Edward E. Baptist has written a book about slavery in America. It may seem surprising, but despite being much-studied, slavery and the Civil War that ended it are still controversial.
Baptist wants to present the “beating heart” of slavery. He uses many sources. Notarized sales records and “certificates of character” provided a lot of data on slaves. During the Great Depression, WPA historians were paid to collect personal histories from freed slaves. Baptist “draws on thousands of personal narratives” and often uses evocative language. Slaves as a group were “this trussed-up giant, stretched out on the rack of America’s torture zone;” a particular slave who “survived six weeks of marching in shackles… was thin, made of knots of starved, scarred muscle, draped in rags.”
Baptist states that Americans have a “sanitized” understanding of slavery and the Civil War that “insist[s] that the purpose of the war had been to defend [the South’s] political rights against an oppressive state… that slavery had been benign and that ‘states rights’ had been the cause of the Civil War.” Baptist writes that the “enslavers” insistence on extending slavery into the American West,” where they “pushed too hard,” was the final straw so that, “at last, whites came to take up arms against each other.”
Through the 1800s a profession of entrepreneurial slave traders came to dominate over small, local slave-trading. Slaves were taken farther away from their homes and families than ever before. The price of slaves tracked the price of cotton, and cotton production was increased through torture, especially whipping. Slavery was not dwindling away on its own, as some of the Founding Fathers had hoped and predicted. It was an important part of America’s economy. Cotton was vital to the industrial revolution and slavery helped America become an economic power.
Every chapter includes stories of the pain and humiliation inflicted on slaves, “incessant behavioral modification” to dominate them and “scaling up physical pain for even the smallest evidence of resistant behavior.” Baptist is deeply affected by these stories. To simply say “slavery was terrible” is abstract, and people relate better to personal stories. Baptist presents both scholarship and stories in ten chapters covering 1783 to 1861, over four hundred pages. It can be painful to read and I skimmed some sections. The afterword extends to 1937.
Baptist says slavery is not a distant, hazy memory. While my own father was training to fight in World War II he could have spoken to a few living American citizens born into slavery. There are living children of Civil War veterans, direct connections to the era.
The value of Baptist’s book may lie in the questions it led me to consider. Some pertain directly to America’s current “culture wars.” Should we teach our children about the dark side of American history, and if so, at what age? How much should the past influence our current and future policy choices? A policy issue that hangs over Baptist’s book is reparations, though the word does not appear in his book. Some reviewers on Amazon jumped to this issue, so I will offer a few comments.
Governments sometimes compensate victims of injustice. The American government has paid reparations to eighty-two thousand Japanese-Americans survivors of internment during World War II. US states compensate people wrongfully convicted: 30 states offer some compensation to exonerated prisoners, but twenty states offer nothing. I understand artwork seized by Nazis is still returned to the families in Europe when it is found.
Baptist says that freed slaves wanted to raise food on their own land, but were mostly forced into working on large properties by both Northern and Southern interests. Wages were not generous. “Sharecropping” sounds very close to slavery. One of Baptist’s points is that slavery and subsequent discrimination were a bigger part of the economic success of the Unites States than is generally admitted, and that laws to provide equal civil rights do not restore what was taken from black Americans because they ignore the economic aspect.
However we Americans choose to debate our history and our future, consider:
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner
“Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.” Carl Sagan
PS – I just ran across this which documents the on-going impact slavery has in Africa: Leonard Wantchekon “conducted this incredible study whereby they looked at levels of interpersonal trust in Africa today. They asked if slavery had any kind of impact. What they found was that there was a correlation between regions where more slaves were taken and lower levels of trust today.”