Banking on Slavery: Financing Southern Expansion in the Antebellum United States
by Sharon Ann Murphy
University of Chicago Press, 2023
Cloth: 978-0-226-82459-8 | eISBN: 978-0-226-82460-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-82513-7
Library of Congress Classification HG2472.M867 2023
Dewey Decimal Classification 332.10975

A sobering excavation of how deeply nineteenth-century American banks were entwined with the institution of slavery.

It’s now widely understood that the fullest expression of nineteenth-century American capitalism was found in the structures of chattel slavery. It’s also understood that almost every other institution and aspect of life then was at least entangled with—and often profited from—slavery’s perpetuation. Yet as Sharon Ann Murphy shows in her powerful and unprecedented book, the centrality of enslaved labor to banking in the antebellum United States is far greater than previously thought.
Banking on Slavery sheds light on precisely how the financial relationships between banks and slaveholders worked across the nineteenth-century South. Murphy argues that the rapid spread of slavery in the South during the 1820s and ’30s depended significantly upon southern banks’ willingness to financialize enslaved lives, with the use of enslaved individuals as loan collateral proving central to these financial relationships. She makes clear how southern banks were ready—and, in some cases, even eager—to alter time-honored banking practices to meet the needs of slaveholders.  In the end, many of these banks sacrificed themselves in their efforts to stabilize the slave economy. Murphy also details how banks and slaveholders transformed enslaved lives from physical bodies into abstract capital assets. Her book provides an essential examination of how our nation’s financial history is more intimately intertwined with the dehumanizing institution of slavery than scholars have previously thought.

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