The Half Has Never Been Told

Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism


By Edward E. Baptist

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A groundbreaking history demonstrating that America's economic supremacy was built on the backs of enslaved people

Winner of the 2015 Avery O. Craven Prize from the Organization of American Historians
Winner of the 2015 Sidney Hillman Prize

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 E. 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.
Told through the intimate testimonies of survivors of slavery, plantation records, newspapers, as well as the words of politicians and entrepreneurs, The Half Has Never Been Told offers a radical new interpretation of American history.





NOT LONG AFTER THEY heard the first clink of iron, the boys and girls in the cornfield would have been able to smell the grownups’ bodies, perhaps even before they saw the double line coming around the bend. Hurrying in locked step, the thirty-odd men came down the dirt road like a giant machine. Each hauled twenty pounds of iron, chains that draped from neck to neck and wrist to wrist, binding them all together. Ragged strips flapped stiffly from their clothes like dead-air pennants. On the men’s heads, hair stood out in growing dreads or lay in dust-caked mats. As they moved, some looked down like catatonics. Others stared at something a thousand yards ahead. And now, behind the clanking men, followed a marching crowd of women loosely roped, the same vacancy painted in their expressions, endurance standing out in the rigid strings of muscle that had replaced their calves in the weeks since they left Maryland. Behind them all swayed a white man on a gray walking horse.

The boys and girls stood, holding their hoe handles, forgetful of their task. In 1805, slave coffles were not new along the south road through Rowan County, here in the North Carolina Piedmont, but they didn’t pass by every day. Perhaps one of the girls close to the road, a twelve-year-old willow, stared at the lone man who, glistening with sweat and fixed of jaw, set the pace at the head of the double file. Perhaps he reminded her of her father, in her memory tall. A few years back, he’d stopped coming to spend his Saturday nights with them. The girl’s mother said he’d been sold to Georgia. Now in the breath of a moment, this man caught her staring eyes with his own scan as he hurried past. And perhaps, though he never broke stride, something like recognition flashed over a face iron as his locked collar. This man, Charles Ball, a twenty-five-year-old father of two, could not help but see his own daughter ten years hence, years he knew she’d pass without him. Then he was gone down the road, pulling the rest of the human millipede past the girl. As the women’s bare soles receded—the white man on the horse following last, looking down, appraising her—the overseer on the far side of the field called out “Hey!” to her stock-still self, and she would surely have realized that the coffle carried her own future with them.1

There are 1,760 yards in a mile—more than 2,000 steps. Forty thousand is a long day’s journey. Two hundred thousand is a hard week. For eighty years, from the 1780s until 1865, enslaved migrants walked for miles, days, and weeks. Driven south and west over flatlands and mountains, step after step they went farther from home. Stumbling with fatigue, staggering with whiskey, even sometimes stepping high on bright spring mornings when they refused to think of what weighed them down, many covered over 700 miles before stepping off the road their footsteps made. Seven hundred miles is a million and a half steps. After weeks of wading rivers, crossing state lines, and climbing mountain roads, and even boarding boats and ships and then disembarking, they had moved their bodies across the frontier between the old slavery and the new.

Over the course of eighty years, almost 1 million people were herded down the road into the new slavery (see Table 1.1). This chapter is about how these forced marchers began, as they walked those roads, to change things about the eastern and western United States, like shifting grains moved from one side of a balance to another. It shows how the first forced migrations began to tramp down paths along which another 1 million walkers’ 1.5 trillion steps would shape seven decades of slavery’s expansion in the new United States. And it shows how the paths they made on the land, in politics, and in the economy—the footprints that driven slaves and those who drove them left on the fundamental documents and bargains of the nation—kept the nation united and growing.

For at the end of the American Revolution, the victorious leaders of the newly independent nation were not sure that they could hold their precarious coalition of states together. The United States claimed vast territories west of the Appalachian Mountains, but those lands were a source of vulnerability. Other nations claimed them. Native Americans refused to vacate them. Western settlers contemplated breaking loose to form their own coalitions. East of the Appalachians, internal divisions threatened to tear apart the new country. The American Revolution had been financed by printing paper money and bonds. But that had produced inflation, indebtedness, and low commodity prices, which now, in the 1780s, were generating a massive economic crisis. There was no stable currency. The federal government—such as it was—had no ability to tax, and so it also could not act as a national state.


Between the arrival of the first Africans in 1619 and the outbreak of Revolution in 1775, slavery had been one of the engines of colonial economic growth. The number of Africans brought to Maryland and Virginia before the late 1660s was a trickle—a few dozen per year. But along with white indentured servants, these enslaved Africans built a massive tobacco production complex along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Over those formative fifty years, settlers imported concepts of racialized slavery from other colonies (such as those in the Caribbean, where enslaved Africans already outnumbered other inhabitants by the mid-seventeenth century). By 1670, custom and law insisted that children were slaves if their mothers were slaves, that enslaved Africans were to be treated as rights-less, perpetual outsiders (even if they converted to Christianity), that they could be whipped to labor, and that they could be sold and moved. They were chattel property. And everyone of visible African descent was assumed to be a slave.2

After 1670 or so, the number of enslaved Africans brought to North America surged. By 1775, slave ships had carried 160,000 Africans to the Chesapeake colonies, 140,000 to new slave colonies that opened up in the Carolinas and Georgia, and 30,000 to the northern colonies. These numbers were small compared to the myriads being carried to sugar colonies, however. Slave ships landed more than 1.5 million African captives on British Caribbean islands (primarily Jamaica and Barbados) by the late 1700s and had brought more than 2 million to Brazil. In North America, however, the numbers of the enslaved grew, except in the most malarial lowlands of the Carolina rice country. By 1775, 500,000 of the thirteen colonies’ 2.5 million inhabitants were slaves, about the same as the number of slaves then alive in the British Caribbean colonies. Slave labor was crucial to the North American colonies. Tobacco shipments from the Chesapeake funded everyone’s trade circuits. Low-country Carolina planters were the richest elites in the revolutionary republic. The commercial sectors of the northern colonies depended heavily on carrying plantation products to Europe, while New England slave traders were responsible for 130,000 of the human beings shipped in the Middle Passage before 1800.3

Now, however, the consequences of war and independence were threatening the economic future of the enslavers. Marching armies had destroyed low-country rice-plantation infrastructure. Up to 25,000 enslaved Carolinians had left with the British. Britain blocked North American trade from its home and imperial markets. Though tobacco markets in continental Europe were still open, the price of that product went into free fall in the 1780s.4

Slavery was also caught up in the most divisive political issues raised by the Revolution. The weak federal government was buried in debts owed to creditors all over the nation and Europe, but southern and northern representatives to the Continental Congress disagreed over whether the apportionment of tax revenue by population should count southern slaves. More broadly, the Revolution raised the question of whether slavery should even exist, since rebellion had been justified with the claim that human beings had a God-given right to freedom. Petitions flooded northern state legislatures in the 1770s and 1780s, charging that slavery violated natural rights. And Thomas Jefferson, who admitted that “the Almighty has no attribute which can take a side with us” against the demands of the enslaved, was not the only prominent southerner who acknowledged the contradictions.5

Yet during the 1780s and 1790s, the possibilities that enslaved people represented, the wealth they embodied, and the way they could be forced to move themselves would actually forge links that overrode internal divisions. Marching feet increased the power of enslavers, and the beginning of forced movement south and west created new financial links and new kinds of leverage. And even among a million pairs of feet one can find the first steps: the moves and decisions that opened up new territories to slavery after the American Revolution. Kentucky and Mississippi could have been closed to slavery. Instead, during the 1780s, the early days of the American republic, decisionmakers in Philadelphia, New York, at Monticello, and elsewhere took crucial first steps that would allow slavery to spread.

BACK-AND-FORTH RAIDING DURING THE Revolution had stopped white settlement short of the mountains in South Carolina and Georgia. Few settlers had crossed the Appalachians into the Virginia and North Carolina districts that would become Kentucky and Tennessee. But potential migrants knew something about what lay beyond the bloody fringe of settlement. Since the early eighteenth century, white traders had walked deep into the woods of present-day South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, their mules laden with beads, guns, and liquor. Sometimes these merchants walked with enslaved African or African-American assistants. Those who returned alive told of rich soil and broad rivers. Further north, a trickle of settlers began to follow hunter Daniel Boone’s reports of rich lands across the mountains that rose west of the Shenandoah Valley.6

Only after the American victory did waves of migration begin to surge west across the mountains. By the early 1780s, settlers were sending word back east of Kentucky acres that yielded a hundred bushels of corn apiece, an “Elysium . . . the garden where there was no forbidden fruit.” But Native Americans called the region the “dark and bloody ground,” a land of rich hunting over which they had long fought. In 1782, Indians began to raid the settlements, taking slaves with them as they retreated. Potential settlers became wary of the land, and of the journey there. The “Wilderness Road” through the mountain passes was slow, difficult, and dangerous. Shawnee and Cherokee killed dozens of travelers on the Wilderness Road every year. In winter, there were fewer Indian war parties about. But on their winter 1780 trip, John May and an enslaved man passed thousands of thawing horse and cattle carcasses in the “rugged and dismal” mountains, casualties of failed cold crossings.7

That year North Carolina enslaver Thomas Hart wondered whether he should send slaves to clear the land that he claimed in Kentucky: “to send a parcel of poor Slaves where I dare not go myself” seemed a kind of extreme taxation without representation, not in keeping with the ideals of the ongoing Revolution. But Hart changed his mind. He brought enslaved pioneers across the mountain road, even though the toil he planned for them to do in the woods, cutting down the forest and planting clearings with corn and tobacco, left them exposed to danger. “Lexington, Kentucky, August 22,” read a 1789 newspaper story based on a letter from the western frontier. “Two negro children killed and two grown negros wounded at Col. Johnson’s.” Sometimes the Shawnees scalped prisoners, and sometimes they took them back alive. Three Indians captured an enslaved man from a forge on the Slate River in Kentucky during 1794. They bound his arms, made him walk, and told him they were taking him to Detroit (where the British still maintained a fort, in defiance of the Treaty of Paris) to sell him for “taffy”—tafia, cheap rum. When they stopped to rest near the Ohio, they untied him and sent him to gather firewood, which was when he escaped.8

Over the 1780s, the invaders from the coastlands fought hundreds of battles. One such fight took place in 1786. Virginia-born migrant Abraham Lincoln (the sixteenth president’s grandfather) was clearing a field on his land west of Louisville. The regular thunk of the axe was suddenly broken by the crack of a musket. Lincoln fell. The Indian emerged cautiously from the forest. Abraham’s son Thomas, who had been playing in the field, crouched behind a log. The sniper searched. Where was the little white boy with the dark hair? Suddenly, another crack. The Indian, too, dropped dead. Lincoln’s teenage son Mordecai had shot him from the window of a log cabin on the clearing’s edge. And as the settlers won more and more little battles like this one, eventually fewer and fewer Shawnee came south across the Ohio.9

Back on the east side of the mountains, meanwhile, slavery in the old Virginia and Maryland tobacco districts was increasingly unprofitable, and even some enslavers were conceding that enslavement contradicted all of the new nation’s rhetoric about rights and liberty. In his 1782 Notes on the State of Virginia, Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson complained that slavery transformed whites “into despots.” Jefferson’s first draft of the 1776 Declaration of Independence had already railed against British support for the Atlantic slave trade. Despite his ownership of scores of enslaved African Americans, Jefferson recognized that the selling of human beings could turn his soaring natural-rights rhetoric into a lie as sour as the hypocrisies of old Europe’s corrupt tyrants. Eventually, Jefferson embraced the hypocrisy, even failing to free the enslaved woman who bore his children. “Sally—an old woman worth $50,” read the inventory of his property taken after his death. Yet in 1781, his Declaration’s claim that all were endowed with the natural right to liberty provided a basis to push the Massachusetts Supreme Court into conceding—in the case of a runaway slave named Quock Walker—that slavery was incompatible with the state’s core principles.10

Virginia politicians shot down Governor Jefferson’s feeble suggestions of gradual emancipation, but as he moved into the new nation’s legislature, he still hoped to ensure that the western United States would be settled and governed by free, self-sufficient farmers—not an oligarchy of slave-driving planters. In 1784, a committee of the Continental Congress, headed by Jefferson, proposed an “ordinance” for governing the territories across the Appalachians. Many in Congress feared that the western settlements might secede or, worse yet, fall into the arms of European empires. As Britain’s Indian allies raided south from their base at Detroit, Spain claimed the English-speaking settlements around Natchez. In 1784, Spain also closed the mouth of the Mississippi at New Orleans, the main trading route for western US territories. Eastern states also disagreed vehemently over how to sort out their overlapping claims to blocks of western land, which legislators hoped to sell in order to pay bonds issued during the Revolution. In the area that became Kentucky, still technically part of Virginia, the confusion generated by the uncertain government made it hard for small farmers like the Lincolns to make hard-won homesteads good. There was no logical system of surveying, so claims overlapped “like shingles.” Old Dominion attorneys steeped in Virginia’s complex and arcane land laws swarmed across the mountains to sort out conflicts—in favor of the highest bidder.11

The western issues that the Continental Congress faced in 1784 thus had implications for everything from the grand strategy of international relations to everyday economic and legal power. Jefferson’s Ordinance of 1784 aimed to define them in favor of young Thomas Lincoln and everyone like him. It proposed that the territory between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River would become as many as sixteen new states, each equal to the original thirteen. And a second act that Jefferson drafted—the Ordinance of 1785—created a unified system of surveying, identifying, and recording tracts of land. This design eliminated the possibility of shingling over post-Kentucky territories with contradictory claims.12

The small farmer whom Jefferson imagined as the chief beneficiary of western expansion was as white as Abraham Lincoln, but the 1784 proposal also stated “that after the Year 1800 of the Christian Era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states.” That would have put Kentucky and what eventually became Tennessee on the road to eventual emancipation, perhaps along the lines of the statewide emancipations already under way in New England. The cluster of farms and plantations near Natchez on the Mississippi relied even more heavily on slavery. By 1790, there were more than 3,000 enslaved Africans in the disputed Natchez District. If Jefferson’s proposal passed, presumably emancipation would have been mandated there as well. Yet under the Articles of Confederation, the wartime compromise that shaped the pre-Constitution federal government, a majority of state delegations in Congress had to consent for any proposal to become law. A majority of delegations, including his own Virginia one, rejected Jefferson’s antislavery clause even as they accepted his other principles—that Congress should make rules for the territories, that the territories could become states, and that rational systems of land surveying and distribution should prevail. Frustrated, Jefferson sailed off to France to take up the position of American minister.13

Jefferson returned from France in September 1789. He had watched the Bastille torn down stone by stone, and he had seen ominous hints that the French Revolution would turn murderous. He had also started a relationship with a young enslaved woman. But the political changes he found upon his return gave him perverse incentives to think differently about the question of planting slavery in the western United States. Support for slavery’s expansion had already become one of the best ways to unite southern and northern politicians—and Jefferson wanted to build a national political alliance that would defeat the older networks of power dominated by Federalist planting and mercantile gentries.

Congress had in the meantime taken one action to prevent slavery’s expansion. In 1787 it reconsidered Jefferson’s 1784 ordinance and passed it for the territories north of the Ohio, with the antislavery clause included. Perhaps this was no great moral or political feat. Few, if any, slaves had been brought to Ohio. Moreover, a handful of people would remain enslaved in the Northwest for decades to come, and the ordinance contained internal contradictions that left open the option of extending slavery into the states carved from the territory. Still, the ordinance became an important precedent for the power of Congress to ban slavery on federal territory.14

Yet in the four years between the end of the American Revolution in 1783 and the establishment of the Northwest Territory by Congress in 1787, the Congress had been able to accomplish precious little else to stabilize matters on either the western or the eastern side of the mountains. Chaos ruled: thirteen different states had thirteen different trade policies, currencies, and court systems. The Articles of Confederation, created as a stopgap solution for managing a war effort by thirteen different colonies against the mother country, had never allowed the federal government to have real power: the power to coerce the states, the power to control the currency, the power to tax. The result was not only economic chaos but also, wealthy men with much to lose feared, the impending collapse of all political and social authority. In rural Massachusetts, former Continental soldiers shut down courts after judges foreclosed on farmers who couldn’t pay debts or taxes because of economic chaos. In other states, angry majorities elected legislatures that were ready to bring debt relief to small farmers and other ordinary folk even if it meant economic disaster for creditors.

So after Congress adjourned in early 1787, delegates from twelve states converged on Philadelphia. Their mission was to create a stronger federal government. The participants included future presidents George Washington and James Madison; Alexander Hamilton, who did more to shape the US government than most presidents; and Benjamin Franklin, the most famous American in the world. As May ended, they went into Independence Hall, closed the shutters, and locked the doors. By the time they emerged in late summer they had created the US Constitution, a plan for welding thirteen states into one federal nation. Once it was approved by the states, its centralizing framework would finally give Congress the authority it needed to carry out the functions of a national government: collecting revenue, protecting borders, extinguishing states’ overlapping claims to western territory, creating stable trade policy, and regulating the economy. A deal struck between the big states and the small ones allowed representation by population in the House of Representatives while giving each state the same number of delegates in the Senate.15

But the Constitution was also built from the timber of another bargain. In this one, major southern and northern power-brokers forced their more reluctant colleagues to consent to both the survival and the expansion of slavery. The first point of debate and compromise had been the issue of whether enslaved people should be counted in determining representation in the House. Representing Pennsylvania, Gouverneur Morris warned that this would encourage the slave trade from Africa, since the importing states would be rewarded with more clout in the national government. In the end, however, every northern state but one agreed that a slave could count as three-fifths of a person in allocating representation. The Three-Fifths Compromise affected not only the House, but also the presidency, since each state’s number of electoral votes was to be determined by adding two (for its senators) to its number of representatives in the House. One result was the South’s dominance of the presidency over the next seventy years. Four of the first five presidents would be Virginia slaveholders. Eight of the first dozen owned people.

Over the long run, those presidents helped to shape the nation’s policy of geographic and economic growth around the expansion of slavery. But those policies were not just enabled by the consequences of compromise over representation. Their roots grew out of the Constitution itself. As Gouverneur Morris had suggested, the convention had to consider the issue of the Atlantic slave trade, the cause of a continual influx of people destined for slavery in the New World society. By the 1780s, many white Americans and a growing cadre of British reformers believed that modern civilized nations could no longer engage in the brutalities of the Middle Passage. In the Constitutional Convention itself, Virginia slaveholder George Mason bragged that Virginia and Maryland had already banned the “infernal traffic” in human beings. But, he worried, if South Carolina and Georgia were allowed to import slaves, the greed of those states would “bring the judgment of Heaven” on the new nation. Mason charged that “every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant,” and yet the curse might spread. “The Western people”—by which he meant the people of Kentucky and other newly settled areas—“are already crying out for slaves for their new lands,” he said, “and will fill that country with slaves if they can be got thro’ S. Carolina and Georgia.”16

Mason’s critique infuriated politicians from the coastal areas of the deepest South, who leapt to their rights. Mason claimed to be a freedom-loving opponent of slavery, but he was speaking from self-interest, charged South Carolina’s Charles C. Pinckney: “Virginia will gain by stopping the importations. Her slaves will rise in value, and she has more than she wants.” Pinckney hinted at something new in the history of New World slavery: the possibility of filling a new plantation zone with slave labor from American reservoirs. This was possible because the Chesapeake’s enslaved population had become self-reproducing. Pinckney then defended slavery in the abstract. “If slavery be wrong,” he said, “it is justified by the example of all the world. . . . In all ages one half of mankind have been slaves.” The Carolinas and Georgia threatened to abandon the Constitutional Convention.

Just as the already hot, shuttered hall neared the boiling point, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut—a future chief justice of the Supreme Court—rose to dump ice water on the Chesapeake delegates. Having “never owned a slave,” Ellsworth said, he “could not judge of the effects of slavery on character.” Rather than simply attacking the international slave trade’s morality, or bewailing the effects of slaveholding in the moral abstract, let the economic interest of white Americans dictate whether the Atlantic slave trade should be closed. And, “as slaves also multiply so fast in Virginia and Maryland that it is cheaper to raise than import them . . . let us not intermeddle” with internal forced migrations, either. Concurring with Ellsworth, South Carolina’s John Rutledge—another future chief justice—insisted that “religion and humanity [have] nothing to do with this question.” “Interest alone is the governing principle with nations,” he said. “The true question at present is whether the Southern States shall or shall not be parties to the Union. If the Northern States consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of Slaves which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers.” New plantations within US borders could fill the role of the British sugar islands, to which northeastern merchants had lost access in the American Revolution. So the convention made a deal: Congress would ban the slave trade from Africa, but not for at least another twenty years.17


  • “Abolitionists were contemptuous of such self-serving nonsense, but they too tended to see slavery as an economically inefficient, and morally reprehensible, hangover from the premodern past… In ‘The Half Has Never Been Told,’ Edward E. Baptist takes passionate issue with such assumptions. He asserts that slavery was neither inherently inefficient nor a counterpoint to capitalism. Rather, he says, it was woven inextricably into the transnational fabric of early 19th-century capitalism…Baptist writes with verve and a good eye for the dramatic…”—Wall Street Journal
  • "Baptist has a knack for explaining complex financial matters in lucid prose.... The Half Has Never Been Told's underlying argument is persuasive."—New York Times Book Review
  • "The overwhelming power of the stories that Baptist recounts, and the plantation-level statistics he's compiled, give his book the power of truth and revelation."
    Los Angeles Times
  • "It taught me so much about slavery and how slavery enabled America to become America. Every time I left my house after reading, I saw the world differently. I saw the legacy of human misery underpinning it all."—Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing
  • "Baptist has a fleet, persuasive take on the materialist underpinnings of the 'peculiar institution.'"—Colson Whitehead, author of The Nickel Boys
  • "By far the finest account of the deep interplay of the slave trade...and the development of the U.S. economy."—Stephen L. Carter
  • "You cannot understand the economy of the U.S. - or even of the world -without an understanding of how its development was driven by 19th century slavery. This book gives you that, in a stunningly readable, heartbreaking form. Genius."—Mark Bittman, author of Animal, Vegetable, Junk
  • “New books like ‘Empire of Cotton’ and ‘The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism’ by Edward Baptist offer gripping and more nuanced stories of economic history.”—Vikas Bajaj, New York Times
  • "Thoughtful, unsettling.... Baptist turns the long-accepted argument that slavery was economically inefficient on its head, and argues that it was an integral part of America's economic rise."—Daily Beast
  • “A stinging indictment of slavery.”—NPR Books
  • “This book provides historical reference for the ways in which the enslavement of people for profit continues to impact and influence today’s institutions. A must-read for everyone who has ever heard the statement, ‘But slavery is over! Why can’t they just get over it?’ or ‘Well, you know white people were slaves, too.’”
     —Alicia Garza, The Atlantic
  • “Digging into the large repository of oral histories from former slaves documented during the Great Depression, the book offers a moving account of suffering and resilience.”—NPR’S Code Switch
  • "Wonderful.... Baptist provides meticulous, extensive, and comprehensive evidence that capitalism and the wealth it created was absolutely dependent on the forced labor of Africans and African-Americans, downplaying culturalist arguments for Western prosperity."—Nation
  • "Baptist's real achievement is to ground these financial abstractions in the lives of ordinary people. In vivid passages, he describes the sights, smells and suffering of slavery. He writes about individual families torn apart by global markets. Above all, Baptist sets out to show how America's rise to power is inextricable from the suffering of black slaves."—Salon
  • “Quite a gripping read. Baptist weaves deftly between analysis of economic data and narrative prose to paint a picture of American slavery that is pretty different from what you may have learned in high school Social Studies class.”—Huffington Post
  • “A book unusual, even courageous, for its enormous ambition and admirable breadth…Baptist’s book is among the best single-volume studies of the relationship between the expansion of slavery and the political economy of the United States…The Half Has Never Been Told has offered the historical backdrop for the stirring declaration ‘black lives matter.’”—Times Literary Supplement
  • “While on one level this is a work of persuasive and painstaking economic analysis, The Half Has Never Been Told never loses sight of the people whose commodification ‘shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation’.”—Race and Class (UK)
  • “A bold attempt to put slavery at the center of nineteenth-century capitalism.”—The Nation
  • "The Half Has Never Been Told is a true marvel. Groundbreaking, thoroughly researched, expansive, and provocative it will force scholars of slavery and its aftermath to reconsider long held assumptions about the 'peculiar institution's' relationship to American capitalism and contemporary issues of race and democracy. Engagingly written and bursting with fresh, powerful, and provocative insights, this book deserves to be widely read, discussed, and debated."—Peniel Joseph, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, and author of The Sword and the Shield
  • "This book, quite simply, offers the fullest and most powerful account we have of the evolution of slavery in the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War. Edward Baptist's account is eloquent, humane, passionate, and necessary."—Edward Ayers, President of Richmond University and author of the Bancroft Prize-winning In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America
  • "This book reveals a dirty secret about American business and how commerce first boomed before the Civil War. Baptist unearths a big, nasty story: in the North and the South, slavery was the tainted fuel that kindled the fires of U.S. capitalism and made the country grow."—Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family
  • "Edward Baptist's book belongs on the very short shelf of field-defining histories of slavery. It will be read and debated for a long time to come."—Thomas J. Sugrue, author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North
  • “Baptist has written an important book that is also indicative of a current trend in historiography that takes a highly critical view of the development of modern capitalism. It is refreshing.”
     —Matthew H. Crocker, The Historian
  • “A prodigious work that stacks up a mountain of documentary evidence.”—American Interest
  • “Wonderful… Baptist provides meticulous, extensive and comprehensive evidence that capitalism and the wealth it created was absolutely dependent on the forced labor of Africans and African-Americans, downplaying culturalist arguments for Western prosperity.”
  • “In addition to smashing paradigms about antebellum slavery, the book features evocative explorations of how African Americans developed a common culture despite the individual and family devastation inflicted by ‘enslavers.’ In the final chapters, the author offers a useful interpretation of how sectional conflict emerged and intensified after 1840 despite a half-century of shared support for cotton slavery.  The book gained wide notice after a hail of mocking tweets forced The Economist to withdraw an anonymous review, but it should gain fame for its trailblazing substance and style.”—Choice
  • “Baptist makes us see an unpalatable truth: that slavery was a tough central strand of American history and that it was not antithetical to capitalism but rather symbiotic with it. Baptist’s fine book deserves to stand alongside Sven Beckert’s prize-winning Empire of Cotton: AGlobal History; both books indispensably illuminate slavery’s economic significance and its global reach.”
     —Virginia Magazine
  • “[A] vital and enthralling book.”—Socialist Worker
  • “A stunning indictment of African-American slavery, contextualizing the history of the “peculiar institution” within emerging 19th-century American capitalism…Baptist’s great contribution is in providing general readers with insights into slavery’s horrors and how it transformed the South into the dominant force in the global market and cotton into the most important raw material in the world economy.”—News & Observer
  • “Baptist’s exhaustively researched, elegantly written and provocatively argued book details the connection between the growth of the institution of human bondage and economic innovations from 1783-1861.”—Providence Journal
  • “An ambitious and thorough account of how American capitalism was not an innate gift, but rather a system of gradual development, aiming to penetrate all aspects of the American public life. In particular, this fine book anatomizes the relationship between slavery and the creation of American capitalism…Thanks to its comprehensive, chronological approach and its lucid prose, the book is a rich addition to the literature on the economics of slavery and American development. The Half Has Never Been Told is required reading. It is challenging, illuminating, refreshing, and creative…Baptist adds many new, essential elements to the story of capitalism in America. Arguably, his most important contribution is to show how the ‘dismal science’ of economics can be an engine of development and yet a reminder of great and terrible costs that it imposes in the overall story. Now the long unspoken half of the story has been told—and we can only hope that it is heard.”
  • “Baptist’s prose is simultaneously evocative, gripping…Baptist supports his argument with an array of data…that are informative without being obtrusive or intimidating…This is the book you want to give your friends and relatives who have seen 12 Years a Slave and want to learn more. Like the film, this book will likely horrify them. It is not an easy book to read, but it is a book that needs to be read. It is likely to find its place among rare works of scholarship on slavery that successfully reaches a mass audience and reshapes how a generation of readers thinks about one of America’s most defining institutions.”
     —Journal of North Carolina Association of Historians
  • “A piece of scholarship that will both redefine the study of the ‘peculiar institution’ and shed fresh light on the relationship between slavery and modernity…A fresh, insightful view of slavery as a dynamic and modern social formation. The Half Has Never Been Told will undoubtedly shape debates in the field for many years to come.”
     —Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
  • “[Baptist] presents a detailed case, showing how the American economy benefitted from profits gained by forced labor and financial instruments that enabled investors to profit from slavery.”—Seattle Times
  • “Edward Baptist has written one of the richest and most provocative accounts of American slavery I have ever read. He so powerfully captures the pain and tragedy of plantation slavery… The author brilliantly draws out the close relationship between plantation slavery in the newly opening territories and states of what was then called the Southwest (Kentucky, Ala­bama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas) and the American capitalist explosion of the antebellum years... ‘Slavery permitted unchecked dominance and promised unlimited fulfillment of unrestrained desire,’ Baptist writes, and ‘one cannot understand it without studying both careful calculation and passionate craving.’ This book addresses both with an effectiveness achieved by few other authors.”—Christian Century
  • “A compelling case for recognising slavery as fundamental to the rise of the United States.”—Guardian Australia
  • “Baptist’s book fluidly interweaves economic analysis of the slave trade and the production that came from it—principally cotton—with heartbreaking stories of the lives and suffering of the people who were enslaved… The book enlightens the mind and pierces the heart. It should summon our collective will to finally redress the lingering injustices created by this most American institution.”—Labor Notes
  • “Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is an achievement of the first order… With Baptist’s meticulous research and comprehensive, chronological approach, the other half of the story has now been told, and told very well. The reader is readily engaged in this scholarly treatment of over 400 pages, thanks to Baptist’s narrative style and his skillful interweaving of personal stories from slave and enslaver memoirs and letters with complex political and economic context… Baptist’s depiction of the breakup of families, slave coffles in chains, and relentless field toil is heartbreakingly affective and never allows us to forget that it is ultimately impossible to make property of people… This book on ‘slavery’s second life in the United States’ is highly recommended to those who want to understand the evolution of our African-American heritage and its centrality to the nation’s political and economic history, not to mention the shameful blow to America’s stated ideals.”
     —Washington Independent Review of Books
  • “Edward E. Baptist’s brilliant book, The Half Has Never Been Told, soars because of the author’s decision to root his analysis in the human dimension. The book transcends anything that has previously been written about slavery...In short, Baptist has humanized the lives of American slaves, liberated them from one of the most inhumane systems mankind ever devised. The entire country needs to do the same.”—CounterPunch
  • The Half Has Never Been Told amounts to a powerful counternarrative of early American ‘progress.’ It should be valuable, both in and out of classrooms, as a template for remapping readers’ understanding of the young country’s economic development.”
     —The Junto
  • “A…myth-busting work that pursues how the world profited from American slavery…this is a complicated story involving staggering scholarship that adds greatly to our understanding of the history of the United States.”—Kirkus Reviews
  • “Baptist renders history and economics with the power of prose that seeks to tell a fuller story than has been told of American slavery…An insightful look at U.S. slavery and its controversial role in the much-celebrated story of American capitalism.”—Booklist
  • “Baptist has written a book that truly deepens and broadens our understanding of slavery… Professional historians and lay readers will pore over this book for years to come. Essential for all readers interested in American history and the history of slavery.”—Library Journal
  • “An unapologetic, damning, and grisly account of slavery’s foundational place in the emergence of America as a global superpower, balancing the macro lens of statistics and national trends with intimate slave narratives. Delivered in a voice that fluidly incorporates both academic objectivity and coarse language… Baptist’s chronicle exposes the taint of blood in virtually all of the wealth that Americans have inherited from their forebears, making it a rewarding read for anyone interested in U.S.A.’s dark history.”—Publishers Weekly

On Sale
Oct 25, 2016
Page Count
560 pages
Basic Books

Edward E. Baptist

About the Author

Edward E. Baptist is a professor of history at Cornell University. Author of the award-winning Creating an Old South, he lives in Ithaca, New York.

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