By: DeoVonte “Deo” Means
Erroneously, most of us are taught that the fundamental driving force behind African-American slavery in the United States was a superior race hegemonic desire to dominate an inferior race. The story generally goes; after a few generations of forced labor, Northerners and Abolitionist discovered the immorality and sinful nature of the practice, and through driven compassion the Civil War was launched. After the loss of over 700,000 lives and a divided Republic, the South conceded defeat and President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, granting freedom to the 4 million Black slaves in the United States. With the abolishment of slavery, the national “stain” was removed, the South proceeded through the Reconstruction Period, and as a unified country we were ushered into a civilized and modern society. Although this makes for a lovely fairy-tale, this story is not only inaccurate, it’s almost all fictionalized. The true and unsanitized version of what transpired is The Half That has Never Been Told… Written by historian and Cornell University professor, Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told- Slavery And The Making of American Capitalism, explains in detail how the expansion of slavery in the first 8 decades after American independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States into an industrial and capitalist economy. Through forced migration and torture, slave owners extracted continual increases in efficiency from enslaved African Americans. Thus the United States seized control of the world market for cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and became a wealthy nation with global influence. In essence, the wealth generated in the early 19th Century that allowed United States to become a world power, was built on the backs of African American slaves.
From 1783, at the end of the American Revolution, to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and this expansion produced a powerful nation. For white enslavers were able to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people. Their practices rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominate force in the global cotton market. Cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key raw material during the first century of the Industrial Revolution. The returns from the cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization. In fact, slavery expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation- not only increasing its power and size- but also, eventually dividing US politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make Civil War possible. The idea that the commodification, suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth. Plantations were not idyllic acres of land in which sharecropping took place. Plantations were labor camps where each slave was commodified. At times, lives were ripped apart so their market value could be extracted. Using torture, slavery’s entrepreneurs extracted an amount of innovation virtually equal in numerical measure to all the mechanical ingenuity in all the textile mills in the western world.
The enslavers profit based mentality was to increase profitability and productivity. Through this commodification process, slaves began to be referred to as “hands” (machines). Torture compelled the “hands” and then exposed left-handed capacities, subordinating them to the power of the enslaver and turning them against themselves and natural human inclinations. Thus untold amounts of mental labor and unknown breakthroughs of human creativity were the keys to an astonishing increase in cotton production that required no machinery except the whip. The few possessions they were allowed to have, such as family mementos, shouted all the louder, because under these conditions, these objects now had to assert an identity for a people who had not known one since birth. Many of the new dollars suddenly circulating through the US economy had been generated by the torture and toil of a people who had been commodified as hands (machines) and then put into the whipping machine. As Southern politicians and their slave interest began to dominate government by means of legislative representation defined by the Three-Fifth Compromise of the Constitution, white led meetings began to pop up in Northern states such as New York supporting anti-slavery-expansion movements. But opposition to slavery itself was not what brought most white attendees to those meetings, and the idea of black equality would have been anathema to almost all of them. Most of the complaints voiced by such meetings were about sectional power balances. Further concessions from the North would make America “a mighty empire of slaves” dominated by arrogant and uncouth enslaver-politicians.
In 1820, John Quincy Adams had a startling late-afternoon conversation with Secretary of War John C. Calhoun from South Carolina. Calhoun predicted that the Missouri Crisis regulating slavery in the country’s western territories, “would not produce a dissolution” of the Union. But if it should, Calhoun continued, “The South would of necessity be compelled to form an alliance with Great Britain which would return the Union to a colonial state.” Calhoun concluded his observation by stating “If the dissolution of the Union should result from the slave question, it is as obvious as anything…that it must be shortly afterward followed by the universal emancipation of the slaves. For slavery is the great and foul stain upon the North American Union.” The transatlantic slave trade was abolished in in 1807 but the interstate slave trade continued to flourish. This led to forced migrations which ripped families apart. Forced migrations created markets that allowed whites to extract profit from human beings. It brought about a kind of isolation that permitted enslavers to use torture to extract new kinds of labor. These were ultimately produced by the way enslavers were able to use property claims in order to deploy people as commodities at the entrepreneurial edge of the modern world economy. Families were ripped apart as mothers were sold from children and husbands snatched from wives. Once again, not necessarily due to pure evil inclinations, but because slaves were used as backed security for loans, credit and one of the purest forms of liquidity. If a planter experienced economic hardships in the volatile market and went into debt, the sale of one or two slaves could easily bring him back above water. Often times, this is exactly what happened regardless of the familial tie that slave might have established with other slaves. This led to generations of African American slaves losing mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. Sold off into the deep South or other territories and not having any knowledge of their family history or growth. A lost people..
As the United States grew and acquired more territories, planters began to travel and spread West with their “hands.” Northern politicians argued that this was indeed illegal and Southerners also lacked the legality to enter into free-states to recapture runaways. The Southern majority Congress in response passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which required all escaped slaves, upon capture to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. This same southern dominated congress followed up with a second blow by passing the Substantive Due-Process Clause. Infuriated Northerners immediately argued that the due-process clause in the Fifth Amendment, which mentions “property,” does not include slave property and therefore does not protect slavery from seizure by congressional law-making. The New York Tribune, the most famous paper in the United States at the time, described the clause as “false and shallow sophistries.” The concept of due process had been around since the Magna Carta, one critic pointed out, but only in the 1830’s had anyone discovered that it prevented legislators from abolishing the use of human beings as property. All told, more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States in 1836, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the 2 million slaves- 6 percent of the US population- which in that year toiled in southern labor camps under inhumane conditions. A climax in tension between Northern and Southern politicians over US expansionism to the West, the annexation of Cuba and equal representation in the legislature is what eventually led the United States to Civil War. While slavery was the underlying by-product that differentiated the opposing sides, it was not primary cause of war. Luckily for African Americans, the industrial advancement of the Northern states as well as an abundance of black regiments in the Union army, defeated the Confederates and President Abraham enforced the Emancipation Proclamation throughout the defeated South.
I am perhaps what you would call a voracious reader. I keep a novel by my side, and to date, I’ve read perhaps upwardly of 300. When this book first hit the shelves I took notice of the fan-fare, excellent reviews and public adoration; but I knew it was something more transcendent when -while commuting back and forth to work on the train- young black professionals would interrupt me and inform me they too had started reading it and how ground breaking it was. To date, this has to be the most profound book I’ve ever read. Not only was it informative, but it educated me on the true journey of my people and the role we played in making the country I call home the dominate world power. Certain parts pulled at my humanistic sympathy and was difficult to internalize, but I hold no malice towards the race that brutalized and economically raped my people. See, I am believer in growth. And off their backs and sacrifice, I stand here in 2015 as a successful, educated and contributing member of society that enjoys equal rights under the authority of a black President…Thy Will Be Done… Deo