The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Basic Books, 2014, 528 pp., $35
Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power
Ivan R. Dee, 2011, 432 pp., $18.95
Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery
W.W. Norton & Company, 1994, 544 pp., 18.95 (paperback)
Historians once thought that slavery had been a source of poverty. Back in the 1950s, when income levels in places like Alabama and Mississippi qualified them as second, if not third, world countries, most academics engaged in the question argued that by tying up large amounts of capital in an inefficient system, slavery had prevented the Southern economy from industrializing. Some, like U.B. Phillips and D.H. Potter, even went so far as to suggest that in 1860 slavery was about to collapse of its own weight, and the Civil War had been an unnecessary bloodbath.
Now the Old South is one of the fastest-growing parts of the country, and the old argument has shifted a full 180 degrees. After the 1989 publication of Robert Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract, historians take for granted slavery’s contribution to the prosperity of the white South and hence, statistically at least, to the country as a whole. They are now prone to ask to what extent the entire United States down to the present day owes its prosperity to 19th-century slavery. Was slavery some kind of platform upon which the modern American economy was built? That would be the politically correct question to study these days in the academy, especially if the answer can be made to come out “yes.”
This is not surprising. In the present context, with the United States still struggling to build a multiracial society 150-odd years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the economic history of slavery is obviously a politically freighted issue. But it always has been to one extent or another, and American scholars and intellectuals have never ceased arguing over the question. For every Oscar Handlin who downplayed the evils of slavery, and even argued that slavery caused racism rather than the other way around, there has been a Nate Glazer who has stressed the singular evils of the American form of slavery compared to every other form known to history. Only someone unfamiliar with the literature can be surprised that, even aside from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s call for reparations payments, much of the current crop of books on the topic slides rather quickly from scholarship into advocacy.1 The three books reviewed here all were written in the main with scholarly intent, but in reading them one soon realizes how far we are from having any interpretation of the strictly economic impact of slavery that could be called settled doctrine.
At a certain level there is little disagreement over the outline of events that led to the present question. In 1787, when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, there were about half-a-million slaves in what would soon become the United States. About a third of them were involved in growing rice and indigo, marginal enterprises at best that would soon all but disappear. Another 40 percent produced tobacco, which was a viable export commodity, but as the account books of George Washington testify, by the time the slave-holder paid to support those who worked as well as those who were either too young, too old, or too infirm to work, the cost advantage of slave labor relative to free labor wasn’t that great. It took a particular personality type—and not a very nice one—to get value out of slaves, but Washington wasn’t among them. Slavery had been a source of riches on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean Islands, but almost no part of the United States at the time could grow sugar. The real money awaited the arrival of cotton, which was still unforeseen as of 1787.
That’s right: On the day the United States adopted its Constitution, the country grew no cotton. Twenty years later, after the invention of the cotton gin, it still produced only a modest amount, but Sven Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton” was about to take form.2 Consumers not just in Britain and the United States but throughout the whole of Europe began replacing wool with cotton garments, and because it was now cheap to do so, they bought more clothing in general. Producers responded, the technology was easily transferable, and the number of mechanized spindles in operation increased almost daily. The limiting factor became raw material, and in the search for a source it soon became clear the American South was what today might be called the Saudi Arabia of raw cotton. The region possessed the perfect temperature and rainfall, and for the next several decades it supplied between 60 and 70 percent of the entire world’s raw cotton. Cotton farming rose in importance until, by 1850, the value of the cotton crop accounted for some 5 percent of the nation’s total, a position comparable to that of the automobile a century later.
The spread of the cotton industry shaped much of the nation’s early history. Once the textile industry got rolling, in England and New England, only a short time passed before the industry needed more raw cotton than the coastal states could provide. Population moved toward new land, into areas that would become Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and ultimately Texas. To make room, Native Americans had to be evicted. The steamboat, test-driven on the Hudson, found its real employment on the Mississippi River. Some 9,500 miles of railway had to be built to transport people and cotton. Once Andrew Jackson killed the Bank of the United States, wildcat banks sprang up to finance the enterprise, and state politicians dreamed up crazy schemes that would saddle them with debt upon which they would eventually default. And above all, there was the unending struggle over the spread of slavery. The South, anxious to fortify itself against the rising swell of abolition, pressed for slavery in every new territory, even those where cotton wouldn’t grow.
As the population moved westward, it dragged 835,000 slaves behind it, most walking at least part of the way. By 1850, more than 3 million slaves worked in the American South, 60 percent of them in the cotton fields and the rest either in other crops or as craftsmen. Of every hour of useful work done in the Southern states, roughly 40 minutes was performed by a slave. Given the obvious importance of slave labor, it may come as something of a surprise to find that, as already noted, the early historians of slavery judged it to have been a burden on the South’s economy rather than its strength. Edward Baptist, in his new and widely successful The Half Has Never Been Told, has not been misled. His reading of events is right up front in his subtitle, “Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.” Early on he asserts, “The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made America powerful and rich is not an idea people are necessarily happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.”
This is a statement about the national economy by an historian rather than an economist, so one has to struggle a bit to find its precise meaning. It could mean that the incomes of some Americans, probably white, are greater today than they would have been had the slaves been free men and women. Individuals in both the South and the North accumulated fortunes through dealing in the slave economy. Some fraction of that wealth could have survived the Civil War and, thanks to compound interest, could today amount to a tidy sum.
Tracing the origin and forward journey of that wealth could have made an interesting story, but it’s not the story Baptist wants to tell. He’s out for bigger game. His is a societal indictment according to which the entire capitalist development of 19th-century America was woven around slavery, benefitting the country’s GDP down to this day. Baptist pursues this theme not with an econometric model but with the tools of the historian, which he deploys with great vigor. His book is a prodigious work that stacks up a mountain of documentary evidence. The antebellum South comes alive beneath Baptist’s pen. Mostly it’s a tale of unending physical and mental torment, especially in the western regions, where planters bought slaves on credit and had either to succeed or face bankruptcy. The average plantation with 50 or more slaves was run by just one or two white men. Subduing males slaves wasn’t enough; they had to be emasculated, in Baptist’s reading. This is not the South of “Gone With The Wind.” Indeed, it’s not even the South of Eugene Genovese’s classic 1972 book Roll Jordan Roll. Genovese at least saw a little space within which the slave could maneuver and in many cases negotiate some elemental protections from the slave master. There’s little of that in Baptist. His players are one-dimensional characters who have one objective, money, and one means of obtaining it, physical force.
There is also a certain confusion at the heart of Baptist’s argument. He doesn’t want to be bound to economic data, but for an historian is remarkably materialist. Literary flourishes aside, his argument reduces to this: Slave grown cotton yielded vast wealth, and wealth powered the nation’s growth. He’s certainly correct on the first point. The white South, and not a few individual Northerners, became wealthy on the backs of slaves, but if Baptist had taken the time to look, he’d have realized the numbers aren’t large enough to support his claim. Thanks to Fogel, we actually can calculate the amount of extra income enjoyed by Southern whites as a result of owning slaves. In the 1850s, the zenith of the cotton economy, it came to between 1 and 1.5 percent of the nation’s GDP, not a trivial sum. By this period, however, the United States was already the second-largest economy in the world and was investing every year between 13 and 15 percent of GDP in new capital. Even if the entire “slave surplus” were saved (which it wasn’t, because there were mansions to build and ball gowns to buy), it would have made a respectable contribution to growth, but it just wasn’t large enough to be the basis of an empire.
There is also a more troubling point in Baptist’s argument. Individuals clearly benefitted from slavery, but not the nation as a whole. To believe as Baptist does one has to believe the Founders’ decision in Philadelphia to allow slavery was a boon and not a blunder—that they did the economy a favor by keep 10 percent of the resident population in chains. Baptist not only sells short the enslaved men and women, but he contradicts a fair body of research on the history of slave economies. The slave-run gold mines of Peru, Mexico, and the sugar islands also produced impressive fortunes in their day. Their legacy is modern Peru and Haiti. Edmund Phelps, in his recent book, Mass Flourishing argues that long-term growth requires continuous innovation; not just the big discoveries, but the steady flow of cost savings and improvements that come from an engaged workforce. Slaves, looking over their shoulder at the overseer’s whip, don’t get many innovative ideas. They were deprived of the benefits of freedom, and so the country lost the fruits of their genius. Jazz music is exactly the type of thing Phelps has in mind. African Americans always had it in their bones as they toiled in the fields, but it took freedom for it to flourish.
Gene Dattel’s Cotton and Race in The Making of America makes an argument similar to The Half Has Never Been Told, but in a less evangelical tone. His enthusiasm for cotton as a source of riches is tempered by the industry’s experience in the 70 years after the Civil War. Fogel would disagree, but the postwar economy of the American South looks a great deal like the economy of every other commodity producer in history once its heyday had passed. The great wealth of the planters upon which Baptist rests his argument was largely wiped out by the stroke of Lincoln’s pen—abolition, as enacted in the United States, represented the greatest outright confiscation of property by a government in modern history. As insensitive as the statement sounds, remember that slavery was legal and that, in some fairly small number of cases, free blacks owned slaves as well.
After a period of groping about, the planters and their former slaves settled into a system of sharecropping that was acceptably efficient at producing cotton, but cotton had already become a bad business. In 1900, the cotton crop was three times the crop of 1860, but its value had fallen from nearly 5 percent of GDP to 1.7 percent. Incomes were spiraling downward to the point that by 1950 Alabama had less than half the per capita income of New York. Former slaves who were now sharecroppers endured great poverty, as did their white neighbors. Cotton still proclaimed itself King, but the king nonetheless held out his hand for a government subsidy.
Cotton and Race in The Making of America is largely a compilation of previously published works, but the particular strength Dattel brings to the story is his feel for cotton farming as a business. Planters knew that collectively they were into a seam of gold, but so long as they acted independently they were at the mercy of market prices. Production rose, land values increased, and slave prices remained elevated so long as the price of raw cotton was over 10 cents per pound. Planters went bankrupt when it sold for much less than 8 cents, as it did for much of the 1840s. The Southern Planters Association sought to form a sort of OPEC of cotton, which would have allowed it to extract more of the monopoly rent. Its efforts foundered, however, because planters were too numerous and too dispersed to permit centralized control over production, and they could never raise enough capital to establish a proper commodity-buying board.
Where Baptist wants Northerners to feel guilty over being prosperous, Dattel wants them to feel guilty over being racist. One of his abiding themes is the conflict that arose within a North that was at once partly abolitionist and very largely racist. Northerners wanted to see blacks free but not in person. This stance, Dattel asserts without a great deal of support, is what kept African Americans trapped in sharecropping for so long after emancipation. Northern industry imported millions of immigrants from Europe but ignored proven workers to the south. His categorical example is New York Senator William Seward, who in an 1848 speech warned of “an irrepressible conflict between opposing forces, and it means the United States will sooner or later become an entirely slave-holding nation or an entirely free-labor nation.” At the same time he could say, “The North has nothing to do with the Negroes. I have no more concern for them than I have for the Hottentots. They are God’s poor—they always have been and always will be.” Seward knew his audience and was a man of his time. His mindset is what freed the Northern conscience to deal with the South and trade in slave-grown cotton.
Robert Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract deserves inclusion here because, 25 years after its publication and three years after Fogel’s death, it remains the best single volume in print on the history of American slavery in all its dimensions—economic, political, and moral. It followed an earlier book, Time On The Cross, which Fogel had written with coauthor Stanley Engerman. This first book, which was similar in method to Without Consent or Contract, was severely criticized when it came out for its detached tone and lack of ostensible outrage over the institution it analyzed. Fogel, in his later book, goes to some length to remedy this deficiency without ever abandoning the high-minded perspective of a man who would soon win the Nobel Prize. Yet he doesn’t pull any punches. Why were slaves so much more productive than free workers? “… the feature that made planters prefer slave labor even when free labor was relatively abundant … is the enormous, almost unconstrained degree of force available to masters….. Centuries of tradition shielded European laborers from the force that was permitted against African and Afro-American slaves.” The heart of slavery was violence.
The degree to which force was applied is almost palpable in Fogel’s calculations of output per hour worked. On small plantations, employing 15 or fewer slaves, there was no difference between slave labor and free. On large plantations, however, those employing 50 or more slaves, the slaves were 39 percent more productive per hour worked. The source of this extra output was the gang system of work that was used on large plantations but not on small ones. The gang system divided cotton cultivation into simple linear tasks each of which was assigned to a group of workers. No group could fulfill its daily quota unless the one ahead of it did so as well. One pushed the other, with the entire operation supervised by a single overseer with a bullwhip.
Free white workers refused to work like this even when offered higher wages. Baptist wants to see the gang system as some kind of capitalist innovation, which in a sense it was. Economists, however, reserve the term innovation for inventions that conserve resources. The gang system didn’t reduce even by one calorie the energy required to cultivate and harvest a cotton crop. It merely allowed slave-owners to beat more work out of their chattel. At some point, even the slave-owners had to realize they were depreciating their own capital, and Fogel does point out that they did a fair amount of experimentation with the length of the work week. It settled in at about 58 hours per week, which meant slaves worked about 400 fewer hours per year than the average yeoman farmer on his own land.
Without Consent or Contract, however, is not all numbers. Some of its more intriguing passages contain Fogel’s speculations on the morality of fighting a Civil War in which 600,000 men lost their lives, one for each six slaves. Fogel sees the war as a historical necessity. Slavery was certainly profitable in cotton cultivation and no less profitable than free labor in manufacturing. In his view, it was not about to disappear of its own weight. Left to itself, the South, while behind the North, would have been among the five largest economies of the world. Its presence, he maintains, would have encouraged European aristocrats and set back liberalizing trends throughout the West. It also would have had a monopoly on a raw material upon which the world was, at least for a time, vitally dependent. The inelasticity of that demand meant that an excise tax on cotton would have yielded a Confederate government enough revenue to pursue an adventurous foreign policy in Latin America, and to finance all kinds of mayhem toward the end of perpetuating slavery.
One of the more attractive properties of Fogel’s work is the intellectual modesty with which he pursued his subject. Fogel was well aware that in writing on slavery he was playing with political dynamite, but he steadfastly refused to go beyond his material. The overall impression one takes away from his book is of a composite built up from the accretion of evidence on the subtopics within slavery, each of which is too narrow to carry much political weight. He may well have ended his work with a judgment of what contemporary America owes its dead slaves, but unlike too many other writers in the field, he didn’t start with one.
1Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014).
2Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf 2014). See also Harold James, “Capitalism Da Capo,” The American Interest (May/June 2015).