- The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist
Slavery is “the tough stuff of American memory.” As Saidiya Hartman memorably writes, African American bondage “established a measure of man and a ranking of life . . . that has yet to be undone.” Whether in the 1830s, 1960s, or today, slavery remains a touchstone in the “search for social justice on the critical issue of race.”1
Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told is the latest attempt to come to terms with slavery and its enduring legacies. As Baptist makes clear, his book is about “how slavery constantly grew, changed, and reshaped the modern world” (xxii); it reveals the violence, theft, and modernity of American slavery and what it meant for those who survived the rapid expansion of racial slavery during the first half of the nineteenth century. Baptist tells “the other half of [slavery’s] story,” a half that has been “left out of history” by southern whites who “convinced a majority of white Americans, including most historians, that slavery had been benign and that ‘states’ rights’ had been the cause of the Civil War” (xxii, 409). Baptist argues otherwise; slavery propelled the American economy forward while on “new slave labor camp[s]” (115) in the Mississippi valley, entrepreneurial slave masters upped productivity by deploying “systematized torture” as a “central technology” (141–42). Violent exploitation reduced humans into “hands,” interchangeable commodities “rendered effectively identical for white entrepreneurs’ direct manipulation” (101). Theft, speculation, piracy, and risky behavior defined life in the sprawling Cotton South, as aggressive, expansionist, and consumeristic planters generated untold riches for manufacturing and trade businesses throughout the Atlantic world. As Baptist declares, “The northern economy’s industrial sector was built on the backs of enslaved people,” while Britain’s economic ascendance began with cotton textiles (322). Slavery’s profits emboldened its politicians to press the continued geographic expansion of slaveholding terrain, to amplify slavery’s leverage in Congress, and ultimately to wage war for an independent proslavery state. Slavery—Baptist concludes—lay at the axis of American capitalism; it was the definitive driver of economic growth and a source of unparalleled political power. In a “world greedy for . . . the whipping-machine’s super-profits,” American slaveholders built an empire [End Page 578] and a world economic power on the backs of cotton and slavery (413). That story—an account of a capitalist “world in motion . . . [of] the sweat and blood of [a] growing system”—Baptist claims, is “the half [that] has never been told” (xxiv, xxi).
Perhaps every good historian of American slavery courts controversy. Stanley Elkins, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, and Eugene Genovese all triggered intense debate among generations of scholars. Baptist too has drawn fire. In an intemperate—and subsequently withdrawn—review, the Economist pronounced Baptist’s latest work to be “advocacy.” In another bruising encounter, one reviewer declared it “a poor book . . . overblown.”2 It is neither—historians should be writing exactly the kind of capacious, challenging history that Baptist intends to tell. The Half Has Never Been Told, furthermore, forces its readers to confront the moral basis of history. “We tell slavery’s story by heaping praise on those who escaped . . . leaving the listener to wonder if those who didn’t flee or die somehow ‘accepted’ slavery” (xix). They didn’t, of course, but the rights-centered discourse of American history has isolated enslaved African Americans from the national story with enduring consequences for modern society.
“Understanding something of what it felt like to suffer . . . [and] to endure” is accordingly crucial to Baptist’s writing style (xxv). Readers are submerged in richly evocative personal stories that evoke empathy, horror, and revulsion in equal measure. Enslaved people survived their “zombie days”; they were a “living-dead person,” a chained machine (146). By contrast, slavery’s entrepreneurs “fucked” the soils, the fields, and the enslaved: “He takes their product, keeps it for himself. He breaks open the skin on their...