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The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalismby Edward E. Baptist
Synopses & Reviews
Americans tend to assume that modern historiography has produced a full and complete understanding of slavery in the United States, as a shameful pre-modern institution, existing in isolation from America's later success. But while we have long since rejected the idealistic depiction of happy slaves and paternalistic masters, we have not yet begun to grapple with the full extent of slavery's horrors — or its link to the expansion of the country, the political battles that caused the Civil War, or the growth of our modern capitalist economy.
As historian Edward Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told, slavery and its expansion were central to the evolution and modernization of our nation in the 18th and 19th centuries, catapulting the US into a modern, industrial and capitalist economy. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a sub-continental cotton empire. By 1861 it had five times as many slaves as it had during the Revolution, and was producing two billion pounds of cotton a year. It was through slavery and slavery alone that the United States achieved a virtual monopoly on the production of cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and was transformed into a global power rivaled only by England.
The Half Has Never Been Told begins in 1787, when Northern emancipation and falling profits from Southern tobacco threatened the future of American slavery. Seeking desperately to prevent this collapse, innovative Southern enslavers brought slavery out of the Southeasts decaying coastal plantation belts, leading trains of men, women, and children to the frontier states where the labor-intensive cotton crop beckoned. By 1860, their empire of cotton and labor camps stretched all the way to Texas. During America's formative years, Baptist explains, our chief form of innovation was slavery, and ways to make slavery increasingly profitable. Through forced migration, quotas, and torture, slave owners extracted continual increases in efficiency from their slaves making competition with American cotton fields near impossible. Financial innovations and banks, meanwhile, helped feed credit to the cotton plantations, spurring on economic expansion and confirming for enslavers and their political leaders that their livelihood, and the American economy, depended on cotton.
Despite the mayhem wreaked upon them, enslaved African-Americans survived, clinging desperately to the ability to name the evil they confronted. By the time of Abraham Lincoln's election, the stories they smuggled out of the whipping-machine had helped to put the North and South on the collision course that led to the Civil War, national emancipation, and the collapse of the Southern slave industry — a system that, Baptist suggests, might otherwise have gone on indefinitely.
Using thousands of interviews with former slaves, hundreds of plantation records, newspapers, and the personal papers of dozens of politicians, entrepreneurs, and escaped slaves, The Half Has Never Been Told unveils, at last, the most savage secrets at the heart of American history. These intimate stories of survival and tragedy transform our understanding of the rise of the American nation, the outbreak of the Civil War, and the birth of entrepreneurial capitalism. A much-needed challenge to the reigning narratives of slavery, The Half Has Never Been Told reveals the alarming extent to which our country's success was irrevocably tied to the institution of slavery.
"Cornell University historian Baptist (Creating an Old South) delivers an unapologetic, damning, and grisly account of slavery's foundational place in the emergence of America as a global superpower, balancing the macro lens of statistics and national trends with intimate slave narratives. Delivered in a voice that fluidly incorporates both academic objectivity and coarse language, the book is organized into chapters named after a slave's body parts (i.e., 'Heads' and 'Arms'), brutal images reinforced by the 'metastatic rate' of the 'endlessly expanding economy' of slavery in the U.S. in the first half of the 18th century. The 'massive markets,' 'accelerating growth,' and new economic institutions in America's 'nexus of cotton, slaves, and credit' lend credence to Baptist's insistence that common conceptions of the slave South as economically doomed from the start are possible only in hindsight. At the dawn of the Civil War, he suggests, the South's perception that it was a 'highly successful, innovative sector,' was coupled with slave-owners' belief that objections to slavery in the North rested not on moral concerns, but on fears of 'political bullying' from the slave states. Baptist's chronicle exposes the taint of blood in virtually all of the wealth that Americans have inherited from their forebears, making it a rewarding read for anyone interested in U.S.A.'s dark history. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Edward Baptist's book belongs on the very short shelf of field-defining histories of slavery. It will be read and debated for a long time to come.” Thomas J. Sugrue, author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
Baptist renders history and economics with the power of prose that seeks to tell a fuller story than has been told of American slavery....An insightful look at U.S. slavery and its controversial role in the much-celebrated story of American capitalism.” Booklist, starred review
Baptist has written a book that truly deepens and broadens our understanding of slavery....Professional historians and lay readers will pore over this book for years to come. Essential for all readers interested in American history and the history of slavery.” Library Journal, starred review
A myth-busting work that pursues how the world profited from American slavery....This is a complicated story involving staggering scholarship that adds greatly to our understanding of the history of the United States.” Kirkus, starred review
This book reveals a dirty secret about American business, and how commerce first boomed before the Civil War. Baptist unearths a big, nasty story: in the North and the South, slavery was the tainted fuel that kindled the fires of U.S. capitalism and made the country grow.” Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family
In The Half Has Never Been Told, historian Ed Baptist reveals the alarming extent to which slavery shaped our country politically, morally, and most of all economically. Until the Civil War, Baptist explains, our chief form of innovation was slavery. Through forced migration and torture, slave owners extracted continual increases in efficiency from their slaves, giving the country a virtual monopoly on the production of cotton, a key raw material of the Industrial Revolution.
As Baptist argues, this frenzy of speculation and economic expansion transformed the United States into a modern, capitalist nation. Based on thousands of slave narratives and plantation records, The Half Has Never Been Told offers not only a radical revision of the history of slavery, but a disturbing new understanding of the origins of American power that compels readers to reckon with the violence and subjugation at the root of American supremacy.
Americans tend to cast slavery as a pre-modern institution — the nation's original sin, perhaps, but isolated in time and divorced from Americas 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 independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a continental cotton empire, and the United States grew into a modern, industrial, and capitalist economy. Until the Civil War, Baptist explains, the most important American economic innovations were ways to make slavery ever more profitable. Through forced migration and torture, slave owners extracted continual increases in efficiency from enslaved African Americans. Thus the United States seized control of the world market for cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and became a wealthy nation with global influence.
Told through intimate slave narratives, plantation records, newspapers, and the words of politicians, entrepreneurs, and escaped slaves, The Half Has Never Been Told offers a radical new interpretation of American history. It forces readers to reckon with the violence at the root of American supremacy, but also with the survival and resistance that brought about slavery's end — and created a culture that sustains Americas deepest dreams of freedom.
About the Author
Edward E. Baptist is Associate Professor of History at Cornell University. He earned his Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of Creating an Old South, which won the 2003 Rembert Patrick Best Book in Florida History Award from the Florida Historical Society, and the co-editor of New Studies in the History of American Slavery.
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