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The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

4.45  ·  Rating details ·  4,161 ratings  ·  693 reviews
Americans tend to cast slavery as a pre-modern institution—the nation’s original sin, perhaps, but isolated in time and divorced from America’s later success. But to do so robs the millions who suffered in bondage of their full legacy.

As historian Edward Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told, the expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American inde
Hardcover, 498 pages
Published September 9th 2014 by Basic Books (first published September 21st 2013)
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Dubi Just looked at the Columbia Law article. The authors are clear at the start that they do not doubt the horrific history of slavery recounted in Baptis…moreJust looked at the Columbia Law article. The authors are clear at the start that they do not doubt the horrific history of slavery recounted in Baptist and other NHC literature. They question a) the premise that slavery was the primary driver of the industrial revolution rather than a failing antiquated economic model, and b) that torture was the primary driver of productivity gains by slaves in the cotton fields.

As far as a) is concerned, Baptist is quite clear that he means slavery was the primary driver of economic growth in the U.S., not worldwide. This argument is based not only on the value slaves provided via free labor, but also on the establishment in support of slavery (and land grab from Indians) of banks and credit markets and other tools of modern finance that exist to this day (and still cause major recessions). Baptist gives British technical innovation its due, contrary to the assertion in Oldstead-Rhode.

As for b), Olmstead-Rhode's problem with Baptist's theory is in the value of the testimony of slaves who worked on those plantations. They are so picky in contradicting slave testimony that they come off as deniers -- for example, they don't have much to say about the evidence Baptist presents based on the testimony and records of white enslavers. They accuse Baptist of making wild claims, and yet that is pretty much all they do in their article -- for example, they say Baptist ignores new strains of cotton as potential drivers of productivity when in fact Baptist spends a fair amount of time on the subject and provides quantitative analysis demonstrating that new strains cannot account for all of the gains in productivity.

If you're interested, here's what Baptist has said about people who choose not to believe slave testimony:
Wren This is not a question. It is a link to multiple blogposts of a professor of economics at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia who critiques …moreThis is not a question. It is a link to multiple blogposts of a professor of economics at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia who critiques Baptist's book, and should be posted as a "reply" to the question above.

Beware-Hansen, like the anonymous Guardian reviewer, resists the thesis of slavery and torture's key roles in the American economy, but many of his objections seem pedantic and even deceptive. For example, he says Baptist should have used the GNP (the final sales output) to measure the dollar amount of the benefit of slavery to the economy, but Baptist took a more wholistic look, including in the Slavery column of the ledger not just rice and cotton sales but also such items as the boost to the local economy by slave-owners' ability to purchase things, or the sale of investment bonds. Hansen et al come off as deniers and apologists for capitalism. Much reading between the lines required here!

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Sep 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I don't often publicly post reviews of the books I'm reading on Goodreads. But, for me, this was such an important book that has changed my way of thinking in one sense: I now believe, even 150 years after the American Civil War, that some form of national and international reparations are necessary to the victims of the international slave trade and slavery in the United States (and elsewhere).

I've read a lot as a lay person on the Civil War and Reconstruction era, but no book before has done s
Apr 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
“We have seen the mere distinction of color, made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
- James Madison, speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 6, 1787

It is rather remarkable the degree to which slavery is footnoted, rationalized, and otherwise marginalized in American history. This is not to say that it’s ignored, because it’s not. Whole libraries have been devoted to the subject. Rather, it is isolated, as though
MrsJoseph *grouchy*
Sep 10, 2014 marked it as to-read
There was recently a huge controversy regarding a review of this book - the review - by The Economist - was very dismissive of slavery which prompted an article.

I have copied a portion of the rebuttal article below, which is what prompted my interest in this book.

The Economist's review of my book reveals how white people still refuse to believe black people about being black by Edward E. Baptist

In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from slavery, joined dozens of white passengers on the Britis
Laura Jordan
Oct 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
God damn.

Describing the execution of Amar, one of the central figures of the 1811 slave revolt in the Lower Mississippi Valley:

"The militia stood Amar up in the yard at the Widow Charbonnet's place. Herded into an audience, the men, women, and children who knew him had to watch. The white men took aim and made Amar's body dance with a volley of lead. In his head, as he slumped and fell, were 50 billion neurons. They held the secrets of turning sugarcane sap into white crystals, they held the me
Thomas Ray
Oct 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing
An important and eye-opening book. We learn:

Slavery was brutal. People were tortured to force them to pick cotton superhumanly fast and efficiently.

Slavery was far more efficient and effective than free labor.

Cotton was *the* commodity of the Industrial Revolution. The American economy, South and North, and that of Britain and Europe, rested on cheap cotton produced by enslaved people.

It was slavery that lifted nonenslaved people out of the Malthusian trap.

War truly was necessary to end slavery
Ross Blocher
Jul 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
In his expansive The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Cornell historian Edward E. Baptist fleshes out the incomplete story of slavery most of us received in school. In the process, he punctures many myths that have sought to downplay slavery's horrors or detach slavery from America's DNA. Baptist incorporates the tales of former slaves, many (such as Solomon Clay and Lorenzo Ivy's) recorded as part of the Works Progress Administration's project to collect ...more
Jul 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
For those of you who have heard, and hated, the truism: "History is written by the victors," this is the perfect book for you.

Make no mistake, the narrative distills the very worst (and confirmed) aspects of the institution of slavery.

I've read a number of non-fiction and many more fictionalized accounts of American history -- mostly of the south -- and I've seen it all. Most of them whitewash (quite) or footnote the very real and huge aspect all these black bodies and the full extent to which
Sep 19, 2014 rated it it was ok
This is the review I'd like to have read before buying this book. If I had read it, I probably wouldn't have bought it.

1) The book is "well written" in that its author has a strong command of prose, perhaps too strong for his own good. At many points in the book, which sometimes reads far more like a novel than a non-fiction piece, he waxes eloquent about the 'seed which with latent potential bursts up through the sweat soaked soil to break upon the new morning in foreign white crests etc. etc.'
Sep 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
The perfect rebuttal to the often promoted Conservative/Republican myth that the United States was founded on 'freedom' and 'democracy'.

To the contrary this superbly sourced study lays bare the disturbing and frankly horrifying reality of American history during the first few centuries where an almost sociopathic "winner take all" capitalism ruled without any conscience or regulation.

The wealthiest and often most ruthless men were inevitably the political 'leaders' of the time and included amon
If you know me, or have followed my reviews for a while, you'll know that I grew up and went to school in the south, specifically northern Florida (aka southern Georgia), and by now you should already have guessed that this meant that our State Sponsored Education regarding slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement (plus all other subjects) left a bit to be desired. My family was military, so we were first generation Floridians with no southern heritage, and thankfully my mom has alw ...more
Bryan Alkire
Aug 29, 2020 rated it liked it
Good enough to read once. Interesting to learn about the economics of American slavery. The writing is mostly readable though there are times where the writing becomes inexplicably lyrical. The other fault of this book is that there are digressions to the theme with is economics and capital. These digressions reveal more about slavery, but they don’t really advance the theme. Also, I’m not sure the book ever proves that slavery has impacted modern American capitalism. Still the book is probably ...more
B. P. Rinehart
Oct 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to B. P. by: Laura Jordan
"It has been said that the Civil War was 'unnecessary' because slavery was already destined to end, probably within a few decades after the 1860 election. Yet this is mere dogma. The evidence points in the opposite directions. Slavery yielded ever more efficient production, in contrast to the free labor that tried (and failed) to compete with it, and the free labor that succeeded it. If slave labor in cotton had ever hit a wall of ultimate possibility, enslavers could have found new commodities. ...more
mis fit
Dec 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
this book is excellent, and it's been really important for me, changing the way i think about u.s. history, and the history of capitalism for that matter.

there are a lot of things in here that i either had no idea about or got totally obscured by the way that u.s. history was taught to me -- mortgages were taken out on slaves, southern slavery was closely connected to northern & european industrialization, westward expansion went hand in hand with this enormous increase in cotton production. i r
Robert Owen
In “The Half Has Never Been Told” Edward E. Baptist explores the engines of American economic growth during the first half of 19th century, and the consequences that growth had on American slavery and its victims. What makes this book unique…..and outstanding….is the thoroughness with which Baptist explains the daisy-chain of economic motivations that led to the expansion of slavery from Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina at the end of the Revolutionary War into the then western states and ho ...more
May 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book is so beautifully written and so eye-opening. I think it should be read in tandem with Empire of Cotton to understand how the roots of democracy, capitalism, and slavery were intertwined in uncomfortable and long-lasting ways. We're still living with the great sin of slavery so we might as well lear all we can. ...more
Darian Jones
Jan 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This should be required reading of every high school student in America without regards to ethnicity or socio-economic status. It is one of the best books I have ever read and in my top three historical texts. Never have I read a book that has touched me in such a powerful, visceral, and connecting way to the legacy of my ancesters and how they shapped the world. In grade school, such a big deal was made about Benjamin Bannekers impact in designing D. C. but the labor of the enslaved and their p ...more
Joseph Stieb
There comes a point in every historical field when you can start to talk about over-saturation. Authors put forth dramatic claims to new conclusions, topics, and evidence. However, it is important to be critical of these claims because each historian has an incentive to claim their stuff is new and innovative. Although I liked and learned from many aspects of this book, I found little new material in this book and much repackaging of old material in new-fangled jargon.

Baptist's thesis is that sl
Justin Evans
Nov 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-etc
File this under "could have been half as long and thus made its points more effectively," but then, perhaps also file under "has something for everyone." If you were unaware that slavery in America was horrific and brutal, this book will tell you all about that (and if you were aware, you will quickly grow tired of the sub-Dickensian heart-string pulling: I know slavery was horrible, puerile melodrama doesn't help me in any way). If you want solid statistics and argument about the reliance of ec ...more
Jun 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Reading this book now was a comfort, as counter-intuitive as it may seem. But given it’s starting point, the book does end on a higher note (even though it does mention Jim Crow). But mostly it was a comfort because it feels right. It feels right to reclaim history and add one more tiny piece to the puzzle that is my understanding of the world.

And the book’s contribution to that understanding are significant. It sets out to prove that slavery was the defining force for young America (before and
lark benobi
The book very skillfully mixes a wrenching portrayal of individual human suffering, gleaned from oral histories of former slaves, with a solid economic history of the U.S. economy during the slave era. It's a powerful combination. Baptist's strongly supported thesis is that the economic growth of the 18th and 19th centuries was fueled neither by entrepreneurial drive, nor by technical innovation, but instead by the toil of enslaved people. Having read the book, this feels very obvious to me now, ...more
Original review (1/21/21):
Baptist seems to have a few different goals in mind with this history of slavery. First, he does a great job of showing the stark brutality and cruelty of slavery. I’m not sure who would argue otherwise, but it’s certainly important that every American understands this.

Second, he demolishes the claim that the use of slaves was economically inefficient and therefore this practice would eventually have become obsolete without the need for a war. The ruthlessness of the s
Jeffrey (Akiva) Savett
Oct 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Amazing book, especially because I read it just after finishing the also brilliant Hemingses of Monticello. I am about the business of educating myself more fully about slavery and race in America, from the antebellum period through Jim Crow and up to modern racial theory. I think I've always known what most people know. I read Beloved. I saw The Color Purple. I teach about "othering" and the Noble Savage in my AP class. But the texts I've been reading are revelatory, beginning with James Baldwi ...more
Mar 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This should be required reading!!! An in-depth look at how America became the great country that it is because of the worst institution ever created - slavery.
Rick Slane
Slavery in the United States is described with an emphasis on its effects on the economy. Slaves and cotton mortgages were bundled and caused a crisis in the mid 1830's much like the housing crisis in 2007. Many in the North and even worldwide were able to invest in slavery among them were the Rothschilds and the Principality of Monaco which was still trying to recover some of its losses as late as the 1940's. Slavery and cotton were primarily responsible for the U.S. becoming the world's second ...more
J.M. Hushour
Jan 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Being no expert on the history of the American slave trade, I have no pretensions towards being able to second-guess the scholarship here but it seems sound, it just doesn't seem as surprising as Baptist suggests it should be.
The basic argument is that the success of the American experiment and economic expansion was built on the backs of the slave trade, which seems a given. Baptist gives us a view of the inner workings of this process, much of which is sort of creepily fascinating. There was a
Feb 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book is not for the faint of heart. And it is difficult to justify a rating of less than five stars, even though I have some issues with the book.

First, Professor Baptist is a powerful writer. His prose rings of hammer strokes on anvils. He gives modern and beautiful voices to pains and grievances centuries old. Smoothly transitioning between historic narrative and stories retold again and again, gluing it all together with a good bit of hard data. If nothing else, his many critics have fai
Neil Meyer
Oct 09, 2014 rated it liked it
If you haven't read many books about slavery or 19th century America this is a good one to turn to. It doesn't rely on the racist shibboleth of many historians that the Civil War was about "states' rights"; in fact, repudiating that ugly fiction is perhaps the book's central goal. But the book disappointed me on a couple of fronts. First, it's not really about "American Capitalism" at all, but more generally about the role slavery made in the American economy (which wasn't capitalist for much of ...more
Nov 10, 2014 rated it it was ok
I struggled getting through this one. The narrative style of following one person's story before zooming out to show the broader context combined with the central conceit of looking at the toll of slavery on each part of the slave's body felt fractured. Additionally, some chapters, like the "Right Hand," belabored the metaphor while others, like "Backs" seemed to abandon it altogether. The author appeared to want to write with nuance and style but instead ended up with something difficult to fol ...more
Apr 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: wakeup
I couldn't recommend this book more strongly -- a deftly documented and well-told story about how America's economy supremacy and Western industry was built on the backs of millions of African Americans. More than anything else, the book's instance on the human scale while telling a larger economic story is where its power lies. ...more
Charlie Close
Oct 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorite-books
A social and economic history of the rise of slavery and cotton growing in the South. Fascinating, heart breaking, and beautifully written. I listened to the audiobook and the narration was also excellent. One of the best books I've read in a long time. A must-read for people interested in antebellum history. ...more
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