Whoa

I’m just about finished with Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. It is just as fantastic as you’ve been told. I only wish I’d read the bad reviews on Goodreads before I’d read the book, because it would have provided me with some levity in a book where there’s very little. (One of the reviewers seems to think that Baptist is black and doing his part of make white people feel bad. A few seemed to think that Baptist’s book had nothing to do with the economics of slavery–even though the whole last half of the book is how Southern speculators managed to tank the American economy in the 1830s and the fall-out from that for the next thirty–and more–years.)

I really highly recommend it. Baptist’s an academic, but his writing is accessible. It’s lengthy and I had to take substantial mental-health breaks between chapters. But I also felt like he walked a really masterful line of showing all the kinds of terrible thing that happened without fixating on a few bad actors, so as to let everyone else off the hook.

I also appreciated how he wrestled with the language we use to talk about slavery to try to really get at what was going on. He calls “plantations” “labor camps,” which is really evocative. But I also ended up feeling like “enslaver” is not entirely satisfactory. On the one hand, it gets at the fact that it was an ongoing, continuous process. You couldn’t just make a person a slave. You had to do things that constantly reinforced to the people you held in captivity that they were slaves. But it also has the effect, to me, of seeming like there was a specific social role or job of “enslaver.” And maybe you could argue that, yes, this is the social role of slave owners. But I kept having to stop and figure out whether we were talking about all slave owners or some subset.

But I don’t think that’s a drawback to the book. I think one of the arguments he’s making is that we’re so familiarized with a certain story about slavery and we have to do things–talk about things we don’t normally talk about, look at things we don’t normally look at, use words we wouldn’t normally use–to jar ourselves out of thinking about slavery in the usual way. That they’re not always going to be satisfactory is to be expected.

10 thoughts on “Whoa

  1. That sounds fascinating, in a new look at bad things way. I’ve placed a hold at the library.

  2. When he talked at our school last week, we asked him about his choice of terminology. He rightly pointed out that he was merely building on the work of African-American scholars and activists who stress the personhood of the enslaved over their legal status. He foregrounds (in wrenching and traumatic ways) the humans managing to survive even while caught in the gears of a terrible “whipping machine” and utterly sweeps away the moonlight and magnolias. So, while readers will clearly understand something horrible about capitalism’s development (the unsettling implication is that slavery is not some deviation from capitalist development but its ultimate logical outcome in its naked deregulated glory), they’ll also learn something deep and true about the history of the American people. Whether they can look their own past in the eye is anyone’s guess.

  3. That’s what killed me about the people complaining about a lack of discussion of economics. Holy shit, dudes, he shows repeatedly, like you said, Bridgett, that this is capitalism working at its best. This wasn’t some quaint feudal evil that would have been cured eventually by industrialization. This is the dream of industrialized capitalism–corporations as people, people as compelled, trapped, cheap, replaceable labor. Ever since then, in the U.S., we’ve been trying to figure out how to sneak back into the system a base of compelled, trapped, cheap, replaceable labor that can be abused without occasionally raising the hackles of anyone with power.

    One of the best parts (though, god, there are so many best parts) is when the Confederacy stops planting cotton, thinking that, if they drive up demand for cotton, Britain, which needs the cotton, will enter the War on the side of the Confederates. And, instead, Egypt and India’s cotton output explodes.

    Because, yeah, you dumb shits, you, too, are replaceable cogs.

    I also really appreciated how much Baptist insisted upon understanding what was happening to enslaved people not as some unique sickness to the South, but as a part of the industrialization of the U.S. The cotton mills in the northeast needed the labor of enslaved Southerners. So, it wasn’t just north vs. south, but more like “the cotton industry” vs. the yeoman farmer, who are all operating under the assumption that the country is organized solely for the benefit of the white man.

    (As a side note, I also think it’s clear that the labor efficiencies of slavery were so great and the costs of those efficiencies, because of racism, so not disturbing to the country, that, if it hadn’t been cotton, it would have been something else.)

  4. That’s part of a bigger trend in the last decade of writing about US slavery — that slavery cannot be dismissed as an vestigial regional aberration, or merely an immoral personal choice by a few greedy bastards in Dixie, or a dying institution that was on its way out. Instead, historians like Adam Rothman and Walter Johnson demonstrate that slavery’s expansion was part of an intentionally pursued national economic policy in the post-Revolutionary period, that it was fundamental to national institutional/territorial/economic/political development, and that it was terrifyingly efficient, modern, and exponentially profitable. Thanks to the Fugitive Slave Acts and various Supreme Court cases, there were no “free” states — if you were enslaved, you were property everywhere. Race-based slavery and the wage/soul theft that went with it (and the murder and systematic dispossession of indigenous people from their lands, to transform those lands into cotton fields) vaulted the US from struggling debtor to world power in the span of a lifetime.

  5. Well, see, that’s my quandary. If slavery was such an efficient economic system, how is it that it took over a hundred human beings kept in bondage to keep a little estate like the Hermitage going? I don’t want to compare it to the great estates of Europe, b/c the European magnates had centuries of wealth behind them in ways Jackson and other USians didn’t, but that house looks to me like a seriously small payoff for the amount of harm being done.

  6. The house isn’t the reward, it’s the guard tower. The reward was the money to own those 100 bodies (and the hundreds more he owned in Mississippi). But my guess–and Bridgett, feel free to correct me–is that it probably only took twenty people to keep the estate going. Ten people in the house. A cook out in the kitchen. A couple of guys in the stable, plus a driver, the blacksmith, the woman or couple of women in the weaving house, a couple of people to tend the garden and assist the cook, and a couple of people to look after the livestock.

    Those other 80 people are doing nothing but making him money. He had 1000 acres, (though, maybe 20 of them were set aside for residences and other types of farming). Slave owners often bragged that they were getting a yield of 1000 pounds an acre (this could be, but the national average right now is 500 lbs per acre, so take that with a grain of salt). They were getting about fifteen cents a pound on average. If Jackson was producing somewhere from a half a million to a million pounds of cotton a year just on the Hermitage (and this seems reasonable to me. If my math is right, 80 people picking 250 lbs a day could pick a million pounds of cotton in just under two months.) those slaves were bringing him in $150,000 a year in back-then dollars. And he had a job! Lawyering and judging paid. So, that’s just $150,000 extra dollars a year on top of his own income. And then, you figure, each of those bodies is worth at least $500 (depending on the market at the time), so that’s $50,000 just walking around the grounds at any given moment.

    To me, this is the trickiest part about looking at a place like the Hermitage now. The display of wealth that would have been obvious to every one of Jackson’s peers is absent. They ask us to look at the house and the opulent china and the beautiful furniture and to think this meant “wealth.” But it simply didn’t. If you had money, you were putting it in slaves.

    The big houses you start to see in the 1840s and 1850s say to us “wealth,” but they’re really a result of the inability of the United States to expand slavery as quickly as was needed in order to allow slave owners to put their money in the usual spots–slaves and land. Only because they couldn’t signal wealth through more slaves did they turn their attention to signaling wealth through stately homes.

    This is how it helps me to think about it. A house is an asset that can’t be moved. It’s on the land where you put it. So,it doesn’t do any good for you to learn that houses in New Orleans just like yours go for five times as much. That means nothing to you. But, the guy you can buy here in Nashville for $300? If you find out that they’re buying guys like him in New Orleans for $1500, you can buy him, put him on a boat, and sell him in New Orleans.

    Slaves were just more valuable than homes. If you ever tour Traveller’s Rest, you pick up on the echo of that vibe. They point out that the Overtons had a modest home for their peer group. Of course they did! The Overtons were generation after generation of really good business people. They were always able to put their money in land and slaves. Leave it for the lesser businessmen to build big houses. That just meant they didn’t have the opportunity or ability to put it in the better investment.

    I don’t know how it could be tastefully done, but a more honest representation of Jackson’s wealth would make visitors more aware of the people and the money tied up in people. Maybe 100 mannequins or shadow figures spread throughout the house and grounds would maybe do something to help people make the leap from seeing the house as the signal of wealth to seeing the actual signal of wealth. But it would mean, then, confronting that a real person was a unit of wealth directly.

  7. But why amass wealth, then? I can just about get my head around the “I own people in order that I live the good life” mindset. But an “if I own a lot of people, then I can own more people” mindset doesn’t even make sense. Factory owners built big houses and put fine things in them. Merchants built big houses etc. Large landowners in other systems built big houses etc. Why go through having to live in a guard tower if it can’t be the biggest, fanciest guard tower available, with the nicest things in it?

  8. I don’t have a good answer for that, though, reading Baptist, I have a theory that it may be about amassing enough wealth that a man can live far, far away from his meddling father and/or brothers. Being so rich you had to move to Mississippi or Texas and leave your father back in Virginia or North Carolina.

  9. You’re saying that the wealth that enslaved people represented wasn’t passed down from generation to generation? That each generation had to start amassing wealth more or less from scratch? In that case, where there’s never any fallback or family pool of wealth to draw from, I find it a teensy bit more understandable. Or are you saying that this was the more upscale version of moving out west to take up a homestead, something that Americans were taught to want to do?

  10. Well, it depends on what time period you’re talking about. When Jackson came to Nashville, it wasn’t unusual for men with no family money (like Jackson) to use slavery to amass a fortune. But more what I was referring to is the ways that wealthy families seemed to treat their sons like franchises of the family business. So, as a franchisee, if the son was near “corporate headquarters,” he could expect a LOT of “corporate oversight” and he, in fact, might not be free to make the kinds of decisions he felt that he, as a white man, should be able to make about his own financial future, because of his father’s constant involvement (and Baptist highlights a couple of instances where things went very terrible for slaves because they were owned by “the children” or “the family” and who had the right to sell them wasn’t clear or respected). But moving his business west and then lying his face off to his father about what his father’s money was doing out west gave these white men a great measure of freedom.

    It also means that, after they’d gotten themselves in real financial trouble and tanked the whole family, it was not unusual for their fathers to come out west to try to straighten things up–based on their faulty understanding of how bad things were–and kill themselves once they realized just how fucked the whole family was.

    That’s also something that I hadn’t really managed to wrap my head around before, either, just how wrapped up in each other’s finances every man in a family was. A man could make his own fortune, but a lot of men were gambling with family money, seeming to believe that a crash would never come.

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