states, on the right side of history. But sometimes there were loopholes big enough for a few thousand slaves to pass through. For example, Illinois did not allow people to own slaves, but they could rent them and the saltworks rented as many as a thousand at a time. Who knew?
The modern South suffers from lack of infrastructure investment, not only because of current partisan anti-government sentiment, but because from its earliest history, its commitment to slavery meant hostility to free labor, to government oversight, to taxation.
It was almost a laboratory experiment: two mutually exclusive economic systems competing for territorial expansion and financial supremacy, each one having at the start about the same number of inhabitants—but one allowing enslaved human property and the other not. Slave societies were caught in a downward spiral. Slavery brooked no competition from free labor, and without a broad consuming class of wage laborers, … Without industry, the South slid further and further behind while the North modernized and grew in population.
I majored in History and thought I knew most of the lies my teacher told me to borrow from another excellent book’s title, but really, I had only scratched the surface. Looking at American colonization, founding and expansion through the framework of the commerce of slavery and slave breeding and there is an entire underbelly that has been quite literally whitewashed.
Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding is often excused by saying he was a man “of his time.” an obvious acknowledgment that moral values change over time. The Sublettes, however, demonstrate that instead of being influenced by his time, he was among the influencers making his time worse. He was an advocate of white supremacy trotting out “scientific proof” that black people were morally and intellectually inferior. His opposition to the Atlantic slave trade, far from being a sign of opposition to slavery, was an effort to restrict the market, increasing the value of the slaves he owned. No, our founding fathers were not “of their time.” At that time, the French revolutionaries were advocating an end to all slavery, abolition was already an animating force throughout society. Mexico was banning slavery, so was most of Europe. Our founding fathers were actively swimming against the tide of opinion to embrace slavery, embracing evil to enrich themselves.
It’s also shocking to see how long the secessionist conspiracy was fomented and planned. South Carolina was agitating for secession since it ratified the Constitution. Did you know Buchanan, the last president before Lincoln knew very well the South planned to secede and sent the Army to Utah, the Navy to Africa and took the treasure from a surplus to deficit with every last coin stolen from the national treasury in order to leave the North defenseless and broke, open to the invading Confederacy?
I don’t know what is more shocking and a list of all the things that surprised me would go on forever. Instead I think the best thing for you and everyone to do is to read this book for yourself. Yes, it is long and a considerable investment of time, but it is very readable, fascinating with personal details and full of human interest. I read it while reading several other books because the best way to read it is pause, reflect, perhaps go outside and breathe some fresh air and think and remember “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
If it were up to me, this would be required reading for every adult in the U.S., but it doesn’t work that way. All I can do is urge you to read it, to evangelize and persuade others to read it as well. Even if, like me, you understood our history to have been poisoned from the beginning by slavery, there is so much more to know when looked at from a different perspective. Focusing on the strategies of the slave breeding industry, how the needs of slave traders drove economic, foreign and domestic policy is a completely new way of framing the history of our past, and that lens produces a very different, and illuminating approach to the past.
I received a review copy of The American Slave Coast from University of Chicago Press.