The Economics of Slavery: The Half Has Never Been Told

“Have you been happier in slavery or free?” a young Works Project Administration interviewer in 1937 asked Lorenzo Ivy, a former slave, in Danville, Va. “Truly, son, the half has never been told,” he said.  This anecdote is how Edward E. Baptist opens “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” an examination of both the economic innovations that grew out of the ever-shifting institution of slavery and the suffering of generations of people who were bought and sold.
Wading through the research, Mr. Baptist said he realized that he had two big stories. “One is the expansion of American capitalism on the backs of enslaved human beings,” said Mr. Baptist, who grew up in Durham, N.C., the son of a librarian mother and a biochemist father. “And the other is the way they had to move faster and faster and think harder and harder,” he said of those slaves. “Historians have spent a lot of time talking about whether African-Americans resisted. In forced migrations, survival was a kind of resistance in finding ways to stand in solidarity with each other and to write stories about themselves to say: This is a crime.”
In his work, Mr. Baptist also followed the money. “I started tracking the process of credit flow into the South, huge amounts of money,” he said. “Southerners created numerous financial innovations that were essential to the process of the domestic slave trade. Slave owners put mortgages on slaves as they bought them. Britain had abolished slavery, but you can essentially buy slaves by buying one of those bonds. It shows the linkage.”
As he writes in the book: “The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African-Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.”
Suresh Naidu, a Columbia University economist who also studies slavery, said economists would call for even more quantitative evidence for Mr. Baptist’s arguments but said his book was a “great interpretation of slavery.” Economic historians have tended to focus on how market forces blunted the worst aspects of slavery, Mr. Naidu said, but Mr. Baptist demonstrates how the drive for profit exacerbated physical punishment and forced migration.
Mr. Baptist’s work joins that of historians like Walter Johnson at Harvard (“River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom”) and Craig Steven Wilder at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities”). Taken together, their books, both from 2013, connected the dots among plantation labor, London bankers and Northeast factories, and the creation of Ivy League universities.
“Empire of Cotton: A Global History,” by Sven Beckert, a Harvard history professor, due out this year, looks at global capitalism through the lens of the history of cotton. Daina Ramey Berry, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, is writing a book on the monetary value of enslaved people from before conception (slaves were valued for their reproductive abilities) to after death.
In an interview, Mr. Johnson said “Half” had broken new ground in the way it explored the relationship between slave markets and capital markets. In particular, he said, Mr. Baptist shows how the Bank of the United States (in which federal funds were deposited) was lending money to slave traders. Planters would mortgage their slaves to raise money, and those mortgages were sold to investors. Mr. Johnson also cited Mr. Baptist’s argument that huge increases in cotton- picking over the course of the antebellum period were due almost entirely to violence against slaves. Historians have often attributed that increase to the emergence of new, easier-to-pick strains of cotton and the cotton gin, Mr. Johnson said.
Seth Rockman, a historian at Brown University, himself at work on a book about how New England industries manufactured plantation goods, said Mr. Baptist had advanced the story by connecting “the day-to-day violence of plantation labor to the largest macroeconomic questions of the West’s economic takeoff in the 19th century.”
“The Half Has Never Been Told” entered the Twittersphere when a review in The Economist in September took Mr. Baptist to task for advocacy and for depicting most whites as villains and most blacks as victims. That review was so derided by readers that the magazine withdrew it and posted an apology online. Other reviews, including those in The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times have been far more positive. A review in Daily Kos said Mr. Baptist “takes apart the myths that our society has created to make us more comfortable with our slave-owning past.”
His own journey into that past was intellectually satisfying but sometimes emotionally challenging, Mr. Baptist said. He recalled reading an interview with a woman whose enslaved mother toiled in the fields of a small Kentucky farm in the 1850s, sometimes returning home to discover that another child of hers had been sold away.
“In 1850, people could have given up,” Mr. Baptist said. “There was no reason to expect this would end anytime soon. That was a moment, reading that interview, that brought home all the implications of the history.”

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