The Half Has Never Been Told – A Review

HalfThe Half Has Never Been Told:
Slavery & The Making of American Capitalism

Edward E. Baptist, Basic Books (2014)
Review by Scott Ainslie

In the introduction to Cornell historian and Durham NC native Edward Baptist’s new history, the author explains his title by citing part of a 1937 WPA interview with Lorenzo Ivy, born in 1850 in what later became the last capital city of the Confederacy, Danville, Virginia.

Interviewed by writer Claude Anderson, Ivy said:

“They sold slaves here and everywhere. I’ve seen droves of Negroes brought in here on foot going South to be sold. Each one of them had an old tow sack on his back with everything he’s got in it. Over the hills they came in lines reaching as far as the eye can see. They walked in double lines chained together by twos. They walk ‘em here to the railroad and ship ‘em south like cattle. Truly, son,” Ivy said, “the half has never been told.” – p. xxi

The history Baptist unfolds in this work itself is a sort of desegregation of historical events that have long been kept separate in the preferred history of the United States within the United States. The publisher’s flyleaf text begins:

“Americans tend to cast slavery as a pre-modern institution–the nation’s original sin perhaps, but isolated in time and divorced from America’s later success. But to do so robs the millions who suffered in bondage of their full legacy.
. . .

“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…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 materials of the Industrial Revolution, and became a wealthy nation with global influence.” 

The Whipping-Machine

Using intimate slave narratives, plantation records, newspapers and quotations from politicians, entrepreneurs, and escaped slaves, Baptist introduces a radical new perspective on America’s history and economic dominance that forces readers to reckon with the routine whipping, torture, and raw violence enslavers used to break the bottleneck in cotton production: how many pounds a slave could pick in a day.

As Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas opened in succession to white planters pushing coffles of chained slave gangs into what amounted to frontier slave labor camps (rather than the later grand plantation houses black slave labor and productivity made possible), early on cotton was often left unpicked in fields that had to be prepared for the next year’s planting.

The tools employed by white overseers and slave owners to drive up the efficiency of black cotton picking hands were the whip, torture, and sexual abuse. Meticulous records were kept on the daily productivity of individual slaves, production goals were set and often raised for the next day. As slaves weighed out each day, their blood was drawn by rawhide whips when they fell short of the overseer’s goals: one lash for each pound they were short.

The photographs we have seen of the horribly scarred backs of slavery’s survivors were not a rare example of white discipline for an attempted escape, or repayment for violent responses to the unrestrained, domineering violence that was daily and hourly visited upon blacks, their families and loved ones. The majority of those scars were routinely cut into the living backs of slaves by rawhide whips in the hands of overseers who bragged of their sadism and shared among themselves their personal, innovations in motivational torture as they spurred Southern production of cotton to new and higher levels.

“From 1805 . . . to 1860 in Mississippi, the amount of cotton the typical “hand” harvested during a typical day increased three, four, six, or even more times over. In 1801, 28 pounds per day, per picker, was the average from several South Carolina labor camps.

“By 1818, enslaved people . . . picked between 50 and 80 pounds per day. A decade later, in Alabama, the totals on one plantation ranged up to 132 pounds, and by the 1840s, on a Mississippi labor camp, the “hands” averaged 341 pounds each on a good day . . . A study of planter account books that record daily picking totals for individual enslaved people on labor camps across the South found a growth in daily picking totals of 2.1 percent per year from 1811-1860, for a total productivity increase of 361 per cent.” – p. 126

The great economic leap that spurred the industrial revolution and the development of the cotton gin, the industrial cotton mills in England and Europe, and later in the American North, was predicated on the productivity of black hands. This is the part of history that is never told.

We have been taught that the Industrial Revolution was driven by the invention of machines to accomplish tasks in hours that formerly took days. The labor saving machines were critical to the economic development that drove the 19th Century. But those machines, cotton spinning mills and textile factories, would have stood empty and useless without slave-raised and slave-picked bales of cotton.

The profitability of the increasingly diversified economies in England and later the North were as dependent as the persistently narrowing cotton economy of the South on the cost and productivity differential between paid labor in their factories and slave labor in the field.

Productivity in the North was driven by unequal distribution of profits, by poverty and want. Productivity of slaves was whip, blood, and torture driven. In his book, following a Louisiana slave owner’s metaphor, Baptist refers to this as “the whipping machine.”

“For southern whites, whipping was a gateway form of violence that led to bizarrely creative levels of sadism. In the sources that document the expansion of cotton production, you can find at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture: carpenters’ tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs.

“Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in “stress positions,” burning, even waterboarding.

“And descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds. Yet even slave owners’ more “irrational” forms of torture could have “rational” outcomes. As ex-slave Henry Gowens pointed out, wild assaults “cramp[ed] down [the] minds” of their targets (if they survived) and other witnesses, who now acted as much like hands as they could.” -p. 141

The Abuse of Laborers

Baptist connects the Industrial Revolution with what has been dubbed the ‘industrious revolution,’ just one of whites’ own narrowly defined, self-congratulatory excuses for their diabolically violent abuse of slaves.

Baptist shows that the abuse of labor ¬– the separation of a man or woman from the fruits of their labor to the exclusive benefit of the owning class – was perfected in the slave labor camps of the early 19th century.

American exceptionalism begins there, and eventually extends into the factories of the North and Midwest, the coalmines of the Appalachians, and the mills of old New England. The ground of American capitalism is flooded with the blood of slaves, who, in the unstable and little seen cotton frontiers of the South and West were routinely drawn and driven by the lash.

“In 1840-1841, Bennett Barrow, owner of a slave labor camp in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, kept a journal that he called his “Record of Punishment.” In this ledger, which records both whipping and picking, Barrow revealed how he calibrated torture.

“Three-quarters of the 1840-41 instances of torture were directed at those who did not meet their weight. Sometimes he focused on those who failed to meet a relatively low quota, as he did on the October day when he directed a “whiping frollick.” He “whipped 8 or 10 for weight to day – those that pick least weights.” But he actually beat the most productive cotton pickers more frequently than he did the least productive ones.

“He tortured his fastest male picker twice, and his three fastest women nine times between them, just as Edwin Epps beat Solomon Northrup’s friend Patsey until “her back bore the scars of a thousand stripes.” This was how clever entrepreneurs extorted new efficiencies that they themselves could not imagine. They pressed their most skillful hands and contriving minds ever harder. Using torture, slavery’s entrepreneurs extracted an amount of innovation virtually equal in numerical measure to all the mechanical ingenuity in all the textile mills in the Western world…

“On the frontier . . . torture was “practiced with . . . order, regularity, and system” designed to convert “insufficient” production into sufficient production – sufficient, that is, until the next day, when it would be repeated.” -p. 140

Slave Mortgages & The Securitization of Human Bondage

One of the other historical connections that Baptist draws is between the unregulated, credit-driven, heavily-leveraged land and slave purchases that drove the development (and subsequent economic collapse) of the interior Slave South and the techniques of the Reagan-era deregulated banks and mortgage lenders began to use that eventually wrecked the American and world economy in 2008. True to his subtitle, the formerly well-hidden foundations of American capitalism are laid bare by these and other remarkable parallels that Baptist reveals in the work.

The fledgling state banks began offering speculating Whites (initially the South’s coastal aristocrats, but increasingly small stakeholders from the Carolinas and Georgia) mortgages to speculate on both land and slaves. The mortgages to buy slaves were considered to be self-paying: the fruits of the slaves’ labor would pay of the debt incurred in buying them and the land.

Then came the birth of the 19th century equivalent of the securitized bonds that would have brought down the banking system in 2008 without massive taxpayer bailouts. The fledgling state banks bundled slave mortgages together and sold interests in the resulting bonds to raise more money to be loaned out on the frontier to buy more slaves and develop more land for cotton.

“Securitization is the pooling of debt from many borrowers to that it can be sold off in uniform chunk, reducing the risks inherent in lending to one person at a time. Now, all bond-buyers would share in the profits…while being shielded against the kind of catastrophic individual losses a single lender would suffer if, say, a borrower’s slaves died en masse at a malaria-infested labor camp, or fi floods destroyed a cotton crop.”

“The financial product that such banks…were selling to investors in London, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Paris, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York was remarkably similar to the securitized bonds, backed by mortgages on US homes, that attracted investors from around the globe to US financial markets form the 1980s until the economic collapse of 2008…

“…mortgage-backed securities shifted risk away from the immediate originators of loans onto financial markets, while promising to spread out and thus minimize the consequences of individual debtors’ failures. Investors who purchased…mortgage-backed securities planned to share in streams of income generated by homebuyers’ mortgage payments.

“Likewise the faith bonds of the 1830s generated revenue for investors from enslavers’ repayments of mortgages on enslaved people. This meant that investors around the world would share in revenues made by [slave] hands in the field.

“Thus, in effect, even as Britain was liberating the slaves of its empire, a British bank could now sell an investor a completely commodified slave; not a particular individual who could die or run away, but a bond that was the right to a one-slave-sized slice of a pie made from the income of thousands of slaves.” -p. 247

Earlier in the narrative, Baptist notes gamblers and speculators were running the show:

“Usually, we think of the architects of modern capitalism as rational. They might be greedy and they might be profit-seekers, but they reject gambling and achieve accumulation through self-denial and efficiency. Accounts of economics usually teach that people are driven by calculations about “utility” and price, and hat market behavior is predictable and rational.”
– p.86

“On an 1817 journey down the Mississippi, and Englishman notieced that in the taverns where businessmen met along the way to New Orleans, “There are many men of real, but more of fictitious capital. In their occupations they are not confined to any one particular pursuit, the same person often being farmer, store and hotel-keeper, land-jobber, brewer, steam-boat owner, and slave dealer… All are speculators; and each man anticipates making a fortune, not by patient industry and upright conduct, but by ‘a lucky hit.” – p. 84-85

If that sounds eerily familiar, it’s no mistake.

The tilting of our economic and political system toward the 1% over the past 40 years has once again preferenced speculators and corporate takeover types over the 99% of Americans who work for their money, are paid wages, and (courtesy of the W-era tax-cuts on unearned income) pay the taxes that support tax breaks for the corporations and their overlords more handsomely than they do workaday American citizens, the crumbling American infrastructure, American education, environmental protection, or healthcare.

There is a wealth of connections in the book that are worthy of a reader’s time and attention, not the least of which is the connection between the bravery and success of those who fought and won Haitian Revolution – establishing the first free Republic in the Western Hemisphere after successfully repelling invasion forces of the British and the 50,000 troops Napoleon sent to re-enslave the population – and the critical French loss of New Orleans and the Louisiana Purchase which ceded 40% of the contemporary continental United States from French to American control.

Baptist has done us a tremendous service to making connections between events that have long been segregated into neat, if incomprehensible, boxes. The segregation of our history into discrete, unconnected bits has served to give Americans a clean, simple, and inaccurate narrative – an origination myth – that continues to blind us as effectively as it binds us to our actual history of racism, violence, and systematic torture and oppression.

“We don’t usually see torture as a factor in production. Economics teachers don’t put it on the chalkboard as a variable in a graph . . . But, here is something that may help reveal how crucial systematized torture was to the industrial revolution, and thus to the birth of the modern world.

“It’s a metaphor offered by a man named Henry Clay, after the architect of the “American system.” Born into slavery in the Carolinas, moved west as a boy, Clay recalled after slavery ended that his Louisiana owner had once possessed a machine, which, by his account, made cotton cultivation and harvesting mechanical, rapid, and efficient. This contraption was “a big wooden wheel with a treadle onto it, and when you tromp the treadle the big wheel go round. On that wheel was four or five leather straps with holes cut in them to make blisters, and you lay the Negro down on his face on a bench and tie him to it.”

“When the operator pumped the treadle to turn the wheel, the straps thrashed the back of the man or woman to the bench into blistered, bloody jelly.

“According to Clay, the mere threat of this whipping-machine was enough to speed his own hands.

“The contraption may have actually existed. More likely, however, the whipping-machine was not a material thing of wood and leather, but a telling tale. Clay was using a metaphorical argument to say that every cotton labor camp carved out of the southwestern woods used torture as its central technology.

“Every single day, calibrated pain, regular as a turning gear, challenged enslaved people to exceed the previous day’s gains in production.” – p. 141

In a time when police have been increasingly killing unarmed, young Blacks with impunity, scholarship like this is most welcome. Replacing our actual history with a fictional myth has lethal power. It is killing people.

American Whites have a centuries old problem about race. It is past time we address it forthrightly and honestly. We need a truth commission in America. Without it, we will not resolve what must be resolved for our people and our nation to survive and thrive. This book could provide a decent basis for such a dialogue. This is only a small sample of the riches that are within its covers. I recommend it without reservation.

Scott Ainslie

Born in Rochester NY in 1952, Scott Ainslie has been playing music on something since he was three years old. A guitarist since 1967 with powerful appreciation for and apprenticeships with elder black and white musicians in different musical traditions, Ainslie carries a portion of them forward in his own traditional blues performances and songwriting.

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