Edward E. Baptist is the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. He would like to “thank Joshua Rothman, Jefferson Cowie, Louis Hyman, and David Silbey for advice on this piece of writing, and The Junto for letting me publish in their space.”
How was an immense increase in the “efficiency” of cotton production achieved in the nineteenth century? The question cuts to the heart of the debates over the history of U.S. slavery.
Last week, The Junto linked to sociologist John Clegg’s review in Critical Historical Studies, which considered several recent books on slavery and capitalism. This blog reported Clegg’s take on The Half Has Never Been Told as a “corrective.” Clegg attacks my argument that intense coercion drove a 400% increase in the efficiency of cotton-picking slave labor in the U.S. South between 1800 and 1860. His critiques directly build on the work of economists Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode. In a series of essays, they asserted that efficiency actually increased because of improved seeds. In a recent issue of the Journal of Economic History, Olmstead appears somewhat displeased that I disagree with their assertions.
But “correctives” had better be correct. In this critique of The Half, there are holes big enough to push a bale of cotton through.
I’ll focus on just one here. This hole tunnels back to a fundamental error in Olmstead and Rhode’s story about cotton picking. I place great value on their documentary research, because it maps the upward quantitative trend of picking rates in U.S. short-staple cotton. By 1860 ever-growing cotton-picking efficiency helped drop the real price of the world’s most crucial commodity to 25% of what it had been in 1800.
While Olmstead and Rhode attribute the efficiency increase to enslavers’ adoption, especially from the 1820s onward, of new, more “pickable” breeds of upland cotton, I interpret the data very differently. I argue in my book that improvements in cotton seeds are likely to have been part–but only part—of the reason for this increase. On slavery’s cotton frontier, slavery’s survivors reported, torture as a labor-management strategy was the ultimate cause of increased efficiency.
However, Clegg and Olmstead, who dismiss ex-slaves’ testimony as mere “anecdote,” believe they have a trump card. In contrast to the rise in picking efficiency in the interior, Olmstead and Rhode’s data from a handful of lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia plantations that grew Sea-Island cotton shows no change in picking rate between 1800 and 1860. Assuming that labor management in both lowcountry and upcountry was essentially the same, they conclude that the increase in upland cotton-picking rates can only be attributed to improved seeds. Clegg echoes this claim, asserting that it refutes my argument.
By this point anyone familiar with the history of slavery in the pre-Civil War South has probably spotted the error. It’s a doozy. It invalidates Clegg’s “corrective.” It reveals a flaw in Olmstead and Rhode’s reasoning, refuting their attempt to demonstrate a non-anecdotal correlation between cotton seeds and cotton picking.
Some of the best-known historians of U.S. slavery have exquisitely documented the way enslavers in the Carolina-Georgia lowcountry extracted labor. In rice and in sea-island cotton production, enslavers assigned enslaved people a “task” or specific quantity of work to accomplish before the end of the day. So many rice seedlings to replant, so many pounds of sea-island cotton to pick, etc. If they accomplished the task, lowcountry slaves could go home, tend to their own gardens, or help family members finish their own tasks. Task done, day done.
Historians have not only demonstrated that the labor output demanded by these tasks hardly changed before emancipation. They’ve also—and Clegg will be interested to hear this—explained why that was so. For one thing, long-established lowcountry slave communities resisted increases in labor requirements.
Historians of slavery have also known for decades that enslavers used a very different system to extract, supervise, and measure slave labor in “upland” cotton. Outside the lowcountry, enslaved people had to work till sundown, and they did so under direct surveillance and threat of violence. As my book demonstrates, in the new, non-lowcountry areas, enslavers often demanded a specific number of pounds of cotton as a minimum, but pickers had to keep going until dark. Poundage in deficit led to whippings. Poundage in excess of one’s quota led to increases in the quota.
Because the labor systems in the two cotton regimes were profoundly different we simply cannot demonstrate that different kinds of seeds, rather than different labor systems, caused the difference between sea-island cotton-picking rates and “upland” cotton-picking rates. Olmstead and Rhode’s postulate, crucial also to Clegg’s “corrective,” assumes everything it has to prove and is therefore irrelevant.
But this logic fail isn’t just an error. It’s also a revelation: Clegg, Olmstead, and Rhode haven’t thought carefully about (and may be unfamiliar with) historical work on the lowcountry task system. Otherwise, Olmstead and Rhode would not be advancing an untenable argument, nor would Clegg be building untenable critiques on their work.
It’s unclear why economists and sociologists would publish articles about slave labor—let alone pass scathing judgment on books for their account of historical slave labor—when they apparently haven’t done basic reading on the history of slave labor. The difference between task and gang systems is so basic that AP U.S. History students learn it—you can even get flash cards.
Yet here’s what is clear. Some scholars axiomatically refuse to accept the implications of the fact that brutal technologies of violence drove slave labor. They retreat into homo economicus fallacies to resist considering the question of whether in some cases violence increased, or was calibrated over time to enhance production. They evade consideration of survivors’ testimony about those changes, insisting that this data is “anecdotal”—as if the enslavers’ claims on which they build arguments are epistemologically any different.
I’m not going to dismiss Clegg’s review, although I will correct some of its other incorrect “correctives” elsewhere. And in contrast to Olmstead’s claim that The Half Has Never Been Told is “flawed beyond repair,” I’m not going to level that kind of judgment at his work, either. After all, I couldn’t do my own work nearly as effectively without his and Rhode’s basic finding of increasing cotton-picking efficiency under slavery. But if economists and sociologists are going to make claims about the history of slavery, they should familiarize themselves with the work done by historians of slavery.
[N.B. John Clegg has responded to this post in the comments below.]