When we talk about the United States becoming a global economic power, many discount the role slavery and free labor played in bolstering American capitalism.
Author Edward E. Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, explains how the American economic system benefited from slavery and used the horrific institution to position itself for “economic greatness.”
Americans tend to cast slavery as a pre-modern institution—the nation’s original sin, perhaps, but isolated in time and divorced from America’s later success. But to do so robs the millions who suffered in bondage of their full legacy.
As historian Edward Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told, the expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a continental cotton empire, and the United States grew into a modern, industrial, and capitalist economy. Until the Civil War, Baptist explains, the most important American economic innovations were ways to make slavery ever more profitable. Through forced migration and torture, slave owners extracted continual increases in efficiency from enslaved African Americans. Thus the United States seized control of the world market for cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and became a wealthy nation with global influence.
Baptist told Martin Thursday on NewsOne Now, “Cotton was in effect the oil of the early 19th century — economic boom that the U.S. experienced.”
“It was 50 percent of all of our exports. It was responsible for a huge amount of our economic activity, but what we traditionally thought was this sort of basic hand labor. It wasn’t made as efficiently by slaves as free people could have made it, but what in fact we now know is that enslaved people made cotton more efficiently every single year and they made it not by choice — they made it more efficiently not by choice, but because they were forced to by a system of torture.”
Watch Roland Martin and author Edward E. Baptist discuss his book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, in the video clip above.
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