Reviewed: James Parisot, How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West (London: Pluto Press, 2019), 272 pp.
Following twenty years of military occupation, in the summer of 2021, the Biden Administration oversaw a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. President Joe Biden then authorised the seizure of Afghanistan’s foreign bank reserves. His executive order was possible because U.S. financial institutions, and the U.S. dollar more generally, serve as the de facto infrastructure for the global economy. Imperial expansion and the governance of global capitalist markets are deeply intertwined with the American state. When and how did they first become fused together in historical development?
James Parisot’s landmark book, How America Became Capitalist, seeks to answer this fundamental question about America’s capitalist transition. He argues that between the 1600s and the U.S. Civil War, a process of racialised territorial dispossession predominated in the British colonies and later United States. Capital accumulation was largely subordinate to that project of territorial enlargement, boxed in by the demand of white settlers for new lands and by their aversion to wage-labour and market dependence. Only by the Gilded Age (roughly 1870–1900), according to Parisot, did the imperative to reproduce capital become society-encompassing. The Union’s victory in 1865 over secessionist slaveholders transformed American imperium by pressing the conquest of space into service on behalf of capital accumulation, rather than the other way around.
Clocking in at a sleek 272 pages, How America Became Capitalist is a sweeping work of comparative historical materialism. Parisot juxtaposes patterns of social property relations in America as they developed over two-and-a half centuries, following the intellectual tradition of Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and, more recently, Charles Post.1 To undertake this immense task, he explores case studies by place and period. First, Parisot compares Virginia with New England from the colonial era into the early republic, followed by the settlement of Kentucky and Ohio at the turn of the nineteenth century, and then territories that became the states of Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. The final chapters examine the ongoing debate about whether antebellum slavery was capitalist or not, and the triumph of a northern-centred vision of capitalism by the 1870s. Time and again, this book is remarkable for engaging with the sheer multiplicity of labour forms and property types that implanted in America over time.
In each chapter we see that social relations rarely fit into neat theoretical categories of ‘non-capitalist’ or ‘capitalist’ behaviour. Historical patterns are better understood on a spectrum where older forms of dominion are displaced or reinvented rather than simply disappear with the inexorable advance of modernity. Parisot’s approach brings to mind Karen Orren’s Belated Feudalism, a classic in the field of American political development. She traces the persistence of regressive labour jurisprudence in federal and state courts from medieval lineages up to the New Deal when those structures were finally dislodged.2 Orren and now Parisot suggest that we might search for feudal-ish—or as I would term them, patrimonial—legacies that have never quite been superseded in American history.
Parisot argues that the seeds of continental empire lay in the patriarchal household mode of production, a gendered and racialized property relation that implanted with British colonialism in the 1600s. Early modern attempts to simply recreate feudal structures in America failed, such as ‘subinfeudation’ in the Virginia colony or New York’s sprawling manorial system. Old feudal ties were instead reconfigured, although they never transformed beyond total recognition. In place of a formal aristocracy, what took hold over the longue durée was the individual household fiefdom of basic sustenance and small comforts.
A family patriarch ruled over this personal dominion. The idea was to foster a material, and after the American Revolution, a civic, ‘independency.’ Landed property would bring hierarchical position and lordly surplus within the reach of common white men. Supposedly empty territory (inhabited, in fact, by Indigenous peoples) would be legally enclosed, and then dominated through Lockean ‘improvements’ to property. So-called improvements required both dispossessing Indigenous peoples of their land on a monumental scale as well as the exploitation of the labour of a great many dependents: women, children, servants, and, above all, masses of enslaved Africans. Rendering this new landed domain productive was a leading rationale for imperial rule in British North America. The pressing need to reproduce this racialised household unit of political economy is what drove wars of territorial expansion throughout the period covered by How America Became Capitalist.
Parisot is careful to explain the household unit was not the same everywhere, or in all cases. Regional variations meant that in the old southeast, white patriarchal households came to depend heavily upon slave labour. The Ohio River settlement of the early Republic was more ambiguous. In the early nineteenth century, the enslaved were ‘hired out’ from Kentucky to Ohio, an ostensibly free state, where Black workers were forced to labour under legal arrangements approximating contractual indenture. By contrast, on the eve of the Civil War in the late 1850s, the South was a radically unequal society among white settlers. Wealth was highly concentrated among the ten thousand planters (out of 27 million whites) who each enslaved over 50 people. Yet, places like Arkansas were overwhelmingly populated by white yeoman farmers eking out lives of meagre subsistence.
Outright slavery was least institutionalised in New England, although its entrepôts financed and traded in goods produced by Black slaves. Patriarchal households expanding ‘Christ’s Empire’—a religious compulsion to proselytize—came to gradually coexist alongside seasonal wage labour and petty commodity production. Where population density grew, land became scarce; one third of Pennsylvania’s population in 1780 were landless, posing all sorts of problems for the post-Revolutionary elite. Settlers could move west and stake their own personal domain or face the prospect of labouring for others—understood as unrepublican ‘dependency’.
The role of family within American political development was likely more differentiated by region than Parisot suggests.3 Nevertheless, a common imperial calculus fuelled territorial expansion. Waves of European settlers negotiated, warred, squatted, coerced, purchased, and cleared (or forced the enslaved to clear) new lands that reproduced the patriarchal household mode of production. Demand for land was driven by the large household size, encompassing the biological family and the enslaved, that was required to perform labour-intensive domestic, agricultural, and artisanal work. Behind the drumbeat to push forward the western frontier, from Pennsylvania in the 1790s, to the Ohio Valley in the 1810s, to the Mississippi River in the 1830s, and Texas in the 1840s, lay a goal to install white sons into their own future household domains.
Parisot terms these dynamics ‘the reproduction of manhood through empire’, by which he means a society based upon spreading Lockean patriarchal households. But he stops just short of elaborating notable political implications. Two of America’s enduring party regimes, the Jeffersonians (the Democratic-Republican party, 1800–1828) and Jacksonians (the Democratic party from 1828–1860), became ideologically coherent and politically viable within this historical matrix. The electoral majority for both came from an alliance of south and west that was forged around growing a ‘White Man’s Republic’. The ideological influence of these long coalitions (as measured by speeches, proclamations, and party platforms), far outlasted the party systems in which they competed for office.4
What happened when the patriarchal household hit upon the hard limits of geographical space? Thomas Richards, Jr. argues in Breakaway Americas that white settlers, viewing themselves as ‘more American’ than the United States, overflowed the country’s official boundaries in the 1830s and 1840s. Those decades proved a critical juncture that might have resulted in the establishment of several new continental polities. Each would have represented a divergent line of social property relations, from the ‘free soil’ state of Oregon to the slave republic of Texas. There could have been an independent Mormon theocracy in Utah, a Native republic centred around the Cherokee and allies from Indian Territory, and a ‘seigneurial’ polity in California based upon patron-peonage adapted from the Spanish and Mexican systems.5 Parisot’s analysis is not much help in explaining why these decades failed to produce a fragmentation of independent settler republics akin to Central or South America. Here the work of Paul Frymer is instructive: Despite obstacles like settler vigilantism and heady speculation, the U.S. federal government proved remarkably flexible in regulating territorial aggrandizement by exercising a monopoly over the distribution of new lands.6 What Parisot’s approach does explain, however, and where Frymer’s falls short, is why territorial expansion was embedded with racial property relations that sparked political crises which frequently led to war. War for territory was an outgrowth of the white patriarchal household’s need for a spatial fix to implant sons in new lands.
We see empire’s need for a spatial fix replayed time and again. After the Seven Years War, British settlers poured (illegally) across the boundary set by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which helped precipitate the Revolution. We see the geographic dimension again with the Jacksonian project to deport and exterminate Indigenous peoples, and to clear away rival European empires: the Spanish, French, and British. And the spatial fix reappears with the proslavery rush to Mexican Texas, which led to the establishment of an independent slave republic, and, finally, under the administration of James Polk (aka ‘Young Hickory’), the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). The spread of patriarchal households as a form of governance was a direct legacy of imperial political development.
One of the book’s major contributions is to show that capital remained empire’s subordinate partner in America for a very long time. Like other imperial clients, capital travelled within the sinews of early mercantilist statecraft, which fostered colonial ventures for profit, extended trade routes, and protected selective markets. How then did capital emerge from political weakness and junior status, which Parisot argues did not occur until after the Civil War?
Part of what makes America’s transition to capitalism noteworthy, according to Parisot, was the historical timing of its colonial phase. Dutch and British settlers implanted in North America in the 1600s just as their own capitalist transitions were deepening. English landlords had enclosed the commons, raised rents, and pressured tenants into a cycle of agricultural improvements. Rural producers were subjected to competitive market imperatives to secure their very survival. The choice to increase output or starve, according to Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood, paved the way for a capitalist take-off that eventually vaulted English industry ahead of rivals.
Parisot’s study follows Brenner and Wood by insisting on a distinction between market compulsion and voluntary participation. Only when capitalist imperatives generalise to society as a whole do you have something more than individual capitals. You have capitalism.7 For Parisot, the point was not whether farmers or artisans in America brought goods to market or performed seasonal labour for wages. Were they at the market’s mercy when they sought to secure their lives and futures? Across the pre-1865 time-span covered by How America Became Capitalist, Parisot’s answer to whether such market compulsion reigned supreme was: no.
Here is where How America Became Capitalist truly shines. Parisot explains the many arrangements that capital fused with in order to exploit labour as fully as possible. Plantation enslavement, the contract hiring out of slaves and ‘overwork’, indentured servitude, waged work, tenant fishing or farming, and sharecropping—all organized accumulation around varying degrees of unfreedom. What capital took from patrimonial relations at different times and places was labour’s subordination, including by force, along with the legitimation of stark inequalities. Labour arrangements relied heavily upon personal dominions that arose from an extension or intensification of the household unit—the family farm, the artisanal shop, and the plantation. Patriarchs governed these economic units with a variety of brutality, legal coercion, and homespun wisdom about so-called innate inequalities. Everyday exploitation, in the case of slavery, to the point of social death, was only conceivable as just if presented as The Natural Order of Things.
Patrimonial rule helps explain why the long march of U.S. empire proved an advantageous political container for capital’s development. The household mode of production had already wedded together absolutist security in property holdings with racialised and gendered dependency—a heritage of empire. The fruits of toil flowed to others by right of sovereign domain: namely, from the enslaved to slavers, from family members to a patriarch, from artisans to petty employers, and from debtors to ever more distant creditors. Capital transformed these pre-existing social ties into more profitable relationships over time. Antebellum gains were increasingly channelled into ledgers of account, new financial instruments, and business ventures promising higher returns.
The book locates several zones of capital-intensifying activity before the Civil War: Kentucky’s nascent manufacturing sector in the age of Henry Clay, the Whig statesman; Cincinnati’s diverse economy in steamboats, textiles, and sugar by the 1840s; and the plantation-intensive Mississippi and Alabama border by 1859, among others. There is a long-standing debate over whether slavery was capitalist or not. What Parisot brings is a perspective that compares Black enslavement alongside other labour-forms over an extended historical span. He concludes, ‘while the south was organized around capitalist slavery, not all slavery was necessarily capitalist’.8 It turns out there was a great deal of both.
Black enslavement in Missouri, Arkansas, and elsewhere frequently operated like an extension of the patriarchal household mode of production. The household unit’s focus, with three or four people enslaved, remained that of white self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, proximity to waterways like the Mississippi River allowed for denser production of commodities (cotton, tobacco, and sugar) that was attuned to international market demand. Profits from intensive, export-oriented plantations were capitalist and became more clearly so throughout slavery’s expansion after the War of 1812. The enslaved were also treated by white planters as ‘liquid capital’. Black lives were calculated as an abstract investment from birth to death.9 And the total market value of the enslaved in 1860 was immense—greater than the combined sum of antebellum capitalist infrastructure in banks, factories, and railroads.10
Parisot does not linger on agricultural trends above the Mason-Dixon line, except to note that a spectrum was typical from subsistence to composite farming (self-sufficiency plus selective commodity production). We learn that farmers were drawn toward capitalist agriculture as regional markets grew linked to rapidly urbanizing places in the mid-nineteenth century. Compared with the book’s focus on slavery, farming across the rural north in the decades before the Civil War is relatively underexamined. Ariel Ron’s Grassroots Leviathan, published one year after Parisot’s book, makes a strong case for the economic dynamism of the movement for ‘scientific agriculture’ that swept the rural antebellum north.11 Ron argues that productivist ‘free labour’ farmers preferred a developmental state. Their state-building efforts were blocked by southern slave-owners leery of centralised national authority. Importantly, the northern agricultural constituency that Ron explores became a bulwark of partisan realignment in the 1850s. Farmers in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa backed a new Republican party that waged war against the slaveholding south after 1861. Military conquest of the rebellious south created the conditions ripe for a revolutionary phase of emancipation after 1863, and the rise of a powerful developmental state.
Class, Party, State
How America Became Capitalist has the virtue of being expansive while succinct, but there is some unevenness, too. Parisot skilfully navigates the reader between meta-historical processes (imperial expansion, capital accumulation) and their rooting in micro-level political economy (the household unit). But we do lose sight of what might be termed meso-level developments. By this, I mean the tier of collective action, party politics, and institutional change over time.
It is not always clear what role political institutions played in America’s capitalist transition. Notably, the question of institutional development has become a fault line in debates over ‘Political Marxism’.12 To be sure, Parisot discusses how the adoption of the Constitution of 1787 favoured influential creditors and speculators over debtors, small farmers, and the landless. He is attuned to factions in territorial Kentucky that deployed public authority to encourage land speculation and to stimulate local manufacturing. But capital enjoyed many friends during its extended period as junior partner to European and U.S. imperialism. Who were these political allies? And what did they want?
After independence, both the Federalist and the later Whig traditions sought to build an American state up to the task of capital accumulation. Developmentalists like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay aimed to invest in public works (‘internal improvements’), consolidate domestic markets, and to generate an economically productive public debt. The role of merchant capital in advancing a coherent political program is undeniable, from Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures (1791) to Clay’s ‘American System’ (1824). In explaining capitalist transitions, Jairus Banaji’s ‘commercial capitalism’ thesis locates a decisive role for merchants in driving innovations in manufacturing.13 The Brenner-Wood framework, on the other hand, places rural productivity gains front and centre. Parisot at times straddles the line between both camps.14 But in the dearth of attention committed to international circuits of trade, it appears that he favours the latter.
There is arguably more to say about the role of merchants in the U.S. case, at least from the vantage of institutional politics. Nothing demonstrates the weakness of mercantile and industrial capital more than its two main political vehicles. During the First (1790s to 1820s) and Second Party Systems (1830s to 1850s), neither the Federalists nor Whigs achieved stable electoral majorities. Both governed only briefly at the national level. Their political failures were so complete that they ultimately disappeared. The Jeffersonians (1800–1828) and Jacksonians (1829–1860) were the ones who constructed enduring partisan regimes, by contrast—and they consciously sought to delimit concentrations of capital that were not based in slavery. Jeffersonians were averse to the state capacity—centralised taxation and a large standing army—associated with the maintenance of great public debts. During his presidency, Andrew Jackson vetoed the Mayesville Road bill, turning federal support away from productivity-enhancing internal improvements. He also killed the Second Bank of the United States, a top priority of wealthy urban voters.
Here is where conventional approaches to political institutions, like historical institutionalism or political development, would benefit from engaging with Parisot’s materialist analysis. Let me give an example. In 1838, Samuel Swartwout, Collector of the Port of New York, was caught embezzling between one and two million dollars from the U.S. government. For years, it turned out, Swartwout had improperly commandeered federal revenues, taxes on commercial imports, and invested those funds into shady land speculations in Mexican Texas. Swartwout was concurrently a leader of Tammany Hall, the New York Democratic political machine. In that role, he actively mobilised the party on behalf of pro-Texas separatists to help ensure the profitability of his private land investments.15
For years, I struggled to make sense of Swartwout’s wild adventure: he lost a stolen fortune and then hastily escaped overseas to Europe. Parisot never mentions Swartwout, the Custom House, or the Jacksonian spoils system. And yet, How America Became Capitalist finally brings the significance of this episode into sharp relief. While the American state taxed merchants, Jacksonian officeholders like Swartwout used political institutions—like the Custom House and the mass party—to mobilise capital aggressively on behalf of pro-slavery expansionism.
By comparison, the speculative bubble unleashed by Republicans after the Civil War was different. The newly empowered warfare state—what Richard Bensel has called the ‘Yankee Leviathan’—fuelled the growth of railroads, telegraphs, and a system of national banking that pried open the vast lands of the west to large-scale mining and agribusiness. Crédit Mobilier was the kind of scandal that could only have occurred in the heyday of the Republican developmental state. The public learned in the early 1870s that congressmen had been given stock in railroad companies that received federal charters and generous subsidies, which effectively made them co-investors along with leading railroad capitalists. The antebellum south’s stranglehold over national politics had blocked this style of Hamiltonian state capitalism for generations.
In this way, the political coherence of the antebellum Jefferson-Jackson mass social base of white male property owners, and its historical association of racism with antistatism, arose from empire’s grassroots redoubt in the patriarchal household.16 Parisot makes this institutional connection apparent. Wherever the patriarchal household mode of production was hegemonic, debt and wage labour were seen as creeping threats to manly autonomy. Taxpayer and property requirements for white male suffrage, in some places as late as the 1850s, meant that any such ‘dependence’ posed legal barriers to civic standing. Debtors and wage earners were understood in the Jeffersonian tradition as clients subject to the dangerously unrepublican influence of more powerful moneyed patrons. And the greatest threat of all was equal civic standing for Black Americans, a prospect which Jackson’s chief justice, Roger Taney, attempted to foreclose with the infamous case Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Parisot thus offers a way to understand how white populism—a central mover of American politics—was socially constituted in property relations.
How America Became Capitalist is likely to become a popular touchstone in years to come for those who want to understand the United States and its relationship to the North American continent and to the world. Readers will find this book highly accessible, with careful attention to historical methods, and a lucid analysis that can be leveraged for comparison with other capitalist transitions. It is also a timely book. Wars of imperial overstretch in Afghanistan and Iraq, the subprime housing crisis of 2008-9, and the rise of Trumpian neo-patrimonial rule, appear to have unmoored the United States from its place at the centre of globalized capitalism. What does the future hold? Looking back to the historical role of imperial development can help us make sense of whether capitalist societies like the U.S. are arriving at a new critical juncture.
Jeff Broxmeyer is an associate professor at The University of Toledo. His first book, Electoral Capitalism: The Party System In New York’s Gilded Age, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2020. His current project examines clientelism in American political development.
1 T.H. Aston and C.H.E Philpin ed., The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge University Press  1995); Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, 2017); Charles Post, The American Road To Capitalism: Studies in Class-Structure, Economic Development and Political Conflict, 1620–1877 (Haymarket, 2012).
2 Karen Orren, Belated Feudalism: Labor, the Law, and Liberal Development in the United States (Cambridge University Press, 1991). Prior to Orren, the orthodox narrative established by Louis Hartz in the 1950s held that America was born free of Europe’s feudal albatross, which endowed a liberal inheritance untarnished by proletarian revolution or aristocratic reaction. Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (Harcout,  1991).
3 Examining a later historical period, Alphonso finds a north-south sectional divide over family politics with four additional cross-cutting dimensions: biological ascription, family autonomy from the state, regulation of private behaviour, and social welfare. Gwendoline Alphonso, Polarized Families, Polarized Parties: Contesting Values and Economics in American Politics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
4 John Gerring, Party Ideologies in America, 1828-1996 (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
5 Thomas Richards Jr., Breakaway Americas: The Unmanifest Future of the Jacksonian United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).
6 Paul Frymer, Building an American Empire: The Era of Territorial and Political Expansion (Princeton University Press, 2017).
7 Aston and Philpin, Brenner Debate; Wood, Origins of Capitalism.
8 Parisot, How American Became Capitalist, 140.
9 Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, In The Building of a Nation (Beacon Press, 2017).
10 Alan Taylor, American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783–1850, (W.W. Norton and Company, 2022), 196.
11 Ariel Ron, Grassroots Leviathan: Agricultural Reform and the Rural North in the Slaveholding Republic (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).
12 See the symposium in Historical Materialism Volume 29, No. 3 (2021).
13 Jairus Banaji, A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism (Haymarket Books, 2020).
14 Parisot, How America Became Capitalist, 13.
15 Leo Hershkowitz, “The Land of Promise’: Samuel Swartwout and Land Speculation in Texas, 1830–1838,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 48:4 (October 1964): 307–326.
16 Gerring, Party Ideologies In America, chapter 5. See also Robin Einhorn, American Taxation, American Slavery (University of Chicago Press, 2006).