Monday, May 4, 2015

Book Review: The Half Has Never Been Told

The following is a book review that, like my last post, was originally created for a history class, which I'm taking as part of my elementary education course load.

Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York, New York: Basic Books, 2014.

Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is a sweeping history of American slavery, detailing its effects on the social, political, economic, and military development of America. The book traces American slavery from modest origins through rapid expansion. It weaves personal narrative strands of slaves, enslavers, abolitionists, soldiers, and politicians into a cloth of economic, social, and political patterns to produce a brilliant tapestry, depicting slavery barreling across the American landscape, drunk on blood and torture and profit, nigh unstoppable in its fury.

Baptist borrows an image from Ralph Ellison to organize the book: slavery as a “trussed-up giant, stretched out on the rack of America’s torture zone,” (xxiv). Each chapter is identified by both a time period and a body part of the trussed-up giant (Chapter 5 is “Tongues,” Chapter 9, “Backs”), the latter signifying how slavery “seemed to reduce African Americans to body parts: feet walking like a chained machine, hands on the block and hands picking, minds and nervous systems yielding revenue, providing entertainment and pleasure” (415). The Half Has Never Been Told relies primarily on the vividness of personal narratives to capture and keep reader interest, only supplying the occasional chart, graph, or political cartoon when needed to drive a point home. For a book that focuses so heavily on migration and sectional strife, it is curiously short on maps—there are just a few, all clustered at the start.

These two map sets (pages 12 and 14) show the westward expansion of slavery and cotton production

Baptist’s thesis is that slavery was the dynamic engine that powered the United States’ rapid economic growth in the first 80 years of the country’s existence, and that it did so by extracting incredible efficiency through brutal torture. According to Baptist, slavery was not an anomaly or an accident, doomed from the start to die off naturally, but an integral part of the way America functioned, which had to be vigorously opposed before it could be destroyed (xvii-xix).

Baptist marshals a broad array of sources to make his case. Using primary sources like newspapers, legislative proceedings, collected family papers, and slave narratives, but also secondary literature, like academic journals and monographs, he shows how slavery was built into the nation from the first. Far from causing insurmountable problems in the early years, “the possibilities that enslaved people represented…would actually forge links that overrode internal divisions” (4). Citing debates at the Constitutional Congress, Baptist claims “interest was the governing principle of shaping the Constitution. In the interest of both profit and unity” most white Americans “proved willing to permit the movement of enslaved people” (11). Through both detailed statistical information (114) and captivating personal narratives (escaped slave Charles Ball’s story, for example), Baptist shows that slavery was expanded rapidly in the early 19th century by a class of speculators, slave traders, and planters in search of profit (1-39). This lust for gain also drove enslavers to create a “complex of labor control practices” called the “pushing system” (116), a system based on “innovation in violence” (117)—in other words, on new methods of torture (140-141). This system, in turn, produced cotton at an enormously efficient rate, and said cotton was the foundation on which the whole of the American industrial revolution was built. Baptist cites a report from Jackson’s secretary of the treasury, who wanted to show the “Tariff of Abominations” was protecting American manufacturing, but who also ended up showing that “by 1832, cotton made by enslaved people was driving US economic expansion” (319).

This is a reliable book. Sources are used in an honest and accurate way, to create profound arguments about the place of slavery in US history. In the whole 500 pages, I found only one error: Baptist calls W. H. Harrison the governor of Ohio, rather than the Indiana Territory (267); this misidentification is unimportant to the surrounding argument.

I have read little about slavery, but Baptist’s book compares well with the only other book on slavery I have read, Freedom National, by James Oakes. Both books undermine popular narratives about slavery (Oakes buries the notion that the Republicans were somehow not interested in destroying slavery as fast as they could) and both do so skillfully. The Half Has Never Been Told’s emotional hook is better—when the “evocative history” (428) in this book works, it works—but Freedom National is more consistently well written.

The author uses arresting images to express his ideas, as in his description of a slave society that “ensured that any future Nat Turner was like a bug waiting for the hammer” (347), or the amusing portrait of the Bank of the United States as “a maiden aunt chaperone who frowned at any sign of a creeping hand” (244). His evocative sketches of slave life are frequently captivating. Unfortunately, his prose sometimes gets bogged down by clunky or confusing language. At its best, though, the book is a joy to read, though that joy is darkened by the grim subject matter.

Baptist betrays no bias, beyond the obvious one for a modern writer on this subject: he hates slavery, especially the slavery that Americans crafted in the 19th century. This is not a problem—in fact, it is what makes the book effective: the book lives or dies by how well the emotional, personal impact of slavery reaches the reader. Baptist’s strong feelings on the subject bring that impact home. The Half Has Never Been Told is a work of breathtaking, detailed scholarship that, at its best, also manages to communicate at a deeply personal, emotional level. For these qualities, I highly recommend it.

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