Edward Baptist on Slavery, the Civil War and American Capitalism

My copy of Edward Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, arrived and I’ve managed to finish the first chapter. The book is incredibly well written and thought provoking. Baptist places the spread of slavery at the center of the expansion of capitalism from the period immediately following the Revolution through the nineteenth century. Contrary to popular opinion, slavery was not antithetical to American capitalism, but its driving force. No, Baptist is not the first historian to suggest this, but it is likely that this particular book will enjoy a wider readership given its publication by a popular press and the recent controversy surrounding a review that appeared in The Economist

The short video below featuring Baptist offers a nice concise overview of part of the book’s central argument. It’s part of a larger series, which look to be ideal for a college and AP classroom.

[Uploaded to YouTube on February 14, 2014]

14 comments… add one
  • Looks like a good book. But why has this serious scholar allowed himself to be infected by the dreaded Ken Burns virus: speaking about events in the past in the present tense (e.g. “In 1860 Abraham Lincoln IS elected” instead of “WAS elected”)? Am I the only person driven crazy by this ungrammatical affectation? Am I correct in tracing this syndrome to Burns?

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  • The controversy over The Economist’s borderline racist review will make this the top Civil War Era book of the last year of the Sesqui.

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    • Amazon currently has it ranked at #543.

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      • Yes, I had seen it ranked around 4000 earlier yesterday. It is now on the “trending books” list at Barnes and Nobel.

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        • If the controversy means that more people will read it than so be it.

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          • It also spawned #economistbookreviews: a great source of Twitter fun the day after news of the review broke.

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            • They did indeed have some fun with that hashtag.

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  • So is he arguing that the banking system, transcontinental RR system, homestead act and tariffs could never be passed pre-secession because southerners outright opposed them or just because the slavery issue was so distracting/polarizing? Seems to me that the only things from that list that southerners openly disliked were tariffs and to lesser extent banking (ie BUS).

    If it is a distracting/polarizing issue, it is somewhat reminiscent of our situation today where partisanship prevents congress from doing anything of value. Hopefully that is where the similarities end and Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi don’t get bludgeoned with a cane.

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    • No, Bruce. They actively disliked each and every one of those issues and killed them off by either voting against them or by burying them in committees. If it did not result in a direct benefit to the slaveowners or the expansion of slavery (which benefited the slaveowners) the southern politicians were generally opposed to it.

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      • Opening land out west (assuming slaves were allowed there) and a RR would have helped spread slavery though.

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        • Yes, it would have IF those states would have been slave states. Since the argument during the 1850s was about the expansion of slavery, and that expansion appeared to be blocked the southern politicians were doing nothing that help anyone but the slaveowners. A RR to California was meaningless to them since California came in the Union as a free state.

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  • The claims in chapter 4 are central to the whole thesis of Baptist’s book. That may not seem obvious but the point of departure for the book is that slave labour productivity rose 400% in 1800-60 and this was done through a kind of proto-Taylorism of cruelty and torture. But Baptist get that information about productivity from the work of Olmstead and Rhode, who argue very convincingly that new cotton seeds are the source of the productivity growth. Baptist barely mentions that argument. Anyway I have a detailed critique of the productivity claim.

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    • Thanks for the comment and the link. It may take me a while to get through it.

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