“It’s symbolic annihilation of history, and it’s done for a purpose”

Here’s an interview with historian Edward Baptist, professor of history at Cornell University and author of the acclaimed The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  You can read the interview here.

In discussing how slavery is whitewashed on several tours of plantations, Baptist says, “There’s a great study that was done 10 or 12 years ago by a couple of British scholars, a black man and a white woman, who would go to these historical plantations and observe what they said on the tours. Were enslaved people described as slaves, or were they described as servants, or in some cases even workers? If they were described as workers, the investigator would ask, ‘Do you have records of the payroll?’ They went to about 180 of them. Many of them simply didn’t discuss the reality of what happened at all, even though enslaved people were the vast majority of human beings who lived in those places. It’s symbolic annihilation of history, and it’s done for a purpose. It really enforces white supremacy, and it hides facts from us.”

In one part of the interview, the interviewer says that there are confederate monuments all across the south, but it’s difficult to find a monument to an enslaved person.  Baptist responds, “You’re bringing up an issue which is absolutely central. And you’re right that memorialization of an enslaved people is really scarce, almost nonexistent.

“In Richmond, there’s a lot of discussion about how to memorialize the enslaved past of the city. In fact they just blocked the building of a big baseball stadium, about half of which I think would have been set on a major historic site that was part of the slave-trade infrastructure of Richmond. And then the other place that I see it happening is entirely led by one guy in Natchez, Mississippi. And he essentially forced the National Park Service and the city of Natchez to memorialize a spot just north of the center of town called the Forks of the Road, which was the second-biggest slave trade center in the cotton South.

“There’s nothing on the New Orleans levee, there’s nothing like the Trail of Tears memorializations — the mappings and the road signs and the document of the paths taken by native peoples who were expelled from the deep South and sent up to Oklahoma. There’s nothing like that to map out the routes that hundreds of thousands of people walked. It’s not there, and it needs to be there. It needs to be done.

“There’s also a small movement underway to remove the names of slave owners from buildings on college campuses. Is it desirable — or possible — to excise these names from positions of honor? Is slave owning so entangled with white history in the United States that those efforts are futile?

“If you were to really give a full and fair good look at complicity, and you were going to excise the people that were complicit, you’d have to take the names off most buildings. But more seriously, I think what’s probably more important is to think carefully about what we have done and what we are doing. If we’re going to keep a name, we need also to tell the truth about that person’s complicity.”

I think this was a terrific interview with some excellent points made.

As long as we’re talking about Professor Baptist’s book, there’s a nice summary of the main points he makes in his book here.

1) Slavery was a key driver of the formation of American wealth.

“All told, 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 — 6 percent of the total US population — who in that year toiled in labor camps on slavery’s frontier.”

2) In its heyday, slavery was more efficient than free labor, contrary to the arguments made by some northerners at the time.

“A study of planter account books that record daily picking totals for individual enslaved people on labor camps across the South found a growth in daily picking totals of 2.1 percent per year,” Baptist writes. “The increase was even higher if one looks at the growth in the newer southwestern areas in 1860, where the efficiency of picking grew by 2.6 percent per year from 1811 to 1860, for a total productivity increase of 361 percent.”

“Many enslaved cotton pickers in the late 1850s had peaked at well over 200 pounds per day,” Baptist notes. “In the 1930s, after a half-century of massive scientific experimentation, all to make the cotton boll more pickable, the great-grandchildren of the enslaved often picked only 100 to 120 pounds per day.”

3) Slavery didn’t just enrich the South, but also drove the industrial boom in the North.

By 1832, “Lowell consumed 100,000 days of enslaved people’s labor every year,” Baptist writes. “And as enslaved hands made pounds of cotton more efficiently than free ones, dropping the inflation-adjusted price of cotton delivered to the US and British textile mills by 60 percent between 1790 and 1860, the whipping-machine was freeing up millions of dollars for the Boston Associates.”

4) Slavery wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down economically by the time the Civil War came around.

“In the 1850s, southern production of cotton doubled from 2 million to 4 million bales, with no sign of either slowing down or quenching the industrial West’s thirst for raw materials. The world’s consumption of cotton grew from 1.5 billion to 2.5 billion pounds, and at the end of the decade the hands of US fields were still picking two-thirds of all of it, and almost all of that which went to Western Europe’s factories. By 1860, the eight wealthiest states in the United States, ranked by wealth per white person, were South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Connecticut, Alabama, Florida, and Texas — seven states created by cotton’s march west and south, plus one that, as the most industrialized state in the Union, profited disproportionately from the gearing of northern factory equipment to the southwestern whipping machine.”

5) The South seceded to guarantee the expansion of slavery.

“Ever since the end of the Civil War, Confederate apologists have put out the lie that the southern states seceded and southerners fought to defend an abstract constitutional principle of ‘state’s rights.’ That falsehood attempts to sanitize the past,” Baptist writes. At every Democratic party national convention, “participants made it explicit: they were seceding because they thought secession would protect the future of slavery.”

I’m really looking forward to reading this book.




  1. But there’s a whole bunch of people who aren’t looking forward to reading it 😉

    1. They don’t matter.

  2. Reblogged this on Stumbling in the Shadows of Giants and commented:
    Definitely Worth reading this post.

  3. Kristoffer · · Reply

    I’m not convinced by points 2 and 3. In point 2, he’s comparing experienced slaves of the 1850s with overseers pressuring them and with generations of experienced slaves educating them to pick cotton, and comparing them up against a vastly reduced black workforce of the 1930s, reduced by migration to the North and shifting jobs, with no tradition of cotton picking in an environment of approaching mechanization of cotton harvesting, and no pressure from overseers. Experience and education in cotton picking were mostly responsible for the efficiency, not slavery.

    Point 3 is fundamentally wrong too. Cotton is what drove the industrial boom, not slavery. If slavery had driven the economic boom, the Civil War should have seen a meltdown of the Union textile industry. It didn’t.

    1. Sorry, but you’re absolutely wrong. You’ll have to read his book to find out why. He’s got all the information there.

      1. Kristoffer · · Reply

        Uh, you haven’t read the book. As you yourself state, “I’m really looking forward to reading this book.”

        1. And I’m also


          claiming he’s wrong based on a summary of a summary, which anyone of average intelligence knows will necessarily leave out much of the facts and argument. If you want to claim he’s wrong, you’ll have to read the book first. I can tell you the point made in the summary is not wrong about the efficiency of slavery [and as a result its profitability], which is confirmed by other economic studies I’ve read, including Without Cause or Contract and Time on the Cross. In saying, in the summary, that slavery drove the industrial boom he’s quite obviously talking about slave-produced products such as cotton, which again anyone of average intelligence can quickly see. Cotton was still being traded on the black market during the war, and cotton was seized by Federal troops and sent North as well. Simply put, your argument against Point 2 is based on a lack of knowledge as well as a lack of understanding of how average picking rates per picker are determined, and your argument against Point 3 is a puerile attempt at a word game. I think I’ve indulged you enough on this.

  4. “Cotton is what drove the industrial boom, not slavery. If slavery had driven the economic boom, the Civil War should have seen a meltdown of the Union textile industry. It didn’t.”

    This assertion is problematic for several reasons. For one, slavery did in fact drive the U.S. Pre-Civil War economic boom because slave labor had its hands on all sorts of crucial agricultural staples besides cotton, including sugar, rice, tobacco, and hemp. And of course there were slaves that worked in manufacturing and urban centers like New Orleans as well. As David Blight points out, “by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.” So yes, slavery did drive the U.S. economic boom.

    Second, the continuing success of the “Union textile industry” (which I assume is in reference to the New England textile industry) during and after the Civil War is due in large part to the textile industry’s adaptability to the eventual end of slavery in the United States and subsequent reliance on contraband labor during the war and international cotton production in places like India and Egypt after the war. Cotton itself continued to play a role in the industrial boom of the postwar years, but you cannot dismiss the fundamental role of slavery in helping to build the prewar industrial boom.

    1. Nick, this was our “friend” of many names. I debated with myself whether or not to let his comment through, and decided it was worth showing the “thought process” of some. I tried to show in my second response that he was too limited in his thinking, but I think you did a better job of it.

      1. Ah, okay. I can’t keep all these names straight!

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