IN HIS BOOK The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), Cornell history professor Edward E. Baptist documents how a brutally productive and expanding slave system, not free wage workers, created the powerful cotton industry that drove economic growth, prosperity and industrialization in the 19th century, and presaged today’s modern economy.

You suggest that historians have missed slavery’s full role in the American and global economy of the time. What is the half never told?

 On one level, the half never told is how the expansion and intensification of Southern slavery shaped our modern world. The economic part of that story has been getting the most attention, because it directly contradicts conventional white accounts that identify wage labor and Northern captains of industry as the sources of the huge economic transformations that created the capitalist, industrialized United States. More broadly, the half not told refers to the radically different way that we would come to understand U.S. history if we looked closely at the forced migration of enslaved African Americans in the 19th century. If we do that, we see the suffering and exploitation and violence experienced by enslaved people as a force that helps to explain the tremendous growth in wealth and power experienced by white America during the years from 1790 to 1860 and beyond.

Why didn’t 20th-century historians correct the romanticized post–Civil War version of slavery?

 Because they simply assumed that the story of slavery as economically inefficient and separate from capitalism was true. After 1840 or so, Northern antislavery writers and politicians claimed that slavery was inefficient, and most of the fathers of modern economics did the same. But none of them—19th-century white abolitionists, politicians or economists, or, for that matter, 20th-century historians—looked closely at how cotton was actually produced.

Why was the Haitian Revolution a catalyst for the growth of slavery?

Between 1791 and 1804, African freedom fighters overthrew French Saint-Domingue, the world’s most profitable slave system, and established the independent nation of Haiti.  This checked the continuous expansion of French and British slavery through the Caribbean, and helped convince many European intellectuals and policymakers that the time had come to end the 350-year-old international slave trade from Africa. But the Haitian rebels’ victory also destroyed Napoleon Bonaparte’s plans for expanding French power in the Mississippi Valley. This defeat forced Bonaparte to sell New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory—stretching from the Gulf to the Canadian border, and from the Mississippi to the Rockies—to the United States. That territory, as well as full control over the transportation networks of the Mississippi River Valley, allowed U.S. citizens and their government to begin a massive, government-subsidized expansion of cotton slavery into the middle of the continent.

What was the plantation “pushing system”?

Enslaved people actually used the term “pushing system” to refer to the ways that enslavers forced them to work faster.  This included methods like naming the fastest “hands” with the hoe as “captains.” A squad of 10 or 12 would then be forced to keep up with the “fore row.” But even more important was the system of measurement and whipping that essentially outsourced innovation in all-important cotton harvesting to enslaved people themselves. It isn’t just moving faster—it’s about figuring out how to move more efficiently, even ambidextrously. In effect, they had to do time-and-motion studies on themselves. Daily picking would be weighed, and those who failed to meet their individual quota were whipped. Over time, those who met their quotas often saw their quotas raised.  This increase forced enslaved people to pick faster and faster, and helped to drive a 400 percent increase in the average individual’s cotton-picking productivity between 1800 and 1860.

You insist that “torture” is the right word to describe the brutal treatment of slaves.

In any other context, we’d call the systematic whipping of people who don’t meet production quotas—or of people who try to hide their maximum picking capacity—by the simple word “torture.” We’ve all heard decades of implicit and explicit arguments that paint enslaved African Americans as people who needed to be whipped or otherwise subjected to violence so that they wouldn’t revolt, so that they would actually work hard, etc. So we don’t call torture by its name. We’ve heard it called “discipline,” as if we are talking about spanking children. This refusal to name things by their real names, I’m convinced, has long-term effects on how people—even African Americans, at times—perceive black suffering.

A capitalistic network of credit and investment grew up around cotton and slavery—a system that included the securitization of slaves.

One way to think about the network of obligations and credit flows that stretched all around the Atlantic world and which helped expand both slavery and industry was that these networks helped channel credit into the region where the most important non-human commodity in the world economy, raw cotton, was being produced. Think about these networks, which changed all the time, as ways of linking lenders to borrowers, or entrepreneurs. Before 1800 there was a relative dearth of lending opportunities with both good collateral to ensure repayment and a high rate of return. After 1800 southwestern planter-entrepreneurs were attractive targets for lending, for two reasons: They could make a lot of money from cotton, because there was an ever-growing market to supply, and individual slaves were picking cotton ever-faster, so the return from an enslaved person, as an investment, was high. And the repeated innovations of the domestic slave traders in making a liquid market for enslaved human beings—the traders were helped in this by state market-making and by the supply of credit—meant that enslaved human beings were probably the best, most useful, most “high-quality” collateral in the Western world.

So from slave labor grew this great cotton business that created a sophisticated economic system.

The expansion of slavery, the expansion of industrial production in Britain and the northern United States, the expansion of world consumer markets and the expansion of world financial networks were all linked together and all essential to the emergence of the modern global economy.

Why was Senator John C. Calhoun important to the pro-expansion slavery movement?

After the Panic of 1837, Calhoun helped to create a constitutional strategy for defending the right of enslavers to continue to take advantage of national expansion even as Northern allies in Congress became more wary of offering their support, due to election worries. Calhoun became the leading architect of the argument that property rights in slaves trumped the right of legislatures or communities or courts to limit slavery, and so opened a possible future in which slavery would become a national institution again, and in a nation that was expanding west.

The malevolent power of slavery even swayed the Supreme Court.

Yes, and without the Civil War the Dred Scott decision of 1857, in which the Supreme Court ruled that slaves could not be U.S. citizens and that the federal government could not regulate slavery in new territories, might have been only the first in a series of decisions that enacted theories like the ones Calhoun promulgated.

What factors changed the debate about the expansion of slavery?

After about 1839, we begin to see a shift in national politics that made it harder for enslavers to command Northern support in Congress for slavery expansion. Some of that was the cumulative effect of abolitionist criticism of Southern slavery and its Northern allies. Some of it came from economic transformations, especially after the financial crises of 1837 and 1839. And, of course, a lot of the force of that critique came from African-Americans who’d escaped to the North.


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.