IN HIS SECOND inaugural, Abraham Lincoln declared that "if God wills that [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk... as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
It is a noble sentiment. Yet the economic idea implied--that exploitation made us rich--is mistaken. Slavery made a few Southerners rich; a few Northerners, too. But it was ingenuity and innovation that enriched Americans generally, including at last the descendants of the slaves.
It's hard to dispel the idea embedded in Lincoln's poetry. TeachUSHistory.org assumes "that northern finance made the Cotton Kingdom possible" because "northern factories required that cotton." The idea underlies recent books of a new King Cotton school of history: Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams (Harvard University Press), Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf), and Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books).
The rise of capitalism depended, the King Cottoners claim, on the making of cotton cloth in Manchester, England, and Manchester, New Hampshire. The raw cotton, they say, could come only from the South. The growing of cotton, in turn, is said to have depended on slavery. The conclusion--just as our good friends on the left have been saying all these years-is that capitalism was conceived in sin, the sin of slavery.
Yet each step in the logic of the King Cotton historians is mistaken. The enrichment of the modern world did not depend on cotton textiles. Cotton mills, true, were pioneers of some industrial techniques, techniques applied to wool and linen as well. And many other techniques, in iron making and engineering and mining and farming, had nothing to do with cotton. Britain in 1790 and the U.S. in 1860 were not nation-sized cotton mills.
Nor is it true that if a supply chain is interrupted there are no possible substitutes. Such is the theory behind strategic bombing, as of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Yet only in the short run is it "necessary" for a good to come from a particular region by a particular route. A missing link can be replaced, as in fact it was during the blockade of raw cotton from the South during the war. British and other European manufacturers turned to Egypt to provide some of what the South could not.
Growing cotton, further, unlike sugar or...