Book Review: Schools Don’t Teach This Version Of American History

Last month an uproar erupted in Colorado over a conservative school board’s attempt to censor U.S. history and use schools to proselytize for free-market capitalism.  Students boycotted classes, teachers staged “sick-ins,” and the community demonstrated against the board’s curriculum plans.

Real-life American history is full of violence, exploitation, and repression.  Of the many dark stains on our nation’s past, none is blacker than the stark evil of slavery, which thrived on this continent for 250 years.  It took a bloody civil war to end it.

A new book by Edward Baptist entitled, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery And The Making Of American Capitalism,” is creating a stir in history circles. Here, summarized, are Baptist’s five major points:

1)  Slavery was the backbone of early America’s economy.   In 1836, slaves produced half of America’s GDP and were a fifth of its total assets.

2)  Slave labor was more efficient than free labor.  In the era of physical labor, whips ensured that by 1860 the productivity of slaves reached “the limits of physical possibility.”

3)  Not only the South, but also the North, owed its prosperity to slavery.  America’s first great industry was textiles, and the raw material for the textile mills was produced by slaves.  Slavery also shaped America’s demographics because immigrants, unable to compete with slaves in providing cheap labor, sought work  in the North and settled there.

4)  Slavery wasn’t in decline when the Civil War came; the efficiency of slave labor and the profitability of slavery both peaked in the 1860s.  Nor did slavery hold only the South in its economic grip; the fact slaves were used extensively as loan collateral meant slavery was deeply entenched in the nation’s entire financial system and economy.

5)  The South’s real reason for seceding was not defending the abstract idea of states’ rights but seeking the tangible economic benefits that would come from expanding slavery into the western territories.

This book challenges the conventional narrative about America’s destiny, i.e. that capitalism under a free political and economic system built the country.  As a reviewer on states, “This country has never dealt with the fact that slavery built this country.”  But where is Baptist going with this?  Is he making a case for reparations?  It seems so:

“If slavery was outside of US history, for instance — if indeed it was a drag and not a rocket booster to American economic growth — then slavery was not implicated in US growth, success, power and wealth,” Baptist writes. “Therefore none of the massive quantities of wealth and treasure piled by that economic growth is owed to African Americans.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to see that if America indeed owes its seminal “growth, success, power and wealth” to slavery, this lends plausibility to the argument that a substantial portion of this nation’s “massive wealth and treasure” rightfully belongs to the descendants of the slaves, i.e. today’s African-Americans.

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This interpretation of American history isn’t likely to enthuse white-run school boards, in Colorado or elsewhere, any time soon.  Most of America’s wealth is in private hands, therefore repatriating that wealth to modern-day descendants of slaves would  involve confiscating and redistributing private property, which is unlikely to be politically popular among the people whose property would be confiscated and redistributed, regardless of whether it’s done by outright seizure all at once or gradually by taxation over time.

Be that as it may, Baptist’s book offers an interesting and largely unexplored perspective on American economic history, and open-minded and intellectually curious people should always be willing to look at old stories from new angles, because that’s how understanding and knowledge evolve and improve.

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