Coming to Terms with the Economic History of Slavery in the United States

The Half Has Never Been Told

I’m four chapters into Edward Baptist’s new study, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, and wow, this book delivers the scholarly goods. Using a wide range of sources that include slave narratives, letters, newspaper articles, and statistical analyses of U.S. economic production from 1783-1861, Baptist challenges his readers to consider the relationship between slavery, capitalism, and the eventual rise of the United States as the world’s largest economy.

Any reader of historical scholarship makes sure to closely read a book’s introduction. It is here where the historian bears his or her soul in explaining the themes of their study, the central premises of their arguments, and why their study is unique to the particular historiography of their topic. Baptist comes out swinging in his introduction, arguing that three assumptions underlying the story of slavery in the United States have created a flawed historical understanding of the institution on the part of both historians and American society as a whole.

The three assumptions diagnosed by Baptist are as follows:

1. Baptist argues that scholars have incorrectly isolated slavery from a larger history of industrialization and economic production in the U.S. by starting their analyses of the modernization in U.S. economics with the Reconstruction and Gilded Age eras instead of the antebellum period prior to the Civil War. “Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventors, but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor. This perspective implies not only that slavery didn’t change, but that slavery and enslaved African Americans had little long-term influence on the rise of the United States during the nineteenth century,” according to Baptist.

2. Slavery was antithetical to the economic and political principles of a liberal republic, and for this reason slavery would have died a natural death in favor of free labor at some point in the nineteenth century: “Sooner or later, slavery would have ended by the operation of historical forces,” which in turn means that “slavery is a story without suspense . . . a story with a predetermined outcome isn’t a story at all.”

3. Finally, “the worst thing about slavery as an experience, one is told, was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens” while leaving out the sheer violence of enslaved people being separated from their families, restricted from enjoying the financial fruits of their labors, and being beaten or killed by their masters (or “enslavers,” as Baptist refers to them).

Each of these assumptions connects to a larger understanding of slavery as a dead concept in theory and practice, a part of our history that we have moved on from: “Slavery was a long time ago,” “I’ve never owned a slave,” “we’ve come so far since then!,” and so on. The past is the past and slavery is in the past, in no way connected to present-day society. The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the Constitution during the Reconstruction era, the Civil Rights movement of the mid-1900s, and legislative measures like affirmative action and voting rights protections have rectified the wrongs of slavery and given us a near-perfect social and political equality today, the argument goes.

Baptist doesn’t let his readers off so easily, demanding that they consider the implications of a new understanding of slavery that places the institution front and center in U.S. history, integral to the growth of capitalism and democracy within the country:

All these assumptions lead to still more implications, ones that shape attitudes, identities, and debates about policy. If slavery was outside of U.S. history, for instance–if indeed it was a drag and not a rocket booster to American economic growth–then slavery was not implicated in US growth, success, power, and wealth. Therefore none of the massive quantities of wealth and treasure piled by that economic growth is owed to African Americans. Ideas about slavery’s history determine the ways in which Americans hope to resolve the long contradiction between the claims of the United States to be a nation of freedom and opportunity, on the one hand, and, on the other, the unfreedom, the unequal treatment, and the opportunity denied that for most of American history have been the reality faced by people of African descent. Surely, if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen–even elect one as president–to make amends. Then the issue will be put to rest forever. (xix)

Here Baptist criticizes the idea that past wrongdoings have been fairly addressed because of something like the election of a President who is half black. What we as a society should do in the future to right the wrongs of slavery from an economic, social, or political standpoint remain unstated and unexplored by Baptist, as they probably should not be since this is a work of historical scholarship. But it’s clear that The Half Has Never Been Told challenges us to push our thinking beyond the establishment and restoration of political rights and citizenship as a corrective for slavery. Instead, we should move towards a serious contemplation of the ways our contemporary American society has been and continues to be shaped by the violent legacy of slavery and what we might do to reckon with this legacy now and in the future.

Cheers