Book Review: The Half Has Never Been Told

Cover Photo:
Douglas, Aaron. Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South. Mural. 1934. Oil on Canvas. Source: https://aburko.wordpress.com/racism-within-the-art-community/.

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. By Edward E. Baptist. New York: Basic Books, 2014. pp. xxvii, 498. $35.00.

Cornell professor Edward E. Baptist opens his magnificent new work, The Half Has Never Been Told, with the assertion that the historical academy of the early twentieth century was “openly racist” (xvii). Baptist therefore implies that The Half Has Never Been Told is an act of historiographic penance, rectifying the academy’s past sin of whitewashing American slavery. He intends to dispel three longstanding misconceptions about slavery to which most historians have subscribed. First, slavery would have inevitably ended; second, Southern slavery was inefficient and unprofitable, out of step with the North’s industrialized economy; and third, the worst crime of slavery was the deprivation of black Americans’ political rights (xviii-xix). Baptist argues for the exact opposite of these three misconceptions. Slavery grew more profitable and widespread as the nineteenth century progressed, and millions of slaves were not only disenfranchised but also systematically tortured for the sake of American capitalism.

By contending that slavery was an efficient method of labor, Baptist concurs with Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s controversial 1974 monograph, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Like Baptist, Fogel and Engerman contend, “The slave system was not economically moribund on the eve of the Civil War,” and “Slave agriculture was not inefficient compared with free agriculture.”[1] However, Fogel and Engerman believe that “the typical slave field hand received about 90 percent of the income he produced.”[2] They also state, “The notion that slave owners relied on the lash alone to promote discipline and efficiency is a highly misleading myth. In slave, as in free society, positive incentives, in the form of material rewards, were a powerful instrument of economic and social control.”[3] Baptist directly contradicts these arguments, stating that slave owners rarely paid their slaves wages, if at all (129-130). Constant surveillance and threats of torture or murder, not positive incentives, drove slaves to work so hard. Baptist thus reinterprets Time on the Cross for a new era while removing aspects of that book which minimized the devastation wrought by slavery. As for recent historiography, The Half Has Never Been Told makes a fine companion to Eric Foner’s 2014 volume, Gateway to Freedom, a revisionist social history of the Underground Railroad. Together, Baptist and Foner skillfully illuminate previously mythologized or underreported aspects of African American history.

The Half Has Never Been Told unfolds in a roughly chronological manner, although Baptist plays with strict linearity by letting his chapters’ time periods overlap. Using Ralph Ellison’s metaphor of slavery as a subdued black body, Baptist centers each chapter on a metaphorical interpretation of a body part, such as the notion of slaves as hands. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the book, aside from the economic might of Southern slavery, is the Northern economy’s reliance on (and complicity in) slavery. Cotton picked by black slaves in the South supplied Northern textile mills and helped the United States participate in the Great Divergence, in which the West industrialized and surpassed Asia’s economic output (77-83). Baptist thus shows that slavery is a national sin, not merely the sin of elite Southern planters. A large cast of historical characters populates the book, but the slave Charles Ball comes closest to a single protagonist; his harrowing experiences weave through most of the narrative. Rachel, a black woman who undergoes a dehumanizing slave auction in Chapter Three, also appears frequently. By restoring these trafficked individuals to the historical narrative, Baptist continues the venerable tradition of history from below, even as he tackles questions of macroeconomics and discusses the tacitly pro-slavery economics of Andrew Jackson.

Baptist bases his social history argument on considerable quantitative analysis, including a database of his own assembly, judicial records, published statistics, manufacturing data, plantation records, and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. In his acknowledgments chapter, Baptist credits the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research (CISER) with helping him assemble the quantitative material. This monograph is not purely quantitative in its methodology, though. Baptist draws extensively from oral history interviews conducted with former slaves, as well as the papers of abolitionists, witnesses to slavery, and several American presidents. Overall, Baptist’s research blends a positivist approach to the economics of slavery, a social historian’s interest in understanding the experience of common people (in this case, black slaves), and a cultural analysis of former slaves’ testimonies. The only unusual aspect about Baptist’s research appears in the first endnote to Chapter One. Here, Baptist dubs his style of writing “evocative history” and says that each narrative passage draws from more primary sources than may be listed in that passage’s endnote (428). By omitting some sources from each note, Baptist unfortunately prevents curious readers from fully reconstructing his research, particularly in regard to the slave narratives he retells.

Still, the conceit of “evocative history” is certainly warranted, given the excellent quality of this book’s prose. Righteous indignation suffuses Baptist’s writing, especially in his moving afterword, which lambasts white Americans for instituting Jim Crow and follows some of the book’s newly liberated slaves to the end of their lives. The sheer emotional power of the narrative, coupled with its incisive and myth-busting research into slave economics, earns comparison with the great nonfiction novels of the mid-twentieth century. Authors like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe conducted thorough research, yet presented their findings with the conventions of fiction. Baptist deserves to stand in Mailer and Wolfe’s company, showing how academic historians can incorporate literary elements into a monograph without sacrificing comprehensive research.

The Half Has Never Been Told deserves to be read by a large number of general readers, who will be forced to recognize slavery’s centrality to American society and capitalism. As a result of the monograph’s pronounced literary qualities, many public libraries will likely acquire the book. Within the academy, social and cultural historians of the nineteenth century United States will find much to consider in this text. Teachers of graduate writing seminars might use Baptist’s manuscript to show how ideas of economic history, which are typically tackled in specialized journals and monographs, might be conveyed in a narrative form. Finally, this text will be of tremendous use to teachers of American historiography, as Baptist explains past interpretations of slavery and then demolishes those erroneous interpretations with a strong narrative.

The cover to Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told. Source: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51RGjjDctHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg.
The cover to Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told.
Source: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51RGjjDctHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg.

[1] Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974; Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 5. For further reading, see: Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross: Evidence and Methods – A Supplement (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1974); Thomas Weiss, “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery [Review Essay],” Project 2001: Significant Works in Economic History, EH.net (Economic History Association), accessed February 1, 2015, http://eh.net/book_reviews/time-on-the-cross-the-economics-of-american-negro-slavery/. The Weiss article directed me to key passages in Fogel and Engerman’s book. I had some previous familiarity with Time on the Cross’s arguments thanks to Michael Jarvis’s Fall 2013 early American seminar at the University of Rochester.

[2] Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, 5-6.

[3] Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, 41.

Advertisements

One thought on “Book Review: The Half Has Never Been Told

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s