Last month, researchers at University College London made public a database that describes in illuminating detail one of the largest government bailouts in modern history. In 1833, Britain paid 20 million pounds to compensate 3,000 Caribbean slaveholders for the emancipation of their slaves. The payments constituted about 40 percent of total governmental expenditures that year. Conversation about the database in Britain centered on the recipients of these reparations for slaveholders, among them the ancestors of George Orwell, Graham Greene and David Cameron.

Apart from a few hundred slaveholders in the District of Columbia, no one in the United States received such compensation for the loss of their human property. According to Abraham Lincoln, at least, the cost of emancipation in the United States was to be reckoned in blood. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln said he feared God would will the war to continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

This reckoning of the value of slaves in blood and treasure raises an important, though too frequently overlooked, question. What was the role of slavery in American economic development?

The most familiar answer to that question is: not much. By most accounts, the triumph of freedom and the birth of capitalism are seen as the same thing. The victory of the North over the South in the Civil War represents the victory of capitalism over slavery, of the future over the past, of the factory over the plantation. In actual fact, however, in the years before the Civil War, there was no capitalism without slavery. The two were, in many ways, one and the same.

Read it at NY Times.