FOR Edward E. Baptist, the scandal was a gift. It had taken the Cornell University historian over a dozen years to produce a study tracing the creation of American capitalism to the expan- sion of slavery. It took less than one day for a short book review to turn his 400-page narrative into a cause célèbre.
The inciting review appeared in The Economist magazine. It faulted
Baptist’s study, The Half Has Never Been Told (Basic Books, 2014), for
exaggerating the brutality of bondage based on the questionable testimony of “a few slaves.” Baptist fired back in Politico and The Guardian.
The magazine’s critique, he wrote, “revealed just how many white
people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience
of being black.” The Economist, widely denounced online, published an
The controversy stimulated both public discussion of slavery and
sales of Baptist’s book. Within academe, though, some think it had
another effect: to squelch debate over The Half Has Never Been Told.
Skeptical scholars may have been wary of criticizing its arguments for
fear of being perceived as apologists for slavery.
That silence is breaking. In a series of recent papers and scholarly
talks, economists, along with some historians, have begun to raise serious questions about Baptist’s scholarship. Their critiques echo parts
of the Economist review, only this time backed up by reams of economic research. The attack is notable because it has expanded beyond The
Half Has Never Been Told to assail the wider movement to which that
Over the past several years, a series of books has reshaped how historians view the connection between slavery and capitalism. These
works show the role that coercion played in bringing about a modern
market system that is more typically identified with freedom. At a
moment of rising frustration with racial and economic inequality,
they have won a level of attention and acclaim that academics dream
about but almost never get. Some think the books’ forensic accounting of how slave labor was stolen may buttress the case for reparations.
What the economists are now assembling amounts to a battering
ram aimed at the empirical foundations of these studies, which in-
clude Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in
the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard University Press) and Sven Beckert’s
Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf). The critics, whose own
scholarship stakes out similar turf, say the new histories are riddled
with errors, make overblown claims, or distort evidence to suit their
“The shocking thing is how far they have deviated from the traditional strengths of history, in terms of using evidence and evaluating
arguments,” says Paul W. Rhode, who chairs the economics department at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and until recently
served as co-editor of The Journal of Economic History.
The clash is a reckoning for two disciplines that have long developed in isolation. Some researchers believe that economic history
would gain strength if historians and economists worked together.
By September, though, the sniping over slavery had gotten so nasty
that one scholar trying to build bridges between the camps, Caitlin Rosenthal, described herself as “kind of terrified.” Rosenthal, a
historian at the University of California at Berkeley, was about to
visit Dartmouth College to speak at a public debate in which Baptist
would confront the economists face to face. “I have no idea what’s
going to happen,” she said, adding, “It’s possible that it’s going to just
THE BEST WAY to understand this fight is to take a closer look at the book that has caused the most friction, The Half Has Never Been Told. When you think about the slave trade, what probably comes to mind are the voyages that brought some 600,000 to 650,000 African captives across the Atlantic to the
territories that would eventually become the United States. The heart
of Baptist’s study is a different slave migration, one that took place
within those states.
Between about 1790 and 1860, traders and owners moved some one
million enslaved people from older states like Virginia and Maryland
to newer territories within the South’s dynamically expanding cotton
economy. The slaves were marched in chains or shipped on boats to
lands the U.S. had acquired from other empires and cleared of native
peoples. At first, they ended up in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and
Continued on Following Page
THE GRANGER COLLECTION