slavery benefited the north -- 2/28/22

Today's selection -- from Inside Money by Zachary Karabell. In the decades before the Civil War, many businesses in the northern states benefited significantly from slavery. One such business was the lucrative trading and banking enterprise owned by the Brown family, with major offices in Baltimore, New York, and Liverpool, England:

"There is no way to sugarcoat the fact that the Browns, because of their prominence in the cotton trade--whether physical or financial--profited greatly from slavery. In the broadest sense, no one who traded and profited from cotton could claim to be free of slavery's stain. Brown Brothers in the 1830s was an integral part of a financial ecosystem that depended on enslaved people producing cotton. Liverpool had been a center of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1700s, and as the new international center of cotton trading, it remained tethered to an economy that had slave labor at its center.

"William [Brown] both benefited from that system and objected to it morally. He was an outspoken advocate of abolition and strongly sup­ported Parliament's Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which ended slavery in the British Empire. Like many in the northern states and in England, the Browns found slavery distasteful. They would never have purchased slaves themselves. And yet they nonetheless wholeheartedly embraced the cotton trade. Even with their moral objections, the Browns did not opt out. Per­haps that is not a fair burden to place on them retroactively; they could hardly have unilaterally changed the slave system; they did not directly deal in human chattel; and far more people were complicit in the slave-fueled cotton economy than were actively opposed to it. Anyone who bought cot­ton cloth and wore cotton clothes benefited from slave labor, and even the most ardent abolitionists used cotton.

"William, in Liverpool, would rarely have encountered enslaved men or women. Slavery had been banned in England for decades. But James and John and George [Brown] had each been sent at various times by their father to meet with their partners in New Orleans, Mobile and Savannah, all of which were southern cities where slavery was legal and prevalent. More than millions of other people in the north, the Browns would actually have interacted with slave owners, and been served meals by enslaved men and women. Slavery was also legal in Maryland, though the vast majority of African Americans living in Baltimore were free. The Brown family later took a stance against slavery and were strong

"Unionists and Republicans, but slavery was not an abstraction for them. It was part of their business.

"And business in the 1830s, fueled by cotton, was very good. In boom times, most people ride the wave. More cotton meant more trade, more trade meant more money, more money meant more trade. Prices started to rise, and sudden fortunes were made."



Zachary Karabell


Inside Money


Penguin Press


Copyright 2021 by Zachary Karabell


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