Edward E. Baptist. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 512 pages.
Review by Tyler D. Parry
Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism presents a sweeping critique of how the United States obtained significant economic power in the nineteenth century. Baptist organizes his chapters as body parts, symbolically demonstrating how American slavery expanded through the hands, feet, blood, and arms of slaves and slaveholders, “twinned bodies who spread across a subcontinent in a vast embrace of suffering and power” (395). The Half Has Never Been Told provides a critical intervention in the historiography of American slavery by synthesizing previous works and asserting its own unique, nuanced arguments about the expansion of cotton in the geopolitics of the American nation state. This book is densely researched, and presents an inconvenient history for those who maintain that “freedom” was the foundational theme of the United States following the Revolutionary War. On the contrary, it was slavery that formed the backbone of economic power in the emerging nation. Far from just a southern problem, Baptist shows how slavery molded American Capitalism, linking the cotton empire of the US South with industrial regions in the North and Great Britain.
This work emerges out of a historiographical trajectory dubbed “the second slavery”, in which scholars like Sven Beckert, Anthony E. Kaye, and Joshua D. Rothman examine how slave regimes in the nineteenth century expanded through technological innovation and investment in world markets. Eventually, these slave societies morphed into “modern” economic systems that were immensely profitable. In this regard, Baptist provides two necessary interjections that would interest intellectual historians. First, he demolishes the popular notion that slaveholders were pre-capitalist, feudal lords who refused to modernize their system. On the contrary, evidence suggests that slave owners were highly creative in using technology to maximize the output of their labor force, and this is what made them so dangerous politically and economically. Secondly, he challenges the idea that slavery became unprofitable and was nearing its end by the inception of the Civil War. Combining qualitative evidence alongside quantitative data, Baptist cogently argues that the cotton crop of 1859, for instance, was “astonishing” and “slavery’s productivity was higher than ever” (386). Such exhaustive research will prove difficult to refute for future contrarians.
Attempting to narrow this work into a specific historical genre is a fruitless exercise, as it intersects with various scholarly trajectories in American slave studies. Baptist’s work is simultaneously political, intellectual, economic, and social history, examining the ramifications of how northern politicians, proslavery ideologues, and African Americans were wrapped within a system that not only refused to die, but expanded at an extraordinary rate. The book’s main strength is its balance. Economic and political histories are often criticized for the “top-down” approach, as they ignore the voices of countless laborers and slaves who literally sacrificed their bodies to make a few rich. However, Baptist equalizes each chapter with enslaved and free voices, showing how each person who lived in the United States from 1790-1865 was impacted by slavery’s westward expansion. One emerges from this book as familiar with the enslaved as they are with Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln.
Slavery was a violent system and Baptist withholds nothing in this work, not even language. In one chapter titled “Seed” he provides a masterful description of the word “fuck” in both literal and metaphorical terms. The word has multiple layers of applicability for antebellum slavery, as Baptist notes that it emerges from an ancient word meaning “to plow”, and then adopted in Old English to mean “to strike, to beat”. The southern system was predicated upon both concepts, and Baptist encapsulates this argument in a haunting passage of how the entire region, both its black people and its cotton, were “fucked”, explaining
When the enslaved men broke it [the soil] open for the entrepreneur, he fucked this dirt with them as his tool. He fucked this field. He might fuck their wives out in the woods, or in the corn when it is high. Or their daughter in the kitchen. Then the next girl he buys at New Orleans. But he fucks the men, too…He breaks open the skin on their backs with his fucking lash, striking their lives with his power, marking them and their world with his desire (217).
In this passage, Baptist is describing the Jacksonian period, in which a rough and tumble culture shaped white masculinity at the expense of red, brown, and black bodies who occupied the same rural landscape. Few histories have pushed this far, but thankfully this one did. For if The Half is ever to be told, we must constantly reckon with the notion that violence, sex, slavery, and murder were equally as prominent as the concepts of freedom, democracy, and civility that remain so popular in American nostalgia.
Forgoing a traditional conclusion, Baptist wisely closes the book with an epilogue that challenges readers to reconsider how slavery standardized racial discrimination following the Civil War. In this section Baptist inches toward the reparations debate, though it is never suggested explicitly. Perhaps it should be. Baptist laid a solid foundation to build upon the excellent scholarship produced from Caribbean historian Hilary Beckles, whose work Britain’s Black Debt exposes how slavery and colonialism ensured that black-majority territories remained underdeveloped, while the descendants of white British slave owners remained wealthy. Equally, African American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates published a lengthy article “The Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. Tracing the legacy of racial oppression through slavery, Jim Crow, discriminatory housing policies, and the prison system Coates makes a persuasive case that, even if one does not believe allotting reparations is a plausible economic solution, the connections between race, poverty, and power were critical to the nation’s founding and cannot be ignored.
To be sure, Baptist notes that survivors of slavery held little material wealth to pass to their descendants, for “so much had been stolen from them” (417), but then directs the book’s conclusion to discuss how African Americans forged a culture that continually influences the world. This is true, but for a book that was so overtly critical of American capitalist development it may have been more opportune in this section to direct the reader to reconsider the reparation’s debate in light of the immense wealth that slavery generated for American development; wealth that African Americans never reaped. Similarly, Baptist largely obscures his initial discussions of the “technologies of exploitation” (147). Referencing a contraption, largely metaphorical, called the “whipping machine”, one reads that the cotton kingdom used “torture as its central technology” (142). But “technology” is vague in this passage, and it is never fully explained throughout the work. This is a bit frustrating since the word is used quite frequently when the author describes modes of slave punishment in the mid-nineteenth century.
Despite these minor concerns regarding ideology and description, this book will remain a staple in the historiography of American slavery. Out of a complex and emotionally charged subject, Baptist produces accessible history. Both lay readers and professional historians will find the work interesting. Exhaustively researched and cogently written, The Half Has Never Been Told is a timely contribution to the history of American slavery.
Tyler D. Parry is Assistant Professor African American Studies Department at California State University, Fullerton. He is currently revising his manuscript entitled “Love and Marriage: Domestic Relations and Matrimonial Strategies among the Enslaved in the Atlantic World.”