Half Has Never Been Told, The
By Edward Baptist (2014)
The importance of this book outpaces its readability. Baptist convincingly argues against the vague, pervasive idea that slavery was an antiquated economic system that was preventing the Antebellum South from joining the modern economy. Contrarily, he shows that the increasingly vicious and torturous practice was the very engine of not only the U.S. economy, but also of all 19th century global capitalism.
One under-appreciated aspect of this central thesis that Baptist does well to highlight is that the economic effects of slavery did not end (and thus cannot be separated from) the national/world economy post-Civil War. The ballyhooed industrialization of the North in comparison to the “backwards” South was only possible due to capital earned from cotton profits and land- (and thus slavery-) based speculation in the South. Consequently, the economic might of the North that allowed them to accept more immigrants as industrial laborers and use them as a constituent base for their armed forces was due in very large part, ironically enough, to the unconscionable exploitation by the South. Thus, in a very real sense, the North could never have won the Civil War without slavery’s help.
This is probably the book’s most impressive achievement: it shows the complicity of ALL white Americans in the horrors of slavery. Even many abolitionists owed their Northern lifestyles at least in some small part to slavery. And most support for ending slavery was not morality-based but founded instead on very real economic concerns. After enslavers caused a pair of world recessions in 1837 and 1839 that were reminiscent of the irresponsible leveraging responsible for the 2008 crash, many Northern politicians began to see the writing on the wall: that slavery depended on perpetual expansion and their ensuing real estate bubbles, and that it couldn’t feasibly stop until it had conquered the entire hemisphere.
This discussion was one of the more fascinating sections of the book, describing how enslavers basically mortgaged their slaves for credit, and then packaged the mortgages in astonishingly similar ways to how the biggest banks packaged subprime housing loans a mere decade ago. In other words, the story of the 2008 crash is a very old one, just with different characters serving as the mortgaged equity.
The other under-appreciated point that Baptist succeeds at conveying is that the fabulous, ever-accelerating growth brought about by the South’s cotton economy was directly proportional to the amount of violence and cruelty inflicted upon enslaved people. Whereas Northern capitalists innovated with technology and manufacturing, their Southern counterparts innovated with physical and psychological torture. They were constantly devising abominable new ways to squeeze more productivity out of their enslaved laborers, techniques which caused approximately a five-fold increase in how much cotton one enslaved man could pick over a 50-year period before the Civil War.
These methods were not limited to what we consider “typical” exploitation by whip — and how outrageous is it that we can consider something as atrocious as ritual torture to be “typical”? It also included the separation of families, the threat of separation, the promise of reunification, and the threat of harm to separated family members. Southern enslavers were nothing if not ingenious when it came to psycho-emotional torture, and Baptist’s book is vital in understanding this relatively obscure facet of slavery.
Directly before reading this I read Battle Cry of Freedom (see my review), a must-read comprehensive account of the entire Civil War era. I enjoyed its more compelling narrative and broader, almost epic scope significantly more than this one. But at the same time it only hinted at this link between slavery and the world at large, and also at the repercussions of slavery on the post-Civil War world. In an economic sense, Baptist’s book has its own important story to tell.
Yet I hesitate to recommend The Half to people without a deep interest in the field, simply because the way in which Baptist tells the story is rather disengaging. First, the onslaught of economic data felt overwhelming at many points. The book is remarkably researched to be sure, but I get the impression that because he had spent so much time researching, Baptist felt obligated to include the data even when it became overkill.
Secondly, Baptist’s organizing metaphor for the book — an analogy borrowed from Ralph Ellison in which the story of America is represented on the body of a giant negro that is tied to the ground — is overwrought, esoteric, and unevenly applied. It appears to work okay in the opening chapters, but the more he tries to separate chapters by “Right Hand” and “Left Hand,” for example, often devolving into a latin etymology to explain the label, the more the distinction feels arbitrary and forced. Additionally, the metaphor largely breaks down in the latter chapters as Baptist (appropriately) spends more time discussing the broader, pre-Civil War political machinations than he does the heretofore all-encompassing oppression of enslaved people. Overall, the organizing principle felt like an attempt at artistry that missed the mark.
These two flawed narrative choices led to a book that could have been reduced in size by at least 25%, resulting in a leaner, more accessible treatise — and one I would feel no hesitation to recommend. As it is, The Half Has Never Been Told is a valuable entry in our economic history, but one that is perhaps too esoteric to appeal to economists, and too data-heavy to highly appeal to the more literary reader.
The points it makes are vital, however, and the attempt at centering the African-American in her/his own story is a welcome change of pace from most histories of U.S. slavery. Indeed, one of the traits I most appreciate in the book is how Baptist subtly refuses to engage in the accepted language of the era, referring not to enslaved people as “slaves” because that erases their humanity. He also calls white exploiters “enslavers” in order to emphasize the immoral act they were perpetually committing. He never explicitly points out this aberration in terminology, but the implicit effect is notable, and highly appreciated.
Additionally, Baptist’s afterword to the paperback edition serves as an excellent summary of the book’s themes, and he does so while referencing current events including #BlackLivesMatter. The book is almost worth recommending for the afterword alone, and I would that anyone experiencing hesitance in reading the book should at least seek out the afterword.
As a last thought, I think Baptist would do well for his argument to offer a full rebuttal to the apparently notorious critique of his book by Olmstead and Rhode. I’ve seen him push back on one of the points regarding the ratcheting of quotas, but it frankly wasn’t sufficient given the severity of the critique.