What Your Social Studies Teacher Didn’t Tell You About Slavery

April V. Taylor

The new book, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery And The Making of American Capitalism,” by Edward Baptist has incited an onslaught of controversy regarding his examination of the slavery and suffering of generations of Black people who were bought and sold and the economic wealth and power that was made possible from their exploitation.  Baptist is a history professor at Cornell University, and his new book takes a different approach than Social Studies texts that cram 250 years of history into a few menial chapters by writing from a narrative perspective of individual voices of slaves and using economic data to paint a very personal and clear picture of slavery and its consequences.

Baptist makes five fundamental points about slavery that many Americans are not taught.  The first one is that slavery was a key catalyst for the formation of American wealth and power.  He asserts that the expansion of American capitalism happened, “on the backs of enslaved human beings,” and that multiple financial innovations such as bonds and mortgages grew out of the American slave trade.  To quote Baptist, “The idea that the commodification and suffering of forced labor of African-Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear.  Yet it is the truth.”  Historian Seth Rockman points out that Baptist has broken new ground by connecting, “the day-to-day violence of plantation labor to the largest macroeconomic questions of the West’s economic takeoff in the 19th century.”  Baptist estimates that nearly half of the economic activity in the U.S. in 1836, which was more than $600 million, was derived in one way or another from cotton produced by a million or so slaves.  This means 6 percent of the total population of the U.S. was responsible for nearly half of the economic activity of the entire country.

One may wonder how something like that was even possible, but Baptist answers that question, by uncovering the fact that cotton quotas that were enforced by brutal whippings continued to increase until slaves reached picking speeds that pushed the limits of physical possibility.  Another key component of slavery’s contribution to capitalism that is overlooked by American textbooks and teachers is the fact that slavery was not just responsible for enriching the South; it was also an integral part of driving the Northern industrial revolution.  Had it not been for the huge volumes of cotton being produced in the south, textile mills would not have had raw material to process.

One of the most blatant lies perpetrated by American textbooks is that Southern states seceded in an attempt to defend the, “abstract constitutional principle of ‘state’s rights.'”  Baptist points out that participants at every Democratic national convention, “made it explicit: they were seceding because they thought secession would protect the future of slavery,” and therefore guarantee the South’s continued economic growth.

Baptist’s work will surely add to the information presented by such historians as Walter Johnson from Harvard, who wrote “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom,” and Craig Steven Wilder from MIT who wrote “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.” Together these three authors connect the dots of how slave labor, London bankers, Northeast factories and the creation of Ivy League universities gave way to America being one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world.  Maybe one day American textbooks and Social Studies teachers will take note.




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