2018-06-11

Book Review: "The Half Has Never Been Told" by Edward Baptist

I've recently been able to read the book The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist. It is a thorough account of the history of chattel slavery in the present-day US from the 17th century through the Civil War. The main point of the book is to challenge three common assumptions in prevailing historical narratives of slavery, namely that its incompatibilities with liberal democracy in the 1850s were points of universal agreement in the North at that time and drove the Civil War, that its worst aspects were its denial of civil liberties & rights to black people, and that it was bound to fail eventually for being an inefficient economic system. The author counters this, marshaling numerous statistics from that time and corroborating analyses too, to show that slavery was in fact an efficient and dynamic economic system that went hand-in-hand with capitalism and national expansion, and further uses the stories of individual slaves (often left out of conventional historical narratives) on top of the available statistics to show the violence and brutality inherent in slavery as extending far beyond the mere denial of rights (as that denial of rights remained even in the Jim Crow era succeeding slavery).

The facts are presented in a very straightforward manner, and the narrative structure is remarkably coherent and engaging; this makes the emotionally weight of the book all the more apparent. I was particularly surprised to see not just how much of financial speculation familiar to modern readers was present with respect to the products of slavery in the 19th century, but particularly to see that even the slicing and dicing of securities that was practiced on subprime mortgages leading up to the 2008 financial crisis & recession were practiced almost identically with securities representing fractions of average slave labor products in the 1830s (even leading to financial panics then too). Moreover, while I was abstractly aware of the lack of happy endings for most slaves and the conditions of enslavement that would prevent successful revolts or emancipation, the reality of this didn't truly hit me until reading this book, seeing so many stories of slaves whose histories were obscured after a final sale or flogging. It was also quite interesting (and depressing) to see just how much slavery and the desire to maintain unity across the country drove the national political & economic conversations right up until the Civil War, and how much the North economically depended on the products of slavery until they started getting many more immigrants and gaining political power in turn; that discussion really puts into perspective just how simple lies the narratives of the Civil War being "for states' rights" or "of Northern aggression" were. The content is of course depressing to read, but that only enhances its importance; I really believe that this should be taught in schools & colleges to remove a lot of the myths and misinformation about slavery that are promulgated in schools throughout the country, and for that reason, I certainly recommend this book to anyone (though one must be mentally prepared to read about the horrors described).

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