The Economist Considers Slavery and the Response is Immediate (A Round Up)


On Sept 4, 2014, the Economist reviewed Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told:

“So Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies…

…Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”…Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy….”

The following image accompanied the text.

patsey image accompanying the economist book review september 4 2014

Screenshot of Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave, in the film 12 Years a Slave. Caption: “Patsey was certainly a valuable property.” (Source: Adam Weinstein | Let’s Look at These Slavery-Inspired #EconomistBookReviews, Shall We?)


The publication retracted its review with the following apology, leaving the original on their site for transparency:

“Apology: In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so. We have therefore withdrawn the review, but in the interests of transparency the text remains available only on this special page and appears below.”

The review was pulled in response to a flurry of negative responses, including a series of tweets on #EconomistBookReviews (including this bit of ribbing from another online publication)


Source: Adam Weinstein | Let’s Look at These Slavery-Inspired #EconomistBookReviews, Shall We?

(more here, here)

…this helpful advice from Jamelle Bouie at Slate

Don’t use movie stills to illustrate your review. In particular, don’t use a photo of Patsey from 12 Years a Slave, captioned with the point that she was a “valuable property,” since in the film—and in reality—Patsey was raped and beaten by her owner.”


“And let’s talk about your conclusion. You write: “Mr. Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” Here’s the problem: If American slavery was anything, it was an institution where almost all the blacks involved were victims and almost all the whites involved were villains. Which is to say, my last piece of advice is this: Don’t slam an author for a lack of balance in a book on slavery. Like it or not, this is a case where there is no balance to have. You either side with the slaves, or like a host of now-disgraced historians you’ve channelled, you don’t.”

this look at reviews of books about slavery by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts of the Chronicle of Higher Education

“While researching the memory of slavery in Charleston, S.C., we ran across an anonymous review of a book by an ex-slave named William A. Sinclair that appeared in the city’s News and Courier in 1905. Like Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, Sinclair’s The Aftermath of Slavery offered a scathing portrait of the “gruesome and unholy institution of human slavery…

…It is impossible to imagine such a response a century ago. As the News and Courier reviewer understood, most Americans then were not ready to accept Sinclair’s unvarnished portrayal of slavery or his call for racial equality. Instead, the public (North and South) preferred moonlight-and-magnolias stories in which happy slaves dutifully served indulgent masters. In that Old South fantasyland, constructed by writers and historians such as Thomas Nelson Page and Ulrich B. Phillips, the enslaved were rarely beaten or sold. The vast majority of planters devoted themselves to civilizing their inferior charges. In the 1930s that comforting vision of the peculiar institution became enshrined in the national imagination in the novel and film Gone With the Wind.

Over the past half-century, academic historians have thoroughly demolished the benign interpretation of slavery. These days Phillips’s work serves primarily as a cautionary tale of how racial prejudice can undermine historical inquiry. And while it is difficult to judge how far the new scholarship on slavery has penetrated the popular consciousness, there are promising signs. Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, focused a bright spotlight on the sadism of slavery. Meanwhile, southern tourism meccas such as Charleston have taken steps to confront the more troubling sides of slavery at museums and plantations.”

these remarks by Greg Grandin describing his experience with the Economist and pointing out other issues with the review and the reviewing process…

“The review of Baptist’s book in fact had other problems than what its editors apologized for. Baptist provides meticulous, extensive and comprehensive evidence that capitalism and the wealth it created was absolutely dependent on the forced labor of Africans and African-Americans, downplaying culturalist arguments for Western prosperity, of the kind rehearsed by historians such as Niall Ferguson. This seemed to particularly irk the reviewer, who asserted that Baptist “overstates his case when he dismisses ‘the traditional explanations’ for America’s success,” including its “individualistic culture, Puritanism,” and “ingenuity.” Here, the reviewer adopts exactly the “cocksure” tone Fallows long ago described, unburdened by the need to actually make a counter-argument or provide evidence. An assertion pronounced in crisp English is as good as its word.

So a pattern is detected, one reaching back much further than the review of my book. In the 1860s,The Economist stood nearly alone among liberal opinion in Britain in supporting the Confederacy against the Union, all in the name of access to cheap Southern “Blood Cotton” (ironically, the title of the Baptist review) and fear of higher tariffs if the North triumphed. “The Economist was unusual,” writes an historian of English public opinion at the time; “Other journals still regarded slavery as a greater evil than restrictive trade practices.”

…The reviewing practices of The Economist are opaque, its reviewers shrouded in collective anonymity and endowed with the timeless authority of the “Royal We.” “In our review … ” started off its Baptist recantation. But who was the author of the reviews of The Empire of Necessity and The Half Has Never Been Told? A staff writer? A professional historian? Of slavery? Of the United States? Of the British Empire?

If so, why not be a “brave battler” and stop hiding behind the neoliberal plural. Have the courage of your convictions and come out. An apology and withdrawal isn’t enough. Release the name of the reviewer.”

…this critique and review by Jim Downs which takes the Economist to task for refusing to engage the primary tension in Baptist’s book–the rise of slavery, the emergence of American capitalism and links between the two…

“The major problem with the review in The Economist is that it does not state that the subject of capitalism’s relationship to slavery has been debated for decades among historians, and that Baptist is a newcomer to the conversation, not the inventor of it. Historian Seth Rockman notes “the question of whether the slaveholders were capitalists or not made for a frequent qualifying exam question” for graduate students….

“…This new scholarship on capitalism also brokers power relations into simply defined categories that do not actually adhere to the social dimensions of either the history of slavery or the South. Not just Baptist, but many leading historians have cast white slaveholders and enslaved people as the only actors of the antebellum period, and have excluded yeomen and poor whites, Native Americans, women, the small but increasing number of Northern migrants and European immigrants. In casting white slaveholders as the leading protagonists in this narrative, they define them as homogenous despite the fact that these men (and few women) continued to draw sharp distinctions among them even to the days leading up to the Civil War when they fought on the same side of the Mason-Dixon line. Yet, in the histories of capitalism all of these men become grouped together as homogenous because of their abilities to earn profit, despite the fact their profits varied, or, at times, showed little increase based on the season and the climate. Does the argument that slavery provided the foundation for modern capitalism impose a Whiggish history of the past?”

“…Instead of silencing debate, scholars should have demanded The Economist to open a conversation about the history of slavery, the notion of victimhood, and the subversive, often hidden, ways that racism unfolds. If academics want to reach non-academic audiences, especially by publishing with trade presses, they must be prepared that their readers might make odd, uniformed, and racist comments. Instead of calling it racist and telling The Economist to banish the review like it’s an Ebola outbreak, scholars ought to consider it as “a teaching moment.” Explain how slavery predated racism, not the other way around. Use the comments’ sections to offer suggestions to other readings or the long history of why such claims are problematic rather than incessantly indict The Economist.

Edward King, The Great South (Hartford, Conn., 1875), p. 83 (Special Collections, University of Virginia Library) as shown on, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library. (Click image for details)

Edward King, The Great South (Hartford, Conn., 1875), p. 83 (Special Collections, University of Virginia Library) as shown on, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library. (Click image for details)


Since the review was published, Edward Baptist has also responded, asking in one essay, “what was the review the Economist could have written:”

“To do this, let’s put aside the review-as-written’s worn-out paternalist baggage about slaves being “well-treated” because of their value. Let’s ignore the way it cavalierly dismisses more than 2,300 formerly enslaved people’s interviews and autobiographies, which I drew upon for accounts of their own daily lives, as the habit of suggesting African Americans’ historical voices somehow carry less weight than the accounts of those who exploited them is a long-standing pattern among those who minimize slavery’s brutality.

“Instead of simply complaining that I treated all enslavers as “villains,” the reviewer could’ve used the basic microeconomics of supply and demand to critique my portrayal of most enslavers as ruthless exploiters. In the book, I explain that we know now that enslaved people picked cotton more and more rapidly over time. According to survivors of slavery, enslavers accomplished a lot of that increase by implementing a “pushing system” of brutal labor management.

“Time studies did not develop on the assembly line; they were created in the cotton field. Measurement of work output was followed by torture for anyone who failed to meet his or her cotton-picking quota. Quotas rose over time, and so did cotton-picking rates. Improved seeds may have also played an important role in raising output, but ex-slaves who describe the pushing system are clear: It was violent, and it forced them to pick more rapidly….

“…Had the Economist actually engaged the book’s arguments, the reviewer would have had to confront the scary fact that the unrestrained domination of market forces can sometimes amplify existing forms of oppression into something more horrific…”

and commenting in another on the distance between white and black views on slavery in the United States:

“If you write about the history of slavery, you become used to the pattern: No matter how many accounts you cite from ex-slaves, people often say they need more information before they can accept what former cotton pickers say about how cotton picking worked. And when we’re talking about contemporary events, the presumptive doubt is just as bad.

For instance: white people have had numerous opportunities, especially after Ferguson, to hear what African Americans think about how policing takes place when white civilians aren’t around. Yet twice as many white Americans as black Americans still think that police treat African Americans fairly.

Perhaps this is because, according to a recent survey, 75% of white Americans have zero black American friends. Surely if more white people knew more black people on a personal level, some would be more ready to accept the accounts from African Americans about how white privilege affects their own lives.

Instead, we’ve still got white magazine writers refusing to believe first-person accounts of history, which re-enforces white privilege at the very time when we should be revoking it. In the meantime, both historians and advocates of contemporary change often have to turn to the strategy of getting white people to vet black testimony before other white people will believe it.”

A round up of other links and resources is bundled here.

See also The Exchange’s round up of links and commentary, including video of Baptist discussing the book at the National Archives.



One thought on “The Economist Considers Slavery and the Response is Immediate (A Round Up)

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Jessica Marie Johnson has posted a round up of reviews of Edward E. Baptist’s new book, Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism at African Diaspora, Ph.D. blog. Her post not only dissects the reviews of Baptist book but she recounts the furor that followed the Economist’s inconceivable stupid review of it. Johnson’s post is good way to catch up on the ongoing discussions about Baptist’s book.

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