slavery and economics -- 11/4/14

Today's selection -- from The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist. Historians have minimized the terrible legacy of American slavery by characterizing it as phenomenon isolated in the South -- a sleepy, unproductive business made irrelevant by the industrialization of the north. Historian Edward Baptist argues the opposite. He contends that cotton was the world's leading commodity and powered an economic dynamo with tendrils throughout the US, and that "northern merchants and bankers and factory owners ... invested in slavery, bought from and sold to slaveholders, and took slices of profit out of slavery's expansion." He argues that the business of slavery had a ruthless economic appetite that made slavery all the more terrible:

"By the early twentieth century, America's first generation of professional historians were ... insisting that slavery was a premodern institution that was not committed to profit-seeking, ... [but was instead] an old, static system that belonged to an earlier time. Slave labor was inefficient to begin with, slave productivity did not increase to keep pace with industrialization, and enslavers did not act like modern profit-seeking businessmen. As a system, slavery had never adapted or changed to thrive in the new industrial economy -- let alone to play a premier role as a driver of economic expansion -- and had been little more than a drag on the explosive growth that had built the modern United States. In fact, during the Civil War, northerners were so convinced of these points that they believed that shifting from slave labor to free labor would dramatically increase cotton productivity.

"It didn't. But even though the data of declining productivity over the ensuing three score and ten years suggested that slavery might have been the most efficient way to produce the world's most important crop, no one let empirical tests change their minds. Instead, historians of Woodrow Wilson's generation imprinted the stamp of academic research on the idea that slavery was separate from the great economic and social transformations of the Western world during the nineteenth century. After all, it did not rely upon ever-more efficient machine labor. Its unprofitable economic structures supposedly produced antique social arrangements, and the industrializing, urbanizing world looked back toward them with contempt -- or, increasingly, nostalgia. ...

"I sensed that the true narrative had been left out of history -- not only American history in general, but even the history of slavery. I began to look actively for the other half of the story, the one about how slavery constantly grew, changed, and reshaped the modern world. Of how it was both modernizing and modern, and what that meant for the people who lived through its incredible expansion. Once I began to look, I discovered that the traces of the other half were everywhere. The debris of cotton fevers that infected white entrepreneurs and separated man and woman, parent and child, right and left, dusted every set of pre-Civil War letters, newspapers, and court documents. ...

"For a long time I wasn't sure how to tell the story of this muscular, dynamic process in a single book. The most difficult challenge was simply the fact that the expansion of slavery in many ways shaped the story of everything in the pre-Civil War United States. Enslavers' surviving papers showed calculations of returns from slave sales and purchases as well as the costs of establishing new slave labor camps in the cotton states. Newspapers dripped with speculations in land and people and the commodities they produced; dramatic changes in how people made money and how much they made; and the dramatic violence that accompanied these practices. The accounts of northern merchants and bankers and factory owners showed that they invested in slavery, bought from and sold to slaveholders, and took slices of profit out of slavery's expansion. ...


Edward E. Baptist


The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism


Basic Books


Copyright 2014 by Edward E. Baptist


xvi-xvii, xxii-xxiii
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