Most Complex Historical Processes Can’t Be Explained Through a Single Cause

The Washington Post recently wrote an article about an ongoing debate between economic historians and historians of capitalism (the two are not the same) about the role of slavery in the U.S. economy before the Civil War, particularly the relationship between slavery and capitalism. This debate has been taking place for a number of years, from what I can gather, but I find the Post’s handling of this extended conversation to be mildly annoying.

Generally speaking, the historians of capitalism argue that the two were intimately related and that slavery thrived and expanded in the U.S. precisely because of capitalism. Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman have recently argued that the sheer number of enslaved people throughout the South, combined with Northern (and British) capital investment in the institution renders “an unclear line of demarcation between a capitalist North and a slave South, with consequences for how we understand North and South as discrete economies—and whether we should do so in the first place.” In the Post article we hear from Edward Baptist, another historian of capitalism, who argues that the torturing of enslaved people was foundational to slavery’s growth and expansion by forcing them to produce at higher and higher rates to account for the increased demand in slave-picked cotton during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Economic historians, on the other hand, generally caution that collapsing the distinctions between Northern and Southern economies runs the risk of complicating our ability to explain how the Civil War came about. If the institution of slavery was so strongly supported in the North, then how do you explain the rise of popular anti-slavery parties in the North during the 1840s and 1850s that campaigned on the argument that slavery was a threat to the value of one’s labor and a less efficient production system than one based on free labor principles? How do you explain the origins of a bloody civil war between the two sections if their economic systems were so intimately connected? Where do discussions over sectional disagreements about economic policies like tariffs, taxes, public land sales, and government involvement in infrastructure projects fit within the capitalist historians’ focus? Furthermore, in responding to Baptist, Alan Olmstead argues that new seed technologies accelerated cotton production and played the most crucial role in fostering slavery’s growth, not slave torture.

I don’t propose to offer any concrete answers to this discussion other than to say that I find the way the Post has framed the issue isn’t really productive. Must historians’ explanation for slavery’s growth in the United States–an incredibly complex topic that could take a lifetime to study–be whittled down to a single cause: torture or seeds? Isn’t it more plausible to suggest that the two ideas (and probably more) of the various camps can coexist and complement each other? I think so. Increased cotton production in the South by enslaved labor before the Civil War was possible because of political and economic policies (national, state, and local), social practices, scientific and religious beliefs, and a strong law enforcement/police state that allowed for this state of affairs to flourish and grow.

I do not mean to suggest that historians must put equal weight to all factors when explaining a particular historical event or topic; weighing out these factors is part of the fun in debating these issues. Whenever possible, I think the quantification of empirical evidence allows historians a chance to put more weight into their claims for one particular factor over another. But historians should always strive for complexity and nuance rather than either-or propositions as the Post would have us understand this topic. When the goal becomes over-simplification and monocausal explanations for complex historical processes, I think we end up doing more harm than good to the historical record.



6 thoughts on “Most Complex Historical Processes Can’t Be Explained Through a Single Cause

  1. Indeed. Great post. Along with what you articulate, Nick, we could consider how specific cultural events and geographies in different places influenced capitalism and enslavement and the interrelationship between both of those. “It depends” and “maybe” and “well, from this perspective” are so important. If there was a “single cause,” we’d be out of business! A parallel could be notions of intersectionality, for example. 🙂

    1. I agree 100% with your comment, Andrew. We must be careful to qualify our “ironclad” statements when necessary and yes, intersectionality is important to see how different processes interact and collide with each other.

      On an unrelated note, congrats on obtaining your PhD, Andrew!

  2. Quantitative research will not arrive at the complete answer as to slavery’s growth. It can prove it grew, but it cannot provide all of the answers. Qualitative research is necessary to explore the views of people about slavery. The role of white supremacy is extremely important in understanding the expansion of slavery in North America for 250 years. The two types of research go hand in hand for developing an interpretation with greater depth.

    What I would like to see from quantitative researchers is an exploration of the financial differences between wage labor and slave labor. That’s an area begging for quantification and can help add to the interpretation that wage labor was economically superior to slave labor (and even then may be situational).

    1. Great comment, Jimmy. I agree that quantitative and qualitative research complement each other and allow for a stronger understanding of a given topic. Fogel and Engermann’s Time on the Cross, to cite but one example, demonstrates to me the perils of assessing slavery in quantitative terms without considering the qualitative effects of the institution. I think quantification is good but within reason.

  3. I didn’t see anyone mention that slavery itself was a profitable industry. Just the buying and reselling of human beings for profit would explain some of the growth of slavery. To do this would also continue a method of control for what people believed were an inferior race. Elements of that control still exist today. That’s what Jim Crow laws were and laws like the literacy tests, etc.

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