Russell R. Menard on Eric Williams

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Fri Oct 20 19:25:58 MDT 2000

*****   Callaloo 20.4 (1997) 791-799

Reckoning with Williams:
Capitalism and Slavery and the Reconstruction of Early American History

Russell R. Menard

As is the case with, I suspect, many American historians of my
generation, my introduction to Eric Williams was through his critics.
I thought of him as an inventive but fundamentally wrong-headed
historian who need not be taken seriously, so I avoided reading him
until circumstances arose that made it impossible to avoid Capitalism
and Slavery any longer. When I read the book straight through, I was
enthralled and annoyed that I had not read it at the beginning of my
graduate studies, hence this essay, which hopes to persuade others
not to repeat my mistake.

In part my reaction reflects the merits of the book in its own right.
Quite simply, it is a powerful, engaging book, which enables one to
think of early American history in new ways. My reaction also
reflects the apparent current "crisis" in early American history as a
field of inquiry. The present "crisis" of early American history,
which can be viewed as a subset of the crisis of modern
historiography, grows out of the collapse of the nationalist paradigm
that dominated the field through the 1950s. 1

That paradigm which viewed the colonial period as the prehistory of
the United States was overwhelmed during the 1960s by scholarship
reflecting the social scientific interests of English and European
early-modernists and by the multi-cultural work of scholars who came
of age over the past decade. The outpouring of scholarship from these
two movements, much of which focused on the experience of small
groups and particular communities rather than on the colonies as a
whole, led to what might be called the deconstruction of early
America. 2...

When early American history deconstructed in the 1950s, it was
quickly reassembled in several large regional lumps: New England, the
Middle-Atlantic colonies, the Chesapeake, the West Indies, and the
Lower South. 5 This regional scheme, which was widely accepted,
provided the field its structure and gave direction to research for
the next twenty years or so, as scholars took up the challenge of
working out the similarities and differences among the several
regions. There is evidence, however, that these regions are not as
cohesive as scholars have assumed, and that the process of
deconstruction is about to proceed further, and fragment the colonies
into much smaller, more numerous and, therefore, much less manageable
lumps. A recent paper by Lorena Walsh is a case in point. Walsh
argues, quite persuasively in my view, that as an economic region at
least "Chesapeake" is much too gross a category, that the economy of
the settlements around the Chesapeake Bay is better understood as a
product of at least three distinct regions: areas growing
sweet-scented tobacco, areas growing oronocco tobacco, and areas that
were peripheral to the international tobacco economy. 6 Walsh's
analysis suggests that many of the debates current among historians
of the tobacco coast might be resolved by reconceptualizing the
region. For example, the question of whether it is reasonable to
characterize the Chesapeake economy as one subject to booms and busts
will be answered differently by those studying the sweet-scented and
those studying the oronocco subregions. 7 The current disagreement
over extent of opportunity in the Chesapeake is perhaps also a
function of various scholars assuming that one or another subregion
could represent the Chesapeake as a whole. The same may also be the
case for the debates regarding the course of mortality in the 18th
century, as well as over the issue of the emergence of a slave
community. 8 Walsh's essay, it can be argued, announces the "Death of
the Chesapeake" as a category of analysis; at the very least she
demonstrates that the region is much less homogeneous than recent
scholarship has tended to assume and that we need to be more careful
in generalizing evidence from one part of the area to the Chesapeake
as a whole. If, as I suspect is the case, the same holds true for the
other major regions of British America, the field is in for a major
reorganization. Where it will go next is far from clear. In the short
term, there will be plenty of work to do, following Walsh's lead and
deconstructing the other regions of British America, New England, the
Lower South, and the West Indies. Once that task is done, we will be
left with a dozen regions instead of three. Simultaneous with the
further deconstruction of early America, there seems to be occurring
a substantial expansion of the field's traditional boundaries. The
British sugar islands have been an important part of the field at
least since the publication of Richard Dunn's book in 1972. 9 There
are also signs that the field will also soon include what is now the
southwestern United States as well as New France. If I am correct,
and the field explodes and implodes at the same time, those who think
the field lacks coherence will have their worse fears confirmed, and
even those of us inclined to celebrate the field's anarchy may
welcome a bit of order. It is at this point that Eric Williams might
prove of some use.

Williams, it can be argued, points to a way out of the crisis, shows
how early American history might be pulled together without excluding
those who did not hold power. Given Williams' determination to view
Atlantic history from an Afro-Caribbean perspective, he is able to
avoid the stultifying Euro-centrism that shapes the approach of many
mainstream historians to the field. Williams develops some grand
themes for colonial history and identifies ways in which the colonial
experience was critical to main developments in the Atlantic world
during the Early Modern Era, and suggests how the colonial history of
the Americas might be written in broad hemispheric terms rather than
within the narrow, nationalist confines that now limit colonial
history. 10...

...But, you might object. There has been considerable debate over
Williams' work, and he has been proven wrong on many particulars.
While that may be true, Williams' broad vision of the field still has
considerable power. His particular arguments can with only slight
adjustment be accommodated to his critics, while remaining consistent
with his overall perspective. Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery
(1944) has shaped the debate on several of the central themes in the
history of the North Atlantic world for nearly half a century. As
Barbara Solow and Stanley Engerman have recently pointed out,
Williams' major contribution was in advancing three compelling and
controversial arguments on the relationships between slavery, racism,
abolition, the American colonies, and England's industrial
revolution: 1) slavery was a way of exploiting workers and racism was
thus "a consequence, not the cause of slavery"; 2) profits earned in
the slave trade and in the colonies helped finance British
industrialization; 3) the profitability of slavery, the slave trade
and the Caribbean colonies declined in the aftermath of the American
Revolution and their importance to England's economy waned, and
"abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of the slaves in
the British West Indies were driven not by philanthropy or
humanitarianism but by economic motives within England." 11 Each of
these positions is a Williams thesis. I would make one addition to
the Solow and Engerman list, and add a fourth "Williams thesis," one
to which Williams himself attached a great deal of importance:
briefly put, that is that the slaves played a major role in shaping
slavery and the slave experience, or, as Williams put it, "The most
dynamic and powerful social force in the colonies was the slave
himself." 12 What I propose to do now is examine the debate on each
of these elements of Williams' vision of the Atlantic world to see
how Williams stands up after a half-century of criticism.

I'll begin with the first proposition, that slavery was a way of
exploiting workers and racism was thus a consequence, not the cause,
of slavery. 13 The first part of that proposition is entirely
consistent with current scholarship, especially given Williams'
emphasis on supply to explain why African slaves eventually came to
dominate the work force of the plantation districts of European

The second part of this proposition, that racism was the consequence
not the cause of slavery, has fared less well, especially in the
literature on Virginia. In contrast to Barbados and the low country,
where the commitment to slavery came early and quickly, it took
planters in Maryland and Virginia the better part of a century to
commit their society to slavery, Africanize their work force, and
articulate their own distinctive plantation regime. "Chesapeake
gradualism" has provided the setting for a long and often acrimonious
debate on the origins of slavery and racism and the relationship
between them in Maryland and Virginia. 14 Much of the literature on
this issue has been beside the point because of a failure to
recognize what Williams makes so prominent a feature of his analysis,
the Atlantic context in which Chesapeake slavery developed. Slavery
did not have "origins" in the Chesapeake, nor did planters there
decide to enslave Africans. Slavery was thoroughly entwined with
Europe's Atlantic colonies by the time the English reached Jamestown,
while the identification of slaves as Africans was an American

If Chesapeake planters would have slaves, they would have Africans;
if the region would have more than a handful of blacks, it would have
slaves. Nevertheless, this literature has established that blacks
were discriminated against in the early Chesapeake before slavery was
their universal condition or of much importance to the regional
economy: a powerful challenge to this particular Williams thesis.
However, if we follow recent scholarship and distinguish between
attitudes and ideology, it would seem that racism, as a systematic
body of thought constructed to justify existing social arrangements
and defend the interests of the planters, appeared relatively late in
the region, well after planters had thoroughly committed to slavery.

I'll now move on to the best known, and most controversial, Williams
thesis, the proposition that profits, earned in the slave trade and
in the colonies, helped finance British industrialization. More
fully, Williams argued that the large profits earned by Britons
engaged in all colonial enterprises, but especially in the plantation
colonies, provided the capital that funded British economic
development. The trade in slaves, Williams maintained, was central to
colonial commerce.

It was in the words of one British mercantilist, "the spring and
parent whence the others flow"; "the first principle and foundation
of all the rest," echoed another, "the mainspring of the machine
which sets every wheel in motion." The slave trade kept the wheels of
metropolitan industry turning; it stimulated navigation and
shipbuilding and employed seamen; it raised fishing villages into
flourishing cities; it gave sustenance to new industries based on the
processing of raw materials; it yielded large profits which were
ploughed back into metropolitan industry, and finally, it gave rise
to an unprecedented commerce in the West Indies and made the
Caribbean territories among the most valuable the world has ever
known. 16

Not so, answer critics of the Williams thesis, at least not as
powerfully, directly and significantly as Williams would have it. And
the critics have the better of the argument, at least if one insists
on reading Williams narrowly, more narrowly than his text warrants.
The notion that slave trade profits were a key source of capital
accumulation in Great Britain simply fails when tested against the
evidence. The slave trade it turns out was not unusually profitable,
at least not for European traders, and the revenues it generated were
not big enough to constitute a major factor in British capital
formation. 17 Some men grew rich in the slave trade and put their
profits into factories, but they were at best of minor importance in
financing the industrial revolution.

While I am not yet persuaded that this debate is entirely settled, it
is worth noting that the debate over this particular Williams thesis
depends on an especially narrow reading of Williams. 18 Stanley
Engerman, who led the attack on the notion that the profits of the
slave trade were crucial to England's industrialization, exhibits a
good deal of discomfort with his narrow reading of Williams, and well
he should, for I suggest Engerman does not engage Williams' main

One useful way to approach this issue is to reflect on a curious
omission in Williams' analysis. Williams does not at any time direct
his attention to the United States. Given that, as Gavin Wright
notes, one could make a stronger case that industrialization in the
U.S. was driven by slavery than one can for England. 19

If Williams were really interested in explaining industrialization,
the omission would be difficult to understand, but the purpose of
Capitalism and Slavery is not to explain but to expose. Capitalism
and Slavery is a political tract, written to strike a blow for
Caribbean independence by showing that England's "civilizing mission"
to its subjects in the islands was a fraud. England could claim no
civilizing mission, because its civilization was corrupt, rooted in
slavery; its leading families in all walks of life, indeed, the crown
itself, and the church, had been thoroughly implicated in the slave
trade, the 19th century's most heinous crime against humanity.
Williams' purpose is not to explain England's industrial revolution,
but to strike a blow for West Indian independence by exposing
England's "great tradition" for the vile thing that it was. 20 It is
this mission that gives the book its passion and its continuing power.

I do not mean to suggest that we now dismiss Capitalism and Slavery
as a political tract, of interest only to historians of the Caribbean
independence movement; for in the course of his exposé, Williams
develops the concept, although he does not use the label of a "slave
empire" analogous to the notion of a "slave society," in which, in
Frank Tannenbaum's words, "Nothing escaped, nothing and no one." 21
The idea of a slave society has proven very useful to students of
American plantation regimes; so too can the notion of a "slave
empire" prove helpful to students of Europe's invasion of America.

I'll now move on to the third Williams thesis, almost as
controversial as the second, that both the colonial trades and the
Caribbean colonies declined in the aftermath of the American
Revolution, their importance to England's economy waned, and the
abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slaves in the
British West Indies were driven not by philanthropy or
humanitarianism, but by economic motives within England. For the sake
of simplicity, I'll divide that thesis into two propositions and deal
with each in turn, beginning with the decline of the West Indies
argument. Since the publication of Seymour Drescher's Econocide, few
historians any longer defend Williams' argument that the British
sugar islands were in severe economic decline when England abolished
first the slave trade and then slavery.

Econocide stood this particular proposition on its head, arguing
fairly persuasively that the islands were still profitable and
expanding, when the British government did them in by abolishing
first the African slave trade and later slavery itself. Despite
Drescher's confidence that he has closed the case, it is not clear
that this issue is yet settled. Indeed, research in progress by David
Ryden, suggests that the debate over the decline of the West Indies
may be about to move to another level. 22 Indeed, Ryden begins with
the observation that so far the debate has been carried on at the
macro-level, and with macro-data, and that it would be useful to
examine the decline hypotheses from the perspective of individual
planters using micro-level data. Since there is a rich store of such
data available in the islands, Ryden's approach ought to reveal not
just whether the sugar industry in the Caribbean as a whole was
profitable, but should identify the determinants of profitability for
particular plantations, while at the same time opening up the
opportunity to explore how planters adjusted to the new conditions
imposed upon them by rapidly changing metropolitan policies.

The second of these propositions is Williams' effort to explain the
abolition movement in terms of economic interests rather than
philanthropic or humanitarian concerns; as Williams put it, the
capitalists had first encouraged slavery and then helped to destroy
it. This proposition has also been sharply criticized, sometimes
dismissed as "reductionist." Be that as it may, Williams' argument
seems entirely consistent with David Brion Davis' "main theme that
antislavery cannot be divorced from the economic changes that were
intensifying social conflicts and heightening class consciousness;
that in Britain it was part of a larger ideology that helped to
ensure stability while accommodating society to political and social
change." 23 In this view, abolitionism was an ideology that served to
justify and legitimize the emerging capitalist elite and the new
forms of exploitation of free labor in England's factories and gave
England's ruling classes a chance to claim moral leadership by
directing a reform movement that threatened none of their vital

"The antislavery movement," Davis explains, "like [Adam] Smith's
political economy reflected the needs and values of the emerging
capitalist order. Smith provided theoretical justification for the
belief that all classes and segments of society share a natural
identity of interests. The antislavery movement, while absorbing the
ambivalent emotions of the age, was essentially devoted to a
practical demonstration of the same reassuring message." 24 Calling
Williams "crude" and "reductionist" will not change the fact that
this argument is entirely consistent with his approach to the issues.
While Williams might be accused of reductionism, he at least
addresses what ought to be the central problem in understanding
abolitionism by trying to come to terms with what role the behavior
and aspirations of slaves had in the process, a concern missing
entirely from the recent and much celebrated American Historical
Review debate on the subject. 25

In fact, Williams moves toward, if he does not actually make, a
distinction between the abolition of slavery, an abstract, general
legal matter accomplished by politicians in the metropolitan capitols
of the Atlantic economy, and the emancipation of slaves, an intensely
practical matter, the work of particular slaves in the plantation
districts, a distinction that is likely to dominate future efforts to
understand the fall of American slave regimes. 26 Given that
Williams' central purpose was to demystify the British abolition
movement, so that the example of the saints could no longer be
invoked to justify England's continued political control over the
islands, it is hard to deny that he carried his point; at least
people would think twice when confronted with assertions that the
abolitionists were completely disinterested humanitarians.

I'll conclude this survey of the debate over Eric Williams with the
fourth Williams thesis, the assertion that slaves played a major role
in shaping the institution of slavery and their experience as slaves.
Clearly, as even a passing familiarity with recent literature
demonstrates, this has been the dominant thrust in scholarship on
slavery since the publication of Capitalism and Slavery. 27
Surprisingly, scholars have not thoroughly explored Williams' claim
that the agitations of slaves played a significant role in the
decision for abolition. While it is unlikely that anyone would want
to defend all the arguments of Capitalism and Slavery without first
revising them substantially, nor would anyone want to deny the impact
of Williams' classic work on our understanding of some of the key
issues of early modern history....

...Russell R. Menard is professor of Early American History at the
University of Minnesota, a specialist in the Southern colonies of
British America with a particular interest in slavery and plantation
societies, he is the author and co-author of numerous books and
articles on the social and economic history of early America,
including, with John McCusker, The Economy of British America,
1607-1789 and, with Lois Carr and Lorena Walsh, Robert Cole's World:
Agriculture and Society in Early Maryland. More recently, he has been
working in the early history of the Lower South and the sugar
islands, particularly, Barbados...

[Footnotes omitted; the full article is available at


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