The Half Has Never Been Told:
Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
By Edward E. Baptist
Published by Basic Books
September 9, 2014
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.
Slaves Waiting for Sale: Richmond, Virginia
Eyre Crowe Painting from sketch of 1853
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.
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