This recent post by Julia Ott, a historian of capitalism at the New School, articulates forcefully a point that can’t be repeated enough: in a very real sense, slaves were the capital that made the emergence of capitalism possible. Or, as she puts it, “slave-capital proved indispensable to the emergence of industrial capitalism and to the ascent of the United States as a global economic power. Indeed, the violent dispossession of racialized chattel slaves from their labor, their bodies, and their families — not the enclosure of the commons identified by Karl Marx — set capitalism in motion and sustained capital accumulation for three centuries.”
This fundamental insight helps to answer a question that was recently posed by a friend who was visiting us in Fredericksburg. Strolling around town, we passed the old, weather slave auction block (or, as the plaque would have it, “Fredericksburg’s Principle Auction Site in Pre-Civil War Days for Slaves and Property”), set into the sidewalk at the corner of William and Charles Streets. It’s hard not to pass the block, since it’s located on one of the most prominent corners in the heart of the historic business district, and obviously I always point it out to passers-by, being a historian of both capitalism and of 19th century America. The friend idly wondered why it was such a prominent feature of Fredericksburg’s cityscape, and also why it was still there.
Its prominence is easily explained. Fredericksburg exists because it was and always has been an outpost of the market. It was created and sustained by a concentration of capital on the banks of the Rappahannock, dedicated first to the production of tobacco, and later to the production of foodstuffs and the industrial processing of cotton and grain. And if slaves were the capital that made capitalism, it stands to reason that the auction block would stand at the middle of such a capitalist place. Fredericksburg’s slave auction block was like the New York Stock Exchange is to Manhattan, the central site of capital transactions, and the beating financial heart of the city.
Explaining why it’s still there is a more complicated problem, caught up in questions of Confederate memory in the late nineteenth century and the political activism of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid twentieth century. But it shouldn’t be surprising that it remains in its place; the old stone is, after all, the foundation on which the city was built, in a very real sense.