The Half has Never been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
by Edward E. Baptist
I was fascinated by Baptist’s argument that an important foundation of American capitalism, and an essential element in the economic success of the country, was slavery. Every modern American understands that slavery is evil (although not perhaps how evil, as Baptist points out). But many contemporary students of economics believe that slavery in the Southern United States was the foundation of a system that was not only destined to fail, but to do so soon. They submit that it is even possible to think that the Civil War was unnecessary because slavery was about to dissolve. As an economic system it was outdated and pre-industrial. The mechanized North was doing quite well without it. Why sacrifice so many lives in war to fight a system that was on the verge of crashing?
Baptist turns this argument on its head. In a well-researched book filled with moving stories of individual slaves, he convincingly argues that America has its slaves to thank for the success of its economy. If the North was doing well with its textile mills, this was only because of the increasingly large crop of Southern cotton that was yearly harvested. Should anyone believe that slaves who picked cotton couldn’t be made to work faster and meet ever growing demand, Baptist gives the proof of how slave productivity increased four hundred percent over eighty years–through torture. So there were innovations in the system, but they were all innovations of violence–in the types, levels, and frequency of use. Enslaved African Americans were the most efficient producers of cotton in the world, driving other countries out of the market. Whenever it became more profitable to grow cotton in another state (“Alabama fever”), slaves were torn from home and family to start over on new, distant plantations. Southern credit schemes made it possible for white people with little land or money to work the system and become slave owners and cotton producers. Slavery had a deep influence on politics and elections. All this added up to lower real prices of cotton, which helped American workers (non-slaves) and consumers of cotton clothing.
Baptist’s proofs are compelling. He uses many primary sources including plantation records and news articles. The most wrenching are the slave narratives about the lives of those who picked cotton. (The Depression era Works Progress Administration interviewed many former slaves and Baptist uses these records.) He ventures into related topics, arguing that a Haitian-style rebellion couldn’t have worked in the U.S. He details the effect of outlawing Black preachers and literacy for slaves. He discusses ‘fancy maids,’ pretty slave women who were forced into sexual slavery. He details the rise of the abolition movement in the thirty years before the Civil War. His narrative is all the more moving as he labels the chapters to coincide with human body parts–to break down the slave into useful pieces the way that slave owners saw them. As a reader, I found the most compelling of these discussions was on the use of the word ‘hand’ to represent a whole person, and how enslavers used ‘right-handed’–or complete–power to control other human beings.
High school housekeeping: The Half has Never Been Told is such a compelling book, equally for its argument, its basis in research, and for exploring the human side of a tragic part of American history. I wish all our students would read it. Yet, it’s not an easy book. It’s long (almost 500 pages, but the last 75 are research notes and the index, so 425 pages of reading). If you have any interest in American history or in economics, please take on this book. And don’t fret over the beginning–it’s a few pages of very dry overview and not at all like the tone of the remainder of the book, which will pull you forward with its tales of injustice and greed. It will also make you consider learning more about some of the topics that are mentioned–Andrew Jackson, banks of the period, the removal of American Indians.
When I think of this book and another vast work that I recently tackled (Capital in the Twenty-First Century), I realize that a significant part of what made America great in the form of a dominant world power with fabulous economic success was that the country had vast natural resources to fuel it; its land was gotten for free or nearly so as it was stolen from American Indians; and a large part of its workforce was enslaved, providing free labor. With free resources, free land, and free labor, it’s not such a mystery why America became the world power it has become. We should at least acknowledge this and show a debt of gratitude for those on whose backs this country rose.