Edward E. Baptist. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 512 pages.
By Mike Fennell
The subject is violence. The predicate is force. The verb is torture. The object is the slave. Every sentence in this book is constructed from the bloodiest raw material imaginable in order to build an edifice of pornographic violence and brutality.
The Half Has Never Been Told is also about absence. Baptist asserts that a ground level perspective — a slaves’ eye view of the world — has been missing from slave south history up to now. Archivally there is almost nothing new to be found in this book: very few names or places or events we didn’t know about before. But that is not to say there is nothing to learn here. What is new to the story is the story telling. And what a telling it is. There are anecdotes from slave memoir and recollections from The WPA Slave Narrative Collection; there are diaries and letters. There is, in other words, the personal, the subjective, the affecting close-up; what is felt and, to Baptist therefore truly known. There is no attempt to follow any evidence where it may lead. The point is to tell half a story — the one presumably missing until now — and to tell it viscerally.
There are no limits to force in Baptists Old South, and no limit to the rhetoric he employs to describe it: There are no plantations, only “slave labor camps”. The planters, are “enslavers”. Slaves are “enslaved people” (as if the word “people” needed to be attached in case we forgot). Each word in this book was chosen to remind us that slavery was ugly, violent, deadly –and profitable.
Baptist would have us believe that brute force alone drove the political economy of the slave south. But how can something that runs on force alone be called a “political economy”? And that sums up the problem I have with reviewing this book, and why it took nine months to get around to it. Baptist complains that slave south history has been made up of “ two very different stories … halves that did not fit together neatly.” One of these stories was, well … the one we all know: American history to this time – all of it. The other is the one he is about to tell us, from the perspective of the slaves themselves, which has never been told before.
The half (that) has never been told is slavery (for the first time) from the slaves’ point of view. And, once we know how the slaves themselves saw things, the two stories we have settled for until now will presumably “fit together” and become one. And what will bind these narratives? What new suture, missing all this time, will sew the history of American slavery back together? Why the thread is violence of course; the stitching is force. If only we had, up to now, been privy to the perspective of the slaves themselves, we would have realized that the social, political, economic and moral essence of the antebellum South was violence. Had we known this we could have dispensed with all the decades of pointless sociology and endless back and forth over what political economy means, how it might have worked, and how the slaves, along with everyone else who lived there, might have been actors, agents, activists in its making and function. We can dispense with all that now, for according to Edward Baptist, they were not.
The Economist was right. The Half Has Never Been Told is good guys and bad guys; Cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers. There are victims and torturers, whippers and whipped; and never the twain shall meet. This is Roots with an R rating. It is at least axiomatic to say that no one has achieved cooperation by force; the best you can hope for is compliance. Slave South historians have been arguing from the start about the limits of force: how far did coercion as against violence get the slaveholders, and what forms did coercion take? What’s the difference between cooperation and compliance precisely? But Edward Baptist doesn’t want in on those arguments. He doesn’t have any questions about the social relation of master and slave.
In Baptist’s slave South there is no coercion, no balance of power or struggle for autonomy, subjectivity or space; there is no class conflict or “paternalism” and there damn sure isn’t any “hegemony”. Hell, there’s no society. There is force. That’s all.
As difficult as his language is, the reductionism of Baptist’s underlying premise is more disturbing. We are expected to believe that “Hard forced labor multiplied US cotton production to 130 times its 1800 level by 1860” (142). That is not a misquote.
It is certainly a mistake (one so obvious it’s hard to believe it made it through the first draft, much less the editing process) but, innumerate as it is, this sentence expresses, precisely and completely, what Baptist wants us to take from this book: That hard forced labor alone drove production in the slave south.
He does not say force was sometimes, occasionally, or even often used to increase output. He does not say — indeed he goes rhetorical miles out of his way NOT to say — that violence was used to enforce “discipline”. He complains, in fact, that past historians used words like “discipline” or “punishment” euphemistically to cover up what was really going on. Edward Baptist is not one of those historians. He calls it like he sees it: Torture is the verb. Baptist uses the word “torture” (when he doesn’t use “fuck”) to describe every physical interaction between slaves and Overseers, Drivers, Foreman, slave traders and masters. When they are sold Down the River or to the Georgia Man; shackled and marched south, when they are picking cotton, they don’t make their weight and are whipped for it; when they make their weight but are whipped anyway. Torture is what happened to slaves because torture is what white people did to black people — If you ask Edward Baptist, it’s all they did.
And, again notice the purposeful absence contained in the assertion that violence alone drove production. On one hand the claim is self evident: Violence and the threat of violence is the basis upon which any system of forced labor rests: it’s forced labor. So we can agree that violence drove productivity in as much as, at some level, violence drove everything. And being told that violence underpinned a forced labor system (as if it were news to anyone) adds what exactly to our understanding of American slavery? It teaches us nothing about this slave labor system in particular, or what factors other than violence might have shaped it.
It tells us the half we already knew, in other words, but in a pornographic style that pretends to be new.
Compounding his rhetorical inflation is Baptist’s insistence that “enslavers” were also gifted and creative “capitalists” who employed torture in the service of greater production and efficiency. He repeatedly claims that by means of torture alone cotton production multiplied. When he describes the planters as creative or innovative to demonstrate that they were just as capable as any other capitalist of the day, he is talking about their imaginative uses of violence to torture people into working 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.” (140)
Of course the ‘numerical measure” Baptist refers to here is based on his earlier ”130 times” multiplier. But no matter, his point is clear: slaveholding capitalists were just as good at making money as any Yankee or English capitalists with all their fancy industrial technology. Because when it comes to technology, “enslavers” are as open to mechanization as any progressive mill owner:
“ … [a] 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 on it, and when you tromp on 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 tied to the bench into blistered, bloody jelly. According to Clay the mere threat of this whipping- machine was enough to speed his own hands” (141)
“When the operator pumped the treadle . .” These are Baptist’s words, not his subjects. Who but Baptist saw backs “thrashed” into “blistered, bloody jelly”? Well, no one as far as we know — Baptist realizes the whipping machine didn’t actually exist. But even knowing the machine is a myth, Baptist can still somehow describe its effects as if he were scripting a John Carpenter film. It’s as if he thinks a description more disgusting than any we have seen before will somehow convince us of … what? Are we supposed to hate slavery more now that we think it turned human flesh to “jelly”?
It’s hard to say where exactly, on what page, this book went from slave south history to slave porn . . but here in Chapter 4, it’s safe to say we’re there.
The “Whipping Machine” is referred to again and again throughout the rest of the book as a metaphor for the slaveholders mechanical remove and techno-sadistic drive to extract more value from black bodies. There are few metaphors in this narrative — the other one is “fucking” — but this is a favorite. It symbolizes the maturing of slaveholders from planters to industrialists; from provincial Gentleman Farmers in what was basically a household economy to entrepreneurs released into a mechanized world of efficiency, risk, speculation, debt, profit and more profit. Carried, in a phrase, from pre-modern to modern by the Whipping Machine and their own savagery. But a machine is what it is. Its essence never changes and neither did the “enslavers”. The machine beat people into picking cotton faster: That’s it. That was the big idea – the slaveholders whole business plan. And this book is here to tell you it worked.
In Baptist’s view, Henry Ford’s $5 a day wage and Wade Hampton’s bull whip were not only employed for the same purpose, they were exactly the same thing employed by the same mind for the same purpose. And like all good capitalists, slaveholders embraced any technology that increased their profits — as long as it also drew blood.
What is the point of relating to us the daily horrors of slave life as if we didn’t already know about them, as if we didn’t take them for granted? There are no historians of slavery and, I dare say hardly any readers, who are unfamiliar with accounts contained in The WPA Slave Narrative Collection or The Southern Historical Collection which have been mined for just these first person accounts for 90 years. Historians tell these stories again and again, it’s true, but the repeated stanza is never exactly the same. Something is added or something taken away with each telling. I do not object to telling the story of southern slavery again and I don’t fault Baptist for telling it differently — for repeating a familiar stanza in the minor key, or inflecting at a point in the phrase I didn’t expect — that’s what historians (and storytellers) are supposed to do. I do not object to rhetorical arguments as such. I object to Baptist pulling out viscera with his bare hands and displaying it as if we forgot what a body is made of and we need to be shocked back into realization. That is not an argument, it’s a cliche. This is not a sophisticated interpretation of an old standard; it’s a cover tune.
The Half Has Never Been Told reminds me of Stanley M. Elkins Slavery: A Problem of American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959) for a couple of reasons: First I’m reminded of the concentration camp analogy in Elkins discussion of slaveholder’s “absolute power”. I had not seen anything quite like it until I read this book. Elkins came up with the concept to get at the effects slavery — living subject to the absolute power of another person — had on slaves. Such power is unimaginable to us of course, so Elkins enlisted the example of the Holocaust, and studies by social psychologists of the effects German “slave labor camps” (where have we heard that before?) had on survivors. From this Elkins (in)famously concluded that the absolute power of slaveholders had an infantilizing (“Sambo”) effect on slaves.
Baptist shares Elkins’ view of the totalizing effect of slaveholders power as well as his reckoning of the consequences on the slaves. It is particularly interesting that Baptist cites Tzvetan Todorov’s work on Nazi concentration camp prisoners for the same reason and to the same effect as Elkins cited Bruno Bettleheim. Todorov “identifies those few who fought to the death, such as Jews and Communists who rose up against the Nazi occupation … as exemplars of ‘heroism”. Heroes, he says, “are men who resist, who shed the blood of opponents, who accept no limitations or insults, who will never be slaves”.
Not one for abstraction, Baptist gives his un-heroic, emasculated American slave a name and a face: “Joe Kilpatrick was no hero. He could not construct his life as he would have in freedom. He was not willing to die just to show he had the freedom to die” (281). The choice is stark, there is no middle ground: Slaves could be heroic by resisting violently and almost surely die for it, or they could choose to be … something else; something less than honorable: “Instead of honor, Kilpatrick chose what Todorov called ‘ordinary virtues’ … “In the slave labor camps of the Southwest, an adult man’s commitment to ordinary as opposed to heroic virtues could mean the difference between life and death . . “ (282)
The point is as clear as it was when Elkins made it in 1959: Slaves did not resist their condition. They were reduced to compliance by the overwhelming power of the slaveholders and the certainty of death should they resist. And, most importantly “resistance” is understood as violence. Any action taken without violence must be called by another name.
Baptist turns from slavery to war in an Afterword. The beaten down slaves of page 390 are by page 397 arming themselves and escaping to Union camps to try and join the Union Army. Why? And how did that work exactly? We don’t know.
We are told, though, that once the Sea Islands near Beaufort and Port Royal South Carolina are taken by Union forces, a wage labor scheme was set up to turn “slave labor camps” into cotton farms that employed their own former slaves at a wage of $6.00 a month. And, as we might have guessed, Baptist reports that “The experiment didn’t work. … at the end of 1862, half the cotton was rotting in the fields — cotton that could have been picked at whip-driven speed.”
The whip, according to Baptist, is what had gone missing for slaves of Hilton Head and nearby islands between April 1861 and December 1862. He doesn’t ask (I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care) what other factors might help explain the cotton picking lack of enthusiasm that freed men and women came down with at that time. Needless to say, when Mississippi and Louisiana fell after April of 1862, post-slavery production in the region was no better — again, I suppose, only because there was nobody around to whip the cotton into the bag.
Baptist wants us to believe that slaveholders were capitalists because they made lots of money and did business across the country and around the world. Like others of the “history of capitalism” school, Baptist reduces capitalism to complex or extensive commercial activity. But even if we agree that slave labor fueled the most extensive global commodity trade in the world (it did), and that there was hardly a financial instrument or scheme known to the businessmen of 1850’s New Orleans that isn’t also familiar at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange today (there wasn’t), it doesn’t mean that slaveholders were capitalists.
More interesting to me than asking what capitalism is, is asking why it matters. Why the name of Baptist’s nightmare should have to be “capitalism” instead of whatever we called it before, and why the torturers must be accepted as innovative and creative “entrepreneurs” instead of just evil bastards who beat the shit out of black people to extract their energy–in the same way one would peel the top off a mountain, say, to extract its coal or attack any other body of land to extract its resources.
It matters to Baptist, I think, because his unifying theory is that everything Eugene Genovese knew was wrong. Genovese is the absent cause driving Baptist to his rhetorical extremes; he haunts this book like Hamlet’s Father. Never seen, never cited, this old mole animates the narrative.
For all his methodological deficiencies and political idiocies, Genovese was driven by the evidence to write about the world the slaves made, and that world rested on one big idea: The slaveholders were not capitalists. And, while most of us have by now found reasons to dispute pretty much everything Genovese ever said, he was right about that. Without that fact, nothing about the rest of southern history makes sense.
In fact Baptists “capitalists” are one dimensional. They are myopic and merely greedy; they have no sense of, or concern for, the long term well being of either their land or their equipment (slaves, of course, being treated as tools like any other in Baptist’s estimation ). They are trying to make as much money as they can as fast as they can and “making money” is an entirely physical act: You tell the slaves to produce more and you beat them until they comply. In Baptist’s terms innovation worked like this: Slaveholders used gang labor and the pushing system to drive slaves to pick more; if slaves exceeded their daily quota it went up to that weight the next day, and if they did not meet the higher bar, they were whipped for it (presumably until they did meet the new quota). On these terms, according to Baptist, and I have to say it once again, on these terms alone, cotton production doubled every decade from 1800 to 1860.
We already know all about cotton. We know short stem (Petit’ Gulf) cotton, the variety grown in the southwest, produced more and larger bolls per plant. We know the soil of the Yazoo and Mississippi River valleys was more productive than the sandy and largely exhausted soils of the upper south, especially in eastern North and South Carolina and Georgia. We know that cotton output increased in part because slaves were moved from the tobacco growing regions of the upper south to Mississippi. Louisiana and Alabama. We know about the (minimal) improvements to transportation infrastructure that were made after 1850. There are dozens of contributing factors other than whipping to account for output in the Cotton Belt . Historians have been compiling the causes of these and a hundred other economic effects, and have been arguing in good faith about their significance from the beginning.
We already knew about gang labor and the pushing system. We are all familiar with the concept of piece work. We know there were planters and overseers who exploited those systems to torment their slaves. We also know that violence can be used to get people to do things they don’t want to do. But was torturing people standard operating procedure on southern plantations? Was torture the central factor in production? After all the thousands of books written and the countless hours historians have spent wrestling with the problem of southern slavery, this cannot even be called an honest question.
Baptist’s enslavers are not particularly innovative or creative unless we assume that torture is a creative act and that building a better whipping machine counts as business innovation. The world Baptist’s slaveholders made was a slaughter house. And his slaves didn’t make anything: They devoted all of their strength, their dexterity, their mental acuity to picking more cotton, moving faster and staying ahead of the whip.
We’ve been at this since U.B. Phillips American Negro Slavery came out in 1918. Since then slave south historians have been arguing about the seen and unseen — about the skin and the bones — of slaves and masters alike. There really is very little new under the antebellum sun. But the arguments go on even though many of the terms haven’t changed: What is meant by “resistance”? Where does compliance end and cooperation begin? What does it mean to be a slave and a man, woman, father, mother, family? Do the slaveholders exhibit class consciousness? Consciousness of purpose? What about slaves? What about non-slaveholding whites? The only time we see slaves acting together in The Half Has Never Been Told is when they’re marching in coffles or getting slaughtered on the German Coast.
There were 12 million people in 15 states of the Old South in 1860. Four million were slaves, four million were women, of the white men there were about 400,000 slaveholders and almost 4,000 large planters (200 slaves or more). Only nineteen (yes nineteen) planters owned 500 or more slaves. The Old South covered fully half of the settled area of the United States. But for all those people in that huge area, for the most part Baptist concerns himself with a few planters in Mississippi and Louisiana. So he over simplifies slavery to the point of distortion, allowing grotesque excess in size and wealth as well as brutality to pass as commonplace.
Honest disagreements about antebellum slavery persist precisely because human beings, slaves and slaveholders, are that complicated. Genovese complicated the histories that came before him by embracing the contradictions of his all too human subjects. He represents the turning point that Baptist ignores by repeating the mistakes, the over simplifications and tautologies that preceded Genovese’s intervention. Against Baptist, I prefer to think Genovese understood the problem of that early historiography: “To write a history of slavery without sympathetic attention to the master class—which need hardly imply approval—would be to repeat all the old mistakes in another, if more politically acceptable, form. . . brilliant excursions by Dr. Du Bois in this subject provide a good indication of how much our understanding may be enriched”
If Baptist is right Genovese is wrong about everything. If Baptist is right W.E.B. DuBois and Steven Hahn are wrong about the General Strike and black American politics. If Baptist is right his own examples of “run-off” slaves showing up at Union forts demanding freedom are inexplicable. Among other things, that would mean the Civil War itself is pretty much what Wllliam H. Dunning and his students thought it was, a needless tragedy got up by extremists.
Mike Fennell is a carpenter in Charlotte, NC.