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Capitalism and Forced Labor

Recent polling of the millennials’ attitudes toward socialism suggests that higher education on the postmodern campus has better prepared graduates to denounce capitalism than to defend it. Undergraduate enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid speaks to the point.

In 1946, Encyclopedia Britannica recruited to the task of explaining capitalism’s origin, meaning, and development the eminent Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter supplied a characteristically learned and incisive entry that sharply distinguished societies with features of capitalism from those with a full-blown capitalist system. Thus, the appearance of a high level of commercialization in a society or empire, the arbitraging or acquisitive behavior of elites or other social strata in well-articulated markets—ancient Rome, for example—did not necessarily indicate the presence of capitalism. A capitalist society, he said, has at its core the “private ownership of nonpersonal means of production.”

For Schumpeter, at the forefront driving capitalist development stood the heroic entrepreneur who, in an expansive sphere of personal liberty, relentlessly pursued profit for private account and, by imagining new ways to create value, unleashed a dynamic process of “creative destruction.” By qualifying “means of production” with the adjective “nonpersonal,” Schumpeter carefully disassociated from his explication of capitalism’s lineaments the private ownership of personal labor, a condition better known as slavery.

Although no serious modern scholar denies the commercial character of the New World plantations that drove the Atlantic slave trade for more than four centuries, debates continue on the precise role of slavery in propelling the economic growth that liberated Western Europe and the United States from dismal Malthusian cycles. When GDP per person in Western Europe is graphed, this qualitative leap forward into what some would call capitalism shows a line that ascends noticeably in the late 18th century and then, during the first half of the 19th century, for the first time in history, spikes upward like a seismograph registering a magnitude nine earthquake.

Edward E. Baptist, a Cornell University historian, contends that those who have attempted to explain capitalism’s takeoff in the United States have left out a crucial “half of the story.” In choosing to entitle the chapters of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism with bodily references (“Feet,” “Heads,” “Right Hand” “Left Hand, “Tongues,” “Breath,” “Seed,” “Blood,” “Backs,” “Arms”), he intends to demonstrate how much of the antebellum prosperity of the entire Republic rested on the physical movements of slaves planting and picking cotton.

Not only did a King Cotton capitalist empire of entrepreneurial planters and hard-driven slaves overspread the land from southeast to southwest during the antebellum period, forcing the internal migration of hundreds of thousands of slaves in a kind of second Middle Passage, but profits extracted from slave labor on cotton plantations proved decisive in launching a modern economy in the United States. Thus, for Baptist, “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich.”

Throughout this deeply flawed and tendentious volume, the author makes dubious, erroneous, and exaggerated assertions on all manner of subjects. Economists will likely pick apart his accounting methods and uncover major errors. Scholars who ask, “Where did he get that?” will find in a disturbing number of cases nonexistent or inadequate noting of sources. Baptist wears his sentiments on his sleeve, and the fruit of his cherry-picking amounts to something less akin scholarship than it is to Theodore Dwight Weld’s penitential abolitionist polemic from 1839, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses.

Elite Southern whites, whatever their economic acumen, tend to fare badly in this book, hit with superciliousness and reduced to caricature as thieves, deviants, hypocrites, and scoundrels. No fair reading of the evidence on Thomas Jefferson, for example, can demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that he fathered so many as one child by Sally Hemings. Indeed, a group of more than a dozen distinguished scholars solicited by the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society to pore over the evidence leaned overwhelmingly to exculpating Jefferson in a 400-plus page report, which pointed to Thomas’ younger brother Randolph as the likely father of the one child (Eston) for whom the genetic evidence clearly establishes a link to one of any number of Jefferson males. Yet, Baptist represents Thomas as a dirty old man lusting after and repeatedly guilty of ravishing the teenage Hemings.

Among many other examples, Baptist says that the brilliant and irascible Quid, John Randolph of Roanoke, “spiraled into a level of insanity remarkable for even a Virginia politician.” In defending the idea of state sovereignty, the learned Virginia statesman Abel Upshur becomes in Baptist’s hands “arcane” and perhaps even lunatical.

His claims of originality notwithstanding, Baptist has, in truth, entered a longstanding debate, which probably reached its high water mark during the last three decades of the 20th century. In 1975, three University of Rochester professors, the historian Eugene D. Genovese and the economists Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, shared the prestigious Bancroft Prize in American History for their respective studies of American slavery.

Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), which relied on traditional methods of historical research to yield data configured through a Marxian theoretical lens, rose to a number of lists of the century’s most important works of nonfiction. He and his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who published Within the Plantation Household (1988), the most profound study ever written on the relations between black and white women in the Old South, argued for the hybridity of the Old South, a modern slave society in, but not of, a larger capitalist system whose driving core was the industrializing wage-labor zones in Western Europe and the northern United States.

Fogel’s impressive body of quantitative work on the history of slavery in the United States helped earn him a share of the 1993 Nobel Prize in economics. Engerman went on to become, in the words of David Brion Davis, one of the most distinguished historians of slavery in his own right, “probably the world’s leading expert on comparative slavery.” Impressed by the management skills, profit-consciousness, and market-responsiveness of planters, Fogel and Engerman described the Old South as expressing a sophisticated, resilient form of capitalism.

Although the work of the Genoveses and Fogel and Engerman proved more complementary than many specialists have recognized, the two sides had a stimulating debate on the meaning and nature of capitalism, plantation slavery’s precise role in capitalist development in the Americas, and the underlying causes of a death struggle between irreconcilables whose behavior on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line looked impressively rational when examined through an economic lens.

Baptist’s interpretation comes down in the vicinity of Fogel and Engerman, albeit after traipsing through suspicious corridors into fantastical precincts where the two economists would not have followed. Like Fogel and Engerman, Baptist regards Southern cotton planters as homines oeconomici who, in purchasing slaves, engaged in one of the most profitable investments of the antebellum period. He agrees with them that slave-based cotton plantations in the Old South generated impressive economic growth. Per capita productivity of slaves on cotton plantations exceeded that of free-labor Northern farmers.

In this vibrant slave economy, the profitability of slavery was increasing, not decreasing, in the decades leading up to the Civil War. The upward trajectory of slave prices generally followed the upward trajectory of upland cotton prices. Rational planters, benefiting from the rising demand for cotton in British textile factories, paid for the rising cost of slaves by becoming more efficient producers. Without the Civil War, the profitable use of slaves may well have continued deep into the 20th century.

Fogel and Engerman estimated that of the nearly one million slaves who migrated east to west during the period 1790 to 1860, more than 80 percent moved with their owners. In emphasizing family separations, the sexual exploitation of female slaves, and the brutality of domestic slave traders, Baptist, like Theodore Dwight Weld long before him, accepts a much lower percentage—under 50 percent, although mere tweaks in the assumptions behind the modeling of imperfect data can lead to a wide range of possibilities. The economist Jonathan Pritchett, who has studied this problem as closely as anyone, posited that around half moved with their owners and half moved in overland coffles or by coastal vessels in the hands of slave traders. But Pritchett concedes the impossibility of knowing the extent of slave family break-ups absent information on the marital status of slaves before their purchase by traders.

Time and again, when describing the magnitude of the interregional movement of slaves as a marker of the power of capitalist forces, Baptist mocks as a salve to white consciences Jefferson’s counterintuitive diffusionist argument that the expansion of slavery might actually act to weaken it. Yet, after correctly noting the increasing concentration in the Southwest of slaves among slaveholders who owned 15 or more slaves (about the minimum number needed to increase productivity by forming tightly supervised slave gangs), Baptist acknowledges growing slaveholder concerns that “the declining percentage of slaves and slave owners in the upper southern states would eventually lead to border-state legislatures filled with non-slaveholders, who might decide to impose emancipation.”

Is this not diffusionism, as Jefferson understood it, at work?

It might have worked much faster after President Jefferson obtained from Congress legislation banning the African trade—on the earliest date allowable by the U.S. Constitution, in 1808—had the demographic experience of slaves here paralleled that of their counterparts in Cuba and Brazil. By 1860, the United States, a relatively minor participant in the Atlantic slave trade during its entire colonial and national history, importing fewer African slaves than the tiny island of Barbados, had about four million slaves. This was a higher total than in Brazil, which had imported more than 45 percent of the 10 million total debarked throughout the Americas.

With the highest rate of natural reproduction of any major slave society in history—a subject on which Baptist is strangely mute—Southern slaves from exporting states like Virginia, Maryland, and Missouri drained slaves more slowly than Jefferson and other diffusionists might have imagined given the well-known excess of slave deaths over slave births in Brazil and the Caribbean.

One of Baptist’s most provocative claims centers on the reasons for the American slaves’ increased productivity. In explaining it, scholars have pointed to the specialization of labor, high labor-force participation rates, economies of scale, higher-yielding varieties of cotton, richer soil, and improved techniques of labor management. Increased productivity more than compensated for the rising costs of slaves.

Yet instead of considering those rising costs as one of several brakes on slave abuse, Baptist maintains that the slaveholder’s “pushing system”—a term it would be hard to find in any antebellum Southern newspaper or agricultural manual—relied on “the whipping-machine” to extract from beleaguered slave bodies on cotton plantations “super-profits” that erected the United States, by 1840, into a global economic colossus.

To be sure, slave owners enjoyed a monopoly of force that allowed them to extract regular, intensive labor from their slaves. But the law of diminishing returns also applies to cold, calculating brutality. Whereas the Genoveses came to rest their analysis on households in which masters and slaves forged together uneasy, conflict-ridden relations of unequal reciprocity, informed by an ideal of paternalism shaped by slaves as well as masters, the very word “paternalism” shows up not once in Baptist’s text. The relation he discerns has no soft touches, no resident masters influenced by Biblical precepts, presiding over relatively small holdings on which ever-more-valuable, creolized slaves are made more productive by supervision that prefers the carrot to the stick in eliciting the desired behavior.

“To bind another self to one’s desires,” observed Michael Oakeshott in a justly celebrated essay[1],

calls for exceptional skill. Force or peremptory command may in some circumstances suffice to convert another self to my purposes, but this will rarely be the most certain or the most economical manner of achieving my ends. It will more often happen that failure is avoided only by an acknowledgment of the subjectivity of the other self which involves taking into alliance what refuses to be treated as a slave; that is, by offering a quid pro quo which is itself a recognition of subjectivity.

Edward Baptist will have none of that.

[1] Michael Oakeshott, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays: New and Expanded Edition, foreword by Timothy Fuller (Indianapolis: The Liberty Fund, 1991), p. 500.

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