The Heroic Master and the Fortunate Slave

Apparently, The Economist magazine published a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism that was too hot for them to handle. They have since retracted it. Much of the coverage of this review focuses on its explosive final lines: “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.” Sure, this is bad enough to deserve a retraction, but what does it mean? And is there anything at all of merit in the review? I set out to find out, and in so doing, uncover the mystery of black slaves who weren’t victims and white masters who weren’t villains.

The review sums up Baptist’s thesis and offers an initial point of critique:

…Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Now, we only have the reviewer’s word and a quoted phrase to go on that Baptist outright dismisses these factors rather than merely questioning their importance. However, these factors were embattled long before Baptist’s book. Worse is that the review never really substantiates this counterclaim:

Take, for example, the astonishing increases he cites in both cotton productivity and cotton production. In 1860 a typical slave picked at least three times as much cotton a day as in 1800. In the 1850s cotton production in the southern states doubled to 4m bales and satisfied two-thirds of world consumption. By 1860 the four wealthiest states in the United States, ranked in terms of wealth per white person, were all southern: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.

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.

So, if we assume that the review is at least honest and accurate in this summary, Baptist argues that the increased productivity of slave labor was the result of increased brutal discipline. Here, I struggle to see how “individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies” are plausible alternate explanations for slavery’s increased productivity. Perhaps if individualism exists only for white planters, perhaps Puritanism secretly became a major religious force in the South during this period, perhaps the “lure of open land and high wages” refers to slavery’s western expansion or the increased price of Upper South slaves in the Deep South. On the other hand, we can give ingenuity some credit, since the cotton gin did breathe some new life into slavery by making cotton easier to process, and government policies protecting the right to own slaves, and to treat them however their owners saw fit, certainly played a bit of an important role.

The reviewer’s point, that the sources may not support Baptist’s explanation for slavery’s productivity, has a kernel of fairness. The testimony of former slaves can tell us about the conditions of bonded servitude, but not necessarily about the large-scale economic results of those conditions for the entire slave system and the capitalist economy based on its commodities. However, the reviewer does not make any such counterargument. The  problem, rather, is that the testimony of only some “few” former slaves was used to characterize slavery as painful and brutal. It is possible that these informants do not “speak for all.” What the reviewer seems to be pointing at here is the possibility that other freedman informants might tell of a bearable, even comfortable, enslaved life. Well, who knows? I am not familiar enough with slave narratives as a source to say that no such testimony exists. So, let’s assume for the sake of argument that some does. What does it mean? The explanation is found in the climax of the whole thing, the context for the now infamous final lines:

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.

In other words, if some other slaves, whose testimonies Baptist did not use, recalled decent conditions, this reflects masters having had an interest in keeping their property in good condition. At last the mystery is revealed: it is possible that some blacks weren’t victims and some whites weren’t villains in the antebellum South because some blacks were maintained as healthy and well-fed livestock by white masters who had the same conception of enslaved human beings that modern “free range” ranchers have of cattle! Well… that seems like damning with faint praise, doesn’t it?

In summary, I can only say that there is very little of value in this review and that what little there is, is unintended by the reviewer. In trying to defend the now-discredited conception of slavery as a generally benign paternal system, the best argument the review could make implicitly relies on dehumanizing slaves so that the logic of the property owner’s interest in cultivating his property can apply to people treated as valuable instruments of another’s profit. In doing so, the review reinforces the old truth, going back to the antebellum debates over abolitionism, that some theoretical relations of kindness and decency between hypothetical slaves and masters do not negate the evil of the system overall. Treating people as property is monstrous regardless of how big an investment a person with a price might be.

[Postscript clarification: My paragraph beginning, “The reviewer’s point,” should not be interpreted as an actual endorsement of either the proposition that Baptist’s book actually relies on only a few freedman testimonies, or that substantial testimonies portraying slavery positively definitely exist in such number as to be some kind of game-changer. The point of this paragraph, subordinate to that of the whole article, is that even if we take the review at face value and trust its claims and implications, its conclusions are still horrible. I was always skeptical that Baptist’s source base was this scanty, as there is no reason any historian of US slavery has to be so limited. In fact, as Baptist confirms, his sources are much more extensive. It is also worth paying attention to the implicit issue of objectivity and bias in the accounts of former slaves and former masters.]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s