Ed Baptist Talks Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

Slavery in the United States will forever sully the national greatness of this country. Along with similar despicable acts like the internment of Japanese-Americans, the enslavement of Africans and African Americans flies in the fact of everything the country was meant to stand for. That is why it is imperative all Americans learn about our history---both the triumphs and the failures---so that we may adhere to the wisdom of George Santanyana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." On Wednesday evening, Cornell Professor Ed Baptist, history, delivered a talk about his book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism for the Bethe Ansatz speaker series. I attended this talk because of my interest in the subject and because Baptist is the faculty advisor of the Cornell Progressive, the campus's other left-wing publication in addition to the Cornell Daily Sun.

Image via LA Times

Image via LA Times

Review fans might recall the last time your correspondent attended one of these---the speaker, philosophy professor Allen Wood, called Republicans "American Nazis" and the Tea Party "Bolsheviks."

Image via LA Times

I entered the event with the mindset of preparing myself for similar loony comments, not knowing what to expect from Baptist. To my pleasant surprise, Baptist’s talk was an actual historical discussion and not an exercise in political grandstanding as was Wood’s. While Baptist did not come off as exceptionally fond of capitalism in theory or its practice in the modern United States, he effectively lay out an argument that links the increasing productivity of Southern chattel slavery to U.S. domestic and international economic growth throughout the early-to-mid 19th century.

The main thesis in Bapist’s book (which your correspondent has not read and has no plans of reading) is the idea that the productivity of cotton-picking slavery in the Deep South during the period 1800-1860 grew substantially, and this productivity growth in turn drove the development of capitalism elsewhere in the country and in Western Europe.

In its post-revolutionary infancy, the U.S. was capital-poor and cotton exports provided the necessary investments and flow of credit that not only spurred the Southern economy but also instigated industrialization in the North. Exports of cotton, what Baptist called the oil of the 19th century, accounted for 50% of the U.S.’s exports in the 1820s. Most of it was sent to Great Britain to fuel that country’s textile mills; later, a great deal of it was sent to industrializing northern U.S. states. According to Baptist, slave productivity increased 2% per year between 1800 and 1860, making for a 400% cumulative increase over time. Baptist said most other historians had always regarded slavery as either inefficient or not experiencing significant productivity gains over time, and this his research involved tabulating slaves’ picked-cotton-weight data from actual plantations, or what Baptist refers to call “slave labor camps.” The productivity increases, Baptist said, were due torture of slaves and the threat of torture.

Baptist went on to explain how various industries were either directly, like the textile industry, or indirectly, like commercial bank lending, affected by Southern slavery. One of the more interesting examples he brought up was the development of the modern fashion industry: According to Baptist, in the mid-19th century savvy entrepreneurs and cotton-sellers capitalized on the abundance of cotton and cotton clothing by convincing consumers they needed to purchase different sets of clothing every season.

Baptist expressed little humility in the success of his work and the origins of its rise to critical acclaim. The Half Has Never Been Told gained widespread readership, acclaim, and scorn soon after it was released last fall. Arguably, most of it had to do with the Economist‘s negative review of the book. The review suggested Baptist was too harsh in his depiction of slave owners as all “villains,” and put forth the absurd idea of favorable treatment towards slaves as an alternative explanation of increases in cotton-picking productivity. Baptist’s book became instantly famous as soon as the Internet exploded in uproar over the Economist’s review, which was taken down hours after it was posted.

In concluding his talk, which lasted about half an hour, Baptist admitted he does not know how the U.S. economy would have developed without cotton slavery, and I agree that such counterfactual speculation is pointless. I do disagree with his other concluding remark–that the strive for efficiency and productivity in the workplace might be a misguided value. Baptist argued the same drive for efficiency which exists in most business enterprises today is what drove slave owners to tortuous extremes in demanding more and more cotton from their slaves. While this may be true, one can think of numerous examples of efficiency gains improving the lives and standards of living; for example, the mass production of automobiles has made them cheap enough for even low-income earners to purchase. It seems the morality of striving for efficiency is based on the aim of that efficiency and whether or not that aim is moral itself.

Baptist’s data and arguments are convincing, and I must agree with him in acknowledging Southern cotton slavery played a significant role in the development of industrialized capitalism in the U.S. mainly because the first types of factories were textile mills, which used the cotton picked by slaves. Still, I believe it is incorrect to say slavery was the most important factor in capitalist development in this country. Slavery in itself does not promote capitalism, as evidence by the lack of capitalist development in Latin America and the Caribbean where slavery was just as intense, if not more intense, as it was in the American Deep South. Additionally, the abundance of cotton in itself did not spur entrepreneurs in the northern US states to open textile mills and inventors to develop accompanying technologies. Something else—the American free market system, property rights, the freedom to command one’s own destiny, and the rugged individualist spirit—did.

Another important point of discussion is how the country can live with itself knowing the role slavery played in its development. Many liberals and leftists use the types of findings and arguments found in works like Baptist’s as fodder for iconoclasm aimed at this country. Some like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who spoke at Cornell last semester, even argue for modern-day slave reparations. In other words, these people believe the injustices of the present justify wealth redistribution today. Yes, it is abundantly clear we existing today benefited from those in the past, who in turn benefited from those before them, and going down the line we reach those who directly benefited from slavery. However, it will never be clear who benefited just exactly how much. For example, has a white person whose family immigrated to this country 50 years ago benefited as much as another white person whose family came over on the Mayflower? What about Hispanics, Asians, and Arabs who now call the U.S. their home–how much have they benefited?

Perhaps working together to make the country greater and moving it away from ever committing such atrocities is a better endeavor than trying to rip it apart.