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Banking on Slavery

Financing Southern Expansion in the Antebellum United States

Banking on Slavery

Financing Southern Expansion in the Antebellum United States

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.


432 pages | 17 halftones, 1 line drawings, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2023

American Beginnings, 1500-1900

Economics and Business: Economics--Money and Banking

History: American History


“A tremendous accomplishment. We cannot fully understand the history of banking in the United States without reckoning with Murphy’s important findings. Banking on Slavery sets the stage for new understandings of the history of capitalism and its relation to slavery.”

Claire Priest, author of Credit Nation: Property Laws and Institutions in Early America

"In a pathbreaking account of the way Americans financed slavery, Murphy connects the vast sweep of that tragedy to the banking that made it possible. Detail by dollar detail, she exposes the structures that transmuted enslaved people into assets and collateral, building white wealth all the while. A powerful--and chilling--book."

Christine Desan, author of Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Banking in the Nation’s Largest Slave Market

Part I: Financing Southwestern Expansion through the 1810s
1 The Limits of Early Bank Financing of Slavery
2 Adapting Slave Financing to the Needs of the Frontier South during the Nation’s First Boom and Bust

Part II: Financing an Empire of Slavery in the 1820s and 1830s
3 Old South Banks and Frontier Finance
4 Pushing Financial Boundaries with Traditional Banks
5 Reimagining Banking for a Slave Economy

Part III: The Collateral Damage of the Panics of 1837 and 1839
6 Foreclosing (or Not) on Delinquent Slaveholders
7 Escaping Debt: Bankruptcy, Fraud, and Going to Texas
8 When Banks Fail
9 From Commercial Banking to Private Finance

Epilogue: Banks, Debt, Emancipation, Reparations, and Memory


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