Magazine article The Christian Century

The World Slavery Made

Magazine article The Christian Century

The World Slavery Made

Article excerpt

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

By Edward E. Baptist

Basic Books, 528 pp., $35.00


This book is the opposite of a page-turner. I don't mean that the author fails. On the contrary, Edward Baptist has written one of the richest and most provocative accounts of American slavery I have ever read. He so powerfully captures the pain and tragedy of plantation slavery--of life in what he calls the "slave labor camps"--that I had to force myself to turn each page, fearing yet another punch in the gut. The book is painful to read.

The Half Has Never Been Told achieved considerable fame as soon as it was published because of an astonishingly stupid review in the Economist--one so bad that the magazine quickly retracted it. The reviewer's basic point was that Baptist portrays all whites as villains (which he doesn't) and all blacks as victims. Imagine that in a book about slavery! A social media storm ensued, led by parodies of the review on Twitter under the hashtag #economistbookreviews. The book quickly shot up in the Amazon book rankings, demonstrating yet again that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Baptist's big book retells the story of southern history and American history from the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil War. The author brilliantly draws out the close relationship between plantation slavery in the newly opening territories and states of what was then called the Southwest (Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas) and the American capitalist explosion of the antebellum years.

Slavery in cotton country was efficiently and ruthlessly productive, Baptist documents: "The total gain in productivity per picker from 1800 to 1860 was almost 400 percent." Planters figured out how to get more and more cotton bolls picked per hand per day, experimenting for years with the perverse incentives of a regime of torture. "We don't usually see torture as a factor of production," Baptist writes, but we should.

And the system worked. What that meant for the enslavers (a word he always prefers over slaveholders) was the possibility of getting fairly rich (and occasionally very rich) fairly quickly. The same animal spirits that drive all economic bubbles powered the one in the newly opening cotton regions, where those animal spirits had free rein to abuse, batter, rape, and break down the bodies of the enslaved.

Few readers other than professional historians know about the massive extent of the internal slave trade in the antebellum years--the buying and selling of slaves from the declining slave economies of the eastern seaboard (primarily in Virginia and North Carolina) to the booming economies of what became the Deep South black belt. From 1790 to 1860, upward of one million black people were taken, stolen, dragged in coffles, bounced in wagons, or placed on ships or steamboats, and carried from one region to another. By contrast, fewer than 400,000 Africans arrived in North America via the transatlantic Middle Passage trade from 1619 to 1808.

The internal slave trade made the antebellum South. Enslaved people did the work that powered approximately half the American economy, Baptist argues. He counts not just the products they grew and picked, but all the ancillary second- and third-order economic support systems for the plantations, such as the production in northern factories of axes that were perfectly made to deforest southern lands in preparation for cotton planting. …

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