Edward Baptist interesting book is a systematic refutation of the idea that American slavery was a pre-modern, pre-industrial network of institutions, political and economic. That it was destined to fail because of its dissimilarity with the impressive industrial economy in the Northern states in the eight decades after independence, 1780 to 1860. Aux-contraire, Baptist argues that the expansion of slavery drove American economic expansion.
This was largely due to the expanding cotton economy of the “Southwest” – Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and western Tennessee. Eventually east Texas and Louisiana. These vast, new cotton-growing areas were opened up with the removal of their Indian populations under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Its labor force was unfree, drawn from the exhausted tobacco-growing lands of Chesapeake and coastal Virginia.
While some slaves were transported to the Southwest by ships and later railroads, most were driven across the Appalachian mountain roads in coffles by men on horseback with bull-whips. The male slaves were chained to each other – women and older children, by rope – in closely packed columns. Baptist does not spare the reader the brutality of these coffles. The bull-whip would continue to be a familiar form of terrorizing the slaves once they were sold at auctions and transported to labor camps.
The tourist industry in the present-day South likes to associate the slave economy with graceful, pillared homes and benevolent, thoughtful plantation mistresses. Forget it. Talk, rather, about female “enslavers.” White southern women forced their husbands to sell slave women they had sexually exploited and, if any, his children by those liaisons. Baptist argues that sexual predation stoked both the male and female involvement in the cotton economy.
The movement of slaves to this new cotton kingdom involved an extensive network of short- and long-term credit, most commonly coming from the North and even from Britain and Europe, and a new interstate banking system. Baptist makes bold claims about this slave-driven economy being a significant factor in the remarkable growth of the North American capitalist economy.
In the early nineteenth century raw cotton was the most valuable commodity that entered world trade. Baptist’s description of this economy includes a role for New York, Liverpool, and London as well as the new cotton-producing areas. Connecting to the world of international trade, however, had its disadvantages. It opened the region to the vagaries of the world economy and to a dependence upon financial decisions made in far off places.
Most owners of slaves were in debt to these new financial institutions occasionally, when cotton prices dropped or there was a bad crop. Some were chronically in debt to the banks. A creditor would then foreclose on the planter’s assets – his land but also his slaves. This was a common reason for the sale of slaves and when slaves were sold in small batches to pay off debts, it inevitably meant the breakup of slave families.
We learned about the invention of the cotton gin in grade-school history. And certainly it removed a major roadblock to the expansion of cotton production. But Baptist maintains that it was the growing productivity of the cotton-picking slave that is most responsible. He has included tables to prove his point.
Part of this growing productivity was the result of what he calls “the whipping machine.” There were several work regimes within the cotton economy. The “task” system assigned various tasks to the individual slaves depending upon their skill set. When the tasks were properly finished so was the day’s work for the slave’s master. But throughout this new region, most slave owners adopted the “pushing” system which was, as it suggests, simply getting the most of a long-days labor out of a slave. Short of that maximum effort, the overseer would administer “measured lashes.” One can see how this regime could get out of hand and result in unwarranted brutality even sadism.
Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the book is the way that Baptist ties together the career of Southern slavery with such things as the admission of the republic of Texas to the American union as a slave state, California as a free state, the Mexican War, Southern interest in annexing Cuba, the dramatic re-alignment of political parties as the old Democratic party splintered over the issue of slavery’s expansion, and the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in 1860.
Both the Northern economy’s industrial sector and the cotton-economy in the Southwest were built on the scared backs of enslaved people. Baptist has written an “angry” economic history of the cotton economy.