Monday, May 16, 2016

The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist

Depending on what part of the United States you grew up in, your views of the history of slavery in the U.S. are probably distorted.  Cornell University historian Edward E. Baptist knows those distortions, and has done his part to clarify the historical record in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

The biggest takeaway is that the foundation of the US economy built on slavery.  This can't be emphasized enough.  Baptist writes that in 1832, "cotton made by enslaved people was driving US economic expansion.  Almost all commercial production and consumption fed into or spun out from a mighty stream of white bolls.  Politicians and entrepreneurs used the force of cotton's flood like a millrace to turn other wheels."  Moving forward a few years, "more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States in 1836, derived directly or indirectly from cotton produced by the million-odd slaves . . . who in that year toiled in labor camps on slavery's frontier."

In economics and in the United States's international standing, "Slavery's expansion was the driving force in US history between the framing of the Constitution and the beginning of the Civil War.  It made the nation large and unified."  And to those who say that slavery would have fizzled out eventually even without the Civil War, Baptist writes, "this is mere dogma.  The evidence points in the opposite direction."  Slavery was brutally efficient and expanding, and slave owners--and the nation--had every reason to continue the practice.

The question for modern Americans is what, if anything, is to be done in response?  Put simply, our nation and our economy were built upon theft.  Our forebears stole labor and lives, and we all benefit from the economic structures they built.  Even with the discrimination and racism that blacks still experience, they, too, benefit from the American system.  Baptist's arguments could inform an argument for reparations, but I don't believe there is a way to measure who would get what and from what source they would be paid.

As a side note, as someone who grew up in Texas and has felt the disparagement from northerners who believe they hold some sort of moral high ground on the question of slavery and racism, I would point out with Baptist that northerners are no less culpable than southerners.  Both north and south benefitted from and enabled slavery.  Northern banks loaned the money to enables southerners to buy slaves and land.  Northern textile mills bought up the cotton produced by southern slaves.  Aside from the very small number of abolitionists, no one in this system escapes guilt.

Besides the economic argument Baptist lays out, he frames this history in the context of many slave narratives.  He tells the larger story through the eyes of individual slaves and their experiences.  Suffice it to say that any slave history that portrays slaves as happy workers who are considered part of the family of the plantation owners, with a few bad apples who whip a slave every now and then, has the story reversed.  Doubtless there were some slaves who were treated well.  But Baptist describes the brutality of the labor camps, the heartlessness of slave owners who split up families and ship slaves off, and the commodification of the slaves themselves.  His accounts of the dehumanizing and demeaning ways slaves were treated will disabuse the reader of any notions of some idyllic workers' paradise.

The story as Baptist tells it is powerfully condemning of the slave system--as if any of us need convincing.  He demolishes any popular perception of slavery in the American South, especially in the cotton producing work camps, as some sort of benevolent employment.  He demolishes any thought that slavery was a dying institution that would have disappeared, and that the Civil War was necessary.  I know some historians may disagree with Baptist's conclusions.  I'm no historian, but I think Baptist presents a compelling case.

Thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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