Edward E. Baptist

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

  • 67-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 10 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a PhD
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The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 67-page guide for “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E. Baptist includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 10 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like New Slavery and Slavery as Modern and Modernizing.

Plot Summary

Winner of the 2015 Avery O. Craven Prize and the 2015 Sidney Hillman Prize, Edward E. Baptist’s 2014 book, The Half Has Never Been Told, challenges revisionist historical studies and presents slavery as a modern and modernizing institution that was central to the creation of American wealth and power. Drawing on slave narratives and other sources, it examines the development and growth of American slavery and the far-reaching effects it had on the nation from the point of independence up to the Civil War and beyond.

The study begins by exploring the early use of slavery in the Americas and the beginnings of a new model of slavery that would go on to profoundly shape the future of the nation. In doing so, it examines both some early tensions between the North and South and the solid foundation of cooperation over slavery that benefited both regions. It also begins to explore the growing significance of forced migration, both to slavery as an institution and to the development of the United States. From here, the second chapter examines how violence was central to the expansion of the slave frontier into the Mississippi Valley, noting how the Haitian Revolution ironically allowed the United States to purchase New Orleans and the area around the city from the French, and how the violent displacement of vast numbers of Creek Nation American Indians created more territory for cotton plantations.

The third and fourth chapters focus on the ways in which slavers maintained power over their human property and developed increasing wealth and influence through buying and selling slaves and cotton. They present violence and torture as the ultimate reason for slavery’s great efficiency, examining the true scale and brutality of the new model of slavery and its relationship with the 19th century’s most important raw commodity: cotton. They also explore enslaved people’s attempts to resist and the terrible lengths to which enslavers went to prevent this. The fifth chapter returns to tensions between the North and South, who clashed over the disproportionate political sway the South gained through expanding the slave frontier; despite this, the two US regions remained united by the great gains slavery brought to both. The chapter also offers a sensitive study of the social significance of music and singing among enslaved people, discussing the ways improvised and ever-evolving lyrics shared in group settings allowed African Americans to celebrate individual skill while reinforcing social ties and group identity.

The sixth chapter examines in more detail the ways in which expansion was central to the economy of the slave-trade South, how the slave trade was modernized to enable this growth, and the political ramifications of these changes. It also looks at the decline and rebirth of the abolition movement and the ways in which enslaved people resisted by sharing their stories and reframing the buying and selling of slaves as a form of theft. Finally, it examines how religion offered enslaved people an escape from the hell of the cotton plantations and how evangelical Protestantism adopted aspects of African religious practices before enslavers began to restrict Black Christianity and turn religion into another means of controlling the enslaved population.

The seventh chapter focuses on the peak of enslavers’ power and depravity in the 1830s. Exploring the issue through the lens of masculinity, it discusses the ways in which white men’s conceptions of manhood were expressed through violent conflict over status, sexual violence against enslaved women, and a fevered insistence on ever-expanding sources of credit and power. Chapter 8 examines how this behavior resulted in a slave asset bubble which eventually, and perhaps inevitably, burst, causing the economic crash of 1837. This caused the rapid decline of white people’s interpersonal relationships and an increase in infighting, cheating, and deception. This, in turn, had further devastating effects on enslaved people, who faced further disruption and forced migration.

The ninth chapter suggests that this crash increased tensions between the North and South, with many northerners feeling that their modernized, industrial economy was being held back by what they saw as the inefficient, premodern slave economy of the South, despite the fact that their own industrialization was fueled by slave labor. The South rejected this understanding and, recognizing that its continuing prosperity and power was reliant on the expansion of the slave frontier, reframed the issue as a matter of the North holding back the South by restricting southerners’ constitutional rights. This clash set the conditions for the outbreak of the Civil War.

The Afterword explores the war itself, including how African-American soldiers were crucial to the Union’s victory and why, contrary to many critiques of Abraham Lincoln, it was an entirely necessary measure and the only way to end slavery in America. It closes by examining how this victory is marred by the ongoing racism experienced by African Americans through the Jim Crow period and beyond, and discusses the culture of resistance and strength that allowed African-American communities to survive against generations of white violence and abuse.

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