A review of Burden of Dependency: Colonial Themes in Southern Economic Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1992) by Joseph Persky

An Under-Appreciated Book

In 1973, the young economist Joseph J. Persky wrote piece in Southern Exposure with a promising title: “The South: A Colony at Home.” He recalls thinking at the time that he was in “some sort of “vanguard.”[1] I read the piece when it came out and made a note to watch for further work by Persky. Meanwhile, he discovered that he was going over well-trodden ground,[2] but stuck with his topic, producing in 1992 a powerful treatment of the theme of the South as an internal colony.

I’m afraid I missed the arrival of his book and only stumbled on it recently. Having caught up, I can say that it is evenhanded, scholarly, and focused, even if destined to annoy the friends of what we might call Official Free Trade. A quick survey on a dreaded “search engine” turns up few reviews of the book. On the other hand, we find it much cited in the literature on dependency studies. What the book lacks in Germanic bulk, it makes up for with concise and well-executed analysis.

Some General Issues

Persky notes that present-day economists — Marxists included – generally slight “the significance of geography.” They prefer to see trade as “gradually homogenizing” all things and thus erasing “accidents of place.” This, they say, is both good and inevitable.

By contrast, a longstanding tradition in Southern thought stressed the “dangers of dependency.” This view partly arose from English mercantilism and foretold the Latin American dependency school from the 1950s forward. It began with Southerners’ critique of British mercantilism, and persisted in various forms through secession, populism, and the New Deal. In Persky’s view, it took “a surprisingly radical tone,” yet could be both “liberal” and “profoundly conservative.”

Starting from “a geographic conception of economics,” Southern colonial analysis had two rival strands: 1) the view that “systems of legislated commercial and economic regulations favored urban interests and exploited the agrarian economy”; or 2) the view that “southerners’ own unbridled pursuit of short-term self-interest left the region open to exploitation from outside.” The first position called for freeing the South from “outside interference” and entailed “an essentially laissez faire” solution; the second called for “regional cooperation and planning” through workable (local) mercantilist measures to secure Southern economic life. Calhoun went from the second view to the first. Southern colonial thinking was “ambivalent” about cities. For some, the South seemed “artificially underurbanized.” Southern mercantilists wanted economic diversification, while laissez-faire thinkers thought a specialized South, unburdened with tariffs, could “perform perfectly well.” Some preferred a more individualistic economy, yet frowned on commercialism. There was also a “rural hostility to commerce” later refashioned by the Nashville agrarians. Both Southern critiques captured “burdens common to much of the world.”[3] [This is of course the great theme of C. Vann Woodward.]

Persky discusses three schools of mercantilism: British mercantilism, Henry Clay’s American System, and Latin dependency theorists. For most Southerners, Adam Smith’s critique of mercantilism led directly to notions of free trade and “regional independence.” For Smith, mercantilist state monopolies enriched a few, “while reducing home production.” Smith saw agriculture as primary, as against commerce which was “inherently unstable.” Small-scale farming in America explained the rapid growth there and thus farming should be the leading sector.

Merchants and shopkeepers often favored mercantilism. Mercantilists like Scottish economist James Steuart feared dependency as the fate of suppliers of “raw materials” who were also consumers “of finished products.” Mercantilists recommended eschewing luxuries and encouraged “finished exports and import substitution.” But economist David Ricardo seemed to have discredited mercantilism as a theory. Despite this, American protectionist economist Henry Carey carried certain mercantilist themes forward and contrasted “oppressive centralization” of economic activity with its “healthy concentration,” citing the case of Ireland.[4]

Carey saw Britain as the enemy of small producers. Somehow, American tariffs would spare us a cruel fate. German protectionist Friedrich List was more cautious, but neither (Persky says) misunderstood Ricardo. Both found his model “too static” and saw deeply into dependency. A similar theme in the work of Marx was adopted in Latin America in the fifties. [Mihail Manoїlescu, an interwar Rumanian theorist of corporatism, was another influence.] Persky cites economist André Gunder Frank, who noted that “dependency implies a relation” — usually of power and exploitation — which goes far beyond “simple trade relations.” For such relations, import substitution and protectionism are not sovereign cures. Southern analysis was similar, Persky writes, and the South had “a long colonial apprenticeship.”

English mercantilists could be critical of colonial enterprises and “criticized especially the colonization of New England” as “adding little to the British economic base.” Josiah Child feared that New England would compete with English shipping. The West Indies, where labor was better organized under slavery, were far more profitable for England. Better acquaintance with actual conditions led to a mercantilist critique of British colonial polices. William Berkeley, royalist governor of Virginia, hoped that Virginia could “diversify as much as possible,” rather than merely relying on tobacco, and tried to encourage town life. He wanted to use mercantilist methods to develop Virginia, instead of allowing imperial mercantilist measures to enrich a small body of merchants. This would require “an extensive division of labor.” Others, including small-scale tobacco farmers, disliked the Navigation Acts, but did not want homegrown mercantilism. For small operators, farming was a way of life. They wanted interior lands. Planters, on the other hand, were tied to international markets. The North, by contrast, began less commercialized, which (ironically) allowed it to diversify and eventually industrialize. Meanwhile, planters, too, began to see themselves as somehow non- or anti-commercial.[5]

Agrarians vs. Financial Jobbers

During the Revolution, Persky writes, Southerners did not trust the “economic motives” of their Northern allies and sometimes made libertarian arguments against Northern measures. Union-nationalists in the South showed mercantilist leanings. Jefferson did not. Planters had wrestled with their inability to control tobacco production so as to secure higher prices and the Quebec Act of 1763 limited colonial expansion. As mercantilist policies provoked attempted boycotts, revolutionary rhetoric became libertarian, as in Jefferson’s “Summary View.” British policy had created an opposition movement of planters and small farmers, but the Revolution raised new questions on how best to decolonize Southern economic life. Somehow, libertarian themes ran alongside “a precapitalist agrarian ideal”: the wish to “benefit from commerce, not be ruled by it.” Many Southerners were not seeking a new commercial system to replace the British one. Here Persky mentions Richard Henry Lee, who disliked stockjobbers, and George Mason, who opposed federal commercial regulation.

Ever optimistic, British observers expected to keep America economically dependent despite independence, through credit relations. George Washington and James Madison thought that a strengthened union would prevent such neocolonialism. Washington’s views arose partly from land speculation, in aid of which he wanted a westward canal. Madison, too, had commercial ideas and hoped for a Virginian port “to rival Baltimore.” Seeing the North as a threat, they relied on prospective Southern domination of the federal government. Expecting agricultural development of areas to the west, they failed to foresee the renewed expansion of slavery. Still, they hoped the stronger union “would hasten southern economic development” and help decolonize the South. Other Southerners were skeptical.

Jefferson stressed the social benefits of agrarian life and his anticolonial themes were usually libertarian and not very mercantilist. He hoped political measures could foster independence on the land. Slavery “eroded” virtue and was a constant reminder of what was at stake. John Taylor of Caroline also provided ideas suitable for planters and small farmers. American agrarians sought prosperity via commercial expansion and Jefferson saw no Malthusian dilemma for us, as long as we had a vast surplus of available land. We could have free trade (more or less) through reciprocity with other nations.[6]

Many Americans seconded this “cautious” free trade. (Short of that, and “rejecting self-sufficiency,” only mercantilist diversification would suffice.) Jefferson hoped for small-scale artisan production and “household manufacture.” After the War of 1812, he endorsed a degree of industrialization. As a lawyer and planter sensitive to regional interests, Taylor opposed such deviations; his was a very libertarian anticolonial critique. For him, agriculture was a truly productive sector: the one that guarded liberty. (Persky observes that Taylor’s own “antifeudal” argument could be used against planters.) Taylor stood opposed to James Madison and wanted no industrialization. For him, “government had become the primary agency of a false aristocracy” resting on paper money, credit, the funding system, banks, and bribery of legislatures. Persky believes that Taylor’s attacks on tariffs explored “deep issues concerning the relations of geography and economic dependency.” (My italics)

In Persky’s view, Taylor’s free-trade argument “almost invites an argument for a compact and diversified southern region.” Distinguishing between “moneyed capital and manufacturers,” he attacked federal debt and presented agrarianism as “a national, not a sectional, ideology.” Here Taylor’s arguments “anticipated” those of Charles A. Beard.[7] He frowned on compound interest and saw public debt as feudal tribute, and feared the new “paper feudalism” resting on control of circulating media. Bank charters effectively granted a power to tax. Americans did not need so much “credit.” The British especially benefited, and Northern capitalists used federal policies against society as a whole. Taylor saw the “reality of regional economic interests” and his views became part of Southern orthodoxy, convincing many Southerners of their dependency.[8]

John C. Calhoun began as a national (i.e. U.S.) mercantilist and mild protectionist. He was one of many younger Southerners around 1812 impressed with Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a diversified and industrializing economy. Calhoun thought that greater national interdependence would offset the greater personal dependence of workers. But between 1816 and 1824, many Southerners moved back toward a regional vision, concluding that dependence on the North would be worse than the South’s former dependence on Britain. John Randolph of Roanoke agreed and foresaw possible secession Northern capitalists’ role in Hamiltonian schemes convinced Calhoun and others that it really was all about interest-group politics and organized lobbying.

Persky highlights three “serious economists” in these discussions: Jacob Cardozo, Thomas Dew, and Thomas Cooper. Cooper advocated laissez faire and free trade in the manner of Adam Smith. Cardozo, an anti-Malthusian, was optimistic about technology and held that agricultural development and trade with Britain were to America’s advantage. He favored diversification of Southern agriculture. Dew argued that tariffs worked as taxes on consumers, and Cooper also stressed that argument. After all, everyone consumed.

Cooper, a British radical, had come to America with Joseph Priestly. Having allied with Jeffersonians, he settled in South Carolina. Adapting to his surroundings, he urged Southerners to “calculate the value of the union.” George McDuffie, also of South Carolina, followed Calhoun’s trajectory into free trade. By 1830 he was deploying the colonial analogy against tariffs. His “forty-bale doctrine” held that the Southern economy could not “adjust” under protectionism. Greater production of consumable goods for slaves would not benefit planters, who had to realize the value of slaves’ forced labor “on international markets.” Tariffs seized much of this surplus for the federal government. If they were merely a tax on consumers, it followed that producers of export goods could “transfer resources to domestic uses.” But planters, trapped by export markets, had to keep producing the same staples. Federal policies reduced the South to “tributary status” and paid for internal improvements largely benefiting the North. The solution was as much political as economic, and the nullification crisis led to an analysis reaching beyond conventional economic theory, whence (Persky reasons) came Calhoun’s concurrent majority theory. McDuffie restated the libertarian colonial critique, concluding that the North’s “take” outmatched Britain’s former gains. McDuffie complained: “We are … the subjects of the very worst species of aristocracy … an upstart, mercenary aristocracy of absentee landlords…”

Such arguments called forth another round of regional mercantilist plans.[9]

Unequal Trade Relations

Cotton was central to the U.S. export trade. Some coastal Southerners hoped to develop “a new urban commercialism” to reduce dependence on Northern ports and middlemen. Public and private initiatives abounded. Northern ties were too dear, and not just in terms of money. Baltimore and New Orleans had grown, but Charleston, Savannah, and Norfolk had not. After 1820, population had shifted to new cotton lands and intra-regional competition set in. Besides the tariff, Northern business had other levers.

Aiming “at building an independent commerce based on the agricultural exploitation of the interior,” McDuffie, Robert Y. Hayne, and James Hammond analyzed these levers. Shipping through New York cost Southerners seventy-two million dollars yearly — a surcharge (they believed) of ten million dollars. Long-term credits were key. Planters subsisted on annual credit, but ought to diversify and buy locally. Instead, like feudal magnates, they bought more slaves and land. Hayne suggested investing 10% outside of agriculture and using foreign rather than Yankee capital. McDuffie and Hayne drew on both colonial critiques (mercantilist and libertarian) and wanted Southerners to “stimulate southern commerce.” Southerners saw credit as “ensnaring,” but, alas, they were truly stuck. (Populists would later take up this theme.)

Movements to “buy Southern” had little effect and the Northern carrying trade prevailed. Southerners promoted railway links, but fell behind in the race. Many became suspicious of industrialization as such, but some tariff opponents favored an industrial sector. Drawing on Henry Clay’s American System, they noted “the limits of staple production.” For Hammond, “science and ‘accumulated’ capital” would eventually favor cotton production elsewhere in the world. Others spied “an inherent difference in the productivity of agricultural labor and industrial labor” in the ratio of capital to laborers. For them, population density became a plus. Cooper and George Tucker agreed with this. Finally, some Southerners argued that industry necessarily exploits agricultural regions.[10]

Pro-slavery theorist George Fitzhugh drew on labor theories of value to criticize free trade, as had Thomas Carlyle. Breaking with Jefferson, Fitzhugh embraced David Ricardo and the so-called “Ricardian socialists.” He corresponded with New England anarchist Stephen Pearl Andrews, whose “value principle” entailed “the essential element of conquest,” meaning that by getting value “without an equivalent” one enslaves another. Fitzhugh analyzed hour-for-hour exchanges of labor value and applied the results regionally. He asked why did Southern labor “not trade at par” against Northern labor? His answer was regional dependency. Here, Persky says, was “one of the most … original economic arguments to come out of the South.” Agricultural labor did not equal other labor. Its price was set by subsistence costs. In the end, headwork would trump handwork.

The South was thus a colonial appendage and its abundant natural resources were actually a burden. Agricultural societies rely on trade for other (finished) goods and become dependent. Fitzhugh favored import substitution and made an infant industry argument. He thought that free trade destroyed the basis of local progress and that diversification and greater division of labor were needed at home. Meanwhile, agricultural stagnation promoted outmigration. If the North didn’t exploit the South, Great Britain would. Persky concludes: “The underlying continuity in southern economic history … [has been] dependency, not slavery” (italics added).

Discussing prominent 17th-century Virginians’ complaints that slavery made rank-and-file white colonists lazy, Persky comments that a “borrowed Puritanism haunted” their critique. This ambivalence continued into the Revolution and reappeared in the debates of the 1831-1832 Virginia constitutional convention, with western Virginian delegates lamenting that slavery “banished the yeomanry from the country…”[11]

In the 1850s, North Carolinian Hinton R. Helper undertook to uplift the Southern plain folk. Applying a colonial model, he noted South’s dependency across whole array of consumer goods, which he explained as resulting from slavery. Here he borrowed on Daniel Goodloe’s writings about the “diffusion” (de-concentration) of population under slavery. Given his modernizing business outlook, Helper sought other sources of wealth. [Cf. that famous plain-folk dropout Abraham Lincoln.] In danger of becoming a spokesman for compradores (that is, local capitalists dependent on external masters – what Persky calls “the Trojan Horse of northern capital”), he anticipated the New South creed.

Northerners agreed with Helper, but ignored the colonial analogy. George Weston stressed the superior efficiency of free labor, as did Frederick Olmstead, who blamed free trade for any existing problems. Some Northerners and Southerners “denied that the South had a problem.” Elwood Fisher (1849) praised the productivity of slave labor. He denied there was more inequality among Southern whites than among those in the North. (Southern Quarterly Review agreed.) Such Northern writers believed that, absent slavery, people would disperse over small farms, and this would be bad, since “surplus labor had to be concentrated geographically” to realize the best division of labor. Chancellor Harper restated the similar view of English economist Edward Gibbon Wakefield on the matter. As things stood, the South prospered under “mutually beneficial interdependence.” Some writers even argued that the North was dependent on King Cotton.

This mercantilism-with-a-vengeance was to prove quite misleading, as when Hammond preached the supremacy of King Cotton. Here, a short-run trend was extrapolated into the indefinite future. Thomas Kettell of New York City claimed that “virtually all northern capital was derived from slave labor” and cotton would provide the South with its own leverage. Expansion into new land was needed. A paranoid political style arose in the South, Persky writes, and the idea of Southern independence stirred a sense of destiny which some Fire Eaters tied to plans of southward territorial expansion. Perksy concludes: “For many secessionists the preservation of slavery provided a pretense to fight for southern political and economic independence” [12]  (italics added).

Conquest and an Internal Colony

Persky believes that postwar Southern economic thought wasn’t terribly good. Southerners had to focus on regaining home rule. Once that was achieved, economic growth became an issue again, once the partisans of a New South came on the scene. In an argument resembling Helper’s, Henry Grady, an Atlanta journalist, directly attributed Southern dependency to slavery. Slavery had been an economic obstacle and the late war was a disguised blessing. Now things could go ahead, and dependency would be alleviated. The South would have cotton mills in the cotton fields! New South publicists noted Eastern capital’s uplifting role in the Midwest. (Persky asks how that would have reduced dependency.) Economic diversity would follow, along with greater regional productivity and wider markets.

Alas, a general credit shortfall blighted such hopes. Everyone was trapped raising cotton, while much talk about diversification went forward.

And so, the promises of New South enthusiasts failed, making them look like Northern stooges. Renewed dependency set in under existing draconian financial arrangements. Now, Populists emerged to reformulate the colonial thesis while restating the old agrarian contrast of producer and nonproducer. On their analysis, high tariffs along with banking and a partisan monetary system led to systematic robbery. Populists wanted to fix the “channels of commerce,” i.e. monopolized transport[13] and finance — not the local economy – by means of farmer cooperatives and federal reforms.

But the Populists also “believed in King Cotton.” Told they had “overproduced,” they denied the thesis. But their co-ops were defeated, and Charles W. Macune of the Southern Alliance blamed the banks and the gold standard and began organizing the cotton belt. His complaints echoed Taylor’s on speculating classes, stockjobbers, futures, etc.[14] His Populist subtreasury plan would have expanded credit for farmers as needed and provided for storage of crops against low interest loans.[15]

Focusing on financial manipulation, Populists drew upon J.S. Mill’s views of property and Adam Smith’s ideas on trade. They generally denied the need for Southern industry. If agriculture prospered, everyone would. Cheap transport would help. They also favored community building, but, in Persky’s view, their vision was “shallow” and rested on “the economic independence of individuals.” After various defeats, the Populist Party gave rise to sundry economic lobbies.

Soon enough, demagogues inherited the earth. Tom Watson repudiated any alliance with Black farmers, but retained his colonial analysis and still rejected industrialization. “The radicalism of the 1890s, properly domesticized,” Persky writes, “became the liberalism of the Progressive Age.” Most Southern Progressives accepted industrialism. In Mississippi, Governor James K. Vardaman, a nominal Democrat, was a disguised Populist, as were a good many other Southern Progressives. Some took up anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Here, an imaginary dependency replaced the real one, in what Persky calls “an inverted empowerment.”[16]

Down Toward the Present

And so, the colonial critique lay buried, only to be restated after World War One by Chapel Hill sociologists[17] and by the Southern agrarians. In the abnormal times of the 1930s, it had regained its relevance.

Beginning with the latter, Persky notes that John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Allen Tate utterly rejected New South industrialism. They and the other authors of I’ll Take My Stand (1931) rejoiced that, so far, the South had avoided the worst of it. Southerners still had and felt a connection to land. Herman Nixon argued that the Civil War pitted “an agrarian (not slave) society and an industrial one” against one another. Andrew Lytle’s essay, “The Hind Tit,” praised self-sufficiency, self-denial along with community reassertion, and agricultural diversification. Self-provision was far preferable to becoming trapped in huge markets, with their many hidden costs. Generally, the Agrarians accepted an overproduction thesis, which Ransom’s essay “Land” (in Harper’s, 1932) linked to national business cycles.

Seward Collins’ American Review (1933-1937) promoted agrarian ideas along with the Distributism of Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, and Allen Tate collaborated with Herbert Agar in editing Who Owns America? (1936). Here, Tate put Aristotle’s (and Marx’s) distinction between use-value and exchange-value to good use, Davidson expounded on regionalism, and Frank Owsley sketched out regional government. In American Review, Lytle argued that the American Revolution had been a traditionalist reaction against a new stockjobbing elite. Only our extensive landed frontier had postponed a reckoning with our home-grown Whig Oligarchy.[18] Now we needed a counter-revolution.

Meanwhile, sociologists at the University of North Carolina — Howard Odum, Rupert Vance, and others — studied the Southern political economy. They promoted moderate regionalism and regional planning within a “national” compromise, in the journal Social Forces and elsewhere. Vance’s colonial critique, Persky says, “came close to defining a new and serious political economy of regions.” Extractive economics had trapped the South and single-crop cotton production reinforced that trap in “an overspecialized commercialism.” It was a debtor economy characterized by retarded adoption of machinery and overproduction. Segregated schools were another inefficiency. A corporate oligopoly oversaw this profitable trap. Rather than personalized villains, the system was at fault. Persky comments: “The agrarians wrote a manifesto, the social scientists an apology.”[19]

The Chapel Hill group sought Black collaborators, but the latter were not fond of colonial analogies — their focus was on race. Earlier, Frederick Douglass (1817-1895), following the Northern abolitionist analysis (Slave Power etc.), had argued that Southern staples “were of continuing value.” He ignored the New South school’s call for industry, while Booker T. Washington tried to work with New South boosters. He favored training in mechanical skills and a business orientation and stressed the productivity of slavery. Blacks, he said, could advance in agriculture, if allowed to. Black landownership was the key.

Black Marxist historian W.E.B. DuBois reiterated Helper’s view that slavery had hindered Southern development by blocking diversification and population density, yet also conceded that industry had reinforced that path of development. He did not, however, develop a colonial thesis. His main theme was racism as exploited by wealthy Southerners. For him, Blacks were “a negro nation within a nation” – i.e. within the United States. For him the South as such “had no such status.” Labor leader A. Philip Randolph took a similar view.

Black radicals like Ralph Bunche feared persistence of the old order of race and class. They saw no reason to discuss Southern dependency in general. On the other hand, certain Black Southern sociologists allied with Odum and Vance, or with the Atlanta Commission on Interracial Cooperation, did so. One collaborative work, The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy (1935) denounced “the financial system of the South,” through which, “even under slavery,” Northern capital had “kept the whole area in a secondary slavery…” The book called for land reform to enable self-sufficient and diversified farming centered on food production. (Here Frank Owsley would have agreed.)

In 1941, Arthur F. Raper (one of Odum’s students) and Ira De A. Reid, a Black professor from Atlanta University, co-wrote Sharecroppers All, claiming colonialist causes for the collapse of Southern agriculture — national tariffs, differential freight rates, etc. But overall, Black scholars bypassed the theme, even if later ‘60s radicals like Stokely Carmichael, Charles Hamilton, and Roy Innis sometimes called for “independent black sovereignty.” The idea of a Black internal colony remained central for them. With the growth of Southern prosperity in the 1970s and ‘80s, the colonial analogy seemed less immediate, and the theme had begun to wither even earlier.[20]

If the colonial analysis persisted, weakly, many writers preferred to stress racism and other topics. Wilbur J. Cash, for example, stressed supposed primordial (“Dorian”) character traits of white Southerners. Committed to reigning economic orthodoxies, Southern economics professors like Calvin Hoover and B.U. Ratchford discouraged colonial analysis, arguing, for example, that differential freight rates weren’t so bad and had a rational economic explanation. Economists interested in development — this was the heyday of modernization theory, which served America so well in Vietnam — attacked the South. Dismissing “destructive … sectionalism,” William Nicholls claimed that New South boosters had been right on track and that Southern economic practices were entirely to blame for any remaining problems. But (Persky reasons) the South’s recent so-called prosperity may have only rested on “external” factors such as the low immigration of the 1950s and 1960s, which made the South “far more attractive” to Northern corporations as a reservoir of cheap labor.[21] [The question of who owns Southern resources remains largely unaddressed by standard economists.[22]]

Persky’s Summation  

Persky concludes that “the decline of the colonial analogy in the region’s economic writings represents a serious loss to critical political economy” (italics added).

In summary, the anticolonial critique arose when mercantilist thought took hold in the colonies and struggled with actual British policies. A parallel proto-laissez faire (libertarian) critique also arose just before and during the Revolution. The tension between them was never quite resolved, even if Fitzhugh seriously sought to do so with his “unequal exchange” theory. Later, Populists cast a wider net than, say, libertarians, but Persky finds that both the Populists’ and the Agrarians’ notion of community “lacked glue.” In the interwar years, the Chapel Hill group remained too defensive.

Nonetheless, the colonial thesis stood as “an alternative to the dominant Panglossian orthodox political economy.” Here Persky cites C. Vann Woodward on the Southern experience of defeat, adding: “The rootlessness of most Americans has undermined our sense of place, our loyalty to community…. In accepting the bounty of the national economy we have given up our place in it.”[23]

Final Observations

One might add that in “accepting the bounty” of the globalized economy provided by American Empire, we (Southerners and all other Americans) may have given up everything of value. If so, Persky’s heretical deviations from reigning free-trade dogma deserve serious consideration. We might well ask whether Official Free Trade, considered as an ideology, has much to with the face-value meanings of “free” and “trade.”

Ricardo’s supposedly iron-clad argument for the inevitable benefits of anything called “free trade” was flawed at the outset. His famous example of the exchange of Portuguese wine for English wheat [sometimes the example involved cloth] left out essential details. Economist André Gunder-Frank writes that Portugal had long been an economic satellite of England and notes Ricardo’s “temerity” in ascribing the Anglo-Portuguese trade in question to a natural “comparative advantage” supposedly having nothing to do with political relations.[24]

English capitalists dominated the Portuguese winemaking industry at all stages of production and thus Ricardo’s example was mostly about English enterprisers in Portugal trading with other Englishmen in England.[25] Two nations trading with each other hardly enter into it. In the end, one could argue that – globally speaking — naval power was Britain’s real “comparative advantage,” as John Taylor of Caroline (among others) noted.[26] This factor of power somewhat undercuts the value of Ricardo’s theorem, and similarly, where the South is concerned, redirects our attention to the politics of internal improvements, tariffs, etc. in the Middle Period of U.S. history.[27]

In an irony perhaps missed by the usual suspects, the fact that antebellum planters lived on annual credit[28] prefigured in a way the plight of postwar sharecroppers. But rather than serving as a mere insult for contemporary historians to hurl, this observation goes to the heart of the colonial relationship. Later, after the devastation wrought by the war, nearly everyone was dependent on outside credit, directly or indirectly, and the lasting effects of Reconstruction, with respect to political economy, long kept the South in tribute to Northern interests.[29]

And the end is not in sight.

This naturally brings us back around to the thesis that industry has always exploited agricultural regions.[30] This seems true enough, but this outcome may not have been one of strict historical necessity, as much as something that industrializing elites generally get away with. Small wonder that Persky speculated that “For many secessionists the preservation of slavery provided a pretense to fight for southern political and economic independence.”[31]

As for Professor Persky, we may justly say that he has indeed been in some sort of vanguard.

[1] Joseph J. Persky, “The South: A Colony at Home,” Southern Exposure, I:2 (Summer/Fall 1973), 14-22. Joseph J. Persky, The Burden of Dependency: Colonial Themes in Southern Economic Thought (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), ix (“vanguard”).

[2] Cf. B. B. Kendrick, “The Colonial Status of the South” (1941), in George B. Tindall, ed., The Pursuit of Southern History: Presidential Addresses of the Southern Historical Association, 1935-1963 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964), 90-105, and C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), Ch. 11, “The Colonial Economy.”


[3] Persky, Burden of Dependency, 1-5.

[4] Persky, 6-12.


[5] Persky, 12-23.

[6] Persky, 25-37.

[7] By the same token, Beard had a good grasp on Taylor’s ideas. See his Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (New York: Free Press, 1965 [1915]), Ch. 7.

[8] Persky, 38-49.

[9] Persky, 50-60.

[10] Persky, 61-70. On the relationship between agriculture and industry see Raimondo Luraghi, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation South (New York: New Viewpoints, 1978), 59, 87, 112 ff, 116, 121-123, 149.

[11] Persky, 71-81. On the yeomanry, see David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly, Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000), a useful book despite the authors’ attack of Northern providential history in the Conclusion.

[12] Persky, 82-96.

[13] See, for example, DeBow’s Review, 10 (October 1869), 6, 10.

[14] Cf. R.L. Dabney, The Practical Philosophy (Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1984 [1897]), Ch. 7.

[15] Persky, 97-109.

[16] Persky, 110-116.

[17] See historian Clyde Wilson’s comments on the Chapel Hill sociologists, in Defending Dixie (Columbia, SC: Foundation for American Education, 2006), 291-292.

[18] Andrew Lytle, “The Backwoods Progression,” in M. E. Bradford, ed., From Eden to Babylon: The Social and Political Essays of Andrew Nelson Lytle (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1990), 77-94.

[19] Persky, 117-131.

[20] Persky, 131-143.

[21] Persky, 144-148.

[22] Persky’s 1973 essay addressed just that issue.

[23] Persky, 148-151.

[24] André Gunder-Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 155-156.

[25] Cf. Rose Macaulay, They Went to Portugal (London: Penguin Books, 1985 [1946]), “Port Wine,” 229-252.

[26] John Taylor of Caroline, An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950 [1814]), 311-312.

[27] Here see Marc Egnal, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War (New York: Hill & Wang, 2009).

[28] Persky, 64.

[29] See Richard Franklin Bensel, Yankee Leviathan (Cambridge University Press, 1990), Ch. 4-5, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men (Chicago: Open Court, 1996), 324-327, and Philip Leigh, Southern Reconstruction (Yardley, Pa.: Westholme Publishing, 2017), esp. Ch. 8, “Southern Reparations,” and Appendix.

[30] Persky, 70. Cf. Raimondo Luraghi, note 10 above, and Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968 [1913]), Ch. 26-29.

[31] It was lucky that Persky wrote those words in 1992 and not in today’s high-toned “1619 Project” climate.

Joseph R. Stromberg

Joseph R. Stromberg is an independent historian born in southwest Florida and currently living in northeastern Georgia. He earned a B.A. and M.A. in History at Florida Atlantic University (1970, 1971) and did further graduate work in History at the University of Florida (1973-75). He was a Richard M. Weaver Fellow in 1970-1971. He has taught college level courses in World Civilizations, American History, and Florida History, as an adjunct instructor. His work has appeared in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Telos, Chronicles, the Freeman, Future of Freedom, Independent Review, and the American Conservative. He has contributed essays to various collections including Secession, State, and Liberty (1998) and Opposing the Crusader State (2007). On the web he has appeared at Antiwar.com (over a hundred short essays in “The Old Cause” column, 1999-2003), First Principles Journal, Arator, and Anamnesis Journal. His research interests include the Old Right non-interventionists, the American South, peasantries in history, English Enclosures, constitutional issues, secession, and the origins of states and empires.

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