Like Jonathan Chait [ht: sm], I haven’t yet had the chance to work my way through the new book by Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told. Still, in reading about slavery over the years, from Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery to Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony & Ivy, it doesn’t surprise me that a scholarly work on the topic of American slavery would reveal that “the expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States,” that the violence of slavery made it possible for the United States to become “a wealthy nation with global influence,” and that a combination of “survival and resistance. . .brought about slavery’s end.”
But apparently that argument was too much for the Economist (which, in recent decades, has become a British-edited business magazine for mostly American readers), which first published and then retracted its review of Baptist’s book.
Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.
Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.
For a different angle on the nexus between slavery and capitalism in the United States, one that focuses not just on how the slave plantation produced commodities that fueled the broader national economy but also how it generated innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management, see the piece by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman:
As some of the most heavily capitalized enterprises in antebellum America, plantations offered early examples of time-motion studies and regimentation through clocks and bells. Seeking ever-greater efficiencies in cotton picking, slaveholders reorganized their fields, regimented the workday, and implemented a system of vertical reporting that made overseers into managers answerable to those above for the labor of those below.
The perverse reality of a capitalized labor force led to new accounting methods that incorporated (human) property depreciation in the bottom line as slaves aged, as well as new actuarial techniques to indemnify slaveholders from loss or damage to the men and women they owned. Property rights in human beings also created a lengthy set of judicial opinions that would influence the broader sanctity of private property in U.S. law.