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The financial crisis of 2007, and consequent Great Recession, has pushed historians to look anew at the origins and nature of our economic system. For historians of nineteenth-century America, this has increasingly meant investigating the relationship between slavery and the origins of capitalism. Along with recent works by Walter Johnson, Joshua Rothman, and others, Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Origins of American Capitalism is a major contribution to this burgeoning subfield. Indeed, Baptist, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, has produced a piece of scholarship that will both redefine the study of the “peculiar institution” and shed fresh light on the relationship between slavery and modernity.
Baptist’s book is an attempt to correct what he sees as the dominant (mis)characterization of North American slavery: that it was a pre-modern social order that stood outside of, and had little influence on, the explosive industrial-capitalist development of the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. On the contrary, Baptist maintains, slavery was a thoroughly modern, dynamic, and expansive system in which the labor of enslaved African Americans—extracted by torture and the threat of torture—produced the wealth without which American [End Page 77] capitalism could never have been born. Determined to tell the story of this process, Baptist turns to Ralph Ellison’s famous invocation of American history as “enacted on the body of a Negro giant” (p. xxiii). Each chapter of The Half Has Never Been Told is therefore named after a part of the body of the black colossus whose exertions made modern America.
The Half Has Never Been Told is at its strongest when Baptist captures the dynamic, entrepreneurial nature of slavery. He insists, for example, that forced migration was both central to the African American experience of slavery and crucial for the destiny of the young United States in the years following the American Revolution. “The possibilities that enslaved people represented, the wealth they embodied, and the way they could be forced to move themselves would . . . forge links that overrode internal divisions” in the new nation, Baptist writes (p. 4). Even more significantly, Baptist devotes one extraordinary chapter to the story of how slaveholders turned the creativity and inventiveness of black slaves against them, using torture to dramatically increase the amount of cotton a good “hand” was able to pick over the course of the nineteenth century. This chapter alone will alter the way scholars think about slavery as a labor system.
Baptist also does a very fine job of charting the relationship between the growth of slavery and the economic development of the nation as a whole, although this theme is perhaps not as central to the book as the title might suggest. Certainly Baptist is able to demonstrate the connection between speculation on slave mortgages and the growth of finance capital in the United States, and he also includes some revealing remarks on the role of slavery in spurring industrial development in the North. But the story of how and why many white northerners came to see slavery as inimical to their economic interests figures much less prominently here. Hopefully this process, which is crucial to understanding the relationship between slavery and capitalism in nineteenth-century North America, will receive more attention as this exciting new literature grows and develops.
Overall, Baptist has provided us with a fresh, insightful view of [End Page 78] slavery as a dynamic and modern social formation. The Half Has Never Been Told will undoubtedly shape debates in the field for many years to come.
JAMES ILLINGWORTH recently received his PhD from the University of California–Santa Cruz. He is now an assistant editor at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland–College Park.