Banking on Slavery: Financing Southern Expansion in the Antebellum United States

Economic History Workshop | Book Talk
Nov 2, 2023, 12:00 pm1:20 pm
  • Open to the public
  • Princeton University faculty, staff, and students
  • In-Person only
  • Registration required



Event Description

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About Banking on 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.

Sharon Ann Murphy is a professor of history and department chair at Providence College. She specializes in the financial history of the United States, with a particular interest in the complex interactions between financial institutions and their clientele. Her latest book, Banking on Slavery: Financing Southern Expansion in the Antebellum United States (Chicago University Press, 2023), examines the relationship between commercial banks and the development of the southern frontier during the first half of the nineteenth century.  She is also the author of Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010; winner of the 2012 Hagley Prize for the best book in business history), which considers the creation and expansion of the American life insurance industry from its early origins in the 1810s through the 1860s, and examines how its growth paralleled and influenced the emergence of the middle class, and Other People’s Money: How Banking Worked in the Early American Republic (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). She has been an associate editor of Enterprise and Society: The International Journal of Business History since 2011, and she is the current president of the Business History Conference.  



Co-sponsored with the Julis-Rabinowitz Center for Public Policy & Finance and the Center for Collaborative History

  • Julis-Rabinowitz Center for Public Policy & Finance
  • Economic History Workshop