On Dec. 7 in Blaustein 210, Cornell University Associate Professor of History Edward E. Baptist examined the concurrent evolution of slavery and American capitalism. The lecture, which highlighted the findings presented in Baptist’s 2014 book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, diverged from the more conventional theses of many contemporary historians. Analyzing the testimonies of enslaved people and enslavers, as well as statistics on total cotton output from the Revolution to the Civil War, Baptist asserts, “enslavers created a diabolical system that is actually more clearly depicted in 12 Years a Slave than by professional historians.”
Defenders of slavery sought to differentiate their “peculiar institution” from the rapacious businesses of Northern capitalists. The agrarian hierarchy that sustained slavery, they argued, benefited enslaved people, sometimes to the economic detriment of their enslavers. The Southern planter, commissioned to save enslaved people from their innate “barbarism,” claimed to provide for “productive” and “unproductive” slaves alike.
South Carolina planter and politician James H. Hammond, for example, framed slavery as a moral undertaking. In a 1845 rebuttal to the abolitionist movement, he proclaimed, “We must … content ourselves with our dear labor under the consoling reflection that what is lost to us is gained to humanity.” Abolitionists, inveighing against such self-serving arguments, viewed slavery as both economically inefficient and morally reprehensible.
For decades prominent historians have shared the abolitionist view on the productivity of slave labor. During his talk, Baptist noted that slavery is neither antithetical to capitalist greed nor economically inefficient. Instead, he claims, cotton accumulated through slavery served as the commodity essential to nineteenth century international trade and development. Slave owners, he observed, pioneered advances in modern accounting and finance.
Baptist also tied the health of regional and national economies to the interstate trade of enslaved people. When Congress ended the legal importation of enslaved people from outside the United States in 1808, Maryland and Virginia emerged as key trade postings for slaves destined to labor in states bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Baptist estimates that almost one million enslaved men and women were transported to the cotton fields from the Upper South in the years before the Civil War. Harnessing such modern technologies as the steamboat, railroad and telegraph, slave traders were able to maximize economic efficiency.
According to Baptist, the violence doled out by slave owners accounts for the rise in labor productivity on cotton plantations. Despite limited technological innovations in cotton picking, output rose 400% between 1800 and 1860. Although some economic historians link this growth to incentives on the plantation, such as the prospect of monetary compensation for good work, Baptist repudiates these theories. He details the “pushing system” of plantation life. Each enslaved person was assigned a daily picking quota, which increased over time. To ensure that slaves steadily increased output, planters meted out modern forms of assault. Planters threatened enslaved people with beatings, sexual humiliation, bodily mutilation and waterboarding. In the cotton kingdom, Baptist contends, “white people inflicted torture far more often than in almost any human society that ever existed.”
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism chronicles not only the economics of the slave system but also Southern politics, religion and gender norms. During the question and answer component of the talk, Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies Program Director Courtney Baker, inquired whether sexual violence was employed to increase the enslaved population and thus ensure continued profit on the plantation. “Increasing the slave population may or may not have been a motive of rape,” Baptist responded. The letters of slave traders, he observed, detailed the age and physical appearance of slaves. Because the price of enslaved women “rose and declined at a certain age,” Baptist believes that fertility may have factored into slave value. Enslaved men, by contrast, were priced based upon height.
In a telling explanation on the structural legacies of slavery, Baptist linked gun violence with a culture of violence on the plantation. Southern men carried weapons both as protection against slaves and to guard themselves against possible quarrels with freemen. To openly carry a weapon was common in the Antebellum South, and to conceal a weapon was considered cowardly.
The intersection of race and gun violence seems particularly acute in the wake of the 2015 Charleston shooting. When asked how the country could prevent future deaths by guns, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum shirked from mentioning gun control or anti-racism education programs, and instead noted that “true forgiveness…gave [him] more hope than anything.”
In a June 2015 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, entitled, “Forgiveness in Charleston isn’t absolution for 400 years of racial violence in America,” Baptist avers that forgiveness, on behalf of the victims’ family members, is not a vehicle for absolution in white America. “The family members’ statements,” he writes, “will not deliver white Americans to some misty land where they no longer have to hear about the impact of nearly 400 years of racist violence.” Instead of blinding themselves to byproducts of a slave culture, Americans must “consider whether they are complicit in our long history of white supremacy. If white Americans want reconciliation, they will have to brave the dangers of atonement.” •