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.



7 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with the Economic History of Slavery in the United States

  1. Your post comes at a perfect time for me. The other day I was having a conversation about countering history myths as a step towards becoming more anti-racist and one example I thought of was how Northerners are not at all exonerated from slavery, but also deeply bound up in the economics of slavery. However, I don’t really know more than that, so it’s great to hear some more perspectives on the topic and know a good source for further reading.
    Speaking of myths…I’m not sure exactly what the Grant site’s main message is, but how do you go about addressing history myths that people may have?

    1. Hi Elena,

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this post. Northerners definitely share some of the blame for slavery, which was essentially a staple of the national economy even though slavery was eventually practiced only in the South (although that was not the case when the constitution was ratified in 1787). Baptist makes sure to point out repeatedly throughout the book that slave-picked cotton in the south was the backbone of the northern textile industry before the Civil War.

      I have a few different thoughts on historical myths. With regards to the Grant site, my job as I see it is to be a historian of U.S. Grant and nineteenth century U.S. history, not to be a family historian or a Grant cheerleader. That said, Grant has as many myths attached to him as anyone else in American history (most of which reflect negatively of him), ranging from his drinking habits to his conduct during the Civil War and his presidency. Visitors are genuinely curious to learn more about these questions and I sometimes can’t help but feel like a Grant cheerleader when I try to address these questions in a nuanced manner that doesn’t necessarily follow the popular “Grant was an alcoholic butcher who didn’t care about his soldiers and whose Presidency was full of corruption” line. I respond differently to the questions depending on the context but try my best to stress the importance of looking at primary sources, considering the ways Grant was viewed by his contemporaries, and questioning the interests of those making claims about Grant, then and now. For example, many popular drawings and political cartoons of Grant during the war and his presidency don’t show Grant drinking but rather show him with a cigar in his mouth, which is what many people associated with Grant at the time.

      More generally, I don’t think myths are inherently true or false. They are origin stories that attempt to explain where people, societies, and nations come from and how historical events occurred, but they don’t necessarily have the same evidential backing that historians would like to see when trying to understand “how things happened.” Nevertheless, people who subscribe to certain myths ultimately embrace them because the person or institution from which they hear the myth has some sort of authority over their thinking that legitimizes the story and makes it true, regardless of evidence. So I take the power of myths seriously because they are a way people understand the past, but I try to redirect those myths towards the available evidence we have so that we can investigate the validity of these claims from a historical standpoint.

      This comment got long, but I hope it makes sense that it answers your question. And I hope you’re doing well since graduation!

      1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nick!
        I understand your point that myths are also important because of what they can symbolize to someone or reveal about collective ideas, though that shouldn’t mean that they shouldn’t be challenged at times. Now that I’m thinking through this more, it’s interesting to consider how some of the omissions/interpretations that take place in a standard history education may influence us more than we realize. For example, I would suppose that by not addressing slavery in the North, fewer Northerners would then stop to consider how they benefitted from slavery and how that legacy still affects us today. I really like that you encourage people to consider primary sources and the complications and different perspectives of history since that sort of gets to the heart of the issue. Teaching more historical thinking could probably do a whole lot of good (though I’m a biased historian)!

        1. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Elena! It’s funny – for all the talk of how boring high school history is (and it really is a lot of the time), we really do retain a lot of the mythic stories about things like Washington’s cherry tree and Grant’s alcoholism that are taught in those classrooms!

  2. Baptist comes out swinging? Really? Oh you mean essentially when he posits “I know what happened and the proper narrative, and historians don’t”.

    That’s not swinging, that’s egomania. Which would be fine, if he had basic facts to back it up. We do need a new narrative, one that fits the facts.

    It seems Baptist had the “narrative” in his head, and then “found” quotes to support that. That’s pretty common. Show me a “scholar” who discovers new evidence and then apologizes because he was fooled by bullshit.

    So many “historians” seem more like preachers who want to start their own church, because the old one was not bible based, and his church will be.

    For half a century I read history, mostly biographies, and just assumed these famous historians knew what they were talking about. Why wouldn’t I? Did they not have access to all those old newspapers, documents, speeches, books? Did they not spend years studying all that material?

    But then I read yet another Lee biography, and came to the sentence (paraphrasing)
    “As Lee rode to see General Grant, every cell in his body rebelled at the very idea..” blah blah. An absurdity too far.

    How many sentences are just bullshit in history books? I still don’t know, but the answer is, a hell of a lot.

    I now realize real history is who killed who, and why. Who tortured who, and why. In the case of slavery — who bought who, and why. Who did what, to whom.

    The self serving drivel often cited in “history books” is not history, it’s self serving drivel. Its as if historians collectively have no clue that someone may do something for a reason other than what they said. For example, they believed Lee’s excuse for whipping slave girls (he most certainly did) was that God wanted slaves to feel pain, pain was necessary.

    As if its not even remotely possible Lee got pleasure, or vented anger, or was terrorizing that slave and the other slave girls into absolute submission.

    I don’t see how you can understand what happened, unless you know who killed who and why, who tortured who, and why.

    Get that right, get that in your head, and it will take a bit of contrived fakery to write pompous BS like every cell in Lee’s body rebelled against surrender.

    Get the basics wrong — do not know who killed who, and why — and you will have to fill your “narrative” with something, and its almost certain to be bullshit.

    If you dont even know who killed who, who tortured who, and why, and your narrative could be as bogus and Orwellian as Jeff Davis Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. He knew who killed who, and why, but he was not about to tell you.

    Baptist does have a point, the narratives we have now of the Civil War, do not hold up, no matter how many times James McPherson tries to show everyone as honorable God loving souls, who could not possibly have any thoughts other than what they said in public. No matter how many times Foner ignores full speeches and actions, and claims Lincoln was nothing special and evolved over time for practical purposes, not out of concern for slavery.

    The problem with historians of your generation is, they have to kiss ass to get the degrees and even mimic style of double talk to get published and taken seriously. If you took any classes from Foner or McPherson, you better be able to write the same style of bullshit. They don’t care if you disagree, but you better not go radical, and insist facts matter, and who killed who, and why, is basic.

    After reading the goofy Lee biograhy — by a Pulitzer prize winner no less, I started reading Southern newspapers, Southern speeches, Southern documents, online. Even Southern books, before the Civil War.

    I didn’t know what I was looking for, I just wanted to by pass the bullshit.

    No one told me that Southern leaders bragged about killing to spread slavery. Nor did anyone tell me they also bragged about killing to stop people from speaking against slavery.

    No one told me preachers could be, and were, arrested and tortured for owning the wrong book. No one told me ships were searched, for any mail or newspapers against slavery. No one told me that Southern Congressmen demanded the arrest of Northern writers who dared write — in the North — against slavery. They already arrested anyone who wrote such things in the South, but some were insane enough to demand the arrest of Northern writers too.

    No one told me that.

    No one told me Northern Congressmen wanted Lincoln arrested if he even spoke the words, that slavery had to end, for the Civil War to end.

    No one told me of Southern War Ultimatums that promised war unless slavery was respected and protected Kansas, as “THE TRUE ISSUE” in bold headlines in Richmond papers. No one told me Kansas citizens were arrested and killed for trying to vote against slavery. NO one told me the guy who got Kansas Nebraska Act passed, then raced out to Kansas and started terrorizing, later killing, to stop people from speaking against slavery.

    No one told me Jeff Davis “logic” for the Kansas killing sprees by his official “General of Law and Order” was that Dred Scott decision ordered — ordered — that blacks can not be seen as human beings (not persons) but also ordered that the federal government “protect” slaver in Kansas, even after 90 then 95% of the citizens there voted to keep slavery out.

    No one told me that nine times in the DS decision, it referred to blacks as inferior beings. No one told me that during that time, the term “inferior beings” was a dog whistle used by Southerners in an effort to classify Africans and people with any African blood as non human, in the sight of God, and as a “great moral and scientific fact”

    NO one told me the Southern leaders officially declared that just stopping the spread of slavery was a death sentence for Southern whites. No one told me that the Southern Constitution (CSA) demanded the spread of slavery into Kansas, even after Kansas became a free state under President Buchanan.

    No one told me Southern newspapers bragged they would pay men to go to Kansas to kill, and spread slavery not only into the territories, but to the rest of the west, including California and Oregon, which were already free states. No one told me that virtually all of the killers working for Davis and Atchison were paid, and imported. I have yet to find a citizen of Kansas that owned slaves and was eager to spread slavery there, other than those paid to go there. There may be such people, I have yet to find them.

    No one told me that Francis Blair said repeatedly those were were agitating to spread slavery by violence into Kansas, did not care about slavery. The large slave owners were not trying to spread slavery, into Kansas or elsewhere. But the hate demagogues — he called him demagogues –loved to hear the cheers of the crowds when they spoke this way. Afterwards, in front of other crowds, they would not say such things. The hate demagogues, though he did not mention them by name, were close to him — David Atchison, Jefferson Davis, Robert Toombs, Alexander Stephens.

    Maybe Blair, who saw all this first hand, knew something. He didn’t have to see what Foner, McPherson, and lunatic Douglas Southall Freeman wrote.

    No one told me that Charles Sumner was beaten almost to death on the Senate floor for naming names in the Kansas killing sprees, no one told me that the killing sprees grew much worse after Sumners speech, specifically David Rice Atchison.

    No one told me that Lincoln got back into politics because of the killings in Kansas, and because of what Stephen A Douglas and his business partner, David Atchison did.

    No one told me all kinds of things. And while Baptist has a lot of words in his book, no doubt some of them truth, he did not touch on any of this. Nor did he seem to know, or care, who killed who, and why.

    I had to find most of this out in Southern newspapers, Southern documents. Now I almost refuse to take seriously anything written after 1880, unless I can verify it by original documents.

    I allege no conspiracy of dunces, just human nature, to repeat bullshit, because it makes you sound smart, and care more about sounding smart (an academic necessity) rather than be clear, and accurate.

    The point is, what the Southern leader then bragged out the ass about then, you don’t hear whispered now.

    Why is that?

    When you get your facts rights, all of the basic facts, like who killed who and why, and what they bragged about, then come up with a narrative. I suggest we start over on the Civil War, because it started before LIncoln even got there. The South was already bragging they called it war, and they acted as warriors, killing and terrorizing, loudly and proudly, to spread slavery and stop speech against slavery. If you don’t understand that, you don’t have the basic facts.

    1. Sir,

      I don’t even know where to start with regards to addressing your condescending and off-topic 1,500+ word rant, which I probably should have just blocked for the sake of simplicity. It’s ironic to me how some Confederate/Lost Cause sympathizers argue that academic historians are biased, far-left scholars who distort the causes and history of the Civil War, and here you are suggesting that Foner, McPherson, et al are deliberately distorting and downplaying the brutality of slavery and apologizing for Confederate secession! Is this a joke?

      If you have a *specific* claim to make about Baptist and his scholarship, make it. As I clearly stated in the very first sentence of this essay, I had not read “The Half Has Never Been Told” all the way through and was reflecting on what I had read so far with this post. That doesn’t mean I agree with every claim made in the book or that I’m now a member of the Baptist Church of thought (pun intended).

      There is PLENTY of historical scholarship on everything you claim is ignored by historians. If you are looking for scholarship on antebellum religious disagreements over slavery, Congress’s “Gag Rule” against accepting anti-slavery petitions during the 1830s and Amos Kendall’s blocking of abolitionist literature to Southern Post Offices, Northern Democratic opposition to Lincoln’s policies prior to and after his 1860 election to President, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Missouri-Kansas border war of the late 1850s, the Dred Scott decision, or Charles Sumner’s caning by Preston Brooks, you let me know and I’d be happy to lead you in the right direction. But don’t claim that historians are ignoring certain aspects of U.S. antebellum history because you’re ignorant (or at least late to the party) of that historiography.

      I work hard on this blog and put a lot of thought into my posts, so it’s really annoying when a commenter comes in and talks down to me like I’m a stupid idiot. I expect a basic level of civility in the comments section. If you come back with another condescending rant like this one, you’ll be done here. Thanks for playing.

    2. What in the name of Eli Whitney did you just spout forth about the honorable General Lee, you impudent Yankee? I must say unto thee that I finished top of my class at West Point, have led numerous clandestine sorties into Kansas, and own over 300 negro slaves. I am schooled in Napoleonic warfare and am the top duelist in the entire Confederacy. I am bowed up to smite thee with a fury that has never been seen south of the Mason-Dixon, by golly. You reckoned you could escape retribution by conveying such filth via yonder telegraph? I’m afraid that dog won’t hunt, Yankee. As we speak I am mustering my underground network of copperheads across the Union and your telegraph office is being figured out lickety-split so you hath better prepare for a dust-up, bless your heart. The dust-up that will extinguish the pathetic spark of your being. Thou shalt soon shuffle off this mortal coil, varmint.
      I can challenge thee to a duel at any time and any place and dispatch thee in over seven hundred manners via merely fisticuffs. Not only am I extensively schooled in pugilism, but I can requisition the entire armament of the Army of Northern Virginia and employ the whole kit ‘n caboodle in order to cleanse thy filth from the Land of Cotton, you uppity abolitionist.
      If only y’all could have perceived what ruination thy “slick” squawking hath marshaled against you, mayhaps you would’ve held your tongue. But you could not refrain, you did not abstain, and shall now reap the pain. I will engulf thee in grits and thou shalt choke upon them. Bless your heart, Yankee.

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