BY MATTHEW HERBERT
All the books I review here are important in some way. They shine a critical light on an unsolved problem or extol the mystery of human existence. They lead me to places I hadn’t yet discovered, unlock voices unheard. Often they attack ideas I dislike, which makes for a lot of fun. Such pleasures, though, are mostly private. I write about them solely so I can remember them later.
But occasionally I read a book so important, so insightful that I think everyone should read it, and I badger my friends and family to do so. Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is this kind of book. It will change your conception of America and what it means to be American. It’s a book that requires courage but will also increase your store of it.
We all know, or at least suspect, that American school books have for many decades proffered a sanitized history of African slavery in our country. In Baptist’s groundbreaking book, he argues that the official version has made it impossible for Amercans to understand what slavery really meant to the formation of our national identity and why so many of slavery’s consequences remain unresolved up to this day.
The official version, says Baptist, rests on three assumptions, all of them wrong.
- The first is that slavery was an outlier of industrialization, fundamentally different from the innovations that created our immense wealth and power. The empirical data, though, flatly and massively contradict this assumption. Over and over Baptist shows that, starting from the 1810s, American planters’ use of low-cost slave labor drove long, steep gains in the production of cotton, the world’s most valuable commodity. Americans are taught to believe that slavery was an anachronism, a national embarrassment that had nothing to do with who we “really” are as prosperous, forward-thinking mercantilists and industrialists. Nonsense, says Baptist. Slavery made us rich and powerful. And our wealth brought us to the top of the international order.
- The second false assumption is the hindsight-enabled belief that slavery was bound to lose to the forces of liberal democracy and laissez faire economics. History is irrepressibly just, runs this myth, and right will always win out. Markets are ruthlessly perfect, and they will inevitably crush inefficiencies. But again, the data tell a different story. Slavery won for a long time, and there was nothing inevitable about the war that eventually defeated it. Lincoln’s heart was in unionism, not abolitionism. From an economic perspective, the slave system became highly efficient under the planter’s whip, and the “democratic” demand for it increased as southern planters amassed more and more wealth. Far from dying out, slavery was at its strongest just before the Civil War. And the war was a real fight that could have gone either way; it was not a pre-determined set piece.
- The third assumption is that slavery’s main offense was that it denied slaves political freedom, a mere abstraction. This, though, is an outrageously antiseptic version of what slavery really was. The truth is that in the cradle of liberal democracy, real Americans dictated over a tyrannical state-within-a-state based on sadism and exploitation. Even as our political insitutions were maturing at a dizzying speed and enabling unprecedented growth in the freedoms and civic virtues of white people (the America de Toqueville justly admired), black slaves lived in forced labor camps that might just as well have been run by the Gestapo or the NKVD. Torture drove slavery, and it is morally instructive to face this deeply unpleasant fact head on rather than burying it under denials, half-truths and abstractions.
A book that rebuts these assumptions will have to avoid mere editorializing. We all know slavery to be wrong, and our condemnations of it can so easily become mawkish. But the task Baptist sets himself is not just to decry slavery but to move it from the margins of American history into the mainstream, where we must face its full impact. This he acomplishes through a single muscular argument that runs throughout The Half Has Nevere Been Told. To adapt a phrase from Edmund Wilson, Baptist sweeps the reader through a canyon whose walls are built of granite statistics, on a stream of powerful, exhilirating historical narrative.
The United States of America has not always been rich. When we came within a hair’s breadth of losing our young independence in the War of 1812, we had almost no wealth for mounting a national defense. Barely out of that crisis, we were a country deep in debt. All that changed over the course of just a few decades, and by the eve of the Civil War, we had in fact become rich and powerful. How?
There exists a clear record of how this transformation happened. Between 1800 and 1860 America shifted from raising subsistence crops to cash crops, and it began to industrialize. The largest of the cash crops was cotton. And cotton growers, along with all the other businesses in their supply chain, kept detailed books. For whoever has eyes to see (and read), the historical record is there. We know the growth by-acreage of cotton plantations over the decades between 1800 and 1860, how much cotton enslaved people picked, how banks and the US government strategized to expand cotton growing, and how downstream industries at home and abroad profited from the whole system.
The story these data tell is that America became a leading capitalist economy–in fact the leading capitalist economy–on the back of slave labor. From the time the first slaves arrived in America in 1619 to roughly the period after the Revolutionary War when the global price of tobacco crashed, slavery in North America actually was more or less what we are taught in the school books–cruel and exploitative, yes, but primarily a class marker of the aristocratic agriculturists. Call this the Thomas Jefferson model of slave ownership (my term, not Baptist’s): you have slaves to show that you are somebody, not to enable the grubbing of money.
But all this changed with the conclusion of the War of 1812 and the opening up of the United States’ southwestern territories on the Mississippi River basin. Here cotton grew. And as it grew, it fed the mills of Connecticut and England and fueled the transatlantic industrial revolution. Baptist explains:
By 1815, the rapid expansion of Mississippi Valley slave labor camps had enabled the United States to seize control of the world export market for cotton, the most crucial of early industrial commodities. And cotton became the dominant driver of US economic growth.
Suddenly, slavery became linked to the world’s largest revenue stream. Slaves were no longer on plantations merely to keep the grounds and reassure the owning class of its master status–they were there to make serious money. And this is when slave drivers became methodically cruel. Under the lash, slave productivity skyrocketed. How do we know this? Enslavers kept daily records of how much cotton their “hands” brought in from the field. Too little meant a whipping of course, or worse. Baptist recounts that slave masters sometimes used demonstrative executions of low producers to show what would happen to “slackers.” Moreover, employing a trick that communist regimes would discover in the 20th century, many enslavers placed shock-workers in the ranks, pickers whose huge daily intake was meant to set a superhuman pace for the “ordinary” slaves. Few could keep up, but many died trying.
Through the calibrated use of cruelty and guile, enslavers drove the productivity of slave labor inexorably upward. As Baptist records,
The amount of cotton the South grew increased almost every single year from 1800, when enslaved Americans made 1.4 million pounds of cotton, to 1860, when they harvested almost 2 billion pounds.
So productive had slave hands become by 1860 that the real price of cotton sank to one-quarter of its 1790 value despite a 500 percent rise in demand. Read that sentence twice. The cotton-based industrial revolution was making England and America rich by 1860, and the efficiency gains driving it were so high that the owning class was reaping its wealth from a commodity that was consistently sinking in real value.
This is the heart of the slavery history that has never been told in America–the plain fact that African slaves became “fuel for the American system,” as Ta Nahisi Coates has put it. We pride ourselves on the range of life opportunities that hard work, disicipline, and innovation create in our country. Apply yourself, pay your dues, and this great country will let you be great. Even better, success breeds civic virtue. We believe that people who have mastered the system are capable of greater political enlightenment. Why else would we listen to Bill Gates talk about politics? But consider this about the supposed connection between economic development and the expansion of social virtues:
In those societies that [economic development] benefitted the most, the transformation built fundamentally on one key shift: increasing the amount of goods, such as food or clothing, produced from a given quantity of labor and land.
Efficiency gains. That’s what drives modern economies. At a critical juncture in history, we won the contest of extracting the most output from the least input. We remain justly pround of efficiency as a principle of American prestige. We’re renowned as a people who gets things done. But economic theory is profoundly agnostic about how to achieve efficiency: it doesn’t care whether efficiency gains are made morally or immorally. Machines can do it or enslaved humans can.
We remain steadfastly ignorant of the concrete means by which we so dramatically increased efficiency in the 19th century and climbed to the top of the mercantilist heap. Here, then, are the unwelcome facts: we used slave labor to keep pace with industrialization and to seed the very technologies that drove the industrial revolution forward. This was the basis of the wealth that grounded our peace, security and freedom. And as Baptist coldly points out, enlsavers were making an economically rational choice when they opted for slave labor. It increased their margins in a way that no other available labor source could.
Incidentally, the rest of the capitalist system does not get a pass. Several chapters of Baptist’s book show how northern bankers, industrialists, politicians and land speculators colloborated to turn slave labor into the paper investment instruments–land deeds, loans, bonds, and shares certificates–that drive economic growth in a capitalist economy. All of America shared in the profits of slave labor.
Why do we not wish to hear this message? Because to do so is to contemplate that the American dream is built on an economy “whose bottom gear was torture,” as Baptist writes. If we accept this history, we can no longer dismiss slavery as a minor crime that was committed by a small minority of misguided Americans, and which in any case has been redeemed by the good intentions of the majority. No. We consciously chose African slavery at a time in our history when it mattered to everyone, and to the wider world. It made us rich, and it made us who we are.
So, read Baptist. Read him for any reason that motivates you. Maybe you think he must have gotten everything wrong. Maybe you suspect he is right, but you want to see the evidence for yourself. Maybe you think I am a self-hating liberal who has cherry-picked Baptist’s ideas to reinforce my sickly worldview. Maybe you want to hear a voice unlike your own, hear claims about who we are that differ from your own ideas. I plead rank Platonism: I am congenitally unable to lead an unexamined life. And I am concivnced you too will be moved by this history of America, no matter what your starting assumptions are. Read Baptist.