Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist

This week I'm talking about another economic history book, although this one goes back into the very late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century. Specifically the economics of slavery and its spread through the United States until the treasonous rebellion of 1861 was crushed and millions of men, women, and children were set free from the chains of human bondage.

cough I may be a rabid Unionist and Abolitionist.

Anyway, The Half Has Never Been Told actually seeks to deconstruct long-standing historical myths surrounding slavery in the United States, specifically two. The first, which doesn't stand up to very close scrutiny, is the myth that slavery was a benign, paternal institution where white masters ''civilized'' and ''took care of'' black slaves. This argument is absurdly and blatantly racist, assuming that African-Americans needed the institution of slavery to ''tame'' them in some way. During the more overtly racist eras of American history, up until the 1960's, this lame excuse was accepted as a matter of dogma. And I hate to say it, but some parts of the United States still believe slavery was a benign institution.

Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence of the ruthless brutality of slavery: the horrors of the internal slave trade, the breaking of families for profit, the many ingenious tortures utilized by whites to extract even more work from slaves. Rape, intimidation, and murder were all a part of daily life for African-Americans in the slave labor camps of the ante-bellum South. Truly it takes an act of willful denial to say slavery was in any way good or gentle and I think we're getting to a point where this argument can't be taken seriously anymore.

The second big argument, which is slightly more subtle, also carries the tones of historical determinism. There has been a long-standing assumption that slave labor is inherently less efficient than free labor, mainly because free labor usually gets to enjoy the rewards of their hard work providing motivation that simply isn't there in a slave labor system. This historical argument has been that slavery was economically inefficient in the American South, simply could not have kept up with the rapidly industrializing North, and would eventually have been doomed to extinction.

Baptist, however, goes to great lengths to prove how slavery very likely wouldn't have gone extinct in the near future and possibly could have expanded beyond the cotton belt. Baptist begins by pointing out that the cotton boom in the American South actually changed the institution of slavery in the New World. Slavery had previously been utilized for two crops: sugar and tobacco. Both were high profit and extremely labor intensive crops in areas which had chronic labor shortages, which prompted Europeans to cause the forced migration of Africans to the Americas as slaves. By the late 1700's, though, there was a surplus of slave labor in the Americas and the landed gentry of Virginia and the Carolinas were becoming increasingly concerned that a revolt would be likely if their numbers continued to rise.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1794 dramatically changed the nature of slavery in America. Cotton was truly big business and the textile mills of Britain and later New England had an insatiable demand for the fiber. However, once again, demands for labor in the prime cotton-growing territory was high and the supply was extremely low, which prompted a growing internal trade of slaves from Virginia and North Carolina to Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. And as the country expanded, slavery expanded wherever cotton would bloom. An inhuman institution that was becoming redundant once again became a major source of profit.

But how can we tell that slavery wasn't economically inefficient? It seems to go against all common sense. But Baptist makes a very convincing argument by pointing at simple numbers. From the 1790's up until 1859 the amount of cotton harvested steadily increased, well beyond increases in the population of slaves forced across the South. Although there were some drop offs because of economic panics, overall the increase was tremendous. However, after the war when forced labor is no longer used, the amount of cotton harvested decreases significantly, despite continued demand. In fact the record levels of 1859 would not be reached until much later, with significantly more people working in harvesting cotton. Baptist rather successfully in my opinion, argues that the use of whips and other implements of torture actually made forced labor more efficient than paid labor, but at tremendous human cost.

Furthermore, if you look at the actions of southern planters leading up to their treason of 1861, they clearly didn't expect slavery to go away any time soon. In fact the political maneuvers of the 1850's made it abundantly clear Southern planters wanted to expand slavery wherever they could, whether it be Cuba, California, or Kansas. They even began making constitutional arguments that slaves could even be held in free states, making the term free state a mockery and driving free state whites into a panic. By 1860 the northerners had been pushed around long enough and finally put their foot down with a resounding no to the expansion of slavery and the election of Abraham Lincoln. And we know the rest of the story from there.

I've really only covered a fraction of what's talked about in this book. Baptist provides a lot of anecdotal evidence, biographies of specific slaves that have survived and give remarkable inside views into the institution of slavery. Personally I think this is the weakest part because Baptist tends to embellish, turning these narratives almost into historical fiction rather than history, supposing what many of the people might have done during their lives. Being the cranky historian I am, I wanted him to stick to the facts rather than editorialize, but it certainly gives slavery a very human element which is important in telling the tale.

Baptist also points out how slavery allowed the South to dominate the United States politically in the early years, until increased immigration starting in the 1830's dramatically shifted the population to the North. And he also makes strong arguments that slavery and the cotton it produced allowed the Industrial Revolution, kick-started by Britain's textile mills, to take off and create our industrialized world. It's a lot of material to cover, but I think aside from a few problematic portions Baptist does a pretty good job. And this is a story that doesn't just deserve to be told. It needs to be told. Definitely worth the read.

- Kalpar

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