The half has never been told : slavery and the making of American capitalism

by Edward E. Baptist

Paper Book, 2014


Historian Edward Baptist reveals how the expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States.



Call number



New York, NY : Basic Books, [2014]


User reviews

LibraryThing member rivkat
After I read it, I understand why the Economist gave it such a defensive, racist review. This book, more than any I can remember reading, confronts non-black Americans, and to a certain extent citizens of other countries like Britain, with exactly how much of white American wealth and
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industrialization, which also made many others wealthy or comfortable, depended on the systematic torture of African and African-American people. The book does so both with the horrendous facts, but also with its language, which does not allow readers to gloss over the past. There are no plantations in this book, only slave labor camps. There are no masters, only enslavers—enslavement was an active thing, a thing that kept happening, that was maintained regularly and voluntarily, including by lots and lots of people who never enslaved others themselves—and Baptist often speaks of enslaved people rather than slaves, reminding us both of their humanity and the ongoing nature of their mistreatment.

There is rape and there is fucking; Baptist, like other historians, links the violent white male culture of the South with the domination they were pleased to exercise over enslaved people and the necessity they felt of showing other whites that they were “free” and not enslaved. This freedom was freedom to steal (land, people), rape, kill, whip, and otherwise torture blacks as well as freedom to assault and even kill any white man who “insulted” them. The greed of capitalist expansion was funded by ever more efficient extraction of cotton production through the torture of enslaved people, using quantification and individualization of quotas combined with the reduction of slaves to interchangeable “hands.” This greed was connected to the other risk-taking behavior of enslavers as well as to their greed for the bodies of enslaved women, whom they were free to rape. Sexual access to those women also asserted power over white women, functioning as proof that these white men were governed only by themselves: that they did the whipping.

Baptist argues that it’s a reassuring lie to say that slavery was economically inefficient, as we are often taught today. With the mechanisms enslavers developed to break down social bonds between enslaved people; to torture them so terrifyingly that they’d work desperately to avoid the torture; and to create an efficient market for slaves, including credit and securitization, slavery was a wealth-generating machine the likes of which had never been seen before. Slaves learned to innovate and become ever more productive in order to gain some small, temporary protection from the torture. Slavery made some white men very, very wealthy, both in the North and the South, and the institutions we have today are still benefiting from the wealth extracted from enslaved people and allocated to white people.
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LibraryThing member joeydag
This was an amazing read for me. The author combines economic history and personal narratives from enslaved people to present material in a way that yielded so many interesting perspectives on early US History. The author takes on some of the myths of slavery and its passing. It was not withering
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away. It was evil and a blight is so many ways. It powered US growth for a number of decades and many lifetimes. It generated quite a few innovations in capital markets. It was the use of torture to generate high productivity in the core resource, cotton, at the start of the industrial revolution.

If you have an interest in US history, I highly recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member keylawk
Drawing from actual data of the 18th and 19th centuries, and not just the commentary of apologists, Professor Baptist, shows that American economic growth was powered by enslaved people. He shows that entrepreneurial spirit and technical innovation played roles in the economic expansion, but the
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availability and effects of those factors were delayed by the Slave system. The forced toil of enslaved people built America.
Today, the South is an educational back water ruled by feudal lords. The rulers try to erase and disguise the source of their power. Most Southerners today have forgotten that the Southern plutocracy of the early 1800s were the wealthiest people in the world. (Dixie would easily have won the Civil War--the plutocrats could have bought a land army five times larger than the North, and with better weapons--but the lords hated taxes, even when raised for themselves.)
Professor Baptist follows the money. Plantation companies used Slaves as collateral to get credit to buy more slaves and plantations. The American South had a global near-monopoly on raw cotton. American clipper ships and British bottoms were supplying Europe, China and India with textiles. No other country could produce the labor-intensive land-exhausting cultivation of cotton at competitive prices to the plantation production based on the enslavement of men, women and children. Baptist fully documents the comprehensive institutional totality of Slavery.
By drawing from eye-witness accounts and diaries, Professor Baptist is able to construct a story from the daily violence of plantation labor to which explains the West’s economic takeoff in the 19th century. He also documents the techniques used to force ever-increasing "productivity" from the labor force--torture, fear, forced breeding. Even children were forced into harems and working stations.
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LibraryThing member Farree
Here is a book that will inspire readers to investigate what information is available at regarding the various slave narratives and fictional representations of the anebellum south (from before the civil war) and pracitices of the slave overseers with regard to the "pushing" method of
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getting maximum productivity out of the slaves that worked in the slave camps for the planters in the slavery times. This is an unbelievably good read!!
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LibraryThing member revliz
Outstanding. Eye-opening. Fundamental. Read this book!
LibraryThing member annbury
This is a "must read" book for anyone who is interested in American history, which means anyone who is seriously interested in American politics. Baptist argues that slavery was at the center of the early expansion of the American economy, using both careful research and moving narratives of
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individual slaves.

Most writing about American history tends to focus on slavery, the "Peculiar Institution" of the ante-bellum South, as a regional issue whose political effects became critical, but whose national economic effects were limited. Baptist turns that view on its head, arguing that the economic effects of slavery dominated the national economy in the fifty years before the civil war. He documents this view with rigorous research, focussing on the fact that the amount of cotton produced by each slave rose sharply over the period, reaching levels that free labor could not match. Cotton became America's most important export, and, indirectly, the basis of much of the rest of the economy -- the South was a major market for the North, increasingly so as the South grew richer and richer. This led to the development of a financial system emerged that depended on the continued geographic expansion of slavery, which spilled over into the political sphere and came to dominate Southern priorities.

Baptist's book is carefully researched, solid economic history. But it is also a searing examination of how slavery worked in the cotton fields of the deep South. The rising productivity of slave labor was no accident; it was the result of torture, and the fear of more torture. It is painful to read much of what he writes about how slaves were treated -- punished, humiliated, separated from family -- and he doesn't mince words. For example, he refers to "slave labor camps" instead of "plantations", part of a shift in view that makes what happened stark and real.
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LibraryThing member annbury
A wonderful and important work. The author recognizes that slavery was more efficient at producing cotton than any other method, due to the torture that white overseers inflicted on their laborers. He also shows that this country depended on cotton and slavery for all of its growth, even going back
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to the 18th century. The combination of personal stories with sound economics is unusual but highly relevant. He writes about the music that these people developed, and many other things.
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LibraryThing member 2wonderY
Powerful, but looong. The descriptions of lives stolen was particularly riveting; making me feel white guilt. But Baptist had a tendency to present a person enslaved, and make them stand and be examined while he went on and on driving his point.
LibraryThing member annbury
wonderful book,
LibraryThing member larryerick
This book fills an important void for me in my attempt to fully understand black history in America, at least as fully as someone who is not black is capable of doing so. In this particular case, this author presents very detailed economic factors that drove America's use of slavery. Given my
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college minor in economics, I find it interesting it has taken me so long to get to this book. In any event, I must add it to my pantheon of essential recommended volumes: (1) Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped From the Beginning, for its study of racist thought, (2) this book, for its economic analysis at every level, (3) Douglas A. Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name, for its study of the transition from slavery to Jim Crow, (4) Danielle L. McGuire's At the Dark End of the Street, for its important study of gender differences between races and their lasting societal effects, and (5) Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, for taking us from all that was in the past to where America is today. There are numerous other worthy works that offer important insights, but these are the ones that I feel dive the deepest and tackle the broadest strokes. So, why might anyone else read this book besides an economics student? First, it has a rather unique narrative style. Spaced throughout the book, the author takes the reader very intimately into my lives directly impacted by their enslavement in America. Many stories dug out of his research are every bit as personal and emotional as any scenes in the movie, "12 Years a Slave". Then, inevitably, the author draws the reader back up and out of those ground-level descriptions and relates for the reader the type of explanations that would be happening more broadly in the country. For instance, he relates a fairly complex economic situation in the 1830s that could easily have been matched with Michael Lewis' explanation of the Great Recession in his very insightful, The Big Short. (Not to be confused with the movie marketed as a comedy. At least I didn't find anything funny about the book or the Great Recession.) As the author relates, the mortgaging and repackaging of mortgages of the enslaved, accelerated and spread so far beyond prudent financial limits, that the system collapsed on itself, very much like house mortgages did in America not so long ago. The author doesn't always handle the transitions from intimate and personal to investigative journalism of the past very smoothly, especially in the beginning, but after enough groundwork is laid, the narrative in the book really starts to flow well. There are a number of interesting details revealed, such as the earlier version of the 1960s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, but, in this case, which happened because powerful slave owners wanted to expand slavery by invading and taking over Cuba. Or, similarly, how, after the U.S. defeated Mexico in the 1840s, many slave owners wanted to take over all of Mexico for the same reason as they wanted Cuba, to have more land to expand slavery. However, the purest of the pro-slavery politicians could not tolerate seeing the power of a pure Caucasian-led nation tainted by the "nameless and mongrel breeds" that would become American citizens if Mexico was added to the U.S.A. (No, Trump isn't that old, so he didn't coin that phrase back then.) In the end, the dependency of the South on an ever expandable mortgaging of slaves reached its zenith in 1859. And just how devastating was it to the cotton industry to no longer be able to beat slaves into maximum efficiency in picking cotton? In the late 1850s, the better slaves picked well over 200 pounds of cotton per day. Some eighty years later, even with the help of significant research on finding plant varieties with more easily picked cotton bolls, the typical individual picker output -- free of the overseers whip -- could only muster about 100-120 pounds per day. An extra 100 pounds of cotton per picker per day must have made that whip a bargain purchase for most slave owners.
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LibraryThing member grandpahobo
This is an amazing book. It provides a very detailed and thorough account of the integral role slavery played in the development of the United States between its founding and the Civil War. The author does a terrific job of interweaving personal stories of former slaves gathered during the early
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1900s to make the story more visceral and human. It will open your eyes to the fact that slavery is still a large part of our economic and social foundation today.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
File this under "could have been half as long and thus made its points more effectively," but then, perhaps also file under "has something for everyone." If you were unaware that slavery in America was horrific and brutal, this book will tell you all about that (and if you were aware, you will
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quickly grow tired of the sub-Dickensian heart-string pulling: I know slavery was horrible, puerile melodrama doesn't help me in any way). If you want solid statistics and argument about the reliance of economic growth on American slavery, this book will give you that (and if you don't, don't worry, another heart-string puller will show up sooner or later). In the end, I just skimmed the narratives, particularly the 'representative' ones that Baptist put together himself. I'm happy to read the stories told by actual ex-slaves; I have no interest in made-for-TV-actual-reproductions-of-possible-events. I advise you do the same, and focus on the argument: property in humans made possible the tremendous economic growth of the USA in the nineteenth century, and that growth also fed into world markets. Our economies would not exist as they do today were it not for the enslavement of millions of men and women.
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LibraryThing member EllenH
Started this after a trip to Louisiana and touring plantations. A book I'm going to have to purchase in order to have time to finish. I can't read it in big chunks as it is really heavy, but so important!


Original publication date



046500296X / 9780465002962
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