Review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E. Baptist

Robert Olmstead


Think about the possibility the Battle of the Alamo was not fought for the sake of liberty and freedom, but rather, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis died on behalf of slave lords and white supremacists and the extension and propagation of slavery.

Or, maybe, Abraham Lincoln’s was not the first Emancipation Proclamation, but that honor should go to John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of the British Colony of Virginia, who, in 1775, signed Dunmore’s Proclamation. By some accounts, up to 100,000 slaves attempted to join the British during the American Revolution, because, well, you figure it out.

First a disclaimer. I am not an historian, nor an economist, nor a political scientist. I trust in the months ahead these professions will weigh in on Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, as well as the other books under consideration. I look forward to that, but my gut tells me, the heart of what he says in this book will withstand and endure and hopefully, it will seriously change the way you look at things.

In fact, each of these books has been essential to me as I try to understand the world around me by learning its history.

Baptist contends the slave was the air, the spark, the fuel, the engine itself that not only drove world capitalism, but invented world capitalism, as in without 300 years of slavery we would live under a much different economic system than we do now, an alternative reality quite beyond most people’s imaginations, including my own.

The writing is clear and extremely readable so do not be shy if you are not an historian or economist or political scientist. Read this book and you will be wiser and more sensitive and a lot less patient with those who yap on glowingly about democracy, the founding fathers, capitalism, wealth, free markets, competition, American history, economic development… as if these are all natural as nature and cooked up by God himself/herself. To talk about capitalism without talking about slavery is both false and impossible and of monumental testament to how desperately we cultivate our historical amnesia.

For three hundred years north, south and west slavery drove America and much of Europe in every single aspect of land, law, war, property, income, investment, trade, profit, wealth, foreign policy. The case Baptist makes is overwhelming:

“ …more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States in 1836, derived directly or indirectly from cotton produced by the million-odd slaves—6 percent of the total US population—who in that year toiled in labor camps on slavery’s frontier.”

“…the 3.2 million people enslaved in the United States had a market value of $2 billion in 1850—one-third of the nation’s wealth and almost equal to the entire gross national product.”

“By 1860, the eight wealthiest states in the United States, ranked by wealth per white person, were South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Connecticut, Alabama, Florida, and Texas—seven states created by cotton’s march west and south, plus one that, as the most industrialized state in the Union, profited disproportionately from the gearing of northern factory equipment to the southwestern whipping- machine.”

As it turns out, forced labor, whipping, rape, separation of families and murder were very profitable and led to the wealth formation America benefits from today. Cotton dominated US exports and the financial sector and drove the expansion of northern industry. The cotton mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, according to Baptist, consumed 100,000 days of enslaved people’s labor every year. He writes, “Almost all commercial production and consumption fed into or spun out from a mighty stream of white bolls.”

I suppose it is not so different from drug money or the profits of a bootlegger that have been laundered into respectability. Just like those ill-gotten dollars, American wealth is the fruit of a poison tree. Provocative is the question: what would capitalism be like today without its centuries of enslaved labor?

For your interest, I will pass on to you the publisher descriptions of the other books that to me have been so vital this past year in my continuing education and enthusiastically recommend each.


The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist (Basic Books 2014)


Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory, by Linda A. Barnickel (Louisiana State University Press 2014)


At Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, a Union force composed predominantly of former slaves met their Confederate adversaries in one of the bloodiest small engagements of the war. This important fight received some attention in the North and South but soon drifted into obscurity. In Milliken’s Bend, Linda Barnickel uncovers the story of this long-forgotten and highly controversial battle. The fighting at Milliken’s Bend occurred in June 1863, about fifteen miles north of Vicksburg on the west bank of the Mississippi River, where a brigade of Texas Confederates attacked a Federal outpost. Most of the Union defenders had been slaves less than two months before. The new African American recruits fought well, despite their minimal training, and Milliken’s Bend helped prove to a skeptical northern public that black men were indeed fit for combat duty. Soon after the battle, accusations swirled that Confederates had executed some prisoners taken from the Colored Troops. The charges eventually led to a congressional investigation and contributed to the suspension of prisoner exchanges between the North and South. Barnickel’s compelling and comprehensive account of the battle illuminates not only the immense complexity of the events that transpired in northeastern Louisiana during the Vicksburg Campaign but also the implications of Milliken’s Bend upon the war as a whole. The battle contributed to southerners’ increasing fears of slave insurrection and heightened their anxieties about emancipation. In the North, it helped foster a commitment to allow free blacks and former slaves to take part in the war to end slavery. And for African Americans, both free and enslaved, Milliken’s Bend symbolized their never-ending struggle for freedom.


Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons, by Sylviane A. Diouf (NYU Press 2014)


Over more than two centuries men, women, and children escaped from slavery to make the Southern wilderness their home. They hid in the mountains of Virginia and the low swamps of South Carolina; they stayed in the neighborhood or paddled their way to secluded places; they buried themselves underground or built comfortable settlements. Known as maroons, they lived on their own or set up communities in swamps or other areas where they were not likely to be discovered. Although well-known, feared, celebrated or demonized at the time, the maroons whose stories are the subject of this book have been forgotten, overlooked by academic research that has focused on the Caribbean and Latin America. Who the American maroons were, what led them to choose this way of life over alternatives, what forms of marronage they created, what their individual and collective lives were like, how they organized themselves to survive, and how their particular story fits into the larger narrative of slave resistance are questions that this book seeks to answer. To survive, the American maroons reinvented themselves, defied slave society, enforced their own definition of freedom and dared create their own alternative to what the country had delineated as being black men and women’s proper place. Audacious, self-confident, autonomous, sometimes self-sufficient, always self-governing; their very existence was a repudiation of the basic tenets of slavery.


The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, by Gerald Horne (NYU Press 2014)


The successful 1776 revolt against British rule in North America has been hailed almost universally as a great step forward for humanity. But the Africans then residing in the colonies overwhelmingly sided with London. In this trailblazing book, Gerald Horne complements his earlier celebrated Negro Comrades of the Crown, by showing that in the prelude to 1776, the abolition of slavery seemed all but inevitable in London, delighting Africans as much as it outraged slaveholders, and sparking the colonial revolt. In the prelude to 1776, more and more Africans were joining the British military, and anti-slavery sentiments were deepening throughout Britain. And in the Caribbean, rebellious Africans were chasing Europeans to the mainland. Unlike their counterparts in London, the European colonists overwhelmingly associated enslaved Africans with subversion and hostility to the status quo. For European colonists, the major threat to security in North America was a foreign invasion combined with an insurrection of the enslaved. And as 1776 approached, London-imposed abolition throughout the colonies was a very real and threatening possibility—a possibility the founding fathers feared could bring the slave rebellions of Jamaica and Antigua to the thirteen colonies. To forestall it, they went to war. The so-called Revolutionary War, Horne writes, was in large part a counter-revolution, a conservative movement that the founding fathers fought in order to preserve their liberty to enslave others—and which today takes the form of a racialized conservatism and a persistent racism targeting the descendants of the enslaved. The Counter-Revolution of 1776 drives us to a radical new understanding of the traditional heroic creation myth of the United States.