Writing about American slavery can never be entirely separated from Black peoples’ struggle for freedom. Until Kenneth M. Stampp published The Peculiar Institution, Uriah B. Philips’ assumption that Black people are “by racial quality, submissive, light-hearted, and imitative” was the virtually unchallenged orthodoxy among American historians. Philips believed that the slave trade “had little more effect on his temperament than on his complexion.” It may not be entirely coincidental that Stamp copyrighted his book in 1956, the same year that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began in 1955, finally triumphed.
Fortunately, writing about slavery has come a long way since 1956. It’s hard to imagine that Philips’ ideas could even find a serious publisher today. These books focus on slavery and capitalism (The Half Has Never Been Told and The Business of Slavery); the global cotton industry (Empire of Cotton); and slave imperialism—the invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua (River of Dark Dreams.) At best, they deserve to be not only widely read, but also discussed and debated. The history of slavery is far too important to be left to professional historians. It is impossible to fully understand the American experience, up to and including the Black Lives Matter movement, without understanding slavery.
Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told is probably the best history of slavery and US capitalism that we’re going to get. The fact that it’s clearly and compellingly written makes The Half Has Never Been Told even more essential. Baptist tells the story very largely through the experiences of enslaved people themselves, relying on more than a hundred autobiographies published by people who escaped from slavery, and about 2,000 interviews with formerly enslaved people conducted by the Works Progress Administration.
While all the books deal to one extent or another with the slave trade between the upper and lower South, it is Baptist who portrays it through the experience of people like Charles Ball who was marched from Virginia to South Carolina as part of a thirty-three-man coffle—individual slaves chained together from their wrist manacles to their iron collars. Women were roped together and followed behind. They covered ten to twenty miles a day. Ball would later write that “Time did not reconcile me to my chains” but “it made me familiar with them.”
The Half Has Never Been Told shows that torture was integral to slavery. Baptist quotes a Mississippi overseer telling his friends that “the whip was as important to making cotton grow as sunshine and rain.” The whip “might open deep gashes in the skin of its victim, make them ‘tremble’ or ‘dance’…but it did not disable them.” Enslaved people were given a quota of cotton they had to pick every day. Anyone who didn’t make their quota was whipped. As soon as they made this quota, a new higher one was required, again on pain of the whip.
After his escape from slavery, John Brown recalled that “as I picked so well at first, more was required of me, and if I flagged for a minute, the whip was applied liberally to keep me up to my mark. By being driven in this way, at last I was able to pick a hundred and sixty pounds a day” after starting at a minimum requirement of 100.
Baptist develops an analogy of a “whipping machine” from Henry Clay, who was born into slavery in the Carolinas and moved west as a boy. He described the whipping machine as “a big wooden wheel and when you tromp the treadle the big wheel go round. On that wheel was four or five leather straps with holes cut in them to make blisters and you lay the negro down to the bench and you tie him to it.” Baptist concludes, “Most likely Clay was using a metaphorical argument to say that every cotton labor camp, carved out of the southwestern woods, used torture as its central technology.”
Metaphor, or not, the whipping machine was frighteningly effective. “The amount of cotton the South grew increased almost every single year from 1800, when enslaved African-Americans made 1.4 million pounds of cotton, to 1860 when they harvested almost 2 billion pounds.” Neither the advent of the cotton gin nor the turn to the hardier, more flexible long stem cotton, both at the end of the eighteenth century, can account for this amazing growth in slave productivity in the nineteenth century.
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, more than any of these books—and as its subtitle suggests—emphasizes that US industrial capitalism was built on the backs of enslaved people. Baptist writes that “cotton became the dominant driver of US economic growth. In 1802 cotton already accounted for 14 percent of all the value of US exports, but by 1830 it accounted for 42 percent—in an economy reliant on exports to acquire the goods and credit it needed for growth.” Indeed, as he explains in his introduction, his aim is to debunk what is still a commonly held view among some historians that “slavery was a premodern institution that was not committed to profit-seeking,” and that “American slavery was fundamentally different from the rest of the modern economy and separate from it.”
New England’s textile mills, which turned southern cotton into thread and cloth, paved the way for the industrialization of the United States. In the process they created the first modern American working class and increased the demand for everything from iron goods to shoes.
But it’s impossible to agree with Baptist, that “all northern whites had benefited from the deepened exploitation of enslaved people.” While slavery made new textile jobs possible, the women and children working twelve hours a day, six days a week, for starvation wages, were hardly benefiting from the new industrial order built on enslaved people’s labor. But this is still a fairly minor problem in the context of The Half Has Never Been Told’s total achievement.
In Empire of Cotton Sven Beckert traces the history of cotton’s production and exchange stretching from before the start of the Common Era to today, when Asian production has largely supplanted by Europe and the US. Beckert uses cotton to explain what he calls “the making and remaking of global capitalism.” A global history may be the best way to address the history of capitalism, which is quintessentially an international system. Precisely because this is global history, Empire of Cotton is not intended as a history of US slavery. It is still full of key insights that help to explain both slavery itself and its roots in an international capitalist system.
Slaveholders were linked to the financial markets by factors—local merchants who advanced them money against their cotton crops. These loans paid for everything from slaves and cottonseed to food and clothing. Merchants in turn went to New York banks and through them the London money markets for their funds, then took the cotton and sold it, often in New Orleans. Cotton that was grown in Mississippi found its way, often via New York, to Manchester, the center of cotton textile production, where it was transformed into thread, cloth, and clothing that was sold in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Enslaved people experienced the international cotton trade directly. Beckert quotes John Brown who escaped from slavery as saying, “When the price of cotton [rises] in the English market the poor slaves immediately feel the effect, for they are harder driven, and the whip is kept more constantly going.”
Empire of Cotton stresses that slaveholders’ prosperity and expansion was only made possible by their domination of federal and state governments. The federal government opened up vast new territories for slavery by purchase (the Louisiana Purchase) and conquest (Florida and Texas.) As federal troops cleared native people off their land, slavery moved in behind them. Later, although this isn’t covered in Empire of Cotton, the US government insulated slavery from virtually any challenge with the Dred Scott decision, the Fugitive Slave Act, and even by prohibiting petitions against slavery from being presented to the House of Representatives. It’s little wonder that it was when enslavers lost their control of the federal government that they decided to secede.
Southern state governments provided internal improvements making it possible to move cotton to market more cheaply and quickly. The United States already had navigable rivers, especially the Mississippi and its tributaries. Now state governments financed the building of railroads deeper and deeper into the hinterland. Baptist, in The Half Has Never Been Told, also shows how southern state governments opened up international financing for enslavers by guaranteeing bonds based on the title deeds of slaves.
Empire of Cotton’s treatment of soil exhaustion, slavery’s expansion, and eventually the Civil War makes it especially valuable. King Cotton literally wore out the land every few years. Beckert quotes one planter as saying “We appear to have but one rule—that is to make as much cotton as we can, and wear out as much land as we can . . . lands that once produced one thousand pounds of cotton to the acre, will not bring more than four hundred pounds.” Agricultural reformers urged that the land should be refreshed by crop rotation, planting legumes, or employing expensive fertilizers. Enslavers, often in debt to merchants, found it cheaper and easier to keep moving south and west.
They began by moving from the upper southern states including Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky, into South Carolina and Georgia. Later they brought slaves into Alabama and Louisiana, and ultimately Mississippi, Arkansas, and even Texas. This continual expansion was made possible by the internal slave trade that forcibly moved up to a million enslaved people to the Deep South, the great majority to be used to grow cotton.
Unique among these books, Empire of Cotton explicitly roots the Civil War in a conflict between northern industrialists and the slave-holding class over control of the federal government. As the war approached, industrial capitalists and the slave-owning class wanted very different things from the state. Industrialists increasingly wanted to strengthen the federal government. They were trying to construct what Beckert calls a “political economy of domestic industrialization” in tandem with commercial agriculture based on free labor.
Enslavers feared, not without reason, that a strengthened federal government would threaten their peculiar institution. They required a state that would constantly make new lands available for cotton and slavery. They needed the federal government to guarantee their right to hold slaves or at the very least to remain ostensibly neutral. Above all, they were out to keep the growing anti-slavery forces out of power
Beckert concludes that the “shifting balance of social power among different business groups proved momentous…the schism between economic elites was so great that, in a moment of great crisis even merchant capitalists, aligned with slave owners, dropped their old allies.”
While Empire of Cotton isn’t, and doesn’t pretend to be, a history of US slavery, it is still an extremely rewarding and important work. If nothing else, global history rooted in the Marxist intellectual tradition—one that, like Half Has Never Been Told shows the close connection between slavery and the rise of modern capitalism—is still a rare and very valuable resource.
In River of Dark Dreams Walter Johnson describes slaveholders’ response to two separate problems they saw threatening their domination. Slaveholders felt income that should belong to them was going to New York instead. Cotton bound for Liverpool was actually shipped out of New York. According to Johnson, contemporary estimates were that forty cents on every dollar earned in the cotton market was being spent in New York.
As well, by the 1850’s the high price of slaves threatened to make it impossible for non-slaveholding white men to acquire slaves and become full members of the master class.
The first response was what became known as “filibustering”—a series of attempts to extend slavery into Central America—first Cuba, then Nicaragua, then Honduras. The second was a movement to re-open the Atlantic slave trade. If neither ultimately succeeded, for a few brief years they captured the imagination of many southerners with a vision of a resurgent South freed of northern domination. In their minds’ eye, they could see a land where every white man would be entitled to live in comfort from the labor of his own slaves. River of Dark Dreams tells the story of the rise and ultimate fall of these movements.
In the 1840’s and ’50’s many slaveholders dreamed of “freeing” Cuba from Spain. Then it could be annexed and made part of the US slave empire. Johnson writes that they felt “a free Cuba would revitalize the Mississippi Valley’s great commercial artery and its imperial city [New Orleans], drawing the trade unnaturally diverted to the north and east by commercial artifice back to its natural pathway toward the sea.”
Slaveholders backed two especially unsuccessful invasions of Cuba led by Narcisco Lopez, a Venezuelan born adventurer. His invasions made the Bay of Pigs look like a triumph. Instead of rallying to Lopez, Cubans fought for Spain. When the second invasion collapsed in 1851, Lopez was garroted to death in a Havana square.
William Walker, a failed swashbuckler who liked to be called “The Gray Eyed Man of Destiny,” launched unsuccessful invasions of first Nicaragua and then Honduras. Walker declared, “The introduction of Negro slavery constitutes the speediest and most efficient means for enabling the white race to establish itself permanently in Central America.”
The combined opposition of the US government, Costa Rica, and Honduras, and the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt—whom Walker had double-crossed—defeated Walker’s expeditions. He was ultimately executed in Honduras after a bungled invasion.
Lopez and Walker were hailed as heroes, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi. But no more than a few hundred men ever actually enlisted to fight with them. Apparently it was easier and vastly safer to fantasize about a life of luxury on a slave plantation in Central America than to actually put your life on the line.
The campaign to reopen the slave trade was fueled by anxiety about the loyalty of white men who, by 1850, could no longer hope to buy slaves. Johnson writes that slaveholders worried about “a weakening of the foundation” of the social order or even a threat to “the entire integrity of the social constitution of the South.” In 1857 Hinton Rowan Hilton intensified their fears when he published The Impending Crisis of the South, charging that nonslaveholding whites were at risk of being enslaved by the slaveholders. He called for slaveholders to pay reparations for their damage to the southern economy, as well as to free the slaves and pay to send them to Africa. Hilton’s book caused alarm and furor in the South. Although it was banned and burned, nearly 150,000 copies were circulated.
Slaveholders in the lower South responded with a drive to reopen the slave trade. They argued that the new influx of enslaved people would make it feasible for virtually every white man to buy at least some slaves. This may have looked fine in Mississippi, Alabama, or Louisiana where slaves were still being imported. But the upper South—Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina among others—depended on the revenue they made from selling enslaved people further south. The slave trade proposal ultimately failed because it threatened to split the South. In 1861 the Confederate constitution outlawed “the importation of African Negroes from any foreign country.”
River of Dark Dreams is a frequently fascinating and even enthralling book. It describes episodes like filibustering and the campaign to reopen the slave trade that have been largely ignored. In the process, it illuminates the evolution of the slaveholders’ white supremacist ideology.
Despite this, there is something unsatisfying about a history that concentrates so exclusively on what might have been at the expense of what actually happened. There are whole chapters on Cuba and Nicaragua but barely a mention of the actual contest over slavery’s expansion—the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas Civil War, or even the election of Abraham Lincoln.
General readers, as opposed to scholars, may require history that illuminates where we are and hopefully even where we are going. Despite its many significant contributions, River of Dark Dreams is not that history.
In The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, Calvin Schermerhorn sets out to use the slave trade to illuminate the development of modern American capitalism.
He writes that “Hands that drew bills of exchange, graded and traded commodities, or trimmed the sails of merchant vessels were as important to the process of slaving as hands that picked cotton or those that grabbed hold of whips, grasped the throats, or groped the loins of African-descended captives.”
Each chapter in The Business of Slavery focuses on a different enslaver who was hoping to get rich off the trade in enslaved people. Schermerhorn uses these chapters to develop useful perspectives on the development of slave capitalism including: how the business of slavery benefited enormously from federal policies that among other things cleared native people off their land, built roads, and protected enslavers from foreign competition; property banks and mortgages based on slave deeds enabled investors in London and New York to profit from the sale of enslaved people without actually owning a human being; and by the 1850’s slavery capitalism had been developed into pro-slavery imperialism with the annexation of Texas and invasion of Nicaragua.
Ultimately, however, this focus on the slave trade, as opposed to slavery in the cotton fields and sugar plantations is unsuccessful. It means that the book focuses far more on slave traders than on enslaved people. It tends to ignore slavery at the actual point of production that yielded the cotton and sugar that generated the South’s wealth. This was at least as critical to the business of slavery as the trade in enslaved people.
Schermerhorn treats the Civil War as a somewhat irrational southern response to Lincoln’s opposition to the expansion of slavery. He points out, accurately enough, that when the south seceded Lincoln wasn’t proposing to abolish slavery. But slave capitalism, like capitalism itself, had to expand or die. In Empire of Cotton, Sven Beckert documents how cotton continually killed the soil, forcing slavery to migrate south and west. Any threat to slavery’s continuous right to expand was a threat to slavery itself. The style of The Business of Slavery is often convoluted and cumbersome. This may seem to be a minor point but if it’s worth trying to trace the connections between capitalism and slavery, it’s worth making that analysis accessible beyond the narrow circle of specialists and academic historians.
Few people are likely to read all of these books. If you’re only going to read one, by all means make it The Half Has Never Been Told. If you can read one more, you should find Empire of Cotton very rewarding.