In Edward Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told, he makes the case that 19th Century capitalism isn’t as removed from American slavery as one would think.
Throughout the almost 500 pages that is Edward E. Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and The Making of American Capitalism, it’s this Louis CK bit that kept coming to mind.
As both Baptist and CK allude to, progress – whether that’s a booming agricultural system or an iPhone – has a cost. Sadly in the case of 19th Century American capitalism, it’s the human cost of slavery. Baptist’s central purpose is to show that places like the Mississippi River Valley made slavery a defining value of currency and debt in American society at the time. In turn, the very existence of slavery became one of the cornerstones of the American economy in the 19th Century.
In every chance he gets, Baptist reiterates to the reader that morality of slavery rarely (if ever) entered the cost/benefit formula for bankers or financiers. During the era, many individuals – from the North, South, and Europe – invested heavily in the slave market that not only grew, but these investors had been handsomely rewarded creating a system where the slave market became the economic backbone. The evidence that he shows reiterates the point that investor confidence in the slave market was never diminishing. If anything the slave market dominated the US economic infrastructure, averaging out to 20% of the United States’ wealth in the early 1800’s, according to Baptist’s evidence.
The most interesting thing about The Half Has Never Been Told is that it flies directly against conventional wisdom in that slavery was inefficient, thus being a counterpoint to capitalism. With runaways and slave rebellions, one would assume the slave market is inefficient. Not true explains Baptist. To him, investors of the slave markets looked at slaves differently, in that they could be transported, there was never a limited quantity, and could be used as collateral when needed. If anything, Baptist assures that investors looked at slaves as a flexible commodity. Which would make them perfect tools in a capitalistic society.
Baptist in The Half Has Never Been Told, clearly has studied the subject matter about slavery very closely. Various facts and diary entries litter the book adding that much more ammunition to the theory that slavery was the cornerstone to 19th Century American capitalism. While he does get a bit too dramatic at times in hopes of driving home specific points – the description of a slave named Amar being killed was just too much – not a single statement about slavery is ever left hanging. Baptist makes sure to address and fortify every point with research. It’s actually quite impressive considering how dense the writing is in the book.
But make no mistake. This is NOT an economics book about how slavery drove 18th Century American capitalism. If you are looking for something like that, may I suggest a recent book by a certain French economist?
You have to look at The Half Has Never Been Told as a thoroughly researched history book on pre-Civil War slavery. It’s only through that lens can you appreciate Baptist’s latest effort.
Reviewer’s Take: Currently the market is flooded with books that talk about pre-Civil War slavery. Yet what makes The Half Has Never Been Told stand out is the unique perspective of 19th Century American capitalism and Baptist’s thorough research on the matter. For history buffs that are fans of Jon Meacham or Eric Foner, you could do no better than Baptist’s latest.
(Photo Credit: Wikipedia, Amazon)