The year 1850 was good for the Pleasant Hill Plantation in Amite County, Mississippi. Overseer Eli J. Capell, a diligent and responsible employee, kept meticulous financial records of production, revenues, expenses, investments, etc. At year’s end, he itemized the plantation’s holdings of “Negroes,” listing the “males” (not “men”) on the left side of the ledger and the “females” (certainly not “women”) on the right. He identified 26 males and 32 females, and assessed each individual’s value in monetary terms at the “commencement” and the conclusion of the year.
Good news! None of these holdings (as it were) had lost value. Indeed, nearly all of them had gained in value. Even “John,” who at 70 was the oldest of the 58 slaves, had seen his value increase from $50 to $75 — although it was notable 1-year-old “Jerry” was thought to be worth more, at $100. “Edmund” was the most valuable asset, at $1,300, a $300 increase from Capell’s $1,000 assessment 12 months earlier. A typical increase for the males was $200-$250, and a typical assessed value (except for children) was $900-$950.
Females weren’t worth quite as much. The ledger reveals that their value started to increase at around age 13, and from there on it was typically around $700. “Mary” and “Fanny,” ages 34 and 23 respectively, were the most valuable among the females, at $900. Only “Ginny” and “Caroline” failed to gain value, each of them worth $300 at the start of the year and $300 at the end. Both were 3 years old. (Somehow, six-month-old “Rose” increased in value from $75 to $100.)
The all-important bottom line? Pleasant Hill’s cumulative male assets rose during 1850 from $9,625 to $16,975, and its females from $10,975 to $13,050. Because their primary function was to plant, harvest and process cotton, it’s reasonable to assume that their greater value reflected a satisfactory increase in revenues over 1849. The Pleasant Hill ledger is among the graphics included in The 1619 Project, a series of articles being published by the New York Times Magazine. It commemorates a day of infamy — not the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, but an unspecified date in August (this one, perhaps) 400 years ago when the first ship bearing captured Africans, around 20 of them, docked at Point Comfort, Virginia, instituting slavery on our shores. (It already existed in what we now call South America.)
While the series touches, as it obviously must, upon the horrendous treatment of enslaved people during the 244 years that human bondage reigned in colonial America, and then the United States, it largely analyzes the economic factors that propelled it.
As one of the contributors writes, “Slavery was . . . a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation.”
Lest anyone even attempt to infer that their value led to their being decently treated, descriptions and photographs in the series reveal the opposite. For example, overseers like Capell tracked how much cotton each slave picked, and if an individual had a productive day or week, that became the new expectation of him or her; failure to achieve it resulted in hideous cruelty. Because cotton was central to an increasingly interrelated global economy, historian Edward Baptist has written that Americans of that era “lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.”
The commodification of human beings was arguably the foundation upon which this country was built. The Times series reveals that Thomas Jefferson financed the construction of his home place, Monticello (visited by thousands of patriotic tourists each year), by mortgaging 150 of his slaves, a common practice in the South. Indeed, Simon Schama, in “Rough Crossings: Britain, The Slaves, and the American Revolution,” argues that, for the southern colonies, protecting slavery was a far greater motivator of rebellion against the British than any northern nonsense about taxation and the Boston Tea Party. (The British sought to weaken the South’s economic structure by offering refuge for escaped slaves.)
We’re hearing these days, as Democratic candidates for the presidency lean left, much about the evils, the constraints upon our freedoms, allegedly inherent in socialism. As this deplorable quadricentennial reveals, capitalism has its own ghosts in the closet. Greed and inhumanity appear not to be linked to any socio-economic theory, but to humanity itself.