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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

boisi center for religion and american public life

On October 4, Cornell University professor Edward E. Baptist spoke about his book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014) at an event co-sponsored by the Institute for the Liberal Arts, the African and African Diaspora Studies Program, and the Boisi Center. Baptist’s work emphasizes the connection between slavery and America’s economic success throughout the nation’s early history.

Baptist began his lecture by highlighting the varying factors that shaped the growth of industrial capitalism in the U.S. Baptist explained how autobiographies by slaves and former slaves provide firsthand accounts from the historically neglected perspective of the black slave. Thousands of slaves recounted their experiences; more than two-thousand interviews with enslaved and formerly enslaved individuals uncover where “American capitalism gets some of its dis- tinctive force and character.” 

In the early-nineteenth century, new technology and machinery in Britain unleashed an era of industrialization that transformed the economy of slavery and the United States. The emergence of a new factory system that made cotton the most sought after commodity in the world market. Enslavers seized control of the market, going from minor players to the dominant supplier of cotton globally. 

Baptist noted that if cotton entrepreneurs could not supply the ever-growing demand of that cotton, prices would rise. Therefore enslavers relied on slaves to pick cotton at increasingly high quotas, which literate slaves recorded in ledgers. Enslavers used torture and coercion to increase their slaves’ productivity. With each passing year, the average enslaved cotton-picker picked 2% more cotton per work day—a 400% overall productivity growth over the course of the nineteenth century. At the height of the cotton industry, slaves were required to pick anywhere between 100 to 160 pounds of cotton a day. 

Against historical treatments of the American South that emphasize the managerial and technical ingenuity of the white enslavers, Baptist maintains that it would be erroneous to ignore the role of enslaved people in the economic growth of the U.S. In short, Baptist emphasized that “the whip, not seeds, helped the cotton industry grow” and that freedom and capitalism often do not go hand in hand. 

Professor of history and director of the African and African Diaspora Studies Program at Boston College, Martin Summers, provided a compelling response pointing out that Baptist does not attempt to paint a unified or monolithic image of slavery. Instead, he describes the individual stories and childhoods of former slaves in order to humanize their role and overall contribution to the formation of American capitalism. Summers suggested that Baptist’s book could be renamed to “Slavery and the Making of American Culture,” as the institution of enslavement and exploitation left a powerful imprint on the church and society as a whole.