‘The Lehman Trilogy’ and Wall Street’s Debt to Slavery

The real moral exemplum about capitalism and the American Dream to be found in the story of Lehman Brothers is not how they lost touch with their mercantile roots, tempted by the lure of speculative wealth. It is the way in which the South’s investment in the cotton economy profoundly shaped American history from the antebellum period onward, particularly in the slave economy’s legacy of white wealth and black impoverishment, white privilege and black disenfranchisement. Within two decades of the end of the Civil War, the Lehmans had quit cotton factoring and the South, transforming themselves into a Northern finance powerhouse on Wall Street. It is that process of transformation—leaving slavery behind but banking its profits—that is the story not only of Lehman Brothers, but also of the formation of modern American capitalism.

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