Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery

Yikes. The Economist published a grotesque review of a history of slavery and capitalism in the US. so grotesque that it ended up apologizing and withdrawing the review, while also keeping it for the record.

Apology: In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so.

Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so. We have therefore withdrawn the review, but in the interests of transparency the text remains available only on this special page and appears below.

Yup, that’s what the review said.

The reviewer’s point was that Baptist overstated how profitable cotton combined with slavery was, and that other Excellent Protocapitalist Virtues also played a role.

Take, for example, the astonishing increases he cites in both cotton productivity and cotton production. In 1860 a typical slave picked at least three times as much cotton a day as in 1800. In the 1850s cotton production in the southern states doubled to 4m bales and satisfied two-thirds of world consumption. By 1860 the four wealthiest states in the United States, ranked in terms of wealth per white person, were all southern: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.

Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

Whooooooooooooooo that’s an incredibly bizarre thing to write.

I guess this is now the Reactionary Talking Point For the Decade – that everybody who takes any kind of progressive or egalitarian or social justice position whatsoever is simply “playing the victim card” and must be derided and then ignored.


  1. says

    True that if one assumes that these human beings were in no way entitled to their own lives, not all could seen as victims, just as my washer/dryer is not a victim. Of course making that assumption is monstrous.

  2. says

    The Economist also sanitized its editorial when posting the retraction. It used to have a picture of Patsey from 12 Years a Slave, captioned “Patsey was certainty a valuable property.” The implication being, of course, that slaveholders would not treat such human property harshly. Leaving aside the tremendous body of literature indicating that they routinely did just that, even if one grants the inherent abuses of just having slaves (One should not, of course.) one still has the fact that Patsey’s owner in the movie beat and raped her.

    This is not the first time The Economist has made this argument or one very close to it, though. The magazine did the same in its review of Greg Grandin’s book on the Atlantic slave trade earlier this year.

    If Ophelia will forgive a bit of self-promotion, I wrote two posts about this yesterday that brought to bear my slight familiarity with such matters and a collection of things brought to my attention via Twitter yesterday. Preview shows that the HTML isn’t working quite right, so here are the urls:

    The Economist Condemns Ed Baptist for his Book on Slavery

    The Economist and White Supremacy

    The latter has information about Grandin’s book and a link to the review, which the magazine has not retracted.

  3. Anne Fenwick says

    The now very well-known Twelve Years a Slave (the book though, not the movie) describes the system of ‘calibrated pain’ in action. Basically, given the slave owners were not going to remunerate people with money or other goods, they were forced to ‘remunerate’ with ‘less pain than you would be getting otherwise’. ‘Nice’ slave owners did exist, but they relied consciously or unconsciously on the fact that they were surrounded by people much less nice than they were (and a ruthless legislative and social enforcement system). I know several documented instances of ‘nice’ slave owners threatening to sell uncooperative slaves to Joe the Psychopath and some actually doing so. What on earth do people imagine? That human beings will fall over themselves to work 16 hour days for nothing if you just say ‘please’ nicely?

  4. suttkus says

    My father’s been making that argument for years, that slaves were expensive so slave owners would have been motivated to treat them well. “You don’t just start beating your expensive tractor with a hammer.”

    Slaves, of course, are not tractors. Tractors work because they are machines and you turn them on. Slaves work because they are terrified of what you will do to them if they don’t. Without the terror, there is no motivation for a slave to work. They don’t get money. They aren’t really in a position to work for pride. They work for fear. They must be kept in a constant state of horror at the consequences of not working. And you must periodically remind them what it is they are afraid of.

  5. says

    Well, put it this way – there were economic incentives for slave owners not to kill their slaves, and weaker incentives not to render them unable to work. That much seems incontrovertible. But there were of course also economic and other incentives to punish them ferociously; to skimp on their food, shelter, heat, clothing, medical treatment; to forbid them to learn to read; etc.

    It seems to me there must have been tensions between incentives to punish and incentives to avoid injury. But was it anything like cherishing the BMW? Mostly, no. (There were a few exceptions, like butlers and slaves with special skills. But in the cotton states? Not so much.)

  6. forestdragon says

    That explains why the same person would mete out unthinkable brutality to his slave, a fellow human being, but would never think of doing such things to say, his presumably equally valuable horse.

  7. Tim Harris says

    I came across this on Digby’s good blog, Hullabaloo, and wrote a comment to The Economist, which they duly printed but then started using the fact of my commenting as a reason to send me special subscription offers…

  8. says

    Before I get into this, I want to alert readers that I’m going to quote a period description of brutality, including sexualized violence, against a young slave girl. It also includes the use of precisely the racial slur one would expect. If this would traumatize the reader, please skip the comment and continue your day. I don’t want to bring that kind of upset on anybody. I apologize for any distress caused. I don’t really want to write this myself, but I think that what the Economist is denying deserves to be seen.

    It’s horrific to think about, but sometimes the incentives ran all the way up to murder. If a planter could get more out of the slave before working the slave to death than paid to buy the slave, then the planter could just buy a new one and repeat the process. This isn’t a prominent feature of American slavery, though it did happen and slaves who had been disabled or otherwise could no longer produce as they once had could be sold to someone on the cheap who would finish the job. Things tended to be rougher the further South and West one went in the South. Sugar plantations were notorious for going through slaves at a great clip. The American sugar industry was marginal compared to cotton, but down in the Caribbean sugar generated so much profit that it made perfect economic sense to work slaves to death in the very dangerous sugar factories and then just buy new slaves off the boats.

    That’s aside the benefit an owner might realize from terrorizing his (they were almost always male, given how property law and the patriarchy worked) other slaves by feats of grotesque and conspicuous brutality. Most slaves resisted their enslavement in part by shirking when they could, by studied “misunderstanding” of orders, by “mistakenly” breaking tools, etc. Doing that always involved weighing it against the risk of retaliation and the likely severity. Punishments like this one were intended by owners not just to deter the “guilty” party but also to set the example of what would come. I’m sorry for the following, it’s extremely graphic and includes violence against a young girl. I draw it from William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion, Volume 1: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854. A typical plantation might have a beating like this (39 lashes, by the way) two or three times a week.

    Also, this is the really, really bad part. I’m sorry, but it happened despite what The Economist would have one believe. Trigger warnings for sexualized violence and racial slurs.

    As Frederick Law Olmstead described “the severest corporeal punishment I witnessed at the South, “a slave girl named Sall was ordered to pull up her clothes and lie on her back, private parts exposed. The overseer flogged her “with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thighs.” Sall “shrunk away from him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “‘Oh don’t sir! Oh plerase stop, master! please sir! oh, that’s enough master! oh Lord! oh master, master, of God, master, do stop! oh God, master, oh God, master!”

    After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard, “Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …”They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

    Olmstead was a visitor, a stranger in the South. They did this quite comfortably where he could see. Imagine what happened in private.

  9. chigau (違う) says

    A long time ago an acquaintance was working on his car and became so angry he tried to hit it with a hammer.
    He missed and hit his own knee.
    A while later he had to have that kneecap rmoved.

  10. says

    A friend of mine who’s a judge spent some time in Belarus to help them with the judging. I think she would probably sympathize with your view of their tractors.

  11. dorkness says

    ‘Slaves, of course, are not tractors. Tractors work because they are machines and you turn them on.’ (suttkus, 4)
    I think it was Stanislaw Andreski who made the point that machines had forced people to behave more reasonably and less violently than before: people and animals can be beaten to submission but a machine just breaks.

  12. Cerulean Spork says

    @dorkness & that brings up the fact that yes horses & mules & oxen were the trucks & tractors of the past – & just as valuable & expensive & necc for business – & yet that never stopped anyone from abusing his beast of burden even to the point of death ! ! ! or neglecting them & starving them to save money & instead of paying vet bills just selling them to the glue factory when too weak / sick to work

    or dui causing wrecks that injured if not killed them outright – since when has ‘cars are expensive & valuable property’ stopped anyone from wrapping a beemer around a streetlight???

    it took childrens book author anna sewell writing an expose of it under the guise of fiction from the POV of such an abused animal , to get ppl to start thinking that animal cruelty was something that shld be both socially disapproved AND punishable by law . . .

    & all this ignores the fact that ppl GET ANGRY at other beings – we get angry @ inanimate objects , when they frustrate us , & DO smash them , but we get even angrier when we think the others are deliberately defyin us – ppl beat dogs far more energetically than they kick the tires or throw tools , bc dogs have personalities & react to us

    & it gets far worse w other humans , even if we tell ourselves theyre our possessions – child abuse , domestic violence – why do ppl in this “pure vulcan reasonableness’ mode ignore the reality they see every day??? do they think there are no murders or assaults or acts of vengeance-spurred vandalism bc who wld commit violence when they wld likely go to jail for it or will be expensive court costs at the least??

    to believe that no slave owner wld abuse bc “reason” requires pretending the news – & their own daily lives – dont exist , bc i will GUARANTEE you that anyone who makes that argument has himself ( @ least in my personal xp its always a “him’ who has made it ) smashed @ least one fist hole in the wall of his (expensive , valuable ) house , slammed a home or car door in anger , & hit his dog & / or child in rage then blamed them for “making” him so angry he “had” to do it. . . . the sorts of ‘purely reasonable’ libertarian & conservative types who talk like this have VERY short fuses when it comes to criticism or disobedience of them selves in my xp

  13. johnthedrunkard says

    Tractor owners do not fear that their tractors will escape or rebel. American slavery was shadowed by the dread of uprisings.

    And while a huge number of slaves WEREN’T involved directly in cotton-farming—many were skilled workers living in towns—this is a perfect example of ‘ranking’ evils. Being a blacksmith in Charleston is ‘less bad’ than toiling in a Mississippi cotton field. But the fundamental evil is the same.

  14. says

    Sorry if this turns into a wall of text. I’m not sure from the preview if my white space will carry through or not.

    Tractor owners do not fear that their tractors will escape or rebel. American slavery was shadowed by the dread of uprisings.

    To the point that if it weren’t so serious that one would think they wrote it as self-parody. One doesn’t spend much time digging through their writing without realizing that the white, slaveholding South lived in a relatively constant state of low-grade terror and paranoia that their human property, which often outnumbered them locally, often in entire counties (As high as 95% or so majorities in the Carolina lowcountry, depending on the season. The demographics are mind-boggling.), and in the entire states of Mississippi and South Carolina, would rise up and visit upon them some fraction of what they visited upon the slaves.

    When they talk about fears of “social revolution” and being ruined, they do mean losing the money they have in their slaves and the money those slaves earn them, as well as the prestige and sense of personal power and perverse “freedom” they gained from owning another person, but they also mean literally being hunted down and killed in a genocidal race war. They liked to cite the Haitian Revolution, about which I regrettably know very little, as their proof.

    Nothing close to that ever got underway in the US, with most revolts or presumed revolts caught at the real or imagined (It’s hard to tell sometimes.) conspiracy stage and suppressed with great brutality. Many times the problem there, as with conspiring to run away, was that someone in the group would talk out of fear or hopes of better treatment as a reward. Frederick Douglass’ first attempt to free himself ended that way, for example. Once someone talked, it was easy to imagine a vast conspiracy with greater ambitions than might have really existed. Not that one could blame the slaves if they did occasionally live up to the hype and really plan violent insurrection.

    Of course, these same people would tell you how their slaves were absolutely content. They literally trusted some of them with their lives. They were like family, living under the same roof, cooking their food, growing up together, sleeping with nothing more than an unlocked door (and sometimes less, whether the slave wanted it or not) between them. They tried to sell that image to the rest of the nation for decades, always insisting that slaves who ran off or otherwise resisted had just fallen under the influence of meddling individuals with questionable motives. Lawrence Keitt, a South Carolina politician who brawled in the House of Representatives and drew a gun on Senators to stop them from interfering when his fellow Carolinian beat Charles Sumner with a cane, was relieved to learn that his brother was killed by a newly-bought slave rather than one of those they’d owned for years and thus trusted.

    Abolitionists, like labor organizers or other social justice advocates (even if the abolitionists had standards of social justice well short of our own) were just troublemakers disrupting the natural harmony of society. Every case has its own novel traits, but injustice and the defense of injustice tend to similar themes most everywhere.

  15. Blanche Quizno says

    I just finished Dr. Gerald Horne’s “The Counter-Revolution of 1776 – Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America”. It is a tour de force. Using copious sources from the 1500s on, Dr. Horne identifies how the English colonies that later became the United States of America (notice that Florida was not one of the original 13 – and for good reason) settled on “whiteness” as the criterion for privileged status, juxtaposed against darker skinned Africans and native Americans, a perspective that remains today. They also struggled with Catholics, who, though white, were likely to side with England’s enemies and rivals for this territory, Catholic France and Catholic Spain. The reality was that the European settlers grasped for ever more African slaves (because of the profits) the way a heroin addict chases his next fix, and the more Africans there were as a proportion of the population, the more likely they would rise up and kill their masters. Rebellions and revolts were commonplace and terrifying; there were mass poisonings of slave owners and livestock. London was moving inexorably toward abolition of slavery not for ethical or virtuous reasons, but out of a desperate pragmatism: in the “sugar colonies” of the Caribbean, the white settlers were fleeing northward in the wake of increasingly dangerous attacks from Africans, both escaped and still enslaved. The British realized that, if slavery were to continue, they would likely lose their Caribbean colonies altogether (as the French lost Haiti later). Also, in fighting (mostly) Spain (but France too) for territory and to hold onto their New World properties, London was finding the American colonists were not only reluctant to enlist, but they were unreliable. On the other hand, Africans were eager to fight, and comparatively plentiful (and not prone to run off during harvest season). American colonists were terrified at the prospect of Africans wearing redcoats sent on behalf of the Crown to quell the rebellious “independency” movement and seeing the tables turned, with their former slaves becoming their masters. Get it. Read it. It’s an important book.

  16. Blanche Quizno says

    The myth that enslaved Africans and their descendants were passive victims is a grotesque, pernicious falsehood promoted in the cause of establishing and defending white supremacy.

    The South was conquered militarily, not politically or socially. Slavery persisted with the Jim Crow laws; the debasement of dark-skinned people persisted with “separate but equal” doctrines. Even today, slavery continues with the prison industrial complex, where jobs paying pennies per hour are staffed overwhelmingly by black men. Our culture needs a reboot. BIG time.

  17. tlweiner says

    While most everyone can agree that The Economist review was awful (and cowardly- as there is not an author listed), I would like to comment on Dr. Baptist’s wonderful and scholarly work, which I had the privilege to read in pre-published form. It is a highly readable, well documented inter-disciplinary piece, which reminds the reader that history, economics, geography and sociology are intertwined. Dr. Baptist connected the dots from all of these in a way which produced more “ah ha!” moments than any book I have read in some time. (And I have read plenty of 19th century history) Please treat yourself to a copy.

    Terri Weiner (Village Books, Bellingham, WA)


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