Justin Lonas's Reviews > The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist
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All my life, I've been told that American slavery was an outmoded institution that would have died out eventually in the face of technological advances and modern labor practices. I've heard this from libertarians looking to discredit Abraham Lincoln as a tyrannical warmonger. I've heard it from Southern "lost-cause" apologists who argue that the Civil War was a valiant defense of "regional honor" in the face of federal government overreach. I've even heard it from liberals seeking to demonstrate the foolishness of slavery and continued backwardness of Southern culture.

Edward Baptist is not buying it. Through this book, he makes a compelling case that Southern enslavement was, instead, a foundational driver of the massive explosion of wealth and productivity of the industrial revolution, a thoroughly modern institution integral to the building of a global economy. The massive output of cotton on the backs of enslaved men, women, and children in the Gulf Coast and Mississippi Valley was built with financial leverage made possible by speculative investment of Northeastern U.S. bankers, political and military force by the federal government against the Native peoples occupying that land, and demand for raw materials for the mills of Manchester and Birmingham in the U.K., all tied together by British and American shipping. Unsurprisingly the profits of an industry "whose bottom gear was torture" rather than wages were astronomical.

He paints a relentless portrait of the horrors of slavery (based on original source interviews with survivors) that repel an attempt to describe it as a "benevolent" or even "paternalistic" system (as too many still do) and turns the stomach at time. His language is pointed (using "slave labor camps" instead of "plantations," and "enslavers" instead of "slave owners"), and his narration zooms in and out (sometimes following individuals through the internal slave trade, sometimes offering birds-eye views of economic and political movements in the country at large) giving a more story-like feel to his thesis. At times, the prose is heavy-handed, but it is undeniably more readable than the average history text.

The book was not without controversy when released, with some accusing Baptist of revisionism with an eye toward the full discrediting of capitalism. Since I listened to this as an audiobook, I don't have access to endnotes to verify sources, statistics, etc., but his arguments stay focused on this institution and era. As such, I think he forces a needed reckoning with a part of our history so few of us have been willing to even countenance. Baptist's telling, in particular, makes the Civil War so much more understandable, offering a clear picture of why the North would be politically willing to do battle, but also a better picture of why Reconstruction so quickly devolved into sharecropping and Jim Crow—the world market's demand for cotton did not, after all, slow down. He also shies away from advancing a reparations argument, but it's hard not to believe that this is a subtext throughout the work.

This is a painful work, but one that Americans need to read.
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Reading Progress

January 16, 2019 – Shelved
January 16, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
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January 23, 2019 – Finished Reading

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