Watson Institute at Brown University
Stone Inequality Initiative
Seth Rockman

Seth Rockman

Seth Rockman

Associate Professor of History

Areas of Interest: Revolutionary and Early Republic United States history, with a focus on the relationship of slavery and capitalism in American economic and social development.


Seth Rockman is a historian of the United States, specializing in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War. His research has explored the relationship of capitalism and slavery in American economic and political development, albeit typically from the perspective of labor and social history-- that is, with a focus on how ordinary and marginalized people navigated class relations in a slaveholding republic. Rockman's 2009 book, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore, sought to do something akin to Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel & Dimed, only two centuries earlier. Scraping Byexplored the survival strategies of day laborers, dockworkers, seamstresses, and domestic servants-- across lines of color and legal status-- in a boomtown Atlantic port city. The book was honored with the Merle Curti Prize for Social History from the Organization of American Historians, the Philip Taft Labor History Book Award, and the H.L. Mitchell Prize from the Southern Historical Association.

Rockman's time at Brown has coincided with the university's self-study of its relationship to the transatlantic slave trade. Rockman participated in the research to support the 2006 Slavery & Justice Report, and his essay "The Dialectics of Racism and Repair"appears in the 2021 second edition of the report. Rockman currently sits on the faculty advisory board of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Slavery's broader economic entanglements drive his current research, a book tentatively-entitled "Plantation Goods and the National Economy of Slavery in Antebellum America." This study seeks to put New England mill hands and Mississippi field hands in the same frame to understand slavery as a national institution that structured economic possibilies thousands of miles removed from plantation spaces in the American south. In the 2016 volume, Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, Rockman and his co-editor Sven Beckert gathererd the leading historical scholarship on slavery's centrality to the rapid ascent of the US economy in the decades following national independence. 

Rockman has also been an organizing figure in the emergent "history of capitalism" field. His 2014 essay, "What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy" spelled out some of the key analytic moves of the field, and Rockman has foregrounded these questions in his teaching at Brown. His undergraduate History of Capitalism lecture course was recently profiled in the Brown Alumni Magazine, and a comparable graduate seminar recently generated a useful bibliography for researchers new to the field. Rockman also teaches courses on the American Revolution, Early American Money, and the Problem of Class in Early American history.