Every Drop of Blood Drawn With the Lash Shall be Paid by Another Drawn With the Sword

It is quite reasonable to argue that the enslavement of Africans and their descendants in the British colonies and the United States is the foundation of the US empire. Of course, the entire truth is considerably more complex, just like the mechanisms of slavery in the United States involved more than kidnapping humans and making them work on a plantation. This understanding underpins the fourth and final volume of historian Robin Blackburn’s history of slavery, The Reckoning: From the Second Slavery to Abolition 1776-1888.

The year 1776 is marked in the United States as the year the war for the colonies independence from the British Crown became a full-fledged military conflict. It is also the year that the oft-quoted words of the colonies’ declaration of independence were composed, signed and transmitted to the people in those colonies. Most schoolchildren in the United States are at least aware of the words “all men are created equal” that are included in the declaration. One wonders, however, how many schoolchildren or adults are aware that the definition of “all men” was limited to mostly white men with property. In 1776 America, the definition of property included enslaved humans. At the time, much of the western hemisphere depended on the transatlantic slave trade and its human cargo for much of its workforce, especially in the farming of cash crops.

Indeed, as Blackburn describes, the use of slaves made the development of large-scale industrial cotton, sugar and coffee plantations a profitable undertaking. Various improvements in the post-harvest work with these crops did not mean slaves were needed less. Instead, it usually meant slaves were required to work faster and for longer time periods. This was especially true in the US South on the cotton plantations after the invention of the cotton gin. However, it was also true in Cuba and Brazil after machines were introduced that streamlined the production of sugar and coffee, respectively.

Slaves were more than just working chattel, especially in the United States. They were also property and investments. It is this aspect of US slavery that was probably the most important factor of the institution in terms of the development of US capitalism. Once the law was changed to allow a slaveholder’s slaves to be used as collateral, slaveholders were able to expand their land holdings through mortgage loans and make other investments which in turn expanded their wealth and the wealth of the nation. In other words, it made the accumulation of wealth easier and hastened the pace of that accumulation. Combined with the taking of land from indigenous nations via war, ethnic cleansing or by purchasing it from a European state (as in the Louisiana Purchase), the wealth of the United States’ wealthiest grew to never before seen heights. As Blackburn notes, “the affinity between chattel slavery, planter-mortgages and capitalism is striking.” (168)

Of course, the fact that the skin tone of the enslaved was not white is not a mere accident of world trade. The colonizing settlers of the Americas were racist. This is probably most true when discussing the settlers of what became the United States. From the Federalist championing of a White Republic to the racist riots in New York during the US civil war, Blackburn provides numerous examples of the racist understanding that defines much of the nation’s history. As any reasonable observer of today’s United States knows, that racism continues to exercise an undue amount of influence in this modern life.

While the bulk of the text focuses on slavery in the United States; a choice that is relative to its numbers and more importantly, its political sway in the United States, Blackburn does devote chapters to the slave power in the Caribbean and South America. For the most part, only Cuba and Brazil were slaveholding nations of note in terms of its place in each nation’s economy and political system. The differences between US slavery and slavery in these two nations were related to each nation’s relationship to the monarchy in the respective European nations. At the same time, the eventual outlawing of the Atlantic slave trade took a greater toll on the slaveholders in Cuba and Brazil. Whereas the United States had developed an internal source for its growing use of slaves via the legal system and breeding practices, Cuba and Brazil tended to rely more on a constant influx of kidnapped humans from Africa. When Britain and France decided to attack and ultimately colonize the sections of Africa that provided most of the human cargo for the slave ships, Brazil and Cuba suffered. In addition,the work of anti-slavery reformers in getting laws passed that prevented the babies of the enslaved from being born into slavery forced a reckoning of sorts. It was a reckoning that would ultimately end slavery in Brazil.

The United States faced its own reckoning. It was a bloody affair that ripped the nation asunder. It featured revolutionary figures like John Brown, ultimately conservative politicians and businessmen wanting to keep the union together but not that interested in ending slavery in the South, military officers intent on victory and hundreds of thousands of soldiers who shed much of the blood before the slaveholding confederacy acknowledged its defeat. As Blackburn points out, this defeat did not end the white supremacist foundations of the nation. Indeed, not long after the surrender of the Confederate forces, the former slaveholding powers conspired to regain their wealth and their power. They did so through election manipulation, terror campaigns by groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the institution of laws designed specifically to deny recently-emancipated men and women from exercising their rights as free citizens. Although those laws were eventually overturned after decades of struggle, the power of white supremacy continues to define too much of the US economic and political landscape.

The Reckoning is a comprehensive history of the final years of slavery in the Americas. Expansive in its explanations and descriptions, it also includes sketches of men of power and men whose power lay in their words, battles, politics and campaigns for justice. Blackburn’s analysis of the economics of chattel slavery describes the often inhumane nature of capitalist endeavor. Simultaneously, his political history is universal, describing the perspectives of the slavers, the politicians for and against slavery, the role of outside nations and the power of the movement for abolition. With or without the previous books in the quartet, Blackburn’s The Reckoning provides important insight into why the United States political and commercial reality is where it’s at today.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com