Opinions & Editorials

Slavery Built Our Imperfect Economy

Economies teeter on the edge of failure and success. The most influential civilizations in world history were ruled by dictators, kings, communists or monarchs, with democracies seldom succeeding. Democracies are fragile by their very nature, making them challenging to construct. To successfully sustain and operate, one takes courage, honesty, accountability and an undying commitment to upholding justice. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston had a vision and established the Declaration of Independence, giving birth to the American democratic economy. The founding fathers valiantly fought to uphold our country’s statutes. However, the vision of a self-ruling democracy was poorly executed. This country’s financial roots are held tightly together by the work of African slaves. The thirteen colonies did what they could to keep slavery intact, no matter the consequences, even if it meant compromising our constitution. Slavery is responsible for killing and building our modern economy. 

In 1619, the first slaves arrived on the shores of Virginia. For two centuries dating back to the early 1600s, the colonies knew the potential of how important cotton could be to the economy. Still, they never organized their market around it because of how hard it was to produce. However, in 1793, Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin catapulted the economy and slavery. The colonies shifted their economic system and focused primarily on cotton production. Slave plantations also began molding an intricate and harsher form of slavery to increase supply to meet demand. Enslavers began to mimic our modern capitalist multinational corporations by extrapolating as much production out of workers as possible. Slaveholders designed complex hierarchies, owned workers who reported to other workers and developed advanced data tracking techniques to report how much labor and money were used for each cotton bail. Martin Luther King Jr., in his book, Where Do We Go From Here, describes how those who managed slaves were given manuals on how to interact with their slaves to extract maximum production. Slave owners had to learn to govern and make their slaves submissive. Enslavers trained slaves to be in awe of their power, convince them to take an interest in their enterprise, accept their standards of good conduct and create in the slave a habit of perfect dependence on them. These tactics and the adoption of a new system of slavery on cotton plantations became our country’s primary means of business. Plantation owners began taking mortgages out on slaves and asking banks for loans to purchase more slaves. Slavery was now an international industry, profiting on global capital. According to The New York Times 1619 project, “State governments would bundle the debt collected by slaveholders and bundle them up into bonds and sell them to investors in the western world so whenever the slaveholder paid their debts on their slave mortgages the investors would get a portion of that money.” The economy of the 18th and 19th centuries begin to look eerily similar to how modern America practices capitalism and global capitalism today. The power that slavery possessed over America years ago mirrors the same power big banks hold over contemporary America. The Panic of 1837 and the Recession of 2008 had the same problem. In 1837, the South overproduced cotton and demand could not match the supply, so the economy fell into recession. Plantation owners could not sell their slaves to pay back debts, and Western investors still needed their investment money. The colonies had to make a choice. To solve the recession, the colonies had to either raise taxes or forfeit the cotton industry, subsequently dismantling slavery. The colonies did neither because “cotton slavery was too big to fail.” Similar sentiments rang throughout the nation in 2008 when news outlets described banks as “Too big to fail banks.” Banks exploited Black clients by influencing them to make risky loans, leading to massive foreclosures. In both instances, the cotton industry and the banks were both bailed out. 

Our ultra-competitive capitalistic society today originates from the tyranny of slavery responsible for leaving so many oppressed. Slavery created a ruthless form of capitalism unlike any other. American workers have been abused for centuries by poor working conditions and low pay. Our economy’s scary truth reveals the scars of slavery, exposing how contemporary practices imitate slave practices, and it may not even be noticeable. 

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