By Representative LaKeshia Myers
In this week’s rampant retelling of revisionist history, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis applauded new education curriculum that teaches Florida students that enslaved Blacks, “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” This errant, ignorant, and dismissive portrayal glosses over the fact that prior to enslavement, Africans lived in thriving communities and were already skilled. The institution of chattel slavery did nothing to benefit the enslaved; the only beneficiaries were plantation owners and the global economy that was fueled by the forced labor of the enslaved.
In reading The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, author Edward Baptist brilliantly paints a portrait of the economic side of American slavery. By integrating historical anecdotes, quantitative records, and primary sources as a point of reference, Baptist explores the motives and manipulation of slavery in the American south and traces its patterns of practice and production protocols throughout the antebellum years through the civil war. With a mixture of states’ rights rhetoric and the northern industrial powerhouses of New York and Philadelphia as a crucial backdrop, Baptist weaves purposefully and intentionally a tale of economic competition, “by any means necessary.”
In examining the oft told story of slavery, Baptist unearths the methodology behind the push system. According to Baptist, southern entrepreneurs, using a finite number of captives under their own control, created a complex of labor control practices, that enslaved people called, “the pushing system” (Baptist, 2012). “The pushing system” increased the number of acres each enslaved person was supposed to cultivate. By holding men, women, and children to the same pushing standards, it was determined that each person should be able to manage five acres of land in one crop season. Overseers would employ slaves to serve as “captains”—their job was to set the work pace for the group.
Baptist describes this pace as grueling and tells the reader that the push system was perpetuated by violence. According to Baptist, “innovation in violence, in fact, was the foundation of the widely shared pushing system. Enslaved migrants in the field quickly learned what happened if they lagged or resisted” (Baptist, 2012). For example, a man who had fallen behind the fore row fought back against a black driver who tried to “whip him up” to pace. A white overseer then pulled a pistol and shot the man dead (Baptist, 2012). In another anecdote, Baptist tells the story of a slave woman named Lydia. At the end of the workday, while walking back toward the slave cabins, Lydia stopped to talk to Charles, a slave that was new to the plantation. Their chat made them late for roll call, and the overseer chastised Lydia by beating her in front of the other slaves. This was done to make an example of her and to teach Simon the consequences of lingering in the field. This level of violence was commonplace, according to Baptist, under the pushing system.
Other observations of the pushing system were that its implementation was different in the Mid-Atlantic versus the deep south. As with the description of Charles Ball, he denotes the types and level of torture was much different in the deep south than it had been in the Chesapeake region where he came from. Baptist assuages, “Ball had discovered the new pushing system: a system that extracted more work by using oppressively direct supervision combined with torture ratcheted up to far higher levels than he had experienced before. Between 1790 and 1860, those crucial innovations made possible a vast increase in the amount of cotton grown in the United States” (Baptist, 2012). This increase in cotton production came at an eminent cost to the Black bodies that did the work. Disease was rampant among field hands and the combination of malnutrition and strenuous work, made for many broken bones, and other infirmities. Interestingly enough, Baptist notes that one in four children on plantations that utilized the pushing system died before their first birthday. This is five times the rate of present day Haiti; the same as the rate that would have been found in the most malaria infested parts of nineteenth century West Africa and the Caribbean (Baptist, 2012).
In comparing Guelzo’s and Baptists’ descriptions of slavery in the antebellum south, readers gain two very different perspectives of the same time period. In the case of Guelzo, he paints a broad brush, often erring on the side of the romanticized aspects of white southern culture in the antebellum south. Guelzo describes slavery in the 1850s as, “neither a backward nor dying system in the 1850’s. It was aggressive, dynamic, and mobile, and by pandering to the racial prejudices of a white republic starved for labor, it was perfectly capable of expansion. In 1810, the southern states had a slave population of over one million; In 1860, in defiance of every expectation for what a system of organized violence could do to the survival of a people, the slave population stood at just under four million” (Guelzo, 2012). Guelzo goes on to describe both the cultural differences and economic prowess of the United States unhappy coexistence that fed one another for the country’s economic gain. Guelzo states, “The cultural differences and economic aggressiveness of the slave system and the political weakness of the Union were an unhappy combination within the American republic, but there was nothing in either of them that necessarily threw one into collision of the other. South and North still shared large areas of cultural continuity, and Northern merchants happily made fortunes feeding slavery’s economic drives” (Guelzo, 2012).
According to Guelzo, there might have never been a civil war in 1861, had it not been for questions about land in the American West. While hosting (and outright owning) servants was acceptable practice when the colonies were under British rule, the terminology was a loose one—this could include indentured servants, household help, as well as slaves. Gules points out that as late as 1800 two-thirds of New York’s Black population was enslaved, and the legislation that freed them was written in such a way that they could have remained in bondage throughout 1850. New England states such as Rhode Island and Connecticut, had a smattering of slaves that numbered nearly 1500 as late as 1810. Guelzo assuages that had slavery remained a legal and economic force in every northern state and survived in significant numbers, the issue would not have been one that was seen as sorely divisive and an issue that pitted north versus south. Guelzo suggests if this had been the case, slavery would have been dealt with as an object of social reform, not civil war, and probably would have been phased out of American life by the beginning of the 20th century (Guelzo, 2012.
In his quest to explain why the issue of slavery became a sectional issue, Guelzo mentions the American Revolution. He believes that because the British loyalists offered freedom to indentured servants and slaves who aided them during the American Revolution, this lessened the overall number of slaves in the northern states. I, too, remember learning about this time after reading Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, which chronicles the stories of Blacks who took up arms or did other work to aid the British and were promised freedom in return. Many of these people were granted their freedom, given land in Nova Scotia, and built communities there.
From Baptist’s depictions of slavery and life in the agrarian south, historians gain first-hand knowledge of the plantation systems that were in place during that time. Baptist is intentional in his use of language, anecdotes, and details of the torture used to fuel the southern cotton industry. It is evident that at the end of the day, in the American south, profit was the major motive of slavery and cotton production. The economic boom that followed was felt by both northerners and southerners, alike. Baptist writes, “After all, cotton entrepreneurship passed on benefits to the North, expanding credit markets, supporting trade, and making markets for the new textile mills being established by John Quincy Adams’ constituents” (Baptist, 2012). Baptist goes on to tell in earnest, how John Quincy Adams disliked the political power that was held by southern slave owner’s due to their ever-expanding wealth and political acumen.
Baptist’s book was a more encompassing telling of the economic system that built the American economy. While he goes into very graphic detail, he does so, intentionally; with the picture of how each decade faired for the northern states as well as the southern states. Baptist even draws parallels in the African American experience today. For example, Baptist writes of African Americans in the generation after slavery, “But the body of African America, stretched, and chained, and stretched again, the body whose tongue and spirit and blood had developed alongside slavery’s expansion, was still alive” (Baptist, 2012). What was to become of these people? He speaks of African Americans having a history that was stolen from them; slavery and its expansion, he described as, “had built enduring patterns of poverty and exploitation” (Baptist, 2012).
What do historians learn from Baptist’s text? They learn the truth—the sobering, harrowing, violent, vicious, and undisputed truth about the United States’ role in slavery. The northern legislation that created loopholes to hold slaves, the southern agrarian activism that gave birth to the “pushing system,” the profit garnering cotton trade that meant economic benefits to both the north and south, and the expanding American landmass that was the impetus for southern secession.
I believe Baptist sums his text up well when he writes, “More broadly, the history of feet and heads, hands, tongues, breath, seed, blood, and backs and arms had made all of African America, the United States, and the modern world. The shaping began in the 1780s. The possibility of profit from forced migration kept the United States together through the lean years after the American Revolution. The Constitution’s compromises built a union on slavery and embedded its expansion—some thought temporarily, some thought permanently—into the fabric of the American political economy” (Baptist, 2012).
The remnants of that political economy are still present today. Thus, the struggle continues.