‘The Half Has Never Been Told’ looks at the economics of slavery


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

by Edward E. Baptist

Basic, 528 pages, $35

The image of the genteel, benevolent Southern slave owner was the creation of early 20th century artists and writers like D.W. Griffith and Margaret Mitchell. Life on the antebellum plantation, they led us to believe, was as languid as a slow-moving river winding through magnolia trees.

At about the same time, American historians were writing the first analyses of slave-centered Southern society. Slavery was an economically inefficient institution, they argued. For slave owners, profit was a secondary concern. Being lord of the manor was its own reward.

In “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” Cornell professor Edward E. Baptist makes a persuasive case that slavery wasn’t like that at all. Plantations (“slave labor camps,” he calls them) were run with the ruthless efficiency of your average sweatshop. This ambitious new economic and social history of antebellum America suggests that the bondage of African-Americans is just another chapter in the rise of the global economy.

The cotton boom that started just after 1800 changed the American economy, Baptist argues. Before then, slavery was in decline. But with the spread of the Industrial Revolution, cotton became the world’s most traded commodity. “The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy,” Baptist writes. “In fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation…”

Perhaps the most important contribution of “The Half Has Never Been Told” to the literature on slavery is Baptist’s ability to convey the size and scope of the slave economy while managing to detail how that economy was built on countless acts of individual cruelty.

Eventually, the overwhelming power of the stories that Baptist recounts and the plantation-level statistics he’s compiled give his book the power of truth and revelation.

“When the survivors began to die off, they could pass on to their descendants very little in the way of material wealth,” Baptist writes of the decades after emancipation. “But African Americans had a story that made them a people.”

In “The Half Has Never Been Told,” Baptist adds many new, stark and essential elements to that story. His most important achievement is to show us how the “dismal science” of economics served to make the lot of slaves even grimmer.