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The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism Hardcover – Sep 9 2014
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Winner of the 2015 Hillman Prize for Book Journalism
Daily Beast Best Nonfiction Books of 2014
The real takeaway from this thoughtful, unsettling history: Baptist turns the long-accepted argument that slavery was economically inefficient on its head, and argues that it was an integral part of America’s economic rise.”
Bloomberg View Top Ten Nonfiction Books of 2014
In this assiduously researched and tightly argued volume, Baptist gives us what is by far the finest account of the deep interplay of the slave trade (especially within the nation’s borders) and the development of the U.S. economy.”
Providence Journal Best Books of 2014
Baptist’s exhaustively researched, elegantly written and provocatively argued book details the connection between the growth of the institution of human bondage and economic innovations from 1783-1861.”
Guardian Australia Best Books of 2014
A compelling case for recognizing slavery as fundamental to the rise of the United States.”
Wall Street Journal
Abolitionists were contemptuous of such self-serving nonsense, but they too tended to see slavery as an economically inefficient, and morally reprehensible, hangover from the premodern past In The Half Has Never Been Told, Edward E. Baptist takes passionate issue with such assumptions. He asserts that slavery was neither inherently inefficient nor a counterpoint to capitalism. Rather, he says, it was woven inextricably into the transnational fabric of early 19th-century capitalism Baptist writes with verve and a good eye for the dramatic.”
New York Times Book Review
Baptist’s work is a valuable addition to the growing literature on slavery and American development Baptist has a knack for explaining complex financial matters in lucid prose [The Half Has Never Been Told’s] underlying argument is persuasive.”
Times Literary Supplement
A book unusual, even courageous, for its enormous ambition and admirable breadth Baptist’s book is among the best single-volume studies of the relationship between the expansion of slavery and the political economy of the United States The Half Has Never Been Told has offered the historical backdrop for the stirring declaration black lives matter.’”
Los Angeles Times
An ambitious new economic and social history of antebellum America The overwhelming power of the stories that Baptist recounts and the plantation-level statistics he’s compiled give his book the power of truth and revelation .The Half Has Never Been Told is a fresh take on a history we thought we knew too well the history of a people who were victimized by a medieval brand of capitalism but survived...Baptist adds many new, stark and essential elements to that story. His most important achievement is to show us how the dismal science’ of economics served to make the lot of slaves even grimmer.”
New York Times, Vikas Bajaj
New books like Empire of Cotton and The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist offer gripping and more nuanced stories of economic history.”
Wonderful Baptist provides meticulous, extensive and comprehensive evidence that capitalism and the wealth it created was absolutely dependent on the forced labor of Africans and African-Americans, downplaying culturalist arguments for Western prosperity.”
In addition to smashing paradigms about antebellum slavery, the book features evocative explorations of how African Americans developed a common culture despite the individual and family devastation inflicted by enslavers.’ In the final chapters, the author offers a useful interpretation of how sectional conflict emerged and intensified after 1840 despite a half-century of shared support for cotton slavery. The book gained wide notice after a hail of mocking tweets forced The Economist to withdraw an anonymous review, but it should gain fame for its trailblazing substance and style.”
[Baptist] presents a detailed case, showing how the American economy benefitted from profits gained by forced labor and financial instruments that enabled investors to profit from slavery.”
Huffington Post Black Voices blog
Quite a gripping read. Baptist weaves deftly between analysis of economic data and narrative prose to paint a picture of American slavery that is pretty different from what you may have learned in high school Social Studies class.”
Baptist’s real achievement is to ground these financial abstractions in the lives of ordinary people. In vivid passages, he describes the sights, smells and suffering of slavery. He writes about individual families torn apart by global markets. Above all, Baptist sets out to show how America’s rise to power is inextricable from the suffering of black slaves.
Washington Independent Review of Books
Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told is an achievement of the first order With Baptist’s meticulous research and comprehensive, chronological approach, the other half of the story has now been told, and told very well. The reader is readily engaged in this scholarly treatment of over 400 pages, thanks to Baptist’s narrative style and his skillful interweaving of personal stories from slave and enslaver memoirs and letters with complex political and economic context Baptist’s depiction of the breakup of families, slave coffles in chains, and relentless field toil is heartbreakingly affective and never allows us to forget that it is ultimately impossible to make property of people This book on slavery’s second life in the United States’ is highly recommended to those who want to understand the evolution of our African-American heritage and its centrality to the nation’s political and economic history, not to mention the shameful blow to America’s stated ideals.”
Edward Baptist has written one of the richest and most provocative accounts of American slavery I have ever read. He so powerfully captures the pain and tragedy of plantation slavery The author brilliantly draws out the close relationship between plantation slavery in the newly opening territories and states of what was then called the Southwest (Kentucky, Ala¬bama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas) and the American capitalist explosion of the antebellum years.”
North Carolina's News & Observer
A stunning indictment of African-American slavery, contextualizing the history of the peculiar institution” within emerging 19th-century American capitalism Baptist’s great contribution is in providing general readers with insights into slavery’s horrors and how it transformed the South into the dominant force in the global market and cotton into the most important raw material in the world economy.”
Edward E. Baptist’s brilliant book, The Half Has Never Been Told, soars because of the author’s decision to root his analysis in the human dimension. The book transcends anything that has previously been written about slavery...In short, Baptist has humanized the lives of American slaves, liberated them from one of the most inhumane systems mankind ever devised. The entire country needs to do the same.”
A substantial new historypossibly the most important work on slavery in a generation.”
Booklist, starred review
Baptist renders history and economics with the power of prose that seeks to tell a fuller story than has been told of American slavery An insightful look at U.S. slavery and its controversial role in the much-celebrated story of American capitalism.”
Library Journal, starred review
Baptist has written a book that truly deepens and broadens our understanding of slavery Professional historians and lay readers will pore over this book for years to come. Essential for all readers interested in American history and the history of slavery.”
An unapologetic, damning, and grisly account of slavery’s foundational place in the emergence of America as a global superpower, balancing the macro lens of statistics and national trends with intimate slave narratives. Delivered in a voice that fluidly incorporates both academic objectivity and coarse language Baptist’s chronicle exposes the taint of blood in virtually all of the wealth that Americans have inherited from their forebears, making it a rewarding read for anyone interested in U.S.A.’s dark history.”
Kirkus, starred review
A myth-busting work that pursues how the world profited from American slavery.... This is a complicated story involving staggering scholarship that adds greatly to our understanding of the history of the United States.”
Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family
This book reveals a dirty secret about American business, and how commerce first boomed before the Civil War. Baptist unearths a big, nasty story: in the North and the South, slavery was the tainted fuel that kindled the fires of U.S. capitalism and made the country grow.”
Edward Ayers, President of Richmond University and author of the Bancroft Prize-winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America
This book, quite simply, offers the fullest and most powerful account we have of the evolution of slavery in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War. Baptist’s account is eloquent, humane, passionate, and necessary.”
Peniel Joseph, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, and author of Stokely: A Life
The Half Has Never Been Told is a true marvel. Groundbreaking, thoroughly researched, expansive, and provocative it will force scholars of slavery and its aftermath to reconsider long held assumptions about the peculiar institution’s’ relationship to American capitalism and contemporary issues of race and democracy. Engagingly written and bursting with fresh, powerful, and provocative insights, this book deserves to be widely read, discussed, and debated.”
Thomas J. Sugrue, author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
Edward Baptist's book belongs on the very short shelf of field-defining histories of slavery. It will be read and debated for a long time to come.”
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Even today, conservative Republicans elected to government posit even today the theory that America's founding fathers worked tireless to end slavery (example, Michelle Bachman). The fact is that the founding fathers were owners of many hundreds of slaves and 12 of the first 16 presidential elections were won by slave owners. Another astounding fact is that in 1860, the seven of the top eight states with the highest per capita wealth were slave states. And the only non-slave state in the top eight was Connecticut, and its per capita wealth depended on the manufacturing of cloth from the slave-state cotton industry; so much for the theory that the slave industry was just a tiny percentage of American capitalism.
In addition to the extreme wealth of the slave states, many of the manufacturing and financial institutions of the northern states highly benefited from the slave industry. One important aspect of the northern financial institutions is that they developed mortgages and other financial devices to help spread slavery from the east coast to the deep South and then to Texas. In fact, the panic of 1837, was largely caused by slave speculation, much like the 2008 economic collapse that was caused by home mortgage speculation of the banks.
One of today's myths was that slave labor was not as efficient as free labor. This was disproven by the fact that free labor after the end of the Civil War never had cotton picking efficiency close to the efficiency of slave picking of 1860. Free men were not willing to work at the death inducing rates that the enslavers demanded of their slaves, whom the enslavers considered just mere machines that would eventually wear out after 30-40 years of 90 hour work weeks in the hot sun.
As a scholar of race in this country, I found this book thought-provoking and important. This country has never dealt with the fact that slavery built this country. Hopefully this book will help us finally do so.
To present-day eyes, this might appear strange. Cotton sounds banal to us; in our day the growth of the economy depends (or at any rate, is assumed to depend) on information, electronics and similarly high-tech businesses. But up until at least the late 19th century, the chief industry remained textiles; it was with weaving and spinning that the Industrial Revolution had begun, and it was these which kept the wheels turning. And Spinning Jenny, of course, needed something to spin: Cotton fiber.
In order to illustrate the importance of cotton, we might think of crude oil today; while the comparison is not perfect, it is one historians can legitimately (and do surprisingly frequently) employ. Without cotton for the mills, the early industries would have collapsed every bit as dramatically as would our economy if our oil supply was suddenly strangled. And since the United States controlled roughly three-quarters of the world cotton supply by the mid-1800s, that made her a sort of OPEC of the day. Like the oil sheikhs, US planters and traders brought in fantastic revenues from selling this simple but absolutely vital primary good; unlike them, they wisely invested the money, so that they would not forever remain dependent on it. This, then, was the money that built the future economic superpower.
We are used to thinking of the industrialized North as the economic powerhouse of the US, with the "rural" South the poor country cousin. In the 20th century, this was indeed so; but in the 19th, not so much. On the contrary, by 1860 the big economic boom was still agrarian, and Southern cotton comprised 60 per cent of total US exports; fundamentally, the North was still piggybacking on the South. And Southern planters, far from being "anti-capitalist" or "anti-modern" feudalists in their outlook (as some have suggested), were canny capitalist entrepreneurs who for good and ill pioneered many of the managerial techniques later employed to great effect by the super-industrialists and "Robber Barons" of the North.
These shrewd agri-businessmen organized their production according to the most efficient patterns available in order to maintain their supremacy on the hungry global market. Unfortunately, efficiency (as is sometimes the case in business) was allowed to run rampant at the expense of liberal and humane values. For as we all know, the "White Gold" of the South was grown mainly by Negro slaves -- Which unhappy circumstance, of course, is what occasions all the controversy surrounding this otherwise sunny-seeming economic success story.
It is a fact that the whole country, not merely a small Southern planter elite, benefited immensely from the cotton business and the money it brought in; to point out as much is nothing more than common sense, in view of the figures cited above. And in a wider sense, consumers around the world benefited from the relatively cheap cotton the South alone could provide. The necessary precondition for these beneficial effects was slavery: a truth as deplored by most of us today as it was by abolitionists at the time, but true nonetheless. For no other technology or system of labor organization available or conceivable in the antebellum era could have yielded the productivity and profitability that the maximally-efficient (and inhumanely severe) supervision of the field-gangs enabled.
In this regard, apart from certain details of relatively minor importance, Baptist does not actually say all that much that is new; he merely draws wider attention to matters of which scholars have long been aware, but which have not yet entered the public mind. The moral questions he raises are not new, either, but they remain important. How should we approach the fact that unfree labor contributed greatly, indeed vitally, to our current prosperity, which descendants of slaves and freemen alike enjoy? Can there come good out of what most of us would consider a profound evil? Is it the case, as some pessimists have alleged, that the progress of civilization necessitates that some must suffer? Such issues even go far beyond the question of slavery. Poor workers, farmers, conscript soldiers have all suffered unimaginably in the building of our present society. What sort of recognition is it appropriate for us to grant to their often anonymous sacrifices? I can offer no answers; every thoughtful person must consider for himself what he believes right. Baptist, for his part, is clearly on the side of the slaves.
In his overall valuable account, Baptist is not pursuing a line of inquiry in the strictly "objective" tradition of a von Ranke, but presenting an impassioned moral plea along with his more scholarly subject matter. On this account it is fair to accuse him of a certain degree of bias, as some prominent reviewers have done; but even more so would it be folly to dismiss his views on this same basis. American slavery is a matter which rightly raises emotions; it is precious few who can discuss it wholly dispassionately, and many fine contributions on the topic have been offered by more or less partisan investigators over the years.
While I do not agree with all of Baptist's arguments and conclusions, his main contention -- The profound importance of the South and its slavery-powered economy to the growth and prosperity of the United States as a whole -- is rock-solid. In this he follows in the tradition of "cliometric" pioneer Robert Fogel and his still-unsurpassed works on slavery as an integral part of the South's unique and dynamic growth: "Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery" (1974) and "Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery" (1989). (Readers intrigued by Baptist will find Fogel's works very interesting, as well; in part he covers the same ground, but as seen through a somewhat different interpretive matrix, and also in a more morally "neutral" manner.)
Altogether, I recommend "The Half Has Never Been Told" to literate audiences concerned with the issues it covers. While not an easy read, for the most part it is certainly a useful and thought-provoking one.
1) The book is "well written" in that its author has a strong command of prose, perhaps too strong for his own good. At many points in the book, which sometimes reads far more like a novel than a non-fiction piece, he waxes eloquent about the 'seed which with latent potential bursts up through the sweat soaked soil to break upon the new morning in foreign white crests etc. etc.' While that was a paraphrasing of the author's words it is not far off. The author often goes on for several paragraphs in poetic verse about the difficulties of slavery or the beauty of some natural process or anything else that comes up. While this is not a terrible thing, and there is a time and a place for it, I felt the author was far too free with his verse when he should have been conveying facts. Many times I found myself rolling my eyes and saying: "yeah yeah I get it, now let’s get back to the subject matter again."
2) He treats his subject material as extremely malleable when it comes to "what actually happened." Due to his tendency to wax eloquent as mentioned in (1) he often prefers to 'tell stories' rather than relate facts. This leads to him picking up the trail of a few actual slaves and conveying what happened to them personally. Unfortunately the accounts are imperfect and incomplete and so he obligingly fills in the gaps. However, he does so seamlessly and as a reader I often found myself unsure of what can be said to have actually happened and what was mere fantasy placed in prose to connect the dots. This is aggravated by his penchant to tell hypothetical stories which are completely made up and filled with a plethora of "perhaps" as he recounts the “typical day in the life of” moments of a hypothetical 'average' slave man or woman. As above, none of this is wrong or entirely damning, it merely detracts from the subject matter and puts the reader in the difficult position of having to evaluate each new piece of information to parse whether it is reliable or merely another questionable anecdote meant to engage the reader's emotions.
3) The title is largely misleading. I bought this book expecting a text on: "Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism." What I found was instead: "Another Book of Slave Stories and a Text on how Slavery was Worse than You Thought." Once more, I'm not saying that it wasn't a good book to write, but I found myself increasingly frustrated as the author made almost no attempt whatsoever to connect slavery to "The Making of American Capitalism" outside of saying “people benefited from having slave labor and therefore made money.” That is true, but hardly revolutionary. One chapter discussed the creation of fiat money, the spread of credit, and other significant economic events but completely stopped discussing slavery for the duration of the chapter except for occasionally mentioning "and then people used credit/paper money to buy slaves" (just as they of course did to buy literally everything else). The rest of the book discusses slavery and it's horrors in great detail, but makes no attempt to discuss economics even in passing. Again, although this doesn't mean the book is necessarily a poor one it does mean that it is other than what it appears to be.
That is what I would have most wanted to know before buying it.
In short. The book was 'well written' and even informative, but overly prosaic and told a far different story than what the subtitle seems to claim. While I do not regret reading it and did learn from some of the chapters; had I known what it was before buying it, I would likely have purchased something else. The text is heavy on story, heavy on emotion, heavy on prose, somewhat lighter on facts, and very light on economics or "The Making of American Capitalism."
I think there are probably people out there who would really enjoy this book for what it is. I, and presumably others, was merely looking for something quite different when I bought it.
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