I’m writing this because Nikole Hannah Jones said on Twitter that she was trying to understand the argument that economic historians have against the work of Edward Baptist but had a problem with some of the terminology used by economists. I usually try to avoid economic jargon, but today I have tried even harder. If there are terms that are unclear please let me know. I'm also writing this because Ben Schneider suggested I give it a try.
I can write this without reference to economic terminology because, although I could point to problems related to economics, the fundamental flaws in the book arise from Baptist’s historical methods, not his economics. In The Half Has Never Been Told, Baptist misrepresents previous scholarship on slavery, misrepresents the content of primary sources, and fabricates evidence to support his claims. Ultimately, economic historians object to the inclusion of Baptist as a source for the 1619 Project because doing so lends credence to his position as an expert on slavery and economic development that is not warranted by his book.
These fundamental flaws can be illustrated in key elements of the book:
Baptist claims that most economists and historians accepted the view that slavery was inefficient and, in some sense, pre-capitalist. Consequently, he claims to overturn this traditional view.
Baptist does not just claim that slavery was an important part of American economic development, he makes specific claims about economic impact of slave produced cotton and its spillover effects.
Baptist claims that the increases in productivity were driven by continuing increases in violence, what he claims enslaved people called the pushing system, and what he sometimes calls “the whipping machine.”
Claims about the history of slavery in the United States
Baptist misrepresents the work of earlier economists and historians. On page 129 Baptist writes that “during the late antebellum years, northern travelers insisted that slave labor was less efficient than free labor, a point of dogma that most historians and economists have accepted.” The footnote for this statement does not provide any evidence to support it, which is not surprising since you would be hard pressed to find an economic historian who does accept it. It has been more than a half century since In 1958, Conrad and Meyer argued that investment in slaves had a return comparable to other potential investments Conrad, Alfred H., and John R. Meyer. "The economics of slavery in the ante bellum South." Journal of Political Economy 66, no. 2 (1958): 95-130). In the 1970s, Fogel and Engerman argued that slave agriculture was as dynamic a version of capitalism as existed anywhere in the United States. In awarding the Nobel Prize to Fogel in 1993, the Nobel committee stated that “Fogel showed that the established opinion that slavery was an ineffective, unprofitable and pre-capitalist organization was incorrect. The institution did not fall to pieces due to its economic weakness but collapsed because of political decisions. He showed that the system, in spite of its inhumanity, had been economically efficient.” In other words, Fogel won the Nobel Prize, in part, for overturning the view that Baptist claims he is overturning.
Research on the economics of slavery was one of the core elements in the development of economic history during the 1960s and 1970s, illustrating how economic theory and statistics could be used to address historical questions. Consequently, it is not surprising that when Robert Whaples surveyed a sample of both economists and historians who worked on economic history about slavery the answers were nearly unanimous. He asked them whether they generally agreed, agreed with provisos, or generally disagreed with a series of statements. For the statement “Slavery was a system irrationally kept in existence by plantation owners who failed to perceive or were indifferent to their best economic interests,” ninety-three percent of economists and ninety percent of historians disagreed with the statement. For the statement “The slave system was economically moribund on the eve of the Civil War,” ninety-eight percent of economists and ninety-five percent of historians disagreed. (Whaples, Robert. "Where is there consensus among American economic historians? The results of a survey on forty propositions." The Journal of Economic History 55, no. 1 (1995): 139-154.) Economists do not disagree with the argument that slavery in the United States was dynamic, innovative and profit focused because economists have been collecting evidence to support those claims for more than a half century. It is difficult to imagine the circumstances under which someone studying the research on slavery could have come to the conclusion that economic historians believed that slavery was inefficient.
Similarly, Peter James Hudson and H. Reuben Neptune both argue that Baptist and other historians of capitalism and slavery neglect the work on slavery and capitalism by Black scholars (Hudson, Peter James. "The racist dawn of capitalism." Boston Review 14 (2016), and Neptune, H. Reuben. "Throwin'Scholarly Shade: Eric Williams in the New Histories of Capitalism and Slavery." Journal of the Early Republic 39.2 (2019): 299-326.)
Claims about the importance of slavery to economic development
Economists and economic historians generally agree that slavery was a very important part of American economic development. Some of the best economic historians have devoted much of their lives to understanding slavery. Baptist, however, makes specific claims about the importance of slavery that are not supported by the available evidence. Baptist provides a back of the envelope accounting of the impact of slave produced cotton
Consider Baptist’s claim that nearly half of all economic activity derived from slavery derived from production of cotton by enslaved people. He writes in The Half has Never Been Told (page 321-2)
“But here’s a back- of- the –envelope accounting of cotton’s role in the US economy in the era of slavery expansion. In 1836, the total amount of economic activity―the value of all the goods and services produced―in the United States was about $1.5 billion. Of this, the value of the cotton crop itself, total pounds multiplied by average price per pound―$77 million―was about 5 percent of that entire gross domestic product. This percentage might seem small, but after subsistence agriculture, cotton sales were the largest single source of value in the American economy. Even this number, however, barely begins to measure the goods and services directly generated by cotton production. The freight of cotton to Liverpool by sea, insurance and interest paid on commercial credit―all would bring the total to more than $100 million (see Table 4.1).
Next come the second- order effects that comprised the goods and services necessary to produce cotton. There was the purchase of slaves―perhaps $40 million in 1836 alone, a year that made many memories of long marches forced on stolen people. Then there was the purchase of land, the cost of credit for such purchases, the pork and the corn bought at the river landings, the axes that the slaves used to clear land and the cloth they wore, even the luxury goods and other spending by the slaveholding families. All of that probably added up to about $100 million more.
Third order effects, the hardest to calculate, included the money spent by millworkers and Illinois hog farmers, the wages paid to steamboat workers, and the revenues yielded by investments made with the profits of the merchants, manufacturers, and slave traders who derived some or all of their income either directly or indirectly from the southwestern fields. These third order effects would also include the dollars spent and spent again in communities where cotton related trades made a significant impact another category of these effects is the value of foreign goods imported on credit sustained the opposite flow of cotton. All these goods and services might have added up to $200 million. Given the short term of most commercial credit in 1836, each dollar “imported” for cotton would be turned over about twice a year: $400 million. All told more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States in 1836, derived directly or indirectly from cotton produced by the million odd slaves― 6 percent of the total US population―who in that year toiled in labor camps on slavery’s frontier.”
There are problems here in terms of a misunderstanding of economic concepts. Not all purchases are counted as part of GDP. Only the final value of newly produced goods and services are counted in GDP. Comparing his calculation of economic activity related to cotton to GDP is meaningless. There is, however, an even deeper problem with the historical scholarship. There are no sources for the numbers that he puts into his calculation and even the language he uses conveys the sense that he is just making them up:
“perhaps $40 million”
“probably added up to about $100 million”
“might have added up to $200 million”
The only reference provided is to Table 4.1. Table 4.1 does not provide, as one might assume, information about shipping and insurance. It does not even have any information at all for the year 1836. Even if Baptist had understood how GDP is calculated his efforts would have been meaningless if he just made up the numbers that he plugged in. He can claim that it is just an estimate, but estimates need to be grounded in some evidence or else they are just guesstimates.
Baptist makes other dramatic claims about the role of slavery in economic development but does not provide evidence. In this case, where he does appear to present evidence, there is in fact nothing there.
Claims about productivity growth
Again Baptist suggests that he has discovered something new: an increase in productivity (the amount of cotton produced by each enslaved person) that has largely been overlooked. Yet the increasing productivity in cotton production had long been known to economic historians. In Time on the Cross, Fogel and Engerman noted that the “The basic cause of this long run decline [in cotton prices] was the steady increase in productivity” (page 93). In 1978, Gavin Wright stated that “It is certainly true that cotton output per capita or per slave rose markedly over the last forty to sixty years before the Civil War, as several writers have noted in connection with the profitability of slavery issue.” (Wright, Gavin. The political economy of the cotton South: households, markets, and wealth in the nineteenth century. New York: Norton, 1978. Page 102) Olmstead and Rhode undertook the monumental task of collecting data from as many picking books as they could obtain in order to study the increase in productivity. For Rhode and Olmstead productivity is a function of several things: the quality of the soil, the quality of the plants, weather, and the ability to use violence to force maximum effort from the slaves picking the cotton. Baptist argues that the increases in productivity were driven by innovation in torture, leading to innovations in picking. Enslaved people were tortured to produce as much as they could but meeting one quota was just followed by a higher quota, as overseers continuously ratcheted up demands.
Baptist has suggested that Olmstead and Rhode failed to consider the possibility that slaves were picking faster and that “uncritically” used the claims of people interested in selling new seeds to support their claim. But the first claim makes no sense increase productivity means that at least in some sense they were picking faster. As for the second claim, they used a variety of sources, including planter’s diaries that recorded experiments with seeds. None of them uncritically. Their papers make clear that they considered the use of violence an essential aspect of slavery. Consider the following excerpt from their 2008 paper in the Journal of Economic History (Olmstead, Alan L., and Paul W. Rhode. "Biological innovation and productivity growth in the antebellum cotton economy." The Journal of Economic History 68, no. 4 (2008): 1123-1171.):
“Failing to meet picking standards had severe consequences. In 1834 S. A. Townes of Marion, Alabama threatened to "make those bitches go at least 100 [pounds] or whip them like the devil.” In the 1830s Dr. J. W. Monett of Mississippi asserted that after weighing an individual's daily picking, masters would whip slaves for light or trashy picking. On several occasions, Louisiana planter Bennet Barrow ordered a whipping for all hands because the output was too low. As yet another example, John Edwin Fripp of South Carolina recorded "popping" and "switching" his slaves for light picking. On the Mississippi plantation of John Quitman and Henry Turner, a number of slaves ran away rather than face punishment for light or trashy picking.”
Clearly, Olmstead and Rhode knew that picking rates and brutality were essential parts of the overseer’s recipe for productivity. Their argument is that overseers pushed enslaved people to obtain their maximum effort, and that the introduction of new breeds of cotton plants made it possible for maximum level of effort to produce more cotton.
Baptist’s argument, on the other hand, requires that overseers in the early 19th century were not pushing slaves to their maximum, but that over time they came up with innovations that enabled them to make enslaved people work harder. Baptist, however, fails to provide the necessary evidence to support of his own claim, and, most troubling, resorts to misrepresenting the content of slave narratives to support his claim.
He provides plenty of evidence that slaves were whipped, as well as tortured in other ways, for not meeting production quotas. Baptist does not present the evidence of continuous of innovation in torture and in picking. He speculates that this innovation must have taken place but does not provide evidence of it. He presents the evidence developed by Olmstead and Rhode that slaveowners kept records of daily picking and whipped slaves for failing to meet quotas, and he suggests that the bullwhip was an innovation in torture. But neither of these things provides evidence of continuous innovation over decades. Picking books existed from at least the first decade of the nineteenth century. That is how it possible to document an increase in productivity. Moreover, Olmstead and Rhode argue that the evidence in picking books is not consistent with Baptist’s argument of constantly ratcheting up quotas (Olmstead, Alan L., and Paul W. Rhode. "Cotton, slavery, and the new history of capitalism." Explorations in Economic History 67 (2018): 1-17). Whipping was common well before cotton became the primary crop in the South and while earlier slaveholders may not have had bullwhips, they were perfectly capable of doing plenty of damage with what they did have. Ads for escaped slaves in eighteenth century Virginia have descriptions of “well scarred” or with “many whelks” or “used to the whip.”
The second type of innovation that Baptist needs to demonstrate is a continuing process of innovation in picking techniques. Again, keep in mind that we are not talking about one person increasing their productivity as they become more experienced, we are talking about increases in productivity that take place decade after decade. Baptist’s argument is not about particular people increasing their picking rates with practice. His argument requires improvements in technique that can be passed on from one generation to another. He does not provide any evidence of this passing on of techniques.
Ironically, his argument for the importance of slave narratives as a source conflicts with his claim that innovation in coercion produced innovation in picking. Not only does he not provide examples of narratives describing these innovations in picking technique, many of the most well-known accounts, such as Charles Ball and Solomon Northrup, suggest that picking productivity was largely a matter of practice and innate dexterity.
And here is where the most troubling problem emerges. Baptist claims that enslaved people used the phrase “pushing system.” There is, however, no evidence that this is true. Olmstead and Rhode searched digitized slave narratives that they used and found no instance of it. I ran a search on the Library of Congress digitized slave narratives and got no results. Baptist misrepresents what formerly enslaved people said about their lives in order to support his argument. He cites extensively from Charles Ball to support his claims about a “pushing system” of “whipping machine.” At one point he notes that after much effort Ball was able to meet his quota, “And it brought him nothing but an unwhipped back for one more day.” But what did Charles Ball say? Ball explained that “On Monday morning of the second week, the overseer told us that he fixed a day’s work at fifty pounds; and that all who picked more would be paid a cent a pound for the surplus.” Women and children were assigned separate quotas. Ball goes on to note that “At the end of the month I was able to return every evening a few pounds over the daily rate, for which I received my pay.” But that would not have provided support for Baptist’s thesis.
Here is a link to a blogpost that I wrote earlier describing what Baptist did to Henry Clay’s story about the whipping machine. Other examples of this sort of re-writing of slave narratives can be found in Olmstead and Rhode.
There are other problems in the book, but, in my opinion, none are as fundamental as the inability to rely upon the author to accurately represent either the primary or secondary sources.
The claims that these problems in Baptist’s work are about economic versus historical methodology or that they are driven by ideology are also not supported by the available evidence. In addition to economists, the book has been criticized by historians and at least one sociologist, several of whom are, I believe, comfortable being referred to as Marxist or radical
Burnard, Trevor. "‘The Righteous Will Shine Like the Sun’: Writing an Evocative History of Antebellum American Slavery." Slavery & Abolition 36, no. 1 (2015): 180-185.
Coclanis, Peter A. "Slavery, Capitalism, and the Problem of Misprision." Journal of American Studies 52, no. 3 (2018).
Hudson, Peter James. "The racist dawn of capitalism." Boston Review 14 (2016).
Neptune, H. Reuben. "Throwin'Scholarly Shade: Eric Williams in the New Histories of Capitalism and Slavery." Journal of the Early Republic 39.2 (2019): 299-326.
Oakes, James. "Capitalism and slavery and the civil war." International Labor and Working-Class History 89 (2016): 195-220.
Clegg, John J. "Capitalism and slavery." Critical Historical Studies 2, no. 2 (2015): 281-304.
That many people on Amazon find it a fine book only illustrates the problem. People assume that historians are telling them the truth. Non-historians see all the references to historical sources and think that it is a carefully researched and compelling piece of scholarship. More historians must be willing step forward and tell people when this is not the case.