This is not a fun topic. But at least I can promise there will be some sex in my talk.
I would like to begin with an epigraph – a quote, like you find at the beginning of a book. This book actually doesn't have one, so I'll supply it, appropriately from a Mississippi writer – William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Some people do say that slavery was in the past, so it’s no longer relevant. But others consider it highly relevant.
The book is titled, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist. (By the way, I wasn’t sure that’s really how his name is pronounced. So I e-mailed him, and asked him.)
I’d also like to make a disclosure: I am white. Though Robinson is a common name among African-Americans, my family’s name was probably not Robinson when they came off the boat. They were European Jews, who suffered some bad stuff of their own, so I don’t feel I bear any inherited responsibility for slavery, even if it were true that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. I feel I can be objective about this subject.
And, since I’m sure the question occurs to you, the author of the book, Edward Baptist, is also white. I asked him that too.
Now, that slavery continues to be a relevant issue, that still engenders arguments, is exemplified by this book. When Mr. Skinner telephoned me, and told me what book he was asking me to review, I said, “Ohhhh, that one.” Because as a devoted reader of The Economist magazine (which I recommend highly), I very well remembered The Economist’s review of this book. When I read that review, my reaction was, “Wow!” – especially at the review’s final comments, which I’ll quote: “Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history, it is advocacy.” As I said: Wow.
I also very well remembered what happened next. A short time later, I saw something I had never seen before in The Economist. They published an “editor’s note” apologizing for – and withdrawing – that review. Particularly with respect to those final lines which I quoted, the editor said there had been widespread criticism, and rightly so. The editor said that the great majority of slavery’s victims had been blacks, “and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil.”
So the subject of slavery is still quite capable of engendering controversy. The past is not dead; it is not even past.
In fact, we’re still not sure how to talk about it (which this book is partly about). For those of you who want to stay up to date, the word “slave” is no longer politically correct. The preferred term is now “enslaved person.” I guess the difference is that the word “slave” might suggest that that is the person’s essential characteristic; whereas “enslaved person” instead suggests that we’re talking about a person, and that enslavement was something that happened to that person. Fair enough.
In this book, the author does use “enslavement” language a lot of the time, but in a lot of places that would just be clumsy, and he does use the word “slave.” You’ll forgive me for doing likewise.
So what is the real point of this book? What is the author trying to accomplish? Of course there have been many books about slavery. But Baptist is trying to make a particular point about the history of slavery which he considers misunderstood yet crucial to a larger understanding of how America got to be what it is. He’s trying to refute what he sees as conventional wisdom that compartmentalizes slavery from the rest of America’s development, as sort of a side story. That is, the idea that while the rest of America was building a modern industrial economic system, the South with it’s so-called “peculiar institution” of slavery was a land apart; and besides, slavery wasn’t really economically viable in the long run; and even if there hadn’t been a civil war, slavery could not have persisted indefinitely. This narrative is what Baptist is trying to refute. The “half that has never been told” of his title is the story of how American slavery changed and grew over time, and how it was (he argues) crucial to making America into an economic power.
This fits the narrative of slavery being America’s “original sin;” as something that still stains us; perhaps relevant to the issue of reparations for slavery, which some continue to advocate. (Though of course, if you want to use the language of “sin,” the Bible is clear that slavery is perfectly okay.)
The first enslaved persons were brought to America, to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. For another century or so, the influx was more or less a trickle, but then in the 1700s it became a flood. And then, between the Revolution and the Civil War, America’s enslaved population increased five-fold. At the time of the Revolution, America’s white population was basically just confined to a narrow coastal strip; by the Civil War, a vast inland territory was occupied, with slavery in much of it.
Now, when the Constitution was promulgated, slavery was already a divisive issue. You all know about counting slaves as 3/5 of a person. This is very much misunderstood. In fact, it was the slave holders who wanted slaves to count as full persons. Why? Because representation in Congress was based on population. The Northerners felt that to fully count slaves would unreasonably inflate the congressional clout of the Southerners. So they compromised: slaves would count as 3/5. Why not simply half? I don’t know. It was a politically negotiated compromise.
Another thing they compromised about was the slave trade. Perhaps recalling Saint Augustine who said, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet,” they agreed to ban the African slave trade, but not for twenty years. However, when the twenty years were up, it was no longer necessary to import fresh slaves from Africa because the large existing slave populations were rapidly reproducing, creating plenty of surplus slaves that could be sold.
And slave owners helped this production process along. If you’ve watched some of Henry Louis Gates’s genealogy programs on PBS, you know there really aren’t any pure African Americans, practically all having major admixtures of white genes, and of course a lot of that came from slave owners impregnating their slaves.
This was not an incidental point. It was in fact central to the institution of slavery. It’s something we don’t talk much about, but Baptist is very clear about it in the book. Why did men buy and use slaves? To get rich. Why do men want to get rich? Let me quote something Aristotle Onassis once said: “all the money in the world would be meaningless if women did not exist.” Now, riches can buy you a lot of the amenities of life, and sex comes very high on that list. Men would buy field hands to work their plantations so that they could get the money to also buy women, and it wasn’t just for their cooking skills. The highest prices fetched by slaves were not for the best field hands but for the best looking women.
Of course, this is not a phenomenon that has disappeared from the world. Look at ISIS selling captive women as so-called wives. It’s much the same thing.
All right. That’s the sex part of this talk I promised you. Maybe not so titillating.
As I’ve mentioned there was a vast expansion of settlement, accompanied by slavery, deep into the American interior, to places like Mississippi and Alabama, and a lot of the surplus slaves from the upper south were sold into that new territory. How were they transported? This is the subject of Baptist’s first chapter, aptly titled, “Feet.” They walked. Usually heavily and tightly chained together in sizeable groups, called “coffles,” on forced marches, often hundreds of miles, barefoot. Imagine it; not a pleasant stroll.
Have you ever wondered how much a slave cost? The answer falls roughly between about $500 and $1000-plus for a prime quality slave. In today’s money that equates to something on the order of ten to thirty thousand dollars. This was a gigantic investment at a time when the overall living standard and real-dollar income level was greatly lower than today’s. So considering how valuable a slave was, you can understand why extraordinary measures were taken to keep them from escaping. On the other hand, a dead slave was worthless, so you might wonder at how brutally they were treated. Slaves were frequently punished with severe violence. The reason is that slave holders were terrified of their slaves. Jefferson likened slavery to holding a wolf by the ears – hard to hold on, but you dare not let go. Slave rebellions in America were actually quite rare, mainly because the severity and violence of the slave regime did successfully deter rebellion. But American slavers were very mindful of the revolt in Haiti around 1800, which overthrew white rule and entailed enormous slaughter. So slavery was a reign of terror for blacks and whites alike.
Incidentally, the Haiti revolt has great further significance for American history. Haiti was French, and the French debacle in Haiti paved the way for their decision to sell us the Louisiana territory. And that, as Baptist emphasizes, opened the way for a further vast expansion of slavery.
He sees the slavery of the 19th century as different from what had come before. Up until that time, everywhere, the economy was almost entirely agriculture. This was the Malthusian world in which most of the population worked on farms to produce enough food, which they could barely do. Slavery was mostly about the production of sugar in the Caribbean, and foodstuffs in America (also tobacco). But now came a great revolution – the Industrial Revolution – wherein the production of not food, but goods, exploded in importance. What was truly revolutionary was that humanity could now harness energy, to get more product out of a given amount of labor, and that meant something new on this earth – economic growth. This was our escape from the Malthusian trap, and bare subsistence. Now we could rise from almost universal and unrelieved squalor to prosperity and affluence.
In those early factories, the main product being manufactured was clothing. And the main raw material for that was cotton. Before, slaves had toiled primarily to produce food. Now it was mainly cotton. And the main part of the labor was picking the cotton. Which, let me tell you, was nasty hard work.
Central to Baptist’s argument is that cotton productivity per picker rose by 400% from 1800 to 1860. And, contrary to most models of economic development, which attribute that kind of productivity growth to technological improvements, Baptist contends that the real source here was that cotton planters over time refined their methods for squeezing more labor out of every slave. They were made to work as long and hard and fast as possible, not by carrots and sticks, but sticks alone; that is, whips. The book is very graphic about what it was like to be whipped. And whipping was not an occasional thing. Frequent whipping was integral to the system. This reality leads Baptist to emphatically reject the common idea that slave labor was less efficient than free wage labor. Whipping was more effective than money at making people work to the utmost. Likewise, Baptist disputes the idea that slavery was somehow doomed to die of its own accord. In his picture, slavery became economically very efficient indeed.
As I mentioned, The Economist’s withdrawn review charged Baptist with producing advocacy, not history. He does use some loaded, inflammatory language. Plantations Baptist sometimes calls “slave labor camps.” Which he says employed “torture.” This is indeed very tough language, but I would call it honest and accurate language. They were slave labor camps, and it was torture.
The standard system was to assign each slave a quota of pounds of cotton to be picked in a day. After the nightly weighing, those slaves who failed to make their quota would receive a number of lashes determined by the shortfall.
Baptist mentions the invention of a whipping machine to automate the penalty. Apparently the machine wasn’t widely used, and manual whipping was the norm. However, the author sometimes refers to the entire system as the “whipping machine,” a machine for producing ever greater amounts of cotton. This too is very tough, loaded language. But again it’s actually accurate.
In the run-up to the Civil War – and by the way, the book is actually really very good in chronicling and illuminating this history -- the big divisive issue was whether to allow slavery in the new western states and territories. Why were the southerners so keen on this? It wasn’t some messianic belief in slavery. It was self-interest. They feared that if slavery were geographically confined, then over time, the slave population would grow out of control, and you’d have a Haiti situation. Allowing slavery in new territories would provide an outlet, a safety valve, for that excess slave population.
Many people see great historical currents as inevitabilities, and that certainly applies here. The Civil War, and the ending of slavery, in our hindsight, certainly do have a feel of inevitability. But as a student of history, I am a strong believer in the concept of contingency – that nothing is foretold, and that everything is always up for grabs; that small causes can make big differences. Edward Baptist does make a strong case that slavery was not a doomed system whose demise was inevitable. To the contrary, slavery was so deeply entrenched, economically and politically, that the only possible way it could have been ended was by war. And that war was not inevitable either. The Southerners who started the war were blinded by cocksure arrogance, failing to realize how unnecessarily they were risking everything. Had cooler heads prevailed in 1861, and had the Southerners drawn back from the brink, it is again hard to see how slavery could ever have been ended. Outrageous though this may seem to our modern sensibilities, it is not inconceivable that slavery would have continued for a very long time.
But the concluding lines of that Economist review I do agree were out of line. This is a history book. No one could write an objective book about slavery without making slaves look like victims, and the whites in the story like victimizers. Is Baptist judgmental? Sure; how could one not be. But he is writing history and by and large lets the facts speak for themselves.
On the other hand, I feel that the title (and especially the subtitle), and the book’s ostensible agenda, are somewhat misleading. Baptist is not telling the half that’s never been told. I reckon it’s more like 5%. That again is his argument that slavery was the engine originally behind America’s emergence as an economic power. He actually does not devote very much of the book to making that case, and I don’t find it persuasive. While it is true that slavery and cotton produced great riches for a relatively small number of planters in a few southern states, that was far from the whole story of America’s economy in the first half of the Nineteenth Century. In fact, if Baptist were actually right about the economic importance of cotton, the South should have won the war. It did not, for the main reason that it was totally outgunned economically by the industrial North. And it was really only after the Civil War, with the South’s cotton economy in ruins, that America exploded as an economic powerhouse. That story was built on manufacturing, and also on incredibly productive agriculture growing food crops – not cotton, and without slavery.
Now, Baptist does say, “the main reason for the North’s quicker recovery was that northerners had reinvested profit generated from the backs of the enslaved in creating a diversified regional economy.” In short, slavery supplied the seed money. But the book does not show this; there is just no data tracing flows of investment in northern industries, or Western agriculture, back to cotton profits. There is no evidence that cotton planters plowed their profits into such investments, to any appreciable degree.
But anyhow, that issue again concerns only a small part of the book, whereas 95% of it is the story of slavery that has been told again and again. Indeed, any idea that America has endeavored to whitewash its past and bury the ugly truth about slavery is simply nonsense. From Baptist’s book I may have learned some details I didn’t know before, but the basic picture of slavery that emerges is one that was amply familiar to me from numerous other sources – without, by the way, having had any special interest in this particular subject.
While it is true that Southern apologists have always tried to portray slavery as a benevolent system in which darkies were contented or even cheerful, the larger society has long since rejected that picture as nothing but a cruel joke that adds insult to injury.
I think America is actually uniquely honest with itself about blemishes on its record like slavery. Compare Japan, which to this day refuses to accept responsibility for its misdeeds in World War II, or Turkey, where you can be jailed for mentioning the Armenian genocide.
Slavery was a very great crime. But for those who, as I’ve mentioned, say that crime still stains America, it might be pointed out that the crime was expiated with blood. This nation, after all, fought a war to free the slaves. It might not have started out that way, but in the end it was a war to free the slaves. And free them we did. It is true that the social and economic system, that followed slavery, in the American South, was for many decades still pretty awful, and some might call it slavery in a different guise. But Edward Baptist is clear eyed about what was importantly different: no whipping.
And black people did have the freedom to move out of the South. Which millions did. There is a wonderful book about that migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, which I highly recommend.
Meantime, in the South, it took another century before blacks effectively and universally got the vote. And for those cynics who doubt that voting matters, or think democracy is a sham, it was in fact the vote, by blacks, that really finally transformed the social landscape of the South. Today, the state with the most black elected officials is Mississippi.
A final comment. There are indeed cynics who do not believe humanity has made moral progress. I remember one speaker right here who expressed that view. And I have previously stood here refuting it. Well, when I think about slavery, I say to myself, “What made those folks think it was OK to go to Africa, and round up human beings as though they were animals, and subject them to merciless brutality?” But we have to understand that people at that time had a mentality very different from our own. Indeed, they did see black Africans as no different from animals. That today we find that attitude abhorrent, indeed incomprehensible, shows how much moral progress there has been.
So have we arrived at perfection? Of course not. In fact, slavery still exists, literal slavery, in parts of the world. Civilization remains a work in progress. Moral advancement is continuing. And, though I’m frankly no vegetarian, yet I sometimes wonder whether people in another hundred years might say to themselves, “What made those folks think it was OK to round up animals and eat them?”