Visiting Prof. Connects Slavery and Capitalism

Edward Baptist

Edward Baptist, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, described American slavery as a story of modernization and modernity in his talk Tuesday at Boston College. Baptist discussed his latest book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, which details the meteoric American economic expansion of the 19th century and its connection to slavery.

The event, which was titled “Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” was sponsored by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and co-sponsored by the Institute for the Liberal Arts and the African and African Diaspora Studies Program.

First, Baptist spoke about his research into hundreds of personal testimonies of former slaves. He studied memoirs, autobiographies, and interviews conducted by the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s, and found out that slaveowners had created a system in which they assigned individual picking quotas, weighed each slave’s bag of picked cotton at the end of the day, and whipped people who failed to meet their particular quota.

And as soon as enslaved people figured out how to meet the demands of their captors, the daily quotas were ratcheted ever higher, Baptist said. In addition to their quota, the slaves’ punishments for not meeting standards were also increased.

Baptist cited the work of two economists who discovered in 2007 a study that described the amount of cotton picked by slaves. It stated that the work increased at a rate of around 2 percent per year from 1830 to 1860, adding up to a 400-percent productivity increase.

By 1860, 88 percent of all cotton bought or sold worldwide was grown on American soil. Cotton had become the global economy’s dominant product, and this massive increase in cotton output was largely responsible for supercharging American economic expansion.

Raw cotton was largely exported to Europe, particularly Great Britain. As American cotton was shipped around the globe, a steady stream of British capital was entering into American businesses. Baptist pointed out that much of this slavery-fueled capital accumulation is still prevalent today.

“In the 1830s, change was actually accelerating to an ever-faster, sustained pace, measured in both [economic] growth rates, and in momentum that perhaps extends all the way through history to the present,” Baptist said. “It’s only between 1750 and 1850, in Western Europe and North America, that human societies first achieve the miracle … of sustained high growth rates and sustained technological change that substantially increased productivity.”

The key to understanding the rapid industrialization of America, Baptist said in conclusion, is to realize that the export of cotton was the key to allowing capital to flow in from foreign buyers. This was crucial to increasing productivity in all sectors of the economy.

This process is the source of what we now know as economic growth, a concept that did not exist prior to the late 18th century, Baptist said. This growth, built literally on the backs of slaves, is in his view what put America on the trajectory it is on today, transforming it almost overnight from a former colony of Great Britain into an economic superpower.

During the question-and-answer session that followed the lecture, Baptist was asked if America would have been able to achieve such radical growth, which led to industrialization, over such a short period of time had slavery not been available to the nation’s businessmen.

“Although it’s possible that industrialization might have happened anyway,” Baptist said. “In the world we live in, though [slaveholding] may not have been necessary, that is what did happen.”

Featured Image by Lucius Xuan