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.]


On Revisionism: A Case Study

My college campus had what might be called a “token conservative” newspaper. Its general tone seemed, in hindsight, to be that of running prank, as if they knew they were expressing a minority opinion that was unlikely to gather a friendly audience, so they figured they might as well go all out and generate as much outrage as possible. At times, it seemed like they were being contrary for its own sake; for example, their issue before Columbus Day. The university did not count this as a holiday, and did not cancel classes for it. Stating their intent to boycott class that day, they defended Columbus’s legacy as an accomplished explorer who deserved to be celebrated, and the idea that he was a slave driver or bloody conqueror they brushed off as mere revisionism.

At the time, I was pretty well aware of the facts supporting the darker side of Columbus’s expeditions. There is primary source attestation to conquest, enslavement, and other atrocities. So this was a strange objection to me: what is wrong with revising an outdated account to bring it in line with the evidence?

Now, this seems even stranger since I’m aware that revision is something  academic historians do all the time. There are “revisionist” schools of thought on historical events, meaning only that they challenge a long-established orthodoxy. In this sense, the subject of my last book review could be seen as a positive example of revisionism: in 1491, Charles Mann refutes various long-held myths about the history of the Americas before European contact and summarizes new lines of research. But on the other hand, there is a kind of revisionism that does deserve to be used as a slur, and which it seems is much better known. Revisionism here is not really a process of revision at all, but distortion for an agenda. I recently wrote about an example of this playing out in the media.

It might be worth looking at a slightly more sophisticated example of the form than a hasty retroactive defense of a political celebrity. It’s not just the desperate and the inane who abuse history to suit their own ends. Sometimes, very smart and knowledgeable people apply their intellect to the purpose of historical propaganda. My subject today is An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (Amazon link) by John Steele Gordon, a sanguine look at American economic history which studiously avoids letting the eye stray to some very ugly places.

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Review of “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”

Cover of "1491"Charles C. Mann would like to let you know that almost everything you know about the Americas before European contact is wrong in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Amazon link). Mann is a journalist who, after learning bits and pieces of new research into pre-contact American history, decided to summarize these findings. He draws from history, archeology, anthropology, ecology, genetics, linguistics, and many other fields to present a detailed but high-level overview of this untold history.

The central point of the book is to rebut various misunderstandings about the history of Native Americans: that they had no history, primarily, but also that the continent was a pristine wilderness only lightly touched by human cultures which had not progressed beyond hunting/gathering or at best neolithic agriculture, and whose technological backwardness doomed them to conquest. Such an account is accepted even by “sympathetic” students of Indian1 history, but it’s all wrong. Besides refuting these factual errors, he also refutes a thematic error: the portrayal of Indians as passive recipients of European actions, either as enemies or victims. Mann shows the the first peoples of the Americas were active in history, and highlights ways in which contact between the Old World and the New was a two-way street. Continue reading

The Triumph of the Bill: Ayn Rand’s Worst Kept Secret

Last Friday, the long-delayed, nearly fabled, movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged was released, to less than rave reviews. Yet, as Roger Ebert noted, the movie got a four star rating from readers on the internet before it had been publicly released. Rand’s epic clearly has a certain power to fascinate. It’s even ensnared me: as left-leaning as I am, I can’t help having a soft spot for Atlas Shrugged, in the way that bad movie buffs think fondly of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I read it several years ago, and felt as if I had discovered a sort of master codex to the dysfunction of American politics. I’m putting my ideological cards on the table so that the reader will be able to gauge what size grain of salt to take this with, in case the title was not warning enough. If I seem overly biased against the author on ideological grounds, let me say that I think Rand was a competent writer of nonfiction. A very bad storyteller, given the odd placement of a detailed and well-written tract explaining her philosophy near the climax of a novel and unconvincingly passed off as character dialog, but the infamous Galt Speech was serviceable at clearly explaining her ideas.

The issue that brings me to the keyboard today concerns a suspicion I have had ever since reading the Galt Speech, the seed of an insight which grew more and more  plausible as I thought back over the events of the novel. This blooming suspicion cast its shadow beyond the novel the more I read about Ayn Rand, her life and ideas, the much remarked-upon pseudo-cult that formed around Rand in the 1970s, and her adolescent crush on a child killer. These are often treated as “exceptional” items in Rand’s biography, unfortunate extremist phases or passing fancies. I can’t accept these excuses, though. My suspicion is that these episodes are integral to Rand’s entire worldview, in ways unrecognized by most commentators, and probably by Rand herself. The more I think about it, the more I realize that in terms of theme, the only thing separating Atlas Shrugged from The Iron Dream is irony. Ayn Rand was one of the great stifled totalitarian dictators of the 20th century.

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Review of “Before European Hegemony”

Cover of "Before European Hegemony"Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (Amazon link), tells the story of globalization before globalization, of a system of international trade that predated industrial capitalism, centered on the Indian Ocean, and in which Europe was at the periphery and the Americas were unknown. Rather than writing a tightly-focused study of a specific historical circumstance, Abu-Lughod takes the ambitious approach of studying the economic history of all of Eurasia over (title notwithstanding) several centuries.  While flawed in some respects, it is a worthwhile and interesting read.

It is, however, a challenging book for the student of history. Written as a sociological text with an historical focus, it lacks rigor in its citations, which unfortunately has the effect of making the book fascinating but suspect. The standard for citations she uses makes it difficult to trace her sources: she occasionally uses an inline notation indicating an author, year of publication, and page range, which the reader must cross-reference with the bibliography. Quite often, though, no citation is given for some of her claims. This would not be so bad if Abu-Lughod were completely reliable, but some of her unsourced claims are either extraordinary and suspicious (e.g., that Muslim navigators from the Middle East may have visited the Americas) or flatly mistaken (e.g., that the Battle of the Golden Spurs was fought between the French and an English invasion force aided by local militias of Flemish commoners), leaving the reader with a sinking sense of uncertainty.

But in fairness, these unsourced claims are mostly parenthetical, or marginal to the overall point. When Abu-Lughod carefully quotes and cites her sources, and writes about the central focus of her analysis, her book can both inform and amaze; she frequently goes into impressive detail and makes thought-provoking connections and comparisons. Abu-Lughod describes what she calls a “world system,” an integrated system of trade and cultural exchange that connected almost all the major societies of Eurasia in the high middle ages, as an analog to the modern Eurocentric world system created by European colonialism and capitalism. Her narrative focuses on a series of cities from Europe, to Central Asia, through the Middle East, along the Indian Ocean, and terminating in China, all of which participated in this exchange and were (directly or indirectly) connected with each other. While this leaves a lot of ground uncovered (for example, little is said about Africa, Japan, or northeastern Europe, not to mention cities nearby to her foci), a truly comprehensive study could probably take up many volumes. The sketch she outlines is detailed enough to make her point.

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