Review: The Half Has Never Been Told

Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told effectively ties the personal accounts of American Slavery to the power of the institution as an economic engine. Though I’ve read many accounts of the period, I’ve never felt the impact of the events on individuals at the same time feeling the incentives that drove Americans to enslave people and torture them. It’s powerful writing.

I have heard many of the individual accounts before – and they’re appalling – but when he connects the inhuman treatment of people to the insane economic growth that it fuels, it becomes more believable that people continued expanding the geographical scope of slavery and the inhumanity of the physical torture.

People who are getting rich exploiting others can insulate themselves from the horrors they are inflicting on others. They can convince themselves that their hands are clean. It is easy to see people perpetuating similar cycles of exploitation and denial today.

Baptist makes an impersonal and compelling case that these forces held sway in antebellum America. Their echos certainly continue to ring in modern America as well. To me, the power of the argument is that one can accept and promote terrible justifications for atrocities without malice in one’s heart. Individual prosperity combined with rising national prestige is a powerful brew.

Baptist also traces fairly subtle changes in attitudes toward slavery. As the nation’s productivity fuels national prestige, people tied to the economic methods naturally tribalize. The people directly benefiting from slavery have a direct connection to perpetuating the atrocity. Baptist connects the communities that indirectly benefit to that tribe as well. Merchants who transport cotton or operate textile mills also support it. The more direct supporters propagate plausible (or only vaguely plausible) justifications that are easier for more distant supporters to accept because of the community sense and income.

Troublingly, the argument works for abolitionists and Northerners as well. If one believes Baptist, part of the nation’s failure to make good on promises of freedom in Reconstruction stems from the idea that Northern sentiment was more about taking power from the South by destroying slavery than by ending and atoning for the horror. If the moralizing of the North (even though factual) was mostly justification for the War, that is consistent with people losing ardor when the short term goal – destroy the institution – is complete.

I don’t think people fundamentally change a lot. To the extent that Baptist is right about these tendencies toward self-delusion and herd mentality, we need to look at how we are exploiting others in pursuit of prosperity.

Though I believe a lot of Baptist’s arguments, he is gathering and interpreting facts and analyses from many disciplines. One could summarize one of his positions as asserting that the toxic masculinity that a torture-based economy imbued Andrew Jackson with spurred him to both sweep Native Americans from their tribal lands to fuel substantive expansion of slave-driven cotton production at the same time he destroyed the banking system that accelerated that growth. That’s a bold statement.

Baptist does not shy away from showing his work. Half is well sourced and pours supporting facts out in torrents. I find he strikes a good balance between support and narrative, but it is a fine line. I suspect there are some who nit-pick some of the economic arguments as well. My preference is Baptist’s abundance and transparency.

Strongly Recommended.

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