If you have never been taught about or read about the Triangle Trade, if you never knew all the original 13 colonies had slavery, if you didn’t know Democrats, even in the North, generally supported the right of slave states to have slavery, or if you didn’t know there is a difference between being antislavery and being antiracist, then this book is for you.
Then again, if you saw 1776, you’re probably aware already of some of the revelations in this book:
Or if you’re a fan of the AMC TV show, Turn: Washington’s Spies, you’re aware of slavery in New York State during the Revolutionary War:
Apparently, the authors of this book were surprised to learn most white folks in the United States in the 19th Century were racists. In other breaking news, water is wet, the sun is hot, and there is sand at the beach.
Actually, the book is a fairly good introduction to racial attitudes in the early United States, as well as portions of the Atlantic Slave Trade and anti-abolition actions.
The book’s major weaknesses are a tendency toward hyperbole and a reliance on anecdotes as evidence. For example, we read that, “Meanwhile, the rivers and streams of the North, particularly in New England, were crowded with hundreds of textile mills. Well before the Civil War, the economy of the entire North relied heavily on cotton grown by millions of slaves–in the South.” [p. xxvi] Rivers and streams throughout the North were not crowded with textile mills, and the economy of the entire North didn’t rely on cotton. As you might expect, they never support these claims. Another example is where they write, “Before the Civil War, the North grew rich beyond measure by agreeing to live, however uneasily at times, with slavery.” [p. xxvii] That would come as a big surprise to the many poor Northerners and subsistence farmers barely making it in the North. Also, few things are “beyond measure.” It seems to me we can list all the people in the North who were wealthier than a certain figure and then trace how they got much of their wealth. That sounds relatively easy to measure to me. Again, no evidence to back up this claim. They also tell us, “By the eve of the war, hundreds of businesses in New York, and countless more throughout the North, were connected to, and dependent upon, cotton.” [p. 4] Seriously? “Countless?” I doubt it was actually “countless.” It would be a large number, but countless only because the authors haven’t counted them.
The authors do a good job of pointing out many Northern businessmen were part of the chain supplying cotton and textiles to the world. What they don’t do is show they did this because they supported slavery. In other words, they don’t show that had the cotton been produced by free labor instead of slave labor those same businessmen would not still be in those positions moving cotton and textiles around the world. So the businessmen engaged in trade with slavers, but that simply means they didn’t mind doing that trade, not that they necessarily supported slavery. What we have here is nothing more than guilt by association, as far as I can tell.
That comes through clearly to me in this video in which they discuss their book.
Essentially, the journalists didn’t have a firm grasp on early American history and treated what they found as though it was a big secret, when they could have found several of their revelations in a good high school textbook.
The book, however, is useful. The authors researched many of the people they talk about, and we get to read much of the stories of these historical figures that we don’t normally read. For example, they tell us about the Lehman Brothers, who founded the New York investment firm. “Three brothers named Lehman were cotton brokers in Montgomery, Alabama, before they moved to New York and helped to establish the New York Cotton Exchange. Today, of course, Lehman Brothers is the international investment firm.” [p. 5] I personally don’t consider this a case of Northerners being complicit, but rather of Southerners participating in the cotton industry. We learn that “Only large banks, generally located in Manhattan, or in London, could extend to plantation owners the credit they needed between planting and selling their crop. If a farmer wanted to expand his operations during those boom decades, he required the deep pockets of Northern banks to lend him the money to buy additional equipment, as well as additional labor. Slaves were usually bought on credit.” [p. 12] Again, guilt by association. There is no evidence presented to show the banks were doing anything other than their normal business, providing their service to all comers as they should do. Today business owners are taken to court for not accommodating all comers. I’m not sure if anything in the law changed between then and now to account for this. Would they have been liable to lawsuit if they refused the business of the planters?
The authors admit, “Northern industrialists did not necessarily approve of slavery,” but they qualified that with, “eliminating it jeopardized everything they had.” [p. 36] They seem especially surprised to find there had been slavery in Northern states. Again, a good high school history textbook could have fixed that. In this portion we get a good profile of the Connecticut enslaved person named Venture Smith. His story was very compelling, and it was interesting to read. We also get a glimpse of Sojourner Truth, a woman who was enslaved in New York State. We get the story of a slave rebellion in Manhattan, along with the subsequent horrific punishments meted out by the white power structure. We learn about the slave trade and about free blacks who were kidnapped and taken South into slavery. Of course, anyone who read Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave would have known about that already. Today, we can even reference the movie:
I was gratified to read about Patty Cannon, a citizen of Delaware [not a Northerner] who ran a kidnapping operation and who showed up as a character this season on the TV series Underground.
Altogether, the book is a good introduction to various aspects of slavery and its supporting structure, as well as the cotton industry. I think the authors did some good research, but their hyping of their findings struck me as overly dramatic and merely highlighting they didn’t pay attention in school. If you need a good overview, then this book will be useful to you. If you like little vignettes about historical figures, then you’ll find some good stories in this book. My caveat is to be wary of what the authors purport to reveal in the book. The goods don’t match the hype, especially the hype we get from our neoconfederate friends who claim this blows the lid off the so-called “Northern hypocrisy.”