The Half Has Never Been Told

This excellent book by historian Edward Baptist generated some controversy when it was first released. It’s a terrific read, though, and has some solid information in it. He tells us, “Some fundamental assumptions about the history of slavery and the history of the United States remain strangely unchanged. The first major assumption is that, as an economic system–a way of producing and trading commodities–American slavery was fundamentally different from the rest of the modern economy and separate from it. Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventors, but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor. This perspective implies not only that slavery didn’t change, but that slavery and enslaved African Americans had little long-term influence on the rise of the United States during the nineteenth century, a period in which the nation went from being a minor European trading partner to becoming the world’s largest economy–one of the central stories of American history. The second major assumption is that slavery in the United States was fundamentally in contradiction with the political and economic systems of the liberal republic, and that inevitably that contradiction would be resolved in favor of the free-labor North. Sooner or later, slavery would have ended by the operation of historical forces; thus, slavery is a story without suspense. And a story with a predetermined outcome isn’t a story at all. Third, the worst thing about slavery as an experience, one is told, was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens. It did those things as a matter of course, and as injustice, that denial ranks with the greatest in modern history. But slavery also killed people, in large numbers. From those who survived, it stole everything. Yet the massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire–this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power. And once the violence of slavery was minimized, another voice could whisper, saying that African Americans, both before and after emancipation, were denied the rights of citizens because they would not fight for them. … Slavery’s story gets told in ways that reinforce these assumptions.” [pp. xviii-xix]

The book’s main themes are first, the forced migration of a million enslaved African Americans from Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina south and west to places like South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas; and the use of torture to increase production of cotton by enslaved workers. “Entrepreneurial enslavers moved more than 1 million enslaved people, by force, from the communities that survivors of the slave trade from Africa had built in the South and in the West to vast territories that were seized–also by force–from their Native American inhabitants. From 1783 at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation. For white enslavers were able to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people. Their practices rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key raw material during the first century of the industrial revolution. The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization. In fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation–not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing US politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make civil war possible.” [p. xxi]

The book has several statistics and other data to back up the author’s thesis. For example, the typical slave brought to New Orleans between 1829 and 1831 was young, male, and alone. “84 percent of those bought in the Southeast for New Orleans between 1829 and 1831 were between the ages of eleven and twenty-four. … Two-thirds of those brought southwest to New Orleans were male, and most were sold solo, without family or spouses. Even among the women of childbearing age, 93 percent were sold without children.” [pp. 182-183] That was done purposefully. The enslavers broke up families deliberately so those brought to the Southeast were alone, isolated, and would have no support system on which they could rely.

We learn “There would be no mechanical cotton picker until the late 1930s. In fact, between 1790 and 1860, there was no mechanical innovation of any kind to speed up the harvesting of cotton. There was nothing like the change from scythe to mechanical reaper, for instance, that by the 1850s began to reshape the Chesapeake wheat fields [Charles] Ball had left behind. Even slave-operated Louisiana sugar mills were more factory-like than the cotton labor camps were. And the nature of human bodies, the only ‘machine’ that worked in the cotton fields, did not change between 1805 and 1860. Still, the possibility that enslaved people might have picked more cotton because they picked faster, harder, and with more efficient technique does not come readily to our minds. In fact, during the late antebellum  years, northern travelers insisted that slave labor was less efficient than free labor, a point of dogma that most historians and economists have accepted. The same northern observers who proclaimed that slave labor was inefficient had great faith in the idea that free people who were motivated by a cash wage would work harder and smarter than coerced workers. Occasionally, under special circumstances, some enslavers did pay people a wage. In 1828, Edward Barnes paid eight of the twenty-seven people enslaved on his Mississippi cotton labor camp a total of $28.32 for picking on Sundays, the day of the week when it was technically illegal for enslavers to force field labor. These positive incentives, however, accounted for only 3 to 5 percent of the raw cotton that Barnes’s hands harvested in 1828, a year in which he sold eighty-one bales. In fact, enslavers typically only paid for Sunday picking, if they ever used wages. Most enslavers never used positive incentives at all. And perhaps most conclusively, after the Civil War, when many cotton planters would pay pickers by the pound at the end of a day’s work, free labor motivated by a wage did not produce the same amount of cotton per hour of picking as slave labor had. What enslavers used was a system of measurement and negative incentives. Actually, one should avoid such euphemisms. Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck. The continuous process of innovation thus generated was the ultimate cause of the massive increase in the production of high-quality, cheap cotton: an absolute necessary increase if the Western world was to burst out of the 10,000-year Malthusian cycle of agriculture. This system confounds our expectations, because, like abolitionists, we want to believe that the free labor system is not only more moral than systems of coercion, but more efficient.” [pp. 128-130] But that data show they are not more efficient. The data show the torture applied to those who didn’t make their quota worked to make enslaved labor much more efficient than free labor.

I can highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand the unexpurgated history of slavery. It’s excellent, well written, and filled with information for us.

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One comment

  1. Pat Young · · Reply

    I liked it a lot too.

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