Between slavery and capitalism: former slaves and slaveholders navigate the construction of a new model of racial labor market after the Civil War

At the center of the upheavals brought by emancipation in the American South was the economic and social transition from slavery to modern capitalism. In this new book Between Slavery and Capitalism: The Legacy of Emancipation in the American South, Martin Ruef (Duke University) examines how this institutional change affected individuals, organizations, and communities in the late 19th century, as blacks and whites alike learned to navigate the shoals between two different economic worlds.

emancipation slavery United States South

In the aftermath of the Civil War, during the Reconstruction era, uncertainty was a pervasive feature of life in the South, affecting the economic behavior and social status of former slaves, Freedmen’s Bureau agents (a U.S. federal government agency established in 1865 to aid freed slaves in the South), planters, merchants, and politicians, among others. Emancipation brought fundamental questions: How should emancipated slaves be reimbursed in wage contracts? What occupations and class positions would be open to blacks and whites? What forms of agricultural tenure could persist? And what paths to economic growth would be viable? To understand the escalating uncertainty of the postbellum era, Ruef draws on a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data, including several thousand interviews with former slaves, letters, labor contracts, memoirs, survey responses, census records, and credit reports.
Between Slavery and Capitalism The Legacy of Emancipation in the American SouthThrough a resolutely comparative approach, Ruef identifies profound changes between the economic institutions of the Old and New South and sheds new light on how the legacy of emancipation continues to affect political discourse and race and class relations today. His novel analysis–deploying economic sociology’s concepts of classical uncertainty (unknown probabilities of known outcomes) and categorical uncertainty (unknown outcomes) to analyze the transitions to capitalism after the U.S. Civil War–can be fruitfully applied to countless situations of profound institutional change, past and present. This book is a clear and compelling sociological account of the profound transformation of the South from ruthless slave economy to merciless modern capitalism (Open access to the first chapter of the book)

– Also very recommended these new books on the relationship between slavery and capitalism:

1. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist (Cornell University, 2014)

2. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, by Walter Johnson (Harvard University, 2013)

3. Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert  (Knopf, 2014)

4. Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson, by Joshua D. Rothman (2012)

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