Teaching AP US History requires me to deal with unpleasant topics from time to time. Slavery is one of those topics and it basically is an undercurrent of most of the content during the first semester of the course. Typically when I teach about slavery in class, I use the standard historical narrative that goes something like this:
- Slavery was bad. (duh!) But the conditions for slaves was more bearable for some than it was for others depending on where (geographically) they were located and how harsh their owners were.
- Many slave owners, like Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay, felt that they were trapped in their position because, for various reasons, they did not know how they could possibly end the institution. Many of these slave owners thought that slavery would die off on its own over time. Even if the Civil War had not occurred, slavery’s days were numbered. It was only a matter of time before humans owning humans would end in the United States.
- The closer the United States got to what would turn into a Civil War, the South became ever more protective of slavery, even if is was a dying institution, while northerners became ever more opposed to human bondage.
There’s more to it that this, but these are the main points that are covered in class. Even as I’ve been teaching slavery all of these years, I’ve often sensed that there was something not quite right about some of this history of slavery in the United States. Edward Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told puts a different spin on a very old story. In his book, Baptist turns much of this traditional narrative about slavery around, and debunks much of what we have been taught (and what we teach) about slavery.
Taking each of my points above, Baptist tells a story that is much worse than the whitewashed version that I usually give my students.
- Slavery was bad everywhere. It didn’t matter where they were located or who their masters were. They were still slaves with no rights who could be beaten or worse at any moment by any white man with no repercussions for whoever did the beating.
- Slavery was not dying out. In fact it was expanding through natural reproduction at a very fast pace right up until the Civil War began. Southerners were continuously fighting to expand the institution even more, as the Civil War began.
- Not all northerners were against slavery. In fact, many northerners directly and indirectly profited from the production of crops, mainly cotton, that slaves produced.
The Half shows how slavery engrained itself into American society beyond what most people would be willing to believe. The Panic of 1837 is a prime example. In most history books, Andrew Jackson’s killing of the Second Bank of the United States typically gets the most blame for causing what, at the time, was the worst financial crisis in American History. While this is true, according to Baptist, this is only part of the story. The other part sounds more like the financial crisis of 2008. Banks were overextending themselves by loaning out too much money to unworthy borrowers. Those loans were the securitized to be bought and sold numerous times in various markets around the world. The banks were allowed to do this because of Jackson’s killing of the BUS, which had been regulating American banks prior to its early demise. Once the bubble burst, the whole economy came crashing down. In 2008, it was a housing bubble. In the 1830s, it was a slavery bubble. Slave owners, who by today’s standards would not be considered credit worthy, were borrowing money from banks to buy more slaves in hopes that they could make a profit from crops (mainly cotton) and pay off the loans. It just goes to show, we really don’t learn from our mistakes.
After writing about John Brown, one of the heroes in the fight against slavery, Baptist quoted part of a speech given by Henry David Thoreau about the raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859. Here is the long version of the portion that was quoted in The Half.
“Such do not know that like the seed is the fruit, and that, in the moral world, when good seed is planted, good fruit is inevitable, and does not depend on our watering and cultivating; that when you plant, or bury, a hero in his field, a crop of heroes is sure to spring up. This is a seed of such force and vitality, that it does not ask our leave to germinate.”
John Brown, as crazy as he probably was, was passionate about helping 4 million slaves who could not stand up for themselves gain their freedom. In John Brown’s wake were the hundreds of thousands of black and white Americans who then died so that the slaves could, finally, earn their freedom. Fortunately, slavery did end after the Civil War, even if conditions were not favorable for African Americans in the south (and the north for that matter) after Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow segregation began. It would take many decades to break free from the white dominated society that existed in the United States.
For a history teacher (and nerd) like me who likes to keep up with current scholarship on big topics, The Half Has Never Been Told was a very important read.