Sunday, October 12, 2014

New York Times Book Review: A Brutal Process: A historian argues that the slave states were not a world apart but were crucial to American development

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
By Edward E. Baptist

Illustrated, 498 pp.  Basic Books. $35.00

The auction of a baby, from a slave narrative published in 1849.

October 5, 2014

By Eric Foner

For residents of the world’s pre-­eminent capitalist nation, American historians have produced remarkably few studies of capitalism in the United States. This situation was exacerbated in the 1970s, when economic history began to migrate from history to economics departments, where it too often became an exercise in scouring the past for numerical data to plug into computerized models of the economy. Recently, however, the history of American capitalism has emerged as a thriving cottage industry. This new work portrays capitalism not as a given (something that “came in the first ships,” as the historian Carl Degler once wrote) but as a system that developed over time, has been constantly evolving and penetrates all aspects of society.

Slavery plays a crucial role in this literature. For decades, historians depicted the institution as unprofitable and on its way to extinction before the Civil War (a conflict that was therefore unnecessary). Recently, historians like Sven Beckert, Robin Blackburn and Walter Johnson have emphasized that cotton, the raw material of the early Industrial Revolution, was by far the most important commodity in 19th-century international trade and that capital accumulated through slave labor flowed into the coffers of Northern and British bankers, merchants and manufacturers. And far from being economically backward, slave owners pioneered advances in modern accounting and finance.

Edward E. Baptist situates “The Half Has Never Been Told” squarely within this context. Baptist, who teaches at Cornell University, is the author of a well-­regarded study of slavery in Florida. Now he expands his purview to the entire cotton kingdom, the heartland of 19th-­century American slavery. (Unfortunately, slavery in the Upper South, where cotton was not an economic staple, is barely discussed, even though as late as 1860 more slaves lived in Virginia than any other state.) In keeping with the approach of the new historians of capitalism, the book covers a great deal of ground — not only economic enterprise but religion, ideas of masculinity and gender, and national and Southern politics. Baptist’s work is a valuable addition to the growing literature on slavery and American development.

Where Baptist breaks new ground is in his emphasis on the centrality of the interstate trade in slaves to the regional and national economies and his treatment of the role of extreme violence in the workings of the slave system.

Comment by email:
I am equally interested in the large African American population who was FREE before the Civil War. In fact, more African American were free in the south in 1865 than in slavery. The general image/picture is just the opposite. Where is information about their institutions, societies, employment, social customs, etc. [John Malveaux]

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