Gentle Readers, do you know what bothers me? We somehow never hear the other half of history. It always ends up snapped tight into the same narrative: white people horribly abuse non-white people. The trend dominates almost absolutely the study of American slavery. From reading the voluminous literature on the subject, including this blog, one could get the idea that disproportionate numbers of white Americans inflicted slavery upon disproportionate numbers of black Americans. One could even come away with the idea that one should condemn the peculiar institution today.
This political correctness gone mad invites critique, which The Economist kindly supplied in a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The prestigious British magazine, which grants its authors no byline, helpfully contributes to broadening the discourse in this way:
Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.
I think that I’ve fairly drawn out the central point of the review with the quoted lines, but I encourage you to read the whole thing. It only runs to seven paragraphs.
I also hope that the reader has taken the above with the proper amount of sarcasm. To accuse an author of political ax-grinding because he writes a history of American slavery where most black people, the slaves, appear as victims and most white people, the people who enslave them, appear as villains rises to such heights of absurdity that one wonders if the author knew what the words he or she wrote actually meant.
The internet responded while I reeled about, trying to fathom how an educated person writing in 2014 could have produced such a thing. Twitter, thankfully, has more resilient gray matter and gave it a prompt response under the #economistbookreviews tag last night. Gawker provides some highlights. Baptist’s own response deserves highlighting as well:
The Economist later did right, publishing an apology and withdrawing the review and yielding to the obvious:
Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil.
They also took the chance to remove the picture and caption proclaiming the subject “a valuable property.” Nice of them to do that while simultaneously calling attention to their commitment to transparency. One supposes they took the view that sunlight, the best disinfectant, disproportionately focuses on people who’ve done something stupid or wrong and so wanted to push back some in the name of objectivity. Anything else, such as a commitment to accuracy, would reek of advocacy.
But the fact remains that the editors published the review. They read it and thought it a reasonable, cogent piece of commentary worth putting forward in one of the more prestigious magazines in the Anglosphere. My honest first inclination is to presume stupidity, but one should not let shock entirely determine one’s response. Likewise it seems improbable that The Economist would assign a reviewer who literally does not know what the word “slavery” means or ignorant of who enslaved whom in Americas to a book about slavery in America.
This leaves us with a far worse scenario: Whoever wrote this review understood the subject, knew the facts, and thought it correct anyway. One still has room to question the second presumption, though. Anybody who thinks Puritanism characterize the American South doesn’t understand much about the region during that time. Proslavery writing routinely castigated antislavery Puritans, denouncing them as fanatics and heretics at odds with true Christianity. B.F. Stringfellow looked into the census and found out that the New England Puritans had fewer churches with fewer seats in them than the slaveholding South did and used it as evidence that slaveholders were the better Christians.
Ignorance does strike us all from time to time, but what the reviewer found his or her real objection in Baptist’s thesis: that the increase in cotton productivity came about via an increase in cruelty toward the slaves growing it. The reviewer suggests instead that gentle treatment born from enlightened self-interest could have explained things. Nobody at the time, to my knowledge, did detailed sociological surveys of representative samples of the slave and slaveholder populations assessing cruelty, but the vast preponderance of evidence argues that they did not even come close to behaving humanely toward the vast majority of their human property. They wrote pamphlets advising one another on how to best whip one slave, and reduce the amount of work that slave could do, in order to get more than a compensatory amount from the other slaves. The left behind diaries and journals recording their whippings, including occasions of general whipping of all one’s slaves. The threats of violence, then the execution of those threats, kept slaves terrorized.
And if a slave resisted regardless of those threats, authorities like Dr. Samuel Cartwright recommended a good whipping to sort things out:
When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere, was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it, as a preventative measure against absconding, or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them.
The Economist asked its readers to believe that the operative force in American slavery was not cruelty but benevolence. The magazine asked that we set aside the nineteenth century’s notorious exploitation of labor, including the labor of children, its horrific working conditions, its ruthless and violent suppression of labor activism (Activism aimed at better working conditions, no less!), essentially the entire body of literature produced by the slaves themselves, by contemporary observers of slavery, and from the very pens of the slaveholders who did the whipping or ordered others to do it on their behalf.
Take, for example, this incident from the life of probably the most famous and celebrated American slaveholder born after 1800, a man we often hear cared greatly for the slaves he inherited and treated only with kindness. I quote from Eric Foner’s Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction:
Wesley Norris, a slave of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, later recalled how after he and his family had attempted to run away, Lee ordered a local constable “to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each.” Lee, Norris added, “stood by, and frequently enjoined the constable to ‘lay it on well,'” then ordered him “to thoroughly wash our backs” with saltwater to increase the pain.
You can read all of Norris’ story in his own words here.
The Economist’s reviewer and its editors, until shamed into correction, would probably complain that this story reflects poorly on Lee when, after all, Norris and his family did attempt to run away. They were stealing from him. Did they have no regard for his property rights? One can hardly blame Lee for going to the law to defend those rights. Clearly some anti-capitalist bias animated Foner and Norris both.
Ultimately, I think the latter explains what happened. The Economist fancies itself a very pro-capitalist magazine. If it must accept that slavery played an essential role in shaping the development of the American economy (one could add also American politics and culture) and the American economy has long been the world’s largest, then it must follow that slavery was somehow itself good. This comes about on the level of wishing to eat manure because it helped grow one’s crops, but the impulse itself makes sense. One doesn’t like to hear bad things, especially true bad things, about things one values highly. That said, this level of ideological blindness well exceeds the sort of thing one might chalk up to human foibles easily corrected. If your ideology demands you make excuses for slavery, it requires renovation.
I have not read Baptist’s book. I did not plan to do so in the near future as I have a few more in the queue. But this whole affair has given me a strong curiosity about it. If the reader has the same interest, better and far less disgusting reviews exist over at the Junto and the Los Angeles Times.