Book Review: The Half Has Never Been Told

The Half Has Never Been Told

The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the making of American capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

I can’t praise this book enough. Baptist has written one of the best history books I’ve ever read, on the subject of the development of American slavery from its inception until its abolition (however incomplete) in 1865.

It is easy to be misled by cursory treatments of slavery, as well as by the “Gone With the Wind” and “Song of the South” images, to imagine that slavery was a static system, unchanged for 250 years on our continent. Even when we are suspicious of the image of the “happy Negroes” playing their banjoes on the cabin stoop, the underlying misconception of a stable enslaved life, however hard, is still seductive.

Baptist shows how the expansion of American slavery was stimulated by the combination of industrialization, the development of better cotton varieties, and the availability of new land, first in Georgia, then in the western territories of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. This expansion dramatically changed the nature of slavery. Enslavers mortgaged their land, and more importantly the slaves who constituted the majority of their capital investment, in order to buy more slaves and expand the area they cultivated. They then had to extract ever more work from the enslaved people on their plantations in order to service their debt and continue to expand. They invented what Baptist metaphorically refers to as the “whipping machine” – a system of cultivation based on the threat of torture. Slaves, who had worked under a task system in the Atlantic upper south, were now required not to finish a particular job during a day, but rather to work in a large gang under supervision of a driver. When cotton picking season came, each slave had a quota to pick; at the end of the day the driver held the “weigh-in”, and slaves often received one stroke of the whip for every pound they fell short. Slaves who met their quotas got higher quotas.
While the productivity of spinning and weaving mills in England and New England increased dramatically during the first half of the nineteenth century, the productivity of cotton “hands” increased apace. Yet their increased productivity came not from mechanical inventions, but from a system of radically increasing cruelty.

The lives of slaves, once fairly stable in the upper south, at least after their and their ancestors’ kidnapping from Africa, were disrupted by the process of southern and westward expansion. Virginia’s tobacco industry was largely supplanted by the industry of selling human beings as tobacco lands wore out and the demand for field hands increased in the 1800s.

This is not the plantation life of southern myth, where the genteel aristocrats benignly care for their cheerful darkies. The reality of slavery from the late 18th through the first half of the 19th century in America was a story of feverish greed that fueled economic boom and bust, destruction of family lives, systematic rape and exploitation of “fancy” enslaved women, and the institutionalization of torture as a production method.

Baptist tells this story not merely as a history supported with records and statistics, though that support is amply provided. He tells it foremost from the perspective of the enslaved people who made it all possible, using first-hand accounts from escaped slaves and their white contemporaries, records of individual enslaved people, and accounts of former slaves collected by the WPA in the late 1930s. Enslaved people, who were whipped, mutilated, raped, and torn from their homes and families, were themselves the capital investment that generated the wealth of the nation, North and South, and labored to birth the modern industrial economy.

He structures the book based on an essay by Ralph Ellison, in which he said “I propose we view the whole of American life as a drama enacted on the body of a Negro giant who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds.” His chapters are named for organs of that giant body: Feet, that were forced to carry their own enslaved bodies over the Appalachians, the right hand of power, the left hand of subtle ingenuity before power, seed that generated more enslaved bodies, and so on. His writing is poetic and dramatic because the story he tells is one that cannot be told drily. His title comes from a former slave named Lorenzo Ivy, interviewed in 1937 by a WPA worker, who was asked about selling slaves in Danville, Virginia. “They sold slaves here and everywhere. … Truly, son, the half has never been told.”

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