Slaves Built More Than The White House


Title: The Half Has Never Been Told

Rating: 4 Stars

This book has a couple of provocative themes. One is that the modern industrial world might never have happened without American slavery. The other major theme challenges the accepted wisdom that slavery was going to fade away over time because slave labor cannot compete in terms of productivity with a free workforce paid wages. Baptist makes the argument that slave labor is relentlessly and brutally efficient.

Most people with a passing knowledge of history are aware that the Haitian Revolution is one of the very rare instances of a slave revolt actually succeeding. It ended up creating a nation that was free of slaves and actually run by the former slaves.

During the uprising, Napoleon sent troops to shut it down. The French troops were defeated by the Haitians. As a direct result of that defeat, Napoleon agreed to sell to America the land that made up the Louisiana Purchase.

The territory in the Louisiana Purchase was fed by the Mississippi river, which led to the land being incredibly fertile. As soon as this was discovered, the American government began to negotiate treaties with Native American tribes at the point of a gun. The Native American were progressively pushed out of their homelands and settlers moved in.

As this was happening, demand for cotton was beginning to skyrocket. The rich, fertile land of the Louisiana Purchase was perfectly positioned to grow cotton.

The invention of the cotton gin was a significant advance in separating cotton from its seed. However, the act of picking the cotton was still a very labor intensive effort requiring many hands. Therefore, cotton farming generated a tremendous demand for slave labor.

Do you see what just happened there? Because of its success, a slave revolution in one country indirectly led to a dramatic increase of slavery in another country. Historical irony isn’t always subtle.

Concurrent with this, textile manufacturing was making tremendous gains in England. Technological advances were being made that allowed dramatically greater productivity with the same number of workers. This led to ever greater demand for cotton. In fact, if the cotton growers hadn’t been available to meet that demand, there wouldn’t have been such a dramatic increase in technology because there wouldn’t have been a point.

In fact, the American South became a powerhouse for cotton growing. In 1800 the South produced 1.4 million pounds of cotton in 1800. In 1860, they produced 2 billion pounds.

Textiles were the engine for technology. Textiles were a significant percentage of all industrial output. The regular supply of cotton made sure that the engine was always running, and not only that, but always improving. It can be said that this symbiotic relationship of raw cotton and textile manufacturing was the most significant factor in creating the world in which we live today.

So, how did the South do it? How did it increase its output by a factor of more than 1,000 in about 60 years?

Sure, there was more land. There were some advances in the cotton seed that produced a slightly fluffier end product. These factors weren’t even close to enough to explain the difference.

The key factor was the increased productivity of the slaves. Closer to the year 1800, the best slaves were picking at most 100 lbs of cotton a day. When you think of how light and fluffy cotton is, I can’t even imagine the effort that it would take to pick 100 lbs of cotton in one day.

By the year 1860 rolled around, slaves were averaging closer to 500 lbs of cotton a day.

Yes, their productivity increased by a factor of five. Notice that there was no advance in technology for the cotton picker. No new tool was invented. There was no innovation that somehow automated part of the picking. It was hard, bloody, manual work. While England was gaining tremendous advances through technology, the slaves that fed the raw product for those machines were doing the same work 60 years later but were picking five times as much cotton.

How? By basically terrorizing and working the slaves to their deaths. Everyday, each slave’s output would be weighed. Each slave was assigned a specific quota. If the slave did not meet the quota, he/she would be whipped. If the slave exceeded his/her quota, then guess what? That new total became his/her new quota, and if the next day, he/she didn’t meet that quota, then a whipping would result. This remorselessly efficient process led the slaves to drive themselves to higher and higher productivity.

Accounts from slaves during that time tell the story of basically leaving their minds and just becoming a ruthlessly efficient machine, with both hands working independently in a blur.

This was how the modern industrial world was built.


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