From time to time I like to use this blog to air out some conversation, or combat, going on inside the guild of American historians. The arguments never stop, with the happy consequence that we members of the profession are kept in work. But sometimes things get tiresome. That’s the case with the hubbub you might have overheard recently over the revision of the AP U.S. History course; all that shouting’s largely a rehash of the big debate in the late ‘90s over national U.S. history standards in the schools.
Not so with the sharp but brief exchange occasioned last week by The Economist’s review of Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, just out from Basic Books. The review accused Baptist of miscalculation and bias for his apparently overlooking the remarkable gains in productivity in U. S. cotton production over the first half of the nineteenth century. Surely Southern masters must have created some positive incentives, improved their care and treatment of their laborers, to achieve such wonders. By ignoring this evidence and more like it, the anonymous reviewer concluded, Baptist demonstrated that “he has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”
The review kicked up such a fury of ridicule that within a day the magazine retracted it. The critics were right, said The Economist; “slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published” intimations to the contrary “and apologise for having done so.”
But slavery being evil was not the issue, said Baptist’s rejoinder; “I’d like to think we all agree on that.” His deeper and broader point is to call into question The Economist’s, and many others’, fundamental and driving conviction that market mechanisms and market solutions are always best. What if slavery was profitable? What if it was not the retrograde system that abolitionists, themselves frequently enthusiasts of free-labor capitalism, insisted it had to be; nor the noblesse oblige neo-feudalism that the slaveholders, for their part, liked to say they had built. What if slave-labor cotton production was not the antithesis but the quintessence of capitalism, not only highly profitable but entirely profit driven—and driving much of the century’s remarkable growth of the American economy in the process? This, Baptist concludes, “creates an unforgiving paradox for the moral authority of markets—and market fundamentalists. What else, today, might be immoral and yet profitable?”
The Half Has Not Been Told calls into question the fundamental narrative of American history; it moves slavery from its customary place to dead center. (If you don’t have time for the whole book, read the excerpt posted at Salon.) That is, slavery is not marginal; it’s not the exception that proves the rule of liberty; it’s not an embarrassing contradiction to the nation’s principles that we’ve come to regret. It’s not locked up in the colonial past, unaccountably continuing to scratch out an existence for a few decades as freedom and prosperity boom across the pages of time. Quite the contrary. From a relatively scraggly institution fixed on worn-out soil along the Atlantic seaboard, slavery after Independence experienced a huge resurgence in scale, importance, and wealth-creation at the heart of the most important commodity production in the world—cotton. Our usual sighs of relief at the outlawing of the international slave trade in 1807 now must give way to a true and accurate fathoming of the scale of the internal slave trade that replaced it—a million people shipped from the Atlantic seaboard into the deep interior of the South, climaxing at the Mississippi Delta and its production of a wealthy elite unparalleled in all of American history. As for the rising productivity of this, antebellum America’s largest and most lucrative industry, Baptist consults hundreds of slave narratives to re-capture the speed-up regime that was first innovated on the cotton plantation before being transplanted to Northern cities a half century later. Masters exacted higher performance not by kindness but by the lash. Again, slavery was American capitalism in concentrated form, and fueled the rest of it across the nation.
No hand-washing for the North, then, nor for us today. Some abolitionists refused to wear cotton back in the day because they saw it soaked with African American blood. That blood is mixed in the foundations of our entire industrial complex, and—the profits therefrom having been passed along into the postindustrial age—it remains at the bottom of our economy today. These profits were extracted by law and lash from the ancestors of some of our fellow citizens. A disproportionate share of those citizens are poor, incarcerated, unemployed, in poorer health, suffering shorter life-spans. This lesson of history is clear.
God is not mocked—Lincoln said it in his epochal Second Inaugural, and Martin Luther King, Jr., along with Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown, preached it again in the 1960s. Ta-Nehisi Coates proclaimed it again in The Atlantic this past summer. God is not mocked, and we will not be healed and well, nor genuinely prosper as a nation, until we figure out some way to pay back the debt and the damage that Edward Baptist so powerfully explains in this book. It’s the other half that has to be told.