THE HALF HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD
Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
By Edward E. Baptist
Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” Os responsáveis deveriam estar muito distraídos, porque logo no mesmo dia publicaram uma rectificação e pedido de desculpa aos leitores que transcrevo já a seguir. O autor do livro também lhes respondeu, através do jornal “Politico”, que também reproduzo.
É um livro muito interessante, embora não me pareça bem escrito. É muito longo e às vezes custa um pouco a ler. De vez em quando, em vez de história, faz literatura. As histórias dos personagens são interrompidas por narrações factuais e quando eles reaparecem, já não nos lembramos onde é que eles iam.
Mas sim, é um livro com muito interesse. Escreve a história da escravatura nos Estados Unidos, desde a independência em 1783 até ao final da guerra civil de 1861-1865. Na vida de muitos antigos escravos, esta parte (antes de serem forros) era a metade que faltava contar e de que o Autor se propõe narrar a história.
Em 1808, acabou oficialmente o tráfico de escravos de África para as Américas, o que se costuma chamar de Middle Passage. Calcula-se que foram dez milhões que atravessaram o mar, levados por Portugueses, Espanhóis, Franceses e Ingleses. Entre nós, a saga da escravatura ou não é estudada ou é mal estudada, o que não admiraria no tempo de Salazar, mas me deixa perplexo, depois da reintrodução da democracia no 25 de Abril. A última tese de jeito apresentada sobre o assunto foi a de Celme Coelho da Cruz em 1966, na Faculdade de Letras de Lisboa e nem sequer foi publicada.
O escravo não tinha personalidade e pelos portugueses era chamado uma “peça”, quando era vendido. Nos USA era uma “hand”, a mão que tinha por tarefa apanhar o algodão, cada vez mais rápido. Não era diferente do gado, peças de escravos, como peças de gado. Segundo os donos dos escravos americanos, o preto não tinha alma, por isso, não era diferente dos animais. Não tinha família, e se um homem e uma mulher encetavam uma relação, corriam o risco de se ver separados, por o dono decidir vender um deles para qualquer lado. Do mesmo modo, os filhos eram vendidos como se fossem crias de animais, não pertenciam aos pais, mas sim aos donos destes. Até um homem ponderado como foi Thomas Jefferson (Presidente entre 1801-1809) se atreveu a dizer que a separação dos que lhes eram queridos importava em pouco para os Afro-Americanos”.
Tendo embora acabado oficialmente em 1808 o tráfico de escravos entre África e as Américas, o Autor estima que até final do século, pelo menos mais 300 000 foram trazidos de África só para os Estados Unidos. Entretanto formaram-se nos USA alguns estados livres, enquanto noutros (no Sul) se compravam cada vez mais escravos para a cultura do algodão. Como o território era muito vasto, os preços dos escravos eram muito variáveis e assim os negociantes iam comprá-los onde eram mais baratos e levavam-nos acorrentados para onde os podiam vender com lucro.
O Autor atribui a prosperidade dos Estados Unidos, por um lado ao roubo da terra aos Índios e depois à exploração dos escravos no cultivo do algodão. Para estes, o grande incentivo era o chicote, que os capatazes usavam com frequência. Estabelecido o número de sacos que cada escravo tinha de recolher, no final do dia tinha como certas tantas chicotadas quantas o número de sacos que tinham faltado para atingir a previsão. Deste modo, foi possível fazer duplicar o número de sacos que corresponderia a uma apanha normal.
Uma coisa que me impressionou foi que, segundo diz o Autor, nos estados esclavagistas do Sul, apenas um quarto da população tinha escravos, o que significa que os restantes três quartos fizeram a guerra civil, defendendo os interesses daquela minoria.
O Autor calcula em cerca de 4 milhões o número de escravos nos Estados Unidos, quando começou a guerra civil
Sep 4th 2014 |
: In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so. We have therefore withdrawn the review, but in the interests of transparency the text remains available only on this special page and appears below.
“FOR sale: a coloured girl, of very superior qualifications…a bright mulatto, fine figure, straight, black hair, and very black eyes; very neat and cleanly in her dress and person.” Such accounts of people being marketed like livestock punctuate Edward Baptist’s grim history of the business of slavery.
Although the import of African slaves into the United States was stopped in 1807, the country’s internal slave trade continued to prosper and expand for a long time afterwards. Right up until the outbreak of the civil war in 1861, the American-born children and grandchildren of enslaved Africans were bought cheap in Virginia and Maryland to be sold dear in private deals and public auctions to cotton planters in the deep South.
Tall men commanded higher prices than short ones. Women went for less than men. The best bids were for men aged 18 to 25 and for women aged 15 to 22. One slave recalled buyers passing up and down the lines at a Virginia slave auction, asking, “What can you do? Are you a good cook? Seamstress? Dairy maid?” and to the men, “Can you plough? Are you a blacksmith?” Slaves who gave surly answers risked a whipping from their masters.
Raw cotton was America’s most valuable export. It was grown and picked by black slaves. So Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.
Take, for example, the astonishing increases he cites in both cotton productivity and cotton production. In 1860 a typical slave picked at least three times as much cotton a day as in 1800. In the 1850s cotton production in the southern states doubled to 4m bales and satisfied two-thirds of world consumption. By 1860 the four wealthiest states in the United States, ranked in terms of wealth per white person, were all southern: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.
Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.
Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.
By EDWARD BAPTIST
We think of authors as people who lay themselves bare in their books, but perhaps reviewers of books reveal their innermost fears and beliefs as well. That can be true even when—as in the distinguished British periodical the Economist, founded in 1843—the reviewers hide behind anonymity. When Mr./Ms. Anonymous of the Economist reviewed my book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism on Sept. 4, they didn’t much care for it, and that didn’t surprise me. In the last couple of decades, the Economist and its suspender-wearing core readers have usually been reliable allies of market fundamentalism—the idea that everything would be better if measured first and last by its efficiency at producing profit. I, on the other hand, argue in the book that U.S. cotton slavery created—and still taints—the modern capitalist economy which the Economist sometimes seems to prescribe as the cure for all ills. I’d like to think we all agree that slavery was evil. If slavery was profitable—and it was—then it creates an unforgiving paradox for the moral authority of markets—and market fundamentalists. What else, today, might be immoral and yet profitable?
The review was harsh—even embarrassing—but not, as it turned out, for me. The reviewer proclaimed that slave owners probably didn’t mistreat their slaves so much, since enslaved people were actually valuable capital. Then the reviewer illustrated that point with a (flippantly captioned) image of actress Lupita Nyong’o, although the brutal treatment of Patsey, her Oscar-winning role in Twelve years a Slave, actually completely disproves their point.
Almost as soon as the Economist posted the review online, it came in for massive criticism. On Twitter, people ridiculed its claim that by depicting enslaved people as “victims” and their exploitative rapist/torturer enslavers as “villains,” I was somehow abandoning “objectivity” for “advocacy.” Parodies began to collect under the hashtag #economistbookreviews, mockingly suggesting future review titles like “Samantha Power’s Dissection of Kurdish Genocide Would Benefit More from Saddam’s Point of View,” as Paul K. Adler put it. Even the Economist had to concede that the review was a disaster—after less than 24 hours, they took it down, saying: “We regret having published this, and apologize for having done so.”
But what was the review that the Economist should have written? I don’t mean the one my ego wishes everyone would write. Like lots of other people—maybe even some other historians—sometimes I realize that living in the base of my skull is a little tiny Muhammad Ali c. 1964 who keeps hopping around, waving his gloves in the air and screaming “I AM THE GREATEST.” I’m not talking about the review that would please that guy. I’m talking about the review in which the Economist, had it actually engaged with some of my books key arguments and remained true to its own economic worldview, could have offered a reasoned critique. Using the magazine’s free-market fundamentalist theories about how the global economy works and should work, what would a smart, sensible review look like?
To do this, let’s put aside the review-as-written’s worn-out paternalist baggage about slaves being “well-treated” because of their value. Let’s ignore the way it cavalierly dismisses more than 2,300 formerly enslaved people’s interviews and autobiographies, which I drew upon for accounts of their own daily lives, as the habit of suggesting African Americans’ historical voices somehow carry less weight than the accounts of those who exploited them is a long-standing pattern among those who minimize slavery’s brutality.
Instead of simply complaining that I treated all enslavers as “villains,” the reviewer could’ve used the basic microeconomics of supply and demand to critique my portrayal of most enslavers as ruthless exploiters. In the book, I explain that we know now that enslaved people picked cotton more and more rapidly over time. According to survivors of slavery, enslavers accomplished a lot of that increase by implementing a “pushing system” of brutal labor management.
Edward Baptist is Associate Professor of History and Dean of Carl Becker House at Cornell University. His book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism has just been published by Basic Books, and you can follow him on Twitter at @Ed_Baptist. Along with Louis Hyman, he also just release American Capitalism: a Reader (Simon and Schuster).
The New York Times
OCT. 3, 2014
THE HALF HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD
Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
By Edward E. Baptist
Illustrated. 498 pp. Basic Books. $35.
“Have you been happier in slavery or free?” a young Works Project Administration interviewer in 1937 asked Lorenzo Ivy, a former slave, in Danville, Va. Ivy responded with a memory of seeing chained African-Americans marching farther South to be sold.
“Truly, son, the half has never been told,” he said.
This anecdote is how Edward E. Baptist opens “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” an examination of both the economic innovations that grew out of the ever-shifting institution of slavery and the suffering of generations of people who were bought and sold.
Mr. Baptist, a history professor at Cornell, said in an interview that his book represented his decade-long effort to blend these two aspects. Published in September, “The Half” joins a new wave of scholarship about the centrality of slavery — and the cotton picked by slaves — to the country’s economic development.
Mr. Baptist shows the ways that new financial products, bonds that used enslaved people as collateral and were sold to bondholders in this country and abroad, enriched investors worldwide. He also emphasizes viciously enforced slave labor and migration. The cotton boom led planters to sell slaves — one million moved from old to new slave states from the 1790s to the 1860s. Productivity, he argues, came through punishment. Enslaved and formerly enslaved people like Ivy are at the center of this sprawling story.
“I didn’t know how big the topic was going to be,” Mr. Baptist, 44, said in a telephone interview from Ithaca, N.Y. “I was most interested in looking at the experiences of people sold by slave traders.”
Sometimes unfolding in a novelistic way, his book casts unreimbursed labor as torture and Southern plantations as labor camps. Mr. Baptist imagines the thoughts of a slave being put to death. He quotes exchanges between planters about the sexual exploitation of enslaved women. He describes a Maryland county in which about 10 percent of enslaved people 16 to 25 were sold in an 18-month period.
Wading through the research, Mr. Baptist said he realized that he had two big stories. “One is the expansion of American capitalism on the backs of enslaved human beings,” said Mr. Baptist, who grew up in Durham, N.C., the son of a librarian mother and a biochemist father. “And the other is the way they had to move faster and faster and think harder and harder,” he said of those slaves. “Historians have spent a lot of time talking about whether African-Americans resisted. In forced migrations, survival was a kind of resistance in finding ways to stand in solidarity with each other and to write stories about themselves to say: This is a crime.”
In his work, Mr. Baptist also followed the money. “I started tracking the process of credit flow into the South, huge amounts of money,” he said. “Southerners created numerous financial innovations that were essential to the process of the domestic slave trade. Slave owners put mortgages on slaves as they bought them. Britain had abolished slavery, but you can essentially buy slaves by buying one of those bonds. It shows the linkage.”
As he writes in the book: “The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African-Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.”
Suresh Naidu, a Columbia University economist who also studies slavery, said economists would call for even more quantitative evidence for Mr. Baptist’s arguments but said his book was a “great interpretation of slavery.” Economic historians have tended to focus on how market forces blunted the worst aspects of slavery, Mr. Naidu said, but Mr. Baptist demonstrates how the drive for profit exacerbated physical punishment and forced migration.
Mr. Baptist’s work joins that of historians like Walter Johnson at Harvard (“River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom”) and Craig Steven Wilder at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities”). Taken together, their books, both from 2013, connected the dots among plantation labor, London bankers and Northeast factories, and the creation of Ivy League universities.
“Empire of Cotton: A Global History,” by Sven Beckert, a Harvard history professor, due out this year, looks at global capitalism through the lens of the history of cotton. Daina Ramey Berry, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, is writing a book on the monetary value of enslaved people from before conception (slaves were valued for their reproductive abilities) to after death.
In an interview, Mr. Johnson said “Half” had broken new ground in the way it explored the relationship between slave markets and capital markets. In particular, he said, Mr. Baptist shows how the Bank of the United States (in which federal funds were deposited) was lending money to slave traders. Planters would mortgage their slaves to raise money, and those mortgages were sold to investors. Mr. Johnson also cited Mr. Baptist’s argument that huge increases in cotton-picking over the course of the antebellum period were due almost entirely to violence against slaves. Historians have often attributed that increase to the emergence of new, easier-to-pick strains of cotton and the cotton gin, Mr. Johnson said.
Seth Rockman, a historian at Brown University, himself at work on a book about how New England industries manufactured plantation goods, said Mr. Baptist had advanced the story by connecting “the day-to-day violence of plantation labor to the largest macroeconomic questions of the West’s economic takeoff in the 19th century.”
“The Half Has Never Been Told” entered the Twittersphere when a review in The Economist in September took Mr. Baptist to task for advocacy and for depicting most whites as villains and most blacks as victims. That review was so derided by readers that the magazine withdrew it and posted an apology online. Other reviews, including those in The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times have been far more positive. A review in Daily Kos review in Daily Kos said Mr. Baptist “takes apart the myths that our society has created to make us more comfortable with our slave-owning past.”
His own journey into that past was intellectually satisfying but sometimes emotionally challenging, Mr. Baptist said. He recalled reading an interview with a woman whose enslaved mother toiled in the fields of a small Kentucky farm in the 1850s, sometimes returning home to discover that another child of hers had been sold away.
“In 1850, people could have given up,” Mr. Baptist said. “There was no reason to expect this would end anytime soon. That was a moment, reading that interview, that brought home all the implications of the history.”
The New York Times
For residents of the world’s pre-eminent capitalist nation, American historians have produced remarkably few studies of capitalism in the United States. This situation was exacerbated in the 1970s, when economic history began to migrate from history to economics departments, where it too often became an exercise in scouring the past for numerical data to plug into computerized models of the economy. Recently, however, the history of American capitalism has emerged as a thriving cottage industry. This new work portrays capitalism not as a given (something that “came in the first ships,” as the historian Carl Degler once wrote) but as a system that developed over time, has been constantly evolving and penetrates all aspects of society.
Slavery plays a crucial role in this literature. For decades, historians depicted the institution as unprofitable and on its way to extinction before the Civil War (a conflict that was therefore unnecessary). Recently, historians like Sven Beckert, Robin Blackburn and Walter Johnson have emphasized that cotton, the raw material of the early Industrial Revolution, was by far the most important commodity in 19th-century international trade and that capital accumulated through slave labor flowed into the coffers of Northern and British bankers, merchants and manufacturers. And far from being economically backward, slave owners pioneered advances in modern accounting and finance.
Edward E. Baptist situates “The Half Has Never Been Told” squarely within this context. Baptist, who teaches at Cornell University, is the author of a well-regarded study of slavery in Florida. Now he expands his purview to the entire cotton kingdom, the heartland of 19th-century American slavery. (Unfortunately, slavery in the Upper South, where cotton was not an economic staple, is barely discussed, even though as late as 1860 more slaves lived in Virginia than any other state.) In keeping with the approach of the new historians of capitalism, the book covers a great deal of ground — not only economic enterprise but religion, ideas of masculinity and gender, and national and Southern politics. Baptist’s work is a valuable addition to the growing literature on slavery and American development.
Where Baptist breaks new ground is in his emphasis on the centrality of the interstate trade in slaves to the regional and national economies and his treatment of the role of extreme violence in the workings of the slave system. After the legal importation of slaves from outside the country ended in 1808, the spread of slavery into the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico would not have been possible without the enormous uprooting of people from Maryland and Virginia. Almost one million slaves, Baptist estimates, were transported to the cotton fields from the Upper South in the decades before the Civil War.
The domestic slave trade was highly organized and economically efficient, relying on such modern technologies as the steamboat, railroad and telegraph. For African-Americans, its results were devastating. Since buyers preferred young workers “with no attachments,” the separation of husbands from wives and parents from children was intrinsic to its operation, not, as many historians have claimed, a regrettable side effect. Baptist shows how slaves struggled to recreate a sense of community in the face of this disaster.
The sellers of slaves, Baptist insists, were not generally paternalistic owners who fell on hard times and parted reluctantly with members of their metaphorical plantation “families,” but entrepreneurs who knew an opportunity for gain when they saw one. As for the slave traders — the middlemen — they excelled at maximizing profits. They not only emphasized the labor abilities of those for sale (reinforced by humiliating public inspections of their bodies), but appealed to buyers’ salacious fantasies. In the 1830s, the term “fancy girl” began to appear in slave-trade notices to describe young women who fetched high prices because of their physical attractiveness. “Slavery’s frontier,” Baptist writes, “was a white man’s sexual playground.”
The cotton kingdom that arose in the Deep South was incredibly brutal. Violence against Native Americans who originally owned the land, competing imperial powers like Spain and Britain and slave rebels solidified American control of the Gulf states. Violence, Baptist contends, explains the remarkable increase of labor productivity on cotton plantations. Without any technological innovations in cotton picking, output per hand rose dramatically between 1800 and 1860. Some economic historians have attributed this to incentives like money payments for good work and the opportunity to rise to skilled positions. Baptist rejects this explanation.
Planters called their method of labor control the “pushing system.” Each slave was assigned a daily picking quota, which increased steadily over time. Baptist, who feels that historians too often employ circumlocutions that obscure the horrors of slavery, prefers to call it “the ‘whipping-machine’ system.” In fact, the word we should really use, he insists, is “torture.” To make slaves work harder and harder, planters utilized not only incessant beating but forms of discipline familiar in our own time — sexual humiliation, bodily mutilation, even waterboarding. In the cotton kingdom, “white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed.” When Abraham Lincoln reminded Americans in his Second Inaugural Address of the 250 years of “blood drawn with the lash” that preceded the Civil War, he was making a similar point: Violence did not begin in the United States with the firing on Fort Sumter.
Baptist has a knack for explaining complex financial matters in lucid prose. He relates how in the 1830s Southern banks developed new financial instruments, bonds with slaves as collateral, that enabled planters to borrow enormous amounts of money to acquire new land, and how lawmakers backed these bonds with the state’s credit. A speculative bubble ensued, and when it collapsed, taxpayers were left to foot the bill. But rather than bailing out Northern and European bondholders, several states simply defaulted on their debts. Many planters fled with their slaves to Texas, until 1845 an independent republic, to avoid creditors. “Honor,” a key element in Southern notions of masculinity, went only so far.
By the 1850s, prosperity returned to the cotton economy, and planters had no difficulty obtaining loans in financial markets. As the railroad opened new areas to cultivation and cotton output soared, slave owners saw themselves as a modern, successful part of the world capitalist economy. They claimed the right to bring their slaves into all the nation’s territories, and indeed into free states. These demands aroused intense opposition in the North, leading to Lincoln’s election, secession and civil war.
Baptist clearly hopes his findings will reach a readership beyond academe — a worthy ambition. He pursues this goal, however, in ways that sometimes undermine the book’s coherence. The chapter titles, which refer to parts of the body, often have little connection to the content that follows. Presumably to avoid sounding academic, he sprinkles the text with anachronistic colloquialisms (“the president was all in” is how he describes Franklin Pierce’s embrace of the Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854) and with telegraphic sentences more appropriate for Twitter. Occasionally, he deploys four-letter words that cannot be reproduced in these pages. This is unnecessary — his story does not require additional shock value.
It is hardly a secret that slavery is deeply embedded in our nation’s history. But many Americans still see it as essentially a footnote, an exception to a dominant narrative of the expansion of liberty on this continent. If the various elements of “The Half Has Never Been Told” are not entirely pulled together, its underlying argument is persuasive: Slavery was essential to American development and, indeed, to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.
Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia, won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” His next book, “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad,” will appear in January.
Los Angeles Times
September 4, 2014
“THE HALF HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD” looks at the economics of slavery
By Hector Tobar
The Half Has Never Been Told
Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Edward E. Baptist
Basic; 528 pp., $35
The image of the genteel, benevolent Southern slave owner was the creation of early 20th century artists and writers like D.W. Griffith and Margaret Mitchell. Life on the antebellum plantation, they led us to believe, was as languid as a slow-moving river winding through magnolia trees.
At about the same time, American historians were writing the first analyses of slave-centered Southern society. Slavery was an economically inefficient institution, they argued. For slave owners, profit was a secondary concern. Being lord of the manor was its own reward.
In "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," Cornell professor Edward E. Baptist makes a persuasive case that slavery wasn't like that at all. Plantations ("slave labor camps," he calls them) were run with the ruthless efficiency of your average sweatshop. This ambitious new economic and social history of antebellum America suggests that the bondage of African Americans is just another chapter in the rise of the global economy.
The cotton boom that started just after 1800 changed the American economy, Baptist argues. Before then, slavery was in decline. But with the spread of the Industrial Revolution, cotton became the world's most traded commodity. "The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy," Baptist writes. "In fact, slavery's expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation…"
The growing demand for cotton in the first decades of the 19th century fueled a land grab in what was then the southwest of the United States (the territories that would become Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana). To pick all that cotton, landowners in the old southwest purchased and transported large numbers of slaves from Virginia and Maryland, Baptist writes. Chained together in "coffles," groups of newly purchased slaves walked hundreds of miles to their new workplaces. These forced marches were a common sight in the first half of the 19th century. Baptist's description of them is harrowing and based on testimonies of slaves themselves.
Word quickly spread among the slaves that punishing working conditions awaited them, Baptist writes. "A man or woman who discovered he was being taken south might be desperate enough to do anything," Baptist writes. "Some ran. Some fought like tigers. William Grimes tried to break his own leg with an axe."
Perhaps the most important contribution of "The Half Has Never Been Told" to the literature on slavery is Baptist's ability to convey the size and scope of the slave economy while managing to detail how that economy was built on countless acts of individual cruelty.
Cotton made New Orleans boom. One of its coffeehouses became a slave market, and Baptist describes the city through the eyes of one woman transported there for sale. The auctioneer "brought down the hammer," Baptist writes. "The last heartbeat of Rachel's old life trickled out of its chamber. Her past and her future had just been killed for the profit of others. William Fitz won her at about $800."
As that passage suggests, Baptist's writing can be a bit stilted. He's also prone to using odd abstractions and clunky metaphors to make his arguments, and he occasionally engages in blatant hyperbole. For example, he argues that the United States had a "near-monopoly" in the cotton trade by 1820, even though his own charts show that the U.S. share of global cotton production was then less than 30%.
These are the understandable, minor excesses and errors of a writer who feels compelled to shed light on a massive crime of history. Eventually, the overwhelming power of the stories that Baptist recounts and the plantation-level statistics he's compiled give his book the power of truth and revelation.
Most convincingly, Baptist paints a picture of the plantation as a kind of factory that used "torture" and a speed-up "pushing" system to increase the amount of cotton slaves picked. "Every single day, calibrated pain, regular as a turning gear, challenged enslaved people to exceed the previous day's gains in production," Baptist writes. Between 1820 and 1860, the productivity of cotton-pickers doubled.
Baptist writes also of religion and the impact of slavery and the southwestern cotton boom on American politics, touching on everything from music to the Nat Turner rebellion. At times it feels like he's taken on too much.
But overall, "The Half Has Never Been Told" is a fresh if flawed take on a history we thought we knew too well — the history of a people who were victimized by a medieval brand of capitalism but survived.
"When the survivors began to die off, they could pass on to their descendants very little in the way of material wealth," Baptist writes of the decades after emancipation. "But African Americans had a story that made them a people."
In "The Half Has Never Been Told," Baptist adds many new, stark and essential elements to that story. His most important achievement is to show us how the "dismal science" of economics served to make the lot of slaves even grimmer.
September 5, 2014
Fergus M. Bordewich
Slavery's defenders often portrayed the South's "peculiar institution" as the antithesis of money-grubbing Yankee capitalism, rooted in an idealized agrarian hierarchy of white master and enslaved African that had been ordained for all time by God and natural law. Indeed, they often insisted that it was a supremely charitable endeavor that saved the slave from his own innate barbarism, asserting, for example, that they had to provide for elderly, infirm and immature slaves whether they were productive or not, as if they were members of their own family—albeit of a very inferior sort. As the wealthy South Carolina planter and politician James H. Hammond condescendingly put it in 1845, in a truculent rebuttal to attacks on slavery made by a British abolitionist: "We must therefore content ourselves with our dear labor under the consoling reflection that what is lost to us is gained to humanity." Abolitionists were contemptuous of such self-serving nonsense, but they too tended to see slavery as an economically inefficient, and morally reprehensible, hangover from the premodern past.
In "The Half Has Never Been Told," Edward E. Baptist takes passionate issue with such assumptions. He asserts that slavery was neither inherently inefficient nor a counterpoint to capitalism. Rather, he says, it was woven inextricably into the transnational fabric of early 19th-century capitalism. Banks and financiers fed it with the investment it needed to continue expanding and were rewarded with handsome profits from the labor of enslaved millions. Although crashes, depressions and market fluctuations inevitably affected the slave-based economy, large-scale investors in slavery consistently earned handsome profits, at least in the rich cotton-growing regions of the Deep South.
The morality of slavery rarely if ever entered into the business equation. As the number of slaves in the U.S. swelled from just under one million at the dawn of the century to about four million at the time of the Civil War, investors consistently demonstrated their confidence in slavery's profitability. As the historian Walter Johnson has eloquently put it, slaves represented "a congealed form of the capital upon which the commercial development of the [Mississippi River] Valley depended. . . . The cords of credit and debt—of advance and obligation—that cinched the Atlantic economy together were anchored with the mutually defining values of land and slaves: without land and slaves, there was no credit, and without slaves, land itself was valueless." The value of the dollar, Mr. Johnson adds, "as often as not . . . turned out to be backed by flesh rather than gold."
As early as the 1820s, says Mr. Baptist, slave owners commanded the biggest pool of collateral in the United States: two million slaves worth more than $1 billion. "Not only was that almost 20 percent of all the wealth owned by all US citizens," Mr. Baptist writes, "but it was the most liquid part of that wealth, thanks to the efficiency of markets manned by professional slave traders." Slaves were a uniquely flexible commodity: There was a ready market for them everywhere in the South; they could be either sold or leased; they could be moved from place to place under their own power; and unlike tools and buildings, they naturally reproduced, adding to the value of their master's investment.
As the native Indian tribes were removed from their land—either by treaty or at gunpoint—investment capital gushed in. In just eight years, from 1824 to 1832, the Philadelphia-based Bank of the United States, the banker for the federal government, multiplied the amount of its loans to Mississippi Valley slave owners 16 times over. By 1832, according to Mr. Baptist, at least one-third of all the bank's capital had been allocated to planters, slave traders, merchants and local banks on the "slave frontier" of the southwestern states. The depth of the bank's commitment, in turn, gave European investors the confidence to lavishly inject their own currency into American slavery.
For example, the Consolidated Association of the Planters of Louisiana—a local bank chartered in 1827—enjoyed a lucrative relationship with Baring Brothers of London, a firm that lobbied successfully to persuade the Louisiana legislature to back the association's bonds with public credit. Thus if the association failed to pay off its bonds, Louisiana's taxpayers would be liable for the debt. Baring would eventually handle some $2.5 million in bond sales for the association, marketing to clients in Britain as well as the European continent.
Mr. Baptist writes most effectively about the cotton-growing states of the Mississippi River Valley. During the boom years of the 1830s, the region transformed itself from a frontier backwater into the wealthiest and most productive agricultural region in the United States. Andrew Jackson's termination of the Bank of the United States, in 1836, created new opportunities for buccaneer financiers. A multitude of thinly capitalized and virtually unregulated banks flooded the region with unbacked paper money. In Louisiana alone, the number of such "mushroom banks" quadrupled from four to 16 in just a few years, while the total amount of capital authorized by the state legislature exploded from $9 million to $46 million, giving rise to speculation that New Orleans might soon become America's financial capital.
Remarked one observer in 1835: "People here are run mad with speculation. They do business in . . . a kind of phrenzy." Mr. Baptist notes that since large-scale slave owners commonly included judges, politicians and state officials—that is, the same men who controlled banking policy and debt collection—elite borrowers were rarely foreclosed, even if they fell behind on payments: "As enslavers multiplied their leverage, they multiplied their revenue without increasing their individual risk."
By 1837, the total amount of bank loans available to southwestern borrowers had grown to $80 million from $40 million in 1832—one-third of the national total, Mr. Baptist says, and more than any other region of the United States. Although investment was also made in infrastructure, such as railroads, Mr. Baptist maintains that the major purpose of the loans was to expand the region's agriculture, which meant borrowing to purchase the "tools of the trade"—slaves and more slaves. Companies like Franklin & Armfield were ready to meet the demand.
Mr. Baptist's fine-grained profile of Franklin & Armfield is sadly illuminating. The firm rode rising demand to become the biggest slave-trading company in the United States, moving many thousands of "surplus" slaves from the Upper South to the plantations of what was then called the "Southwest." To finance its activities, Franklin & Armfield drew up to $40,000 at a time from the Bank of the United States to buy slaves for the Mississippi Valley markets. According to Mr. Baptist, about 5% of all the commercial credit handled by the bank in 1831-32 passed at some point through the hands of that single slave-trading company.
Although the vast majority of the company's "human stock" would wind up in the cotton fields, many females, attractive mulattoes in particular, were destined for prostitution. In one of several letters that Mr. Baptist quotes, a company senior partner suggests matter-of-factly that two women he had recently purchased "could soon pay for themselves by keeping a whore house . . . for the Exclusive benefit of the concern and its allied agents."
Considering his subject matter, Mr. Baptist writes with verve and a good eye for the dramatic. This virtue is also the book's greatest shortcoming, however. In an effort to humanize the often forgotten slaves whose lives were, after all, at the heart of the global economic forces that drove the cotton economy, he resorts too often to novelistic devices that undermine the reader's patience and trust. Describing the execution of a rebellious slave named Amar, Mr. Baptist writes: "In his head, as he slumped and fell, were 50 billion neurons. They held the secrets of turning sugarcane sap into white crystals . . . they held the cunning with which he sought out his lover's desires. . . . The dancing electrons in Amar's brain caressed forty-five years of words, pictures, feelings, the village imam with his old book, his mother calling him from the door of a mud-brick house." Elsewhere Mr. Baptist writes of an unnamed man en route to the slave market in New Orleans: "He heard the women on the other deck crying for a dying baby or sister; heard them fight as the sailors took them into the crew's quarters one by one, to be raped. He saw them drag out men who had gone stiff and grinning. The angel's fingers clawed at him too." Is this slave a real person? A composite? Wholly imagined? Mr. Baptist doesn't tell us.
Anyone averse to such squishy stuff will find a penetrating discussion of many the same topics in Walter Johnson's often beautifully written (if sometimes confusingly organized) "River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom" (2013). That work places antebellum slave-owning in a broad context of proslavery ideology, Atlantic commodity markets and Southern schemes for global ascendancy. Like Mr. Baptist, Mr. Johnson argues that abstracting slavery from industrial development in the U.S.—or, for that matter, in Britain—is fundamentally ahistorical. Mississippi, he rightly says, does not have to look like Manchester, England, or Lowell, Mass., to make it an engine of capitalism.
Slavery weathered the Panic of 1837, which ruined many of the "mushroom banks" and debtors who lacked helpful friends in the local courthouse. In the 1850s, the slave-based economy experienced a dramatic resurgence when a new wave of "Negro fever" doubled the price of slaves in relation to that of other goods. On the cusp of the Civil War, slavery showed no sign of dying a natural death, except in parts of Maryland and Delaware. Slavery remained, Mr. Baptist says, "both modernizing and modern" and its growth "muscular, dynamic."
In his January 1861 State of the Union address, the pro-Southern president, James Buchanan, spent less time addressing the secession crisis in South Carolina than he did expressing his hope of acquiring Cuba for the United States—a longtime goal of slave owners and investors who saw it as the best opportunity for extending the reach of American slavery. Only civil war and hundreds of thousands of lives would finally put an end to the lucrative partnership between the cruel machine of Southern slavery and the roaring engines of capitalism.
—Mr. Bordewich's most recent book is "America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union."
The Washington Times
Published September 24, 2006
An infamous voyage
THE WANDERER: THE LAST AMERICAN SLAVE SHIP AND THE CONSPIRACY
THAT SET ITS SAILS
By Erik Calonius
St. Martin's Press, $25.95,
REVIEWED BY KIMBERLY PALMER
D A I L Y K O S
SUN SEP 21, 2014
Susan Grigsby Follow
On Sept. 4, The Economist published a book review, for which it apologized, retracted, and then posted on the web. It created no end of furor and discussion about whether the book, or the review, was racist. The anonymous reviewer accused the author of not giving slave owners any credit for their "better treatment" of the slaves which may have been the reason that cotton production increased. He also found that "Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains." Since the book concerned slavery in America, Twitter went delightfully mad with #economistbookreviews.
It seemed to me that the Economist review of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism was wildly successful. Because while we were all busy smirking, grinning and even laughing at the reviewer, the conversation that the book should have provoked, that The Economist wanted at all costs to avoid, was never discussed. What did The Economist want to avoid talking about?
Back wages, perhaps?
Or perhaps what caused the Panic of 1837?
Or the ingenuity and perseverance of those whose misfortune it was to be enslaved?
Or perhaps it was this:
The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
By Edward E. Baptist
Published by Basic Books
In The Half Has Never Been Told, Edward E. Baptist, author, historian and Cornell University associate professor, artfully combines the individual voices of an enslaved population within a broader discussion of the economic and geographic growth of America in the nineteenth century. But mostly, he paints a picture of unrestrained, laissez-faire capitalism. A form of capitalism undreamt of by any but the most ardent Ayn Rand fans. It is this picture of capitalism unbound that The Economist likely does not want us to discuss.
In this story of American slavery, and its intimate connection to American capitalism, Baptist demonstrates how the availability of cheap land, slave labor and a government willing to support it can create huge amounts of wealth. Enough wealth to help fund an industrial revolution.
Using thousands of WPA-era interviews and hundreds of post-Civil War memoirs and autobiographies written by former slaves, he brings to life the giant that he uses as his metaphor and organizing tool. The image of this giant comes from an essay written by Ralph Ellison:
"On the moral level I propose we view the whole of American life as a drama enacted on the body of a Negro giant who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds."
Baptist takes apart the myths that our society has created to make us more comfortable with our slave-owning past. He begins with the biggest myth of all, that slavery was unprofitable, inefficient, and would eventually die off as it would be unable to adapt and to compete with industrialization.
Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence that it was either inefficient or that it was dying out. On the contrary, the cheap and ready availability of stolen lands and easy credit due to creative financial instruments, combined with the slave labor that the laws allowed, encouraged and protected, led to a boom in cotton production that showed little signs of slowing by 1860.
In 1860, the Southern slave labor camps provided 88 percent of the cotton used in Great Britain's cotton mills. Cotton had become the number one trading commodity of the entire world. It fueled the industrial revolution, feeding not just the cotton mills of Britain, but also the ones in towns like Lowell, Massachusetts. The cotton mills of Lowell were built with the profits made from the unpaid labor of African Americans in the slave labor camps. Cotton went from 14 percent of the total American exports in 1802 to 61 percent by 1860. The United States share of the worldwide cotton market climbed from one percent in 1801 to 66 percent by 1860.
As new lands were opened by the Louisiana Purchase and the forced eviction of almost 50,000 Native Americans from the lands to which they held title, slavery moved from the coastal states of the Old South to the new Southwest. Foreclosed from importing new slaves to work the new land by the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807, slave traders forced the migration of one million slaves:
From the 1790s to the 1860s, enslavers moved 1 million people from the old slave states to the new. They went from making no cotton to speak of in 1790 to making almost 2 billion pounds of it in 1860. Stretching out beyond the slave South, the story encompassed not only Washington politicians and voters across the United States but also Connecticut factories, London banks, opium addicts in China, and consumers in East Africa.
On the eve of the Civil War, the enslavers were eyeing land in Texas, California, and even Cuba to further the expansion of the slave labor camps. The number of slaves had increased five-fold over what it was in the 1790s.
In the vernacular of the African American, this forced migration, this tearing apart of families and homes, was called stealing. A man was "stole" from his home in a Virginia slave labor camp, and shipped down the river to New Orleans to be sold. In calling this a theft, the African American community was identifying the criminal nature of slavery and building a common story of themselves, as a people.
The crop of cotton in 1859 was astonishing— almost 2 billion pounds of clean fiber in 4 million bales. Slavery’s productivity was higher than ever— some 700 pounds per enslaved man, woman, and child in the cotton country, twenty-two times the rate in 1790.
The astounding increase in productivity was due to the ingenuity of the African American slaves; not because they were treated so well by their enslavers, but because they faced whippings, and worse, should they fail to meet their quotas. So they found ways to pick cotton with both hands, to pick it faster and to waste less motion in order to avoid the whip's lash. The quotas were increased regularly, creating a push system of labor, requiring ever-increasing productivity from the enslaved.
And thus untold amounts of mental labor, unknown breakthroughs of human creativity, were the keys to an astonishing increase in cotton production that required no machinery— save the whipping-machine, of course. With it, enslavers looted the riches of black folk’s minds, stole days and months and years and lifetimes, turned sweat, blood, and flesh into gold.
According to Baptist, during the Civil War, when demand for cotton far exceeded the supply, the federal government leased land on South Carolina's Sea Islands to northern entrepreneurs who would attempt to grow cotton using employees who were paid for their labor. Despite the experiments that included monthly wages and wages paid per pound of cotton picked, they were unable to achieve anything near the productivity of the slave labor camps.
The Half Has Never Been Told is a story that covers an immense amount of territory. Baptist includes the individual narratives of the enslaved people and letters from those whose wealth depended on the slave trade or slave labor. It is from one of those letters that we learn of the casualness with which women's sexual slavery is discussed. "Fancy" girls were sold for a price directly related to her light skin and sexual attractiveness.
Baptist also examines the tendency toward violence that was prevalent in the South as white men, in order to prove they were superior to the enslaved men, took offense at the any perceived slight to their honor. Duels to defend that honor distinguished them from the African American who, of course, was not allowed to defend himself or his loved ones.
He draws other parallels to today while exploring the causes of the Panic of 1837, including the lessening of financial regulations, the creation of new financial instruments and the belief that cotton prices must always rise in defiance of the laws of supply and demand.
An excerpt from The Half Has Never Been Told was published by Salon, and can be found online. If unregulated capitalism succeeds wildly only through theft and torture, should we not be regulating it more closely? Should we not take steps to insure that the theft of wages is never again allowed to happen?
And if the Koch brothers, and the Waltons, and so many other Americans can live off of the wealth created by their ancestors, isn't something owing to the heirs of the African Americans who created the wealth of this nation?
Perhaps this is what The Economist is hoping we won't talk about, being distracted as we are, by a review that suggests that reality has a liberal bias.