By Ned Netterville


After reading Baptist’s book, I’m convinced the most horrendous conditions any group of Americans ever endured was being forced to do back-breaking work as a slave, a “field hand,” on a cotton plantation in the South during the period 1790 to 1860, as often as not ending up being killed (murdered?) by those conditions. Baptist’s book is an excruciating expose of what it was like to endure and often succumb to the horrendous torture inflicted on those slaves to force them to produce ever more cotton. The book also highlights the many economic benefits from the slaves’ forced labor realized by all Americans and people throughout the world. And it chronicles the unwelcome consequences of slavery for young America, some of which persist. The Half includes never-before published, first-hand accounts from some slaves themselves telling what it was like to be owned and operated by means of overwhelming force and violence by another person for the other person’s profit.


Baptist shows that African-American slaves’ production of cotton grew at an exponential rate during the seven pertinent decades as their enslavers learned from the slaves themselves how best to exploit them to obtain their maximum output. The slave owners’ methods of increasing productivity through torture relied on total domination of both body, mind and family. Contributing to the slaves’ ever-increasing productivity throughout the period was their own mental and physical fortitude, creativity and tenacity in clearing wilderness fields, planting, cultivating and harvesting the cotton crop, and transporting 400-pound bales to the docks in New Orleans for shipment to the burgeoning cotton mills of England and New England.

The fact that any slaves survived to tell about it is a wonder. Perhaps the cruelest irony of the slaves’ remarkable stories is that they never, until Baptist’s book, received credit for their astonishing achievement of continuously increasing their output of cotton under abominable conditions while the fruits of their labor were being stolen.

Baptist shows that African-American slaves made cotton America’s number-one export and the world’s number-one commercial commodity. The enslavers’ pilfered profits became the primary source of hard cash and credit for all of America’s industries. Slave labor made it possible for New York City to embark on becoming the financial capital of the world, made cotton the most important economic product globally, made it the linchpin of the Industrial Revolution, and transformed the nascent American economy into the fastest growing engine of wealth among all the nations on earth. Every American then and now shared or shares in the benefits stolen from slaves, which continued to be withheld from their lawful heirs after slavery officially ended.

Baptist is a professor of history at Cornell University. Although not an economist, his book includes a substantial amount of original research into the economic history of America’s cotton industry and the vital role it played in the nation’s economic development. His enumeration of the slaves’ contribution to the vibrant economy of young America serves as an indictment of many PhD economists who studied the same period, but failed to notice the crucial role enslaved African Americans played as they labored in the harsh environment of cotton fields while living in decrepit slave camps more suitable for cattle than people.

(Note: Several economists have pilloried Baptist’s research. A scathing review of The Half (and three similarly themed books) by two Columbia University economics professors  concludes with this rebuke: “As the NHC [the New History of Capitalism, a sarcastic designation] matures, it might embrace the enduring strengths of traditional historical scholarship, including citing sources correctly, conducting close (and accurate) readings, drawing inferences that are actually supported by the evidence, and integrating its findings into the broader historiography. It should also stop making stuff up.”

Baptist was able to tell his story of cotton and slaves because, under life-sapping conditions, some slaves survived to tell those stories, and of the millions who didn’t, some passed on to loved ones before slavery killed them their stories of what it was like to be kidnapped, sold, whipped and made to pick cotton, and if they had children, what it feels like to have them stolen at a young age, and sold afar where they knew a rabid overseer would whip them and make them pick cotton.

Among Baptist’s best sources, he says, were African-American teachers he had known, descendants of slaves, who heard, preserved and retold the otherwise-untold other half of the story of slavery in America to their students in segregated schools throughout the South. If you are white like me, the odds are great that you never heard the slaves’ side of the story of America’s cotton-fueled prosperity, nor what it took from them to achieve it.

I confess that before I read Baptist’s book, the only account I can recall reading that endeavored to portray the lives of slaves was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s didactic, romantic novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whose protagonist, Tom, has metamorphosed from a hero among Northern abolitionist, black and white, in 1852 when the book was published, into a black on black epithet for an obsequious negro since about 1900. Because educating slaves was legally forbidden in most slave states, only a rare few became literate enough to write books. Ensuring slaves could not be educated was designed and served well to silence their voices.

Baptist devoted over twelve years searching antebellum public records in the South, listening to the stories slaves told orally to their children who treasured them and retold them to successive generations, and by exploring the extensive archives of the Great-Depression-Era Works Progress Administration (WPA), which created jobs for writers, assigning them to record the memories of older Americans, including some who were born slaves and freed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or by the Civil War.

The Half Has Never Been Told was published in 2014. The 2016 paperback edition includes an Afterword. In it Edwards says the reason his book took twelve years to write was because, “I was attempting to rewrite the way we tell the story of U.S. history, at least up until 1865. I was trying to center American history on the exploitation, movement and disruption of African-American bodies, lives and families—all of which had been done for the sake of expanding a new, highly dynamic form of capitalism that eventually stretched from the field to the factory and back again.”


The Half argues that the expansion of slavery in both geography and intensity was what made American capitalism. “As I learned in my research,” Baptist argues, “there was a concrete relationship between African-American suffering and economic growth: the more that enslaved people were tortured, the more efficiently they produced the new global economy’s most essential commodity. Through the cotton the enslaved people made—cotton they were forced to make in an ever-more productive fashion—African Americans enriched almost all people of the world. Almost all people, but not themselves.” The book is a worthy addition to the genre, revisionist American history, but, unfortunately, not to the genre, economics nor the history of capitalism.

Baptist’s intent was a noble, daunting goal. He succeeded in most of his stated objectives, but failed miserably in one that is crucial to his thesis, which severely detracts from the importance of his book. Though he employed the word “capitalism” repeatedly, he failed to define it.  Unfortunately, capitalism has conflicting meanings to different people, particularly among people whose philosophical viewpoints are actuated by political ideologies. It is an unfortunate failure that discredits the author’s credentials as a conscientious, competent scholar.

Baptist addressed the economics of slavery in America from a leftist’s perspective. In his Afterword he reveals himself to be a “progressive,” a confused scion of socialism, which has been is referred to as socialism-lite by detractors. Manifestly, the author came to the task of writing his book with a virulent, anti-capitalism bias.

The following quote (p. 86) clearly demonstrates Baptist’s bias as well as his limited understanding of economics.                    “[E]ntrepreneurs,” he argues, “rarely create these benefits [viz., new technologies] themselves. Instead, they figure out how to reap their benefits in order to rip market share and profits away from other capitalists who are invested in status-quo technologies and staler business models. They are architects of the dynamic of “creative destruction” that iconoclast economist Joseph Schumpeter identified as the core engine of capitalism’s growth. Creative destruction produces wrenching shocks, devastating depressions following dramatic expansions, wars and conquests and enslavements.”

The italics in the preceding paragraph are mine to emphasize the patently biased tone Baptist adopts in describing capitalism, making entrepreneurs sound like gangsters. In fact, the core engine of capitalism’s growth is freedom, a fact Professor Schumpeter might attest if he was alive. Entrepreneurs neither reap nor rip. In a capitalist economy; they envision or provide products and services people desire and voluntarily purchase. At times they produce things people desperately need. Not a single person has ever been enslaved by laissez faire, which is capitalism’s original French name, whereas millions are now enslaved (e.g., North Korea), and hundreds of millions have been enslaved by socialism (e.g., Soviet Union, Communist China, Nazi Germany, Khmer-Rouge Cambodia, etc., etc., etc.). Karl Marx would be proud of Baptist for writing this fantasy description of the work of entrepreneurs, and for connecting capitalism to slavery.

Economist George Reisman, in his comprehensive analysis of capitalism wrote, “[I]t is a social system based on private ownership of the means of production. It is characterized by the pursuit of material self-interest under freedom and it rests on a foundation of the cultural influence of reason. Based on its foundations and essential nature, capitalism is further characterized by saving and capital accumulation, exchange of money, financial self-interest and the profit motive, the freedoms of economic competition and economic inequality, the price system, economic progress, and a harmony of material self-interests of all the individuals who participate in it.” [italics added for emphasis] (Capitalism, Jameson Books, Ottawa, IL, 1996, p. 19) Also available on the web in PDF: (

Thus, slavery and laissez faire are mutually exclusive concepts. By Reisman’s definition, Baptist’s claim that slavery “was what made American capitalism” is bogus. Had he understood capitalism as Reisman correctly defined it, he could not make such an absurd claim without sounding befuddled. African-American slaves did indeed contribute mightily to America’s economic growth and prosperity, as revealed by Baptist’s research, but an economic system incorporating slavery is not capitalism.

Capitalism mixes the two major factors of production, labor and capital, to produce goods and services, thereby advancing human progress. The mixing takes place in the free market under the guidance of entrepreneurs. All free-market transactions are necessarily voluntary, including laborers’ voluntary exchange of their services for wages. Freedom and capitalism are inseparable. What Baptist calls American capitalism in The Half Has Never Been Told is statism, the polar opposite of capitalism rightly understood. Statism relies on force in place of the freedom required by capitalism. Socialism is the most common and virulent form of statism. America has always had a greater measure of statism than capitalism.

The United States Constitution, which provided the legal framework for the slave-dependent social system Baptist describes, was designed and pushed through to ratification by men who were predominantly slave owners. Many among the others, as Baptist makes clear, were northerners who were indirectly enriched by the profits of the South’s cotton industry and slavery. It would be more honest to call such a system “crony capitalism,” as many people today refer to the matured system begot by the United States Constitution. However, crony statism is what it  really was back then and is now.

Many comments by Baptist in his Afterword persuade me he is “a progressive,” and, more likely than not, a socialist.” Here are some remarks of his that lead to that conclusion: “African Americans, as well as progressives in general, increasingly felt frustrated after two Obama victories [because his administrations] yielded nothing but rising class differentiation.” And this: “Thomas Picketty’s, Capital in the Twenty First Century…was a surprise runaway hit because it spoke directly to the reality [upward redistribution of wealth] many were experiencing.” And this: “They [historians and economists] assumed, in accordance with centuries of modern economists stretching back through Karl Marx and Adam Smith, that slave labor was essentially static.”

People who approvingly cite Picketty’s compilation of egregiously flawed statistics and faulty analyses are generally, like Picketty, socialists. Those who equate Karl Marx with Adam Smith, and refer to Marx as an economist, are either committed socialists, or they haven’t read The Wealth of Nations (Smith) nor Das Kapital (Marx), the respective authors’ major works. These weighty tomes prove conclusively that Smith was a genius, and Marx, as an economist, was clueless.

What likely induced Baptist to add his Afterword was a truly ignorant review of his book in The Economist. “Almost all of the blacks in his books are victims,” the reviewer wrote, “almost all of the whites are villains. That is not history; it is advocacy.” In that and other similarly insensitive remarks, the reviewer implicitly defended enslavers as against slaves. The response that followed the review was so incensed and intense the editors quickly retracted it and apologized. “People around the Internet,” Baptist reflects, “abused and ridiculed the review, the anonymous reviewer, and the Economist itself.” The brouhaha over the review generated a flurry of interest in The Half beyond academia, its most likely audience. The discredited review and viral reaction to it sold many books for Baptist. A fragrant response to a putrid review from Baptist’s perspective.

Prior to The Half Has Never Been Told, other historians have endeavored to blame slavery’s expansion on capitalism. Economics Professor Mark Thorton, a Senior Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, published an article in The Review of Austrian Economics, no. 2 (1994): pp. 21–47 entitled “Slavery, Profitability and the Market Process.” The article was a review of Robert Fogel’s and Stanley Engerman’s 1974 book, Time on the Cross. I reference it here because Thorton’s article contains brief commentaries on many of the important contributions to the genre, revisionist economic histories of slavery in the New World. Among them, Time on the Cross had the greatest impact.

Although Thorton’s article was published long before Baptist’s book, its concluding sentence, rebutting the thesis of Time on the Cross, can as well be said of Baptist’s anti-capitalist theme in The Half Has Never Been Told: “Not only is the ‘free market’ exonerated from the evil of slavery,” Thorton wrote, “but the full blame for slavery and even the Civil War is placed back on government.” (

While Baptist’s book exhibits little understanding of economic theory, and fails to link slavery to capitalism except by unsupported assertions, it is nevertheless an important, eye-opening history of slavery in America under the enslavers’ Constitution. By no means does Baptist exonerate the federal government for its role in slavery. In his examination and assessment of the role of slave-produced cotton in America, Baptist demonstrates persuasively that slaves were of fundamental importance in the development of the United States into the economic juggernaut it is today. But it wasn’t and isn’t capitalism. If America had been capitalist then or now, today’s juggernaut would look like an economic wuss by comparison, because of the productivity true capitalism makes possible.

Baptist opened a window into the personal stories of slaves as they would tell them if they could, stories of unspeakable cruelty and suffering like nothing else in the American experience. As Baptist stresses in his Afterword, their stories speak of an unbroken will to survive by dint of resources drawn from the depths of their humanity, which white people have never been forced to call on. The experience of surviving American slavery has given the African-American community a unique appreciation for their freedom, and, as Baptist says, “made still more precious the possibility that choice and love and pride and bodies and spirits could one day live unconstrained.”

As Baptist makes clear, that hasn’t happened yet for many descendants of slaves, nor, I would add, for most Americans. The same federal government that embraced and sustained slavery for all those decades, today employs milder violence and coercion against its subjects to force them to surrender as much as half of their earnings in taxes to support a ruling class of politicians, bureaucrats, cronies and a toxic Military Industrial Complex.


In his Afterword, Baptist speaks approvingly of Ta-Nehesi Coates’s, “The Case For Reparations,” an essay published in May 2014 by The Atlantic magazine. While cogently demonstrating a compelling case for reparations being paid by the nation to atone for the enslavement of African Americans, Coates wrote, “Broach the topic of reparations today and a barrage of questions inevitably follows: Who will be paid? How much will they be paid? Who will pay?”  (

These and other practicalities, not the justice of making reparations, are the impediments preventing their implementation. Coates also wrote, “Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced.” Baptist obviously agrees, as do I. Perhaps unlike Baptist or Coates, I believe substantial reparations to African-Americans descended from slaves, U.S. citizens long denied their “unalienable rights,” are realistically possible, economically wise, and entirely justified

There are about 40 million African-Americans in the U.S. The federal government, the entity responsible for America’s slavery, owns approximately $128 trillion in on-and-offshore oil and gas resources, about 640 million acres of land, 45,192 buildings, 261 million ounces of gold, and mineral rights on 2.5 billion acres on and offshore. These are assets worth enough money when liquidated to make substantial reparation payments to every descendant of America’s slaves.

Along with formal apologies from Congress, the President and the Supreme Court, which all played roles in denying blacks their freedom, monetary reparations would go a long way toward assuaging the nation’s guilt, and at least partially recompensing its black victims for the legalized looting of their forebears during centuries of injustice, which reverberates to the detriment of black Americans general welfare and white Americans’ moral rectitude. (Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay in The Atlantic.)

Counterintuitively, at least for those who do not understand the spiritual rewards to be derived from making amends for harm done, nor the many benefits derived from following the Golden Rule, paying reparations from the federal treasury would provide a massive stimulus to the U.S. economy and ignite an economic boom like nothing in America’s past, as mismanaged government assets moved into capable, profit-seeking private hands, and as reparation dollars were spent into the economy by the recipients. A stimulated, burgeoning economy would fully compensate taxpayers for the Treasury’s expenditure of money taxpayers will never lay their hands on anyway.

The economic wisdom of disposing of government assets is elaborated in a recent article by Jeffrey Tucker on the Foundation for Economic Education’s website. (See: )