Slavery, history and racial issues are again in the news and there has been lots of evidence of a poor understanding of history. The way to cure bad history is good history, because frankly many of us either had no real education about slavery, reconstruction or the Jim Crow era, or what we had was bad history.
There are two primary focuses of The Half Has Never Been Told, first Baptist is trying to give a good account of what slavery was really like and how it changed over time. Baptist has prioritized slave narratives or interviews with actual slaves as the basis for his descriptions of what slavery was really like.
The second focus of The Half Has Never Been Told is to look at how slavery was tied to the development of the early US economy. What is important about the book is that the early economy was not separated North and South or in some other regional method, but was interdependent. Repeatedly, Northern politicians, some of which opposed slavery on moral or ethical grounds, and Southern politicians, many of whom owned slaves directly, voted to expand slavery or at least voted against restrictions because of economic interests. When economics and moral concerns collided, usually the economic concerns won.
In summary, Baptist shows that slaves were the most liquid form of capital in the early economy and the liquidity of slaves as capital grew over time as the internal slave markets matured and older slave economies of the Southeast sold slaves as a commodity to the Southwest for the development of the cotton economy. The development of early banks and commodity markets were highly dependent on slavery either as a direct market, reason for lending, the collateral for loans, or dependent on the crops that were produced by slaves.
The Northern economy was no less dependent on slavery than the Southern economy. Slavery lost favor in the north as much for economic as moral reasons. But the Northern economy was dependent on shipping and products that were derived from slave production.
One weakness is that the focus was on the economic history and so the development of the political history for opposition to slavery toward the start of the Civil War was under developed. Women both North and South played a significant role in the development of abolitionism. Part of that opposition was because of the widespread sexual exploitation of slaves. Some slaves were openly marketed as sexual objects or for brothels, etc. But that was not the only reason for the development of abolitionism.
It is striking to read the widespread understanding that slavery was a moral evil. This wasn’t just an abolitionist understanding, many slave holders were in complete agreement. The moral evil part was primarily about how it corrupted white moral character. But because there was a wide spread believe in the inferiority of Black bodies as not quite human or at least inferior, there was little concern about how slavery was a moral evil for the slaves themselves. And that assumption about Black bodies being less than White bodies was wide spread, including among many abolitionists.
Histories like this are important. The vague belief in white superiority has not really be defeated as a culture. Economic history like this, ties the economy of the past to the economy of the present. The Half Has Never Been Told does not present the case for reparations, but the reality of the dependence of our modern economy on the historic slave economy should make that case fairly easy to see.
The second strong takeaway for me was that regardless of whether you have family ties to the North, the South or your family is recent immigrants, there is a case to be made for why as Christians, corporate repentance for slavery should be something that we take much more seriously.