The Other Half of American History

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told

In the U.S. history I learned in school, slavery is a MacGuffin. Two powerful groups of white men spend a century struggling over it, but what the slaves actually do never seems all that important.

That’s why people who don’t like to talk about slavery can claim that the struggle was about something else entirely: Tariffs or states rights or simple regional rivalry make great substitute MacGuffins, because the conflict is all that matters. From three-fifths and the Missouri Compromise and bleeding Kansas all the way to Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, and Appomattox, African slavery is just a plot device that gives white men something to fight over. So if you want to swap in some other plot device, feel free.

The postmodern focus on diversity and multiculturalism has added sidebars to that story: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, or a day in the life of a slave. And who was this Dred Scott that so many white lawyers argued about? Such human-interest features add emotional depth, if you’re into that kind of thing. But the real history of American history is still driven by white men: Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, John Calhoun, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth.

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism turns that approach upside-down. In his telling, slavery is the story of America. The Pilgrims’ search for religious freedom or the injustice of taxation without representation — those might make good human-interest sidebars. But the spread of English-speaking people across North America is fundamentally about profit, and the profit comes from two primary sources: land stolen from Indians and labor stolen from Africans. Bringing those two together opened a spigot of wealth that white men struggled to control. In that story, the experience of the African slaves — how they lived, the work they did, the culture they built, and how they eventually got their story out — is key. It is a story of progress but not of triumph, and the story continues to this day.

Slave Capitalism. In addition to shifting the focus to slaves [see endnote 1], Baptist fixes another mistake: We tell the triumph of the industrial North and the end of institutionalized slavery as if it were the inevitable result of the inexorable forces of progress. In that version, Southern slave society represents the last gasp of dying feudalism, while the rising tide of capitalism and freedom propels the North.

But in Baptist’s telling, the South is every bit as capitalistic as the North. To Baptist, capitalism is just a way of managing property, and property can be whatever society wants it to be. Today, property can be a copyright, a trademark, or a slice of radio spectrum. Then, property could be people. [2] Capitalism doesn’t care.

Southern slaves were managed capitalistically, not feudally. Feudalism stratifies society, but each stratum is a community that has its rights and duties. Serfs live in serf families, who intermarry with other serf families on land that has been their home for generations. Serf communities may not have much military power compared to their lords, but by appealing to tradition and communal judgment, they can exercise considerable moral force. Serfs might be bound to the land, but neither they nor the land are property in the capitalistic sense; both are entangled by moral obligations that capitalism doesn’t recognize. [3]

In the old slave country of the Chesapeake, slavery could occasionally resemble feudalism, as master families and slave families lived side-by-side for generations. But Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina — the tobacco country — saturated with slaves early. From the Revolution onward, slaves were an increasingly important cash export, whose price fluctuated with the price of cotton. They might be raised in families and communities, but they were sold as individuals — ripped away from their wives, their husbands, their children, their parents — to wherever the frontier of the cotton country happened to be: first Georgia, then Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and finally Texas.

On the cotton frontier, slaves were simply chattel. They had no families or communities — at least not until later — and could be worked without regard to any moral judgments or human rights. Depending on market conditions, they might be expensive to replace. But they were all replaceable for a price.

Slave efficiency. One of the inevitable-triumph-of-the-North myths is that slavery was inefficient. The idea that free labor is vigorous and creative while slave labor is lazy and stupid was originally British propaganda. Britain banned slavery in 1833, as the rising political power of the working class made the dignity of labor a key talking point. Northern abolitionists picked up the British line, which was then adopted by Union propagandists and eventually by post-Civil-War historians.

It’s not true, and Baptist has the numbers to prove it.

In terms of cotton-bales-per-worker, no system of free labor (prior to the invention of the mechanical cotton-picker in the 1930s) ever matched the slave-labor system of the 1850s. What’s more, cotton productivity was rising at the beginning of the Civil War. It had been rising for decades at a rate of around 2% per year. That’s comparable to the rate of increase in the textile industry of Britain and the North, where machine power was replacing human power.

How did the Southern slavers achieve that astounding managerial feat? Did they have cotton-picking research institutes and extension services that trained slaves in the latest methods? No. They set individualized measurable daily production goals for each slave, and whipped slaves who didn’t meet them. Then they ratcheted up those goals year by year.

The slavers themselves had no idea how the slaves managed to meet the goals as often as they did; most slavers couldn’t have picked cotton efficiently if their lives depended on it. But the threat of daily whipping inspired the slaves’ ingenuity, and compassion led them to teach each other their best techniques. [4]

So no: purely economic considerations wouldn’t have ended slavery at least until the 1930s. And even then, the produce-or-be-whipped motivation system might have performed well in factories, mines, and the kind of crop-picking-by-hand that undocumented immigrant workers still do. Even today, any workplace where produce-or-be-fired is the motivating principle might work more efficiently under produce-or-be-whipped slavery. [5]

The Hidden Connections. Making slavery a MacGuffin and the slave experience a sidebar leads to a one-damn-thing-after-another telling of even the white half of American history. But Baptist’s approach restores the hidden connections between events, and creates a more unified tapestry. I’ll just give just two out of many possible examples: Haiti and Texas.

Haiti. In the usual telling, the Haitian Slave Revolt is only significant because it stokes Southern planters’ fears of a slave revolt in the United States. It’s not directly connected to any other important event, so unless you look it up, it’s hard to remember exactly when it happened.

But Baptiste situates it like this: Before its revolution, sugar-producing Haiti was France’s most profitable New World colony, with exports outstripping all of Britain’s American colonies put together.

The French Revolution created an opening for the Haitian slaves to revolt, and after Napoleon came to power, recapturing Haiti was key to his North American plans. The wealth of Haiti together with the strategic domination of New Orleans over the trade of the Mississippi watershed would be the basis for the expansion of French power throughout the vast-but-untapped Louisiana Territory. Perhaps France might even push the fledgling United States back from the eastern side of the Mississippi.

So Napoleon dispatched two armies: one to recapture Haiti and the other to base itself in New Orleans and prepare for expansion. But when the Haitians defeated the first army, the second was diverted to reinforce it. It was also lost. That massive failure convinced Napoleon to abandon the New World and sell Louisiana to President Jefferson.

So the next time you hear about Americans helping Haiti in some way, don’t think of it as charity. Think of it as repaying a significant debt.

Texas. In the Alamo Myth, the Texas Revolution is a battle for freedom against the imperial domination of Mexico. But actually, the 1824 constitution established after the Mexican revolution from Spain did away with slavery. The Southern slavers who had emigrated to Texas came up with a variety of dodges to keep their slaves, and figured Mexico City was far away. But when Mexico eventually began moving to enforce the ban, slave-holding Texans organized resistance, eventually declaring independence in 1836. So the Alamo really was a battle for freedom, but Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett were on the anti-freedom side.

Around the same time, President Jackson was fulfilling two of his major goals: Getting rid of the Second Bank of the United States and ejecting Indian tribes to the far side of the Mississippi. Removing the Indians opened up large regions for new cotton plantations in Alabama and Mississippi, while getting rid of the central bank initiated a free-wheeling period of American finance.

The result was a slave bubble, much like the recent real-estate bubble. Newly chartered Southern banks sold bonds in Europe collateralized by the mortgages they held — slave mortgages rather than home mortgages — and lent money to virtually any white man with a plan to buy slaves, clear former Indian land purchased cheaply from the government, and plant cotton. When the price of slaves sky-rocketed, that just made them more valuable collateral for bigger mortgages and more mortgage-backed bonds — just like houses in 2007.

Predictably, the world economy couldn’t absorb the sudden increase in cotton production, and falling cotton prices started the Panic of 1837 (conveniently after Jackson had left office). Suddenly, everybody wanted to sell assets for cash, banks were going under, mortgage-backed bonds were in default (leaving state governments on the hook), and lots of would-be cotton magnates had negative net worth. But unlike the houses of 2008, the slaves of 1837 were mobile. And there was Texas, an independent pro-slavery republic where the bankers couldn’t chase you down. All across the south, re-possessing bankers often found nothing but empty buildings and a sign saying “Gone to Texas”.

So the new Texas settlers had stolen black labor twice: once from the blacks themselves, and a second time from the banks and European investors who held mortgages on them.

Continuing illusions. The way we tell our national story affects the way we think about ourselves and our future. It remains far too easy to romanticize the antebellum South, and to replace the brutal abuse of an entire people with a few air-brushed memories of white slavers’ affection for their nannies or valets. (I would tear down every Civil War monument in the South. No one who fought for the slave empire is a hero.)

It is too easy to give the North credit for black freedom, ignoring the slave-trade profits, the Northern land speculators who helped slavery expand, the cheap cotton that made the fortunes of the New England mills, and the markets that Southern wealth created for fledgling Northern industries. Ignoring the African role in the origins of all American wealth makes today’s impoverished blacks seem ungrateful for their food stamps and welfare checks.

And it is too easy to see capitalism simply as a modernizing, beneficent force, rather than an amoral machine that will process whatever assumptions are fed into it. Without the balancing force of democratic government, and without an electorate guided by compassion, justice, and other humane yearnings, capitalism will monetize all values and turn everything into property — including human beings.

Once people are property, they will be used like property — until some political process makes the abuse stop.

[1] In talking about slaves, I’m doing Baptist an injustice, because his terminology reverses the usual objectifications. Instead of slaves, he says enslaved people. It is their masters he de-personalizes as enslavers. He also rarely refers to the slaves’ workplaces as plantations, a word that evokes images of fair Southern belles or genteel men in white suits having drinks on the veranda. Instead, he talks about forced labor camps, presaging Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags.

[2] One of the creepiest things in the surviving letters of Jefferson Davis is the way he used the phrase my people. Today, my people are my community, the humans I identify with. But Davis used my people in sentences with my horses or my cattle.

[3] A big chunk of Marx’ Capital describes how the English lower classes suffered as feudal land gradually evolved into capitalistic property.

[4] It’s no coincidence that set-high-goals-and-punish-failure is still a favored policy of the American Right, and that the Right’s center of power is the white population of the old cotton country. See, for example, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education policy.

[5] In Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon described how phony vagrancy laws created slave-like prison labor that was used in mines and factories throughout the South until World War II. I reviewed his book in “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“.

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  • womonwrites  On March 16, 2015 at 10:49 am

    I just want you to know how much I appreciate your research, your writing, your clarity of thought!

  • Don Clemens  On March 16, 2015 at 11:33 am

    This is a powerful post. I always thought I had a pretty high awareness level about the issue of slavery. It is clear to me that I need to read Mr. Baptist’s book. Thank you so much for writing about it.

  • Jeff R.  On March 16, 2015 at 11:33 am

    I appreciate the historical continuity and perspective that you bring. Interestingly, it reminds me of a similar essay in Stonekettle Station — ( — which provides perspective on the “47 Senators’ Letter to Iran.”
    I’d like to add a psychological dimension, and this is humans’ capacity for self-deception. For example, “Leadership and Self-Deception” (Arbinger Foundation) and “Stepping Out of Self-Deception” (Rodney Smith) provide powerful rationales for how the “ego” can rationalize most any behavior and put a veneer of legitimacy or even benevolence on it.
    How often must we be reminded that “Power Corrupts” and that individual behavior needs to be governed by the ‘rule of law’. The need to see clearly and to be vigilant in this regard is crucial. Thank you for providing your perspective — may these essays travel to the ‘ends of the internet’!

  • coastcontact  On March 16, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    While well written you could, and should, extend your discussion into the 21st century and beyond. Today’s working class is a mixture of all races that lack the education and the connections for a financially successful life. While we no longer have slavery we now treat the poorest in our society with disdain. We continue to limit their ability to climb a ladder to success. Proof of that is the ever higher cost of a four year college education. Meanwhile the capitalists (I call them oligarchs) continue to enhance their wealth on the backs of 21st century slaves (those that do the actual work but are free to come and go as they please).

  • Kelly Schoenhofen  On March 16, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    re: the slave efficiency section

    About ~10 years ago a somewhat everyman-oriented economics book came out – very approachable & easy to read – that tackled (among other things) some of the “slave (in)efficiency” theory. He laid out the economic case that slavery was a money-loser not so much in the argument about production (in)efficiency, but in the money lost by either raw good production or finished product by the institution of slavery artificially decreasing their market size. For the former, raw goods aren’t purchased for further refinement when there is no demand, I.e. slaves don’t buy a second (or third, or fourth) shirt, pair of pants, or dress (they don’t even buy one, their clothing is the cheapest/lowest amount their owners can get away with). For the latter, an uneducated worker (slave) can’t operate advanced tools (so the labor pool is artificially constrained, resulting in higher labor prices than required) nor do they consume highly refined goods (decreased demand).

    The math may have been pretty simplistic but it seemed fairly well grounded. All those production gains (e.g. raw cotton picking) were more than lost when they cut off a very large percent of the possible market. So while maybe slaves were “efficient” compared to free, paid workers, he made a compelling case that there was a significant net loss occurring at all levels of the white-owned business vertical compared to a free (as in freedom) market.

    -Kelly Schoenhofen

    PS – please keep doing these columns. These are read & shared by more than your web analytics can possibly show.

    • weeklysift  On March 17, 2015 at 4:46 pm

      There certainly is a demand-side consideration. But that’s a macro-economic issue that would probably be left out of the calculation of individual slave-owners. So abolition would still probably need to be a government thing. If we had waited for slave-owners to decide free labor was better, we might still be waiting.

      • Philippe Saner  On March 19, 2015 at 2:18 pm

        I don’t think the enslavers would ever have given up their slaves. Even if they could’ve made twice as much money with free employees, it wouldn’t have made up for losing the right to do horrible things to their underlings.

        Money is nice and all, but the chance to indulge your cruelty is priceless.

        That aside, there is another economic drawback to slavery. If your slaves can sabotage their own work without being caught, they likely will. The Nazis had that problem during WWII; slaves forced to construct military gear would often do as bad a job as they could manage.

  • Dee Romesburg  On March 16, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Thank you. This has shook me up – in a good way.

  • orionblair  On March 16, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    My cousin, John Fries Blair, published two books of slave narratives in 1984 and 1989: “My Folks Don’t Want Me To Talk About Slavery” and “Before Freedom: When I Just Can Remember”, both edited by Belinda Hurmence. These books must have been among the first in which slaves actually spoke for themselves, instead of being written about (mostly by white men). Their stories were recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s.

    • weeklysift  On March 17, 2015 at 4:47 pm

      Baptist also leans on the testimony gathered by New Deal workers. The frame story of the book is an interview with an old black man in the 1930s.

  • Yohan  On March 17, 2015 at 10:05 am

    Great post! This book will probably go very well with ‘Empire of Cotton’ by Sven Beckert, which adds a global perspective. American cotton also led to the collapse of the handicraft cotton industries of India, for example.

  • Claudio Buchwald  On March 17, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    Although you just refer to it in a footnote, I found Baptist’s use of “enslaved person” for “slave” and “slave labor camp” for “plantation” one of the most powerful aspects of the book. The word “slave” dehumanizes the reality of what enslavement meant for the human being caught in the situation. I think the impact of those perspective-changing substitutions will stay with me long after the complex details about slavery as the engine of American capitalism fade.
    –Claudio Buchwald, Bloomington IN

  • TracyT  On March 17, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    I always look forward to the sift. This one was outstanding.

  • SamChevre  On March 18, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    This article connects powerfully with Betsy Phillips’ Plantation as Panopticon.

  • Donna  On March 21, 2015 at 8:36 am

    Finally got to read this. Excellent post — and frightening, because it points out how history can be (and often is) rewritten to suit the prevailing feelings of the day. Unfortunately that continues.

  • Charles  On March 27, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    To me, Weekly Sift is all about presenting a chunk of history from a novel angle, in a way that is clear, concise, and mindful of the wider narrative. This post absolutely does so. Thanks!


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