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Slavery may have been abolished in the United States 140 years ago, but a full accounting of its effects is still being rendered. Wachovia Corporation and JPMorgan Chase & Co. recently released reports that detailed how some of their predecessor institutions in the 1800s accepted hundreds or thousands of slaves as collateral for loans, and became slave owners themselves when borrowers defaulted. Both banks issued public apologies and pledged millions for African American educational and historical programs. Wachovia and JPMorgan aren’t the first modern American companies to admit historical links to slavery, and they certainly won’t be the last. They were complying with a Chicago ordinance that requires businesses with city contracts to disclose whether they profited from slavery. Other corporations with slavery ties have been sued for reparations by the descendants of slaves. So the time is perfect for Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. Authors Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank show how northern businesses � many of them the forebears of contemporary corporations � were enriched by slavery. Within just a few pages, Complicity draws financial connections from the slave trade to Lehman Brothers, Tiffany’s, and even the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The authors are reporters at The Hartford Courant, and their book is an expansion of a prize-winning article they wrote for that newspaper three years ago. (The original piece was partly inspired by the experience of Hartford-based Aetna Inc., which in 2000 admitted that it had written insurance policies on slaves prior to 1865, and has since been one of the companies targeted in reparations suits.) Complicity’s virtues and flaws both stem from its journalistic origins. The authors write in a lively, energetic prose that stands in sharp relief to staid, scholarly histories. But their book suffers from amateurish execution, haphazard structure, simplistic analysis, and occasional overreaching that make it inadequate as an authoritative study. Even with its several flaws, Complicity conclusively proves that Southerners weren’t the only Americans to enjoy the fruits of slavery. Establishing the guilt of many northern businesses, though, raises the question of how long that guilt can last. The authors take it as a given that present-day companies which can trace any element of their current prosperity to profits from slavery are, by definition, tainted. Many readers won’t agree, and not necessarily because they’re racist or ignorant. It’s debatable whether a corporation should be held to a higher standard of morality than would be expected of an individual. At least in modern law, a person can’t be asked to pay the penalty for a crime committed by a long-distant ancestor. But one of the first tenets of business law, however, is that corporations are immortal. So perhaps it’s not unreasonable to argue that corporate responsibility should last forever as well. Complicity takes an episodic approach, with each chapter focusing on a different aspect of the authors’ research. When they tackle the right subject, the results make for terrific reading. The life of Venture Smith, a slave in 1750s Connecticut, is remarkable not only for what it tells us about slavery in the North, but also for its vivid portrait of an extraordinary individual. Smith � his first name came from his owner’s business endeavors � dared to physically rebel against his owners. He bought freedom for himself and his family, and even went on to own a substantial amount of property, including a merchant ship. Not all of Complicity’s subjects are as well chosen. There’s a scattershot quality to the authors’ topics, as though their research wholly dictated their writing. However, sometimes an unexpected tangent proves inspired, in particular a later chapter on the ivory trade. And despite the authors’ strong beliefs, they don’t lecture. So while readers won’t feel hectored, they won’t be reassured either. Complicity makes the ties between current institutions and “the peculiar institution” all too clear. The experience of JPMorgan, Wachovia, and Aetna suggests that other businesses will eventually be brought to a reckoning. Complicity shows just how complicated that reckoning may be. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. By Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank (Ballantine Books; 257 pages) Vincent is a former staff reporter at The American Lawyer, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.

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