Economists are attacking historians’ recent works on slavery

Historians in the News
tags: slavery

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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 expansion 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 apology.

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 book belongs.

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 include 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 story lines. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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