The Problem With Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told”

I think I am beginning to get a grip on what some people find troubling about Edward Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Before saying anything I should point out that my understanding of the historiography of slavery is limited. I’ve read a number of important titles, but given the amount of scholarly output in the field over the past few decades I haven’t penetrated too far below the surface.

The rumblings that I am hearing over social media and elsewhere are probably best reflected in Jim Downs’s recent piece at the Huffington Post:

The application of a capitalistic framework leaves out a whole lot of the history of slavery, and in fact works to the advantage of those who want us to believe in the invincibility of capital at the cost a whole host of other crucial factors, like agriculture and the environment, that played significant roles in the expansion of slavery. Soil, land, climate, rainfall and other environmental forces played more of a part in dictating cotton’s future than the entrepreneurial desires of the most rapacious slaveholders or the demands of the international markets…. If capitalism becomes the omnipresent demigod dictating power relations, no wonder some readers conclude slaves are victims and slaveholders are villains.

First, based on his essay it’s not clear to me that Downs has actually read Baptist’s book; however, I can certainly appreciate the concern expressed above. In situating the expansion of slavery in a capitalist framework the author does indeed ignore a good deal of recent scholarship. There is a certain amount of determinism at work in this story as both slaveholders and other participants in this vibrant and uncertain economy respond to various market forces. And as much as Baptist attempts to paint a human portrait of individual slaves such as Charles Ball they largely respond to or are acted upon by slaveholders.

There is no Genovesean-style negotiation between slave and slaveowner on Baptists “slave labor camps.” But even more to the point there is no resistance (not even subtle forms) among slaves, which has been a staple of interpretation in recent years. In fact, one such claim that slaves resisted by controlling the pace at which they worked is completely turned on its head as Baptist explores rising cotton quotas for individual pickers and the use of torture as an incentive.

To alienate one’s hands and rewire them for someone else was torment. Enslaved people, however, discovered how to do it. They had no choice. So they watched and talked to others, learning their speed. They created on their own, new efficiencies that shortened the path from plant to sack and back in space and time. And above all, they shut down pathways in the brain so that the body could dance like a Patsey, could become for a time the disembodied “hand” of enslavers’ fantastic language. The whole effort left permanent scars. Years after she learned to pick cotton in Alabama in the 1850s, an elderly woman named Adeline still couldn’t stand to watch clerks weighing the meat she bought at the grocery store: “Cause I remember so well that each day that the slaves was given a certain number of pounds to pick. When weighing up time come and you didn’t have the number of pounds set aside, you may be sure that you was going to be whipped. (p. 139)

It’s not simply that Baptist leaves no room for resistance, but that he describes the process of picking almost as an art form. There is almost a logic of behavior beginning with broad market forces that determine decisions of slaveholders that ultimately shape the lives of slaves on the ground. Half way through the book and apart from a brief exploration of slaves working through the necessity of pooling food and other resources in individual cabins and the importance of music we almost never see them outside their masters’ control.

Regardless of where this book falls in the historiography of slavery and, more specifically, studies of slavery and capitalism, I am not troubled by Baptist’s conclusions or his picture of slaves as victims. At some level doesn’t being owned by another constitute something along the lines of victimization?

I don’t see a need for a turf war between scholars who take a broad economic view of the expansion of slavery over time and those who look closely at the social aspect of slave communities and slave culture. We can learn something important from both perspectives. It reminds me of the rub in physics between explanations of how the largest objects in the universe behave in contrast with the smallest. We need both – at least for now.

Anyway, I am going to keep reading.

44 comments… add one
  • Kevin,
    I am only 2/3rds of the way through the book, so I will avoid commenting on it. I will say the Baptist’s use of the term “slave labor camp” in place of “plantation” has excited a lot of attention over at Civil War Talk.

    You mention the essential books on slavery in your OP. Can you list them so I can compare Baptist to what they say? Thanks.

    • Well, just to get started I would suggest looking at:

      Eugene Genovese’s “Roll, Jordon, Roll”
      Stephanie McCurry’s “Masters of Small Worlds”
      Herbert Gutman’s “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom”
      Thavolia Glymph’s “Out of the House of Bondage”
      Walter Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams”

      It’s a bit dated, but Peter Kolchin’s “American Slavery” provides a nice overview of much of this literature.

      • These are all great texts. I would also add Ira Berlin, Dylan Penningroth, Daina Ramey Berry, and Stephanie Camp to the list of more recent “must reads.”

        • Thanks. I only meant for these to be a place to start. I am sure there is a good online essay that someone could point to that includes the necessary texts.

        • Could you help me out by naming the specific books by these folks that are key?

            • I think Ira Berlin’s _Generations of Captivity_ is a great starting place. I assign that regularly (I teach slavery and Civil War era courses at the undergraduate and graduate level), and it covers a lot of ground. As a researcher I have some issues with it, but overall I recommend it to anyone wanting a more synthetic text.

              Dylan Penningroth, _The Claims of Kinfolk_ (2003)
              Stephanie Camp, _Closer to Freedom_ (2004)
              Daina Ramey Berry, _Swing the Sickle_ (2007)

              And, I think I left off Anthony Kaye, _Joining Places_ (2007) in my original response. His work has really inspired me to think carefully about place and the landscape, which is useful to me as I revise my own manuscript.

            • Yep. Berlin is a great place to start. I am familiar with Camp’s book and I definitely recommend Kaye’s book as well.

            • Thanks to both of you for the helpful suggestions.

      • Thanks. I have read a couple of them, but I will check out the other three.

  • So the problem is that Baptist considers slaves victims rather than as individuals with their own culture, resistance and story?

    Like you, I understand the desire to go beyond the general victim narrative and explore the lives of slaves as human beings, but how can victimization be ignored when people were held against their will?

  • At some level doesn’t being owned by another constitute something along the lines of victimization?

    Uh, yes? This has been a very strange discussion over the last few weeks (not just here). Is there some argument that I’m missing that the slaves weren’t victims? Or the slaveholders? Why is there an obsession with that particular framing?

    • Sorry: “Or the slaveholders villains?” Left out a word.

      • At least in academic circles, this comes down to a long-standing historiographical debate. Stanley Elkins and others writing in the mid twentieth century painted the owner/slave relationship as one entirely defined by victimhood. In that narrative, there was no significant resistance, no room for negotiation, and both sides came across as very one dimensional. Then, with the 1970s (thanks partly to the rise of social history and the modern civil rights movement), the treatment of slavery changed to a more nuanced portrayal of the owner/slave relationship that recognized the inherent violence and coercion of slavery but also allowed for the realization that people are not one-dimensional beings. Most certainly slaves were victims of a cruel and unjust system, but this term sometimes elides the ways in which they resisted.

        Think about it in terms of sexual assault survivors. Yes, they were victims of sexual assault, but that does not and should not define their entire being, hence the preferred term “survivor” instead of “victim.”

        I would assume that no historian of slavery would deny that slaves were victims, but it is a matter of emphasis.

        • In fact, if I remember correctly Elkins used the Concentration Camps to frame part of his analysis, which is not surprising given the timing of its publication. I completely agree that we ought to be careful in how we employ the concept of victimization, but at some level it certainly applies. Your reference to sexual assault is certainly helpful, but I assume that even survivors must continue to learn to live with the violence inflicted. The lives of slaves was shaped by violence over a much longer span of time apart from those who happened to live past 1863-65.

          • Yes, he did. And the term “victim” can most certainly apply, as those scars are not easily healed, but too often people forget (in both the case of sexual assault survivors and in the case of slavery) that we aren’t defined solely by the bad things that happen to us.

            • …that we aren’t defined solely by the bad things that happen to us.

              I completely agree and that’s where careful thought about balance must take center stage.

        • Baptist’s point in his introduction (which is all I’ve read so far) is that the latter historiography elides too much the victimization of the slaves in the interest of recovering their resistance. In this — and this is Baptist’s point — it echoes the “happy slaves” literature of the late 19th/early 20th century era in somewhat avoiding the awfulness of the system. It’s, as Baptist puts it, “the half that has been told.” He’s trying to tell the other half, and explore just how awful it actually was.

          That’s why I’m puzzled by the continued insistence on the “victims/villains” discussion as a flaw in the book. It’s not: it’s Baptist’s point.

          • Baptist’s point in his introduction (which is all I’ve read so far) is that the latter historiography elides too much the victimization of the slaves in the interest of recovering their resistance.

            Exactly. Baptist is making an argument about the extent of slave resistance and nothing that Jim Downs says about the state of the historiography directly challenges the author’s interpretation. Seems to me you need to jump in and counter the evidence that Baptist utilizes to make his case.

            • Seems to me you need to jump in and counter the evidence that Baptist utilizes to make his case

              I don’t want to counter Baptist’s argument, as I find it pretty convincing (for not having read anything but the introduction).

            • Sorry. I didn’t mean you necessarily. 🙂

            • My book (hopefully out in 2015) most certainly disagrees, although it is more a microhistory than a more expansive history like Baptist’s, so our source material is quite different.

            • Congratulations!

            • Thanks! And also, I’m usually a little bit of a lurker, but I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and always enjoy it! Sorry to take over your comments section 🙂

            • This is exactly why I love the comments section of my blog. Thanks for the kind words.

          • In full disclosure, I haven’t yet read Baptist’s book. But, if he does characterize discussions of resistance as echos of the “happy slave” narrative, then I strongly disagree with that characterization. Resistance was often unsuccessful (i.e. not ending happily!) and was a direct reaction to the coercion and horrors of the system, so if anything, examining resistance REINFORCES the awfulness of slavery.

            If he wants to present a different emphasis, and a differently balanced analysis, that’s fine. But I certainly hope he doesn’t denigrate those of us who do write about resistance. I guess I will have to see for myself when I get a chance to read it.

            • Please keep in mind that I am only halfway through the book. What I find striking is that Baptist just doesn’t deal with the literature on resistance. Baptist focuses on evidence that shows quite the opposite – that the “torture” inflicted and quotas imposed on slaves worked to increase their productivity. Again, one popular form of resistance cited by historians has been the ability to control the flow of work. That specifically doesn’t seem to be present in this narrative.

            • Understood. I find it a little surprising that he doesn’t deal at all with the literature on resistance, since addressing counter evidence is always important, and I gather that examples of resistance would run counter to his argument.

            • Thanks, Pat. I spoke a little too quickly. He does mention a few examples of rebellions early in the book, but as Pat mentioned they are quickly put down. As the southwest expanded they appear less and less in Baptist’s narrative.

              I was actually thinking of examples of more subtle forms of resistance that historians have cited rather than large violent rebellions such as what took place outside of New Orleans, which Baptist discusses.

            • There is extensive discussion of slave resistance, but it typically ends in murder or torture of the black people involved. I am only 2/3rds of the way through the book, so perhaps this comment of mine is premature.

            • But, if he does characterize discussions of resistance as echos of the “happy slave” narrative, then I strongly disagree with that characterization. Resistance was often unsuccessful (i.e. not ending happily!) and was a direct reaction to the coercion and horrors of the system, so if anything, examining resistance REINFORCES the awfulness of slavery.

              From the introduction:

              “The focus on showing African Americans as assertive rebels, for instance, implied an uncomfortable corollary. If one should be impressed by those who rebelled, because they resisted, one should not be proud of those who did not. And there were very few rebellions in the history of slavery in the United States. Some scholars tried to backfill against this quandary by arguing that all African Americans together created a culture of resistance, especially in slave quarters and other spaces outside of white observation. Yet the insistence that assertive resistance undermined enslavers’ power, and a focus on the development of an independent black culture, led some to believe that enslaved people actually managed to prevent whites from successfully exploiting their labor. This idea, in turn, created a quasi-symmetry with post-Civil War plantation memoirs that portrayed gentle masters, who maintained slavery as a nonprofit endeavor aimed at civilizing Africans.”

            • Thanks for that detail. I’ve never in my own work assumed that those who didn’t resist should be castigated for their behavior; I don’t see that corollary in other literature either, unless I’m just missing something. It is also interesting that, at least in this section of the book, he uses slave rebellions as a primary marker of resistance, when in reality resistance took many forms, some violent and some not.

            • …he uses slave rebellions as a primary marker of resistance, when in reality resistance took many forms, some violent and some not.

              Yes, but historians also appear to want to suggest that such forms of resistance had some sort of impact on the ability of slaveowners to maximize or at least increase production. Baptist challenges this throughout the book.

            • Again, since I haven’t read his book I can’t speak to many specifics, but breaking tools, running away, and feigning illness could most certainly affect production outputs. Perhaps this is a difference between his source material and mine, partly–I look at small-scale slaveholdings, and I’m assuming he’s looking at plantation complexes, where losing two slaves out of 200 might not make a pronounced difference. When you are talking about small-scale slaveholdings, where a household might only include two or three slaves, then the loss of even one of those individuals would seriously impact that slaveholder’s ability to put it a crop, conduct business, etc. etc.

            • That’s a good point and I suspect it does constitute a different focus from what Baptist takes on in this book. It’s another example of why I believe that we need these very different approaches to the subject.

            • I think Baptist’s point is that production and productivity of the slave economy went up substantially throughout the first half of the 19th century, so whatever resistance there was wasn’t producing much in the way of real economic slowdown.

            • That’s the impression that I have half way through the book.

  • This debate about capitalism and slavery has been going on in some form for a while. Eric Williams’ book on British capitalism and slavery came out well before I was born (in the 1940s) but it has continually received similar criticisms, such as the fact that it de-personalized the story and overemphasized the economics. One of Williams’ arguments (if I’m remembering my comps readings accurately!) was that proto-capitalist interests drove the trans-Atlantic slave trade–not racist ideologies–thus privileging economic motivations over social/cultural motivations.

    This reminds me of the Twitter conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates a few days back, where he asked about why historians dislike Fogel and Engerman’s _Time on the Cross_. Besides the methodological problems with that particular text, the authors were tone deaf and failed to recognize how readers would respond to the argument that slavery made sound economic sense, without some semblance of a counterbalance noting that sound business practices aren’t necessarily the only significant element of the story. Racist attitudes cannot be ignored.

    • As I understand it, in the widely-held view to which Eric Williams subscribed, racist ideology is seen as created by and necessary to the economy based on the enslavement of Black people. I think this makes sense – where did it come from otherwise?
      Wrt small-scale slave resistance, how do historians discover what was done? Small acts of sabotage must go unrecorded to avoid punishment. On the most trivial level, it’s always astonished me that slave-owners ate food prepared by people they were holding as slaves – did they really believe their house-slaves were too compliant to piss in the soup?

      • It may have been a little of the “what we don’t know won’t hurt us” mentality, when it comes to soup 🙂

  • Like others here, I haven’t finished the book yet (currently in ch. 7), but I don’t think it’s the case that Baptist minimizes or downplays resistance.

    THHNBT does not offer a global statement about the nature of slavery or enslaved life; rather, like (but not exactly like) Walter Johnson’s RIVER OF DARK DREAMS, it’s an argument about the ways that modern American capitalism grew up alongside and in intimate, essential dialogue with a particular form of enslaved labor–antebellum southwestern cotton. Baptist does dwell on episodes and forms of resistance (the German Coast rebellion, but also, in a powerful section, the social lives of the enslaved–in terms that build on the work of his late collaborator, Stephanie Camp), while at the same time arguing that in the terms of exploitation in this particular setting became so extreme that by the 1830s the opportunities for collective or even individual resistance were considerably reduced. That claim may turn out to be susceptible to disproof, but Baptist supports his argument with deep, nuanced readings of fugitive and ex-slave narratives as well as other sources. He does not (through ch. 6) say much about enslaved life or resistance in places, beyond the deep-southern cotton belt, where escape, resistance, or negotiation all had greater chances of success. But that’s not his purpose, as I understand it.

    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that Baptist does not entirely dismiss the presence of resistance, but he certainly makes the case that the demands set by masters controlled to a great extent the behavior of slaves. Again, I can’t help but come back to the the rising quotas for cotton pickers. Stepping back and taking the full view of what I’ve read thus far I do see a picture or statement of the “nature of slavery” and “enslaved life” in this book. It seems to me that we can go beyond referencing an “essential dialogue” between enslaved labor and capitalism and notice the ways in which they were one and the same – at least in the Deep South.

  • Hi Kevin – Agreed on the first and third points, but not as fully on the second — I think time and space are crucial here, and Baptist is making an argument about a particular phase and location (albeit the one we most usually associate with “slavery” in U.S. history). I’m particularly struck by his attention to how enslaved people forced from the Chesapeake to the new cotton lands experienced their room for maneuver as diminishing. In my view, that’s an argument about a radical transformation in the practices of enslavement, one which had both short-term effects (including an overall diminishment of slaves’ ability to assert themselves effectively) and long-term effects (including the late phase of the sectional crisis).

  • “Time and space are crucial here.”

    Absolutely, a thousand times over.


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