Baptism by Blood Cotton

The underlying claim in Edward Baptist’s “oral economic history” of slavery, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, is that slave owners, through the scientific “calibration” of torture, intensified the work of slaves in order to increase labour productivity by 400% on southern cotton plantations between 1800 and 1860. I argue the intensification claim is poorly supported, exaggerated, and misleading. This is a follow-up to my previous blogpost, “Plant breeding, not working slaves harder, drove cotton efficiency gains in the antebellum US South“. Warning : I’ve tried to make this post as readable as possible, but it goes into considerable detail, so it is dense and dreadfully dull !


  1. The amount of cotton picked per day per slave went from 25 lbs. to 100 lbs. in 1800-60. The initial value is pretty low, and the final value was not much different from the average under free labour.
  2. I argue at most 70-100% of that 400% increase in the pick rate was due to intensification of effort, or acceleration of work, per hour.
  3. Some of the intensification might be masking the effects of improved seed varieties and better frontier soils that produced a greater yield per acre of easier-to-pick cotton.
  4. But it is possible there was no intensification per hour of work at all. Over the course of those 60 years, maybe there was only an increase in the hours of work.
  5. By 1850-60, the mean value of 100 lbs. per day hid a big variation in cotton-picking rates. Many slaves were clearly made to pick cotton very intensely, but many also picked well below the mean.
  6. The big increase over time in the spread around the mean daily cotton-picking rates of plantations calls into question how widespread Taylorism or “scientific slave management” was in the cotton South.
  7. Before 1800, Caribbean sugar appears to have had little or no growth in labour productivity, despite having exploited a very harsh gang system of labour management.


In my previous blog entry, I argued that plant breeding drove cotton productivity gains in the antebellum US South, exploiting the work of economists Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, especially their paper “Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy” [the gated, published version is O&R 2008]. But having just read Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told,  I realise it really doesn’t matter whether the gains were achieved by new cotton cultivars, the invention of the cotton gin, or better soils in the western frontier of the “New South”.

The total output of American cotton increased by a certain amount in 1800-60, and the supply of slave labour devoted to cotton production increased by less than that amount. The difference implies a 400% increase in output per slave. No matter the cause of it, the four-fold increase in cotton per slave still had to get picked by someone.

Apart from land and labour, there were two limiting factors on the amount of cotton that could be grown in the first place. No matter how much cotton you could plant, it was of no use unless the “seed cotton” (the raw fiber) could be removed from the bolls of the plant ; and after the harvest, the seeds removed to produce lint. The gin alleviated the constraint on the speed of seed removal. But there was no mechanical cotton-picker until the 1930s, nothing comparable to the reaper for wheat. So the solution to the abundance of new frontier land and the potential for rapid seed removal was, to make slaves separate more fiber from the bolls faster.

The question is, which better captures what happened : (a) there was more acreage under cultivation (without necessarily better yield per acre) thanks to southwestern expansion, so there was more cotton to pick, and slaves were made to pick it faster ; OR (b) there was more yield per acre even with acreage expansion, so there was more cotton to pick, but slaves found it easier to pick it even if they also had to pick faster.

In my previous blogpost, I answered (b). If new cotton cultivars allowed slaves to draw more fiber out of more bolls on taller plants, then a lot of the work intensification was thanks to the plant.


Baptist attributes the higher pick rate to a revolution in slave-owner relations that separated “first slavery” from the second phase in the newly opened lands on the western frontiers of the old Southern states. Previously a system of passive resistance had prevailed where

…those who were compelled to knuckle under to right-handed [enslavers’] power used the art of secret resistance— such as slowing the pace of work when overseers were out of sight— to undermine the sway of the dominant. It had been the same in traditional societies for all those millennia when serfs, peasants, and slaves made up most of the labor force of most societies. Their craft was much like what Protestant reformer Martin Luther in the sixteenth century called “left-handed” power: the strength of the poor and the weak, the secret way of seemingly passive resistance to evil. Peasants and servants broke employers’ tools, lied, played dumb, escaped from masters.

In some regions of the Old South,

…a “task” system had prevailed, as in the South Carolina and Georgia “low country.” In those rice swamps, each day enslavers assigned each worker a specific job. Custom fixed the volume of each daily piece of labor, so that a man knew that on a day when he had to chop weeds, his “task” was to cultivate an acre of rice and no more. As historians have pointed out, a long history of “negotiations” between masters’ power and the cunning of the enslaved had created the task system. It contained benefits for both left hand and right. Those who finished early could tend their own gardens, help others to work, or simply relax for an hour or two.

Even on tobacco plantations of the Old South, Baptist continues, surveillance was very often delegated to slaves “outside of direct white observation”, because the plots were small and scattered. However, with western expansion the “right hand” had figured out a profoundly new way to crush the passive resistance of the “left hand” and wring the slack out of the system :

Entrepreneurs redirected left-handed power by measuring work, implementing continuous surveillance of labor, and calibrating time and torture. All of this repeatedly accomplished enslavers’ ongoing goal of forcing enslaved people to invent, over and over, ways to make their own labor more efficient and profitable for their owners….

Enslavers used measurement to calibrate torture in order to force cotton pickers to figure out how to increase their own productivity and thus push through the picking bottleneck. The continuous process of innovation thus generated was the ultimate cause of the massive increase in the production of high-quality, cheap cotton…

“Full capacity utilisation”, as we might call it today, would be achieved by a fully white-surveilled and -directed system of gang labour, every bit as regimented as industrial factories. In this “pushing system”, a slave…

…lined up by the first waist-high cotton plant of his row, he was about to learn a new way of working, one meant to occupy most of the waking moments remaining to him on earth. He saw Simon take a row, lift his hoe, and begin to work rapidly down the side of his furrow. Everyone else began to do the same, in a great hurry. Ball could see that each of them had to chop all the weeds in their row without damaging the cotton plants. But then the man in the next row warned him that no one was allowed to fall behind the captain. Ball realized that thus “the overseer had nothing to do but to keep Simon hard at work, and he was certain that all the others must work equally hard.” And the overseer was already stalking across the rows, whip in hand. Ball put his head down and kept his hoe moving, trying to keep up with Simon’s furious pace.

The primary incentives were negative, i.e., violence and torture :

Innovation in violence, in fact, was the foundation of the widely shared pushing system. Enslaved migrants in the field quickly learned what happened if they lagged or resisted. In Mississippi, Allen Sidney saw a man who had fallen behind the fore row fight back against a black driver who tried to “whip him up” to pace. The white overseer, on horseback, dropped his umbrella, spurred up, and shouted, “Take him down.” The overseer pulled out a pistol and shot the prone man dead. “None of the other slaves,” Sidney remembered, “said a word or turned their heads. They kept on hoeing as if nothing had happened.” They had learned that they had to adapt to “pushing” or face unpredictable but potentially extreme violence.

Under the scientific principles of labour management, whipping was now no longer haphazard, let alone whimsical, but tightly linked to a quota-and-record system. “Enslavers used cotton-picking records to measure and record each enslaved person’s output. Such ledgers served, along with the scale and the whip, as key parts of the ‘whipping-machine’ system that raised cotton output steadily over time”. Therefore, it was not just the cotton gin, but this system of industrial management which allowed the revolution in cotton productivity.


When all the literary dressing is removed, Baptist’s argument can be summarised as: the “time and motion” system of whipping, quotas, and measurement drove each slave to economise on spare movement and pick cotton faster, faster, and faster. And the speed-up effect of this proto-Taylorism is what was responsible for the quadrupling of the daily pick rate between 1800 and 1860, from the average of 25 lbs (>11kg) per slave to 100 lbs. (>45kg).

Baptist, whilst dispensing with Olmstead & Rhode’s botanical explanation for the productivity growth, nonetheless relies crucially on their output estimates. In fact those data are the quantitative backbone of his thesis. Yet there is also another, unacknowledged debt. Whether he knows it or not, Baptist has used the work of Olmstead & Rhode to extend backward in time the efficiency argument advanced in a series of works on American slavery by Robert Fogel, the late economic historian & Nobel laureate, and his colleague Stanley Engerman.

Fogel & Engerman (F&E) were the authors of a controversial 1974 book, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery, which made a multitude of iconoclastic, revisionist arguments which were immediately challenged by pretty much everyone. (See their own 10-point summary of the book.) Economists in particular honed in on their claim that

“Slave agriculture was not inefficient compared with free agriculture. Economies of large-scale operation, effective management, and intensive utilization of labor and capital made southern slave agriculture 35 percent more efficient than the northern system of family farming”.

In the above, by “efficiency” F&E meant not simple labour productivity, but total factor productivity (TFP), or the output per unit of all inputs into the production system, e.g., land, labour, capital, everything.

Economists descended like locusts upon the efficiency claim at a conference devoted to Time on the Cross, producing a series of critical articles later collected in book form ; F&E responded to the criticism in the The American Economic Review in 1977 ; which prompted 4 articles in counterresponse in the March 1979 issue of the AER  ; and to which F & E counter-counter-replied in 1980. In reaction to the numerous criticisms F&E corrected or refined the original claims and Fogel published a new book version of TOC called, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, accompanied by 3 volumes of technical appendix. Finally, Fogel published a retrospective on that debate in 2003, which summarises the principal claims of WCC without much change. The history of this debate deserves a history of its own !

F&E’s claim of the productivity advantage of slave farms relative to free farms survived criticism and scrutiny. But Fogel had to shift his position on the causes of the productivity disparity. TOC had originally argued, the disparity was due to a combination of increasing returns to scale from plantation size AND both positive & negative incentives. ‘Positive’, meaning not just the lash but also rewards and ‘nice’ treatment as valuable property. Yet by the time of WCC, the “positive reinforcement” part was basically dropped. From WCC :

When the technical efficiencies of agriculture in the North and in all farms in the South are compared, the South has an advantage of about 35 percent.43 The superior performance of southern agriculture was not due primarily to the high performance of its free farms. Free farms in the Old South were slightly less efficient than northern farms, while the free farms of the New South were somewhat more efficient than those in the North. These differences tended to net out so that, overall, only a small fraction of the edge enjoyed by southern agriculture was due to the superior performance of the free sector. The technical efficiency of the slave farms, particularly of the intermediate and large plantations, accounted for about 90 percent of the southern advantage.44

….The effort to resolve [the disputes about productivity] led to reconsideration of the working hours of both slaves and free farmers. Researchers turned to the business records of gang-system plantations, some of which kept schedules of what each slave on the plantation was doing on each day of the year. Independent studies of two different samples of these schedules produced quite similar results. Slaves on cotton plantations worked an average of about 2,800 hours per year…

Comparable evidence on working conditions in the North revealed that although the length of the work year varied with the nature of the farm, free northern farmers averaged about 3, 200 hours per year. The lowest subregional average, 3,006 hours, was found in the corn and general farming belt; the highest was 3,365 hours in the western dairy region. Thus, the average length of the southern slave workweek was not 10 percent longer than the average workweek in northern agriculture, as some cliometricians had conjectured, but 10 percent shorter.

Here is the table of TFP comparisons worked out for 1860 (after correcting for some criticisms), reproduced from Fogel 1977 :

tfp south

Also, Fogel toned down the crop-specific scale effects, and put more emphasis on scale economies in the supervision and management of a large number of coerced workers. This shows up in his reckoning of the source of the productivity advantage of large-scale slave agriculture :

The available evidence indicates that greater intensity of labor per hour, rather than more hours of labor per day or more days of labor per year, is the reason the index of total factor productivity is 39 percent higher for gang-system plantations than for free farms. The principal function of the gang system was to speed up the pace of labor, to increase its intensity per hour. Slaves employed on the intermediate and large plantations worked about 76 percent more intensely per hour than did free southern farmers or slaves on small plantations. In other words, a slave working under the gang system produced, on average, as much output in roughly 35 minutes as a farmer using traditional methods, whether slave or free, did in a full hour… [emphases mine]

Once it is recognized that the fundamental form of the exploitation of slave labor was through speeding up rather than through an increase in the number of clock-time hours per year, certain paradoxes resolve themselves. [Fogel 1977]

The principal function of the gang system was to increase the intensity of work per hour. The gang played a role comparable to the factory system or, at a later date, the assembly line, in regulating the pace of labor. It was, in other words, an early device for labor speedup. [Fogel’s 1980]


But doesn’t the above support Baptist’s thesis ? Not exactly. Fogel found that in 1860 large slave plantations, on average, extracted 70-75% more work per hour out of their slaves than southern free farms, northern free farms, and small slave farms. I stress, this finding applied to 1860 only. What Baptist does is equivalent to turning this cross-sectional observation into a “time series” assertion.

We can reasonably surmise that slave cotton plantations of 1800 had rates of work extraction out of their slaves which were similar to the small slave farms of 1860. Therefore, the difference in “labour intensity” (actually labour utilisation), in 1860, between the large slave plantations and everybody else strongly suggests a ceiling on how much extra work effort per hour could have possibly been wrung out between 1800 and 1860 in the overall slave sector. Baptist may or may not realise this logical implication, but it is there.

Note : Fogel’s productivity estimates included all major southern crops, but cotton was the biggest as a share of the total and, since the efficiency advantage to gang slave farming was even bigger in sugar and tobacco according to Fogel, the 70-75% figure might be used, at a first approximation, for the “labour intensity” advantage in slave cotton. We could even just round it off to 100%. It still would not come anywhere to the 400% required by the implicit Baptist thesis.


70-100% can be proposed as the upper limit on the amount of “work intensity” that owners achieved with their slaves in the 60 years leading to 1860. But even that figure is highly uncertain. It is not known, for example, how many hours of work were devoted to cotton-picking by slaves, on average, before the 1850-60 period. As far as I know there is only one study on working hours on southern plantations, but it’s old, drawn from a very small sample, and does not specifically cover cotton. So we can’t match the evolution in hours worked per day per slave with the concomitant evolution in the pounds of cotton picked during harvest season. In other words, maybe there was intensification of work per hour, or maybe there was not and slaves simply worked more hours per day on cotton over time, especially if they worked on farms with a mix of crops.

The distinction between daily and hourly productivity can make a big difference. Everyone is impressed with the 400% increase in productivity, but suppose the slave work day picking cotton (as opposed to doing other things) rose from 8 hours/day to 12 hours/day at the same time. Then already the labour productivity growth is reduced to 270% (100/12 ÷ 25/8) !!!

Besides, does the change in the average cotton pick rate of 25 lbs/day/slave to 100 lbs/day/slave even represent such a major intensification of work effort, compared with free industrial factory labour ? First of all, the 1800 starting point of 25 lbs is low by any standard. Even the 1860 end point is not egregiously high. For example, The Economics of Mechanical Cotton Harvesting contains the following table of labour requirement :

cotton hand pick labor

Note the above records the average yield of lint, the product of ginning the “seed cotton” or the raw fiber in the boll which is what gets harvested. The seed cotton yield can be inferred from the lint yield with a ratio of 3:1 [Olmstead & Rhode 2010]. Thus for the southern regions in the years 1909-36, the average rate of hand-harvest is approximately 13 lbs per hour. In relation to slave faming, the daily pick rate for 10-12 hour days would be 130-156 lbs, which is consistent with Whatley 1987. The standard deviation is about 40 lbs. In other words, free labour in the early 20th century was hand-harvesting seed cotton at a rate about 1 standard deviation above the slave average for 1860.

Of course, the intrinsic biological yield in 1909-36 must have been higher, so the pick rate ‘adjusted’ to antebellum conditions should be lower. In The Half Has Never Been Told, this kind of adjustment is never made, in reverse, for pick rates. Nonetheless I agree with Baptist that, on average, free workers (or sharecroppers) were absolutely not willing to work as hard as slaves were made to work (a view supported by Ransom & Sutch). But my point here is not about the welfare costs of slavery, but only about how intense 100 lbs/day really was.

What about outliers with free labour ? “Cotton-picking contests” provide some clues. One such event in California supplies the following information for 1935 : “The average picked for the nine hours of work among the contestants who finished the contest was 647.17 pounds”. And the “average picked by the 72 contestants in 1937 was 645 pounds per person”, including a woman who picked 544 lbs. Even adjusting for higher intrinsic crop yield these rates are consistent with the information from the slave plantation records.

From another paper by Olmstead & Rhode, “Slave Productivity in Cotton Production by Gender, Age, Season, and Scale” :


These histograms display the distributions of daily pick rates for adult male & female slaves during the 1840-62 period. Notice the asymmetry; in statistics, these distributions are said to have “positive skew”, meaning that their right tails are fatter and/or longer than the left side, unlike the ideal symmetric curve of the normal distribution. According to O&R the mode (the most frequently occurring value) is 100. But it’s clear from just eye-balling the distributions that the high-performing outliers raised the mean.

Baptist touts the role of scientific management of slaves, which implies something else: the slave owners or their managers understood the strengths and weaknesses of their slaves, and operated according to the principle of comparative advantage. The “most able workers, those with an absolute advantage in picking, are assigned to other more difficult tasks where they possess an even greater advantage” [Olmstead & Rhode 2010]. This is remarked upon as well in Metzer 1975, Fogel 1977, and Toman 2006. I quote from Metzer’s “Rational Management, modern business practises, and economies of scale in the ante-bellum southern plantations” :

What does seem puzzling at first, however, is the fact that females on Leak plantation were engaged more intensively in picking (in terms of days per season) than males in the 17+ age group despite their inferior performance in this operation. This apparent contradiction between actual and efficient resource allocation is easily resolved by examining work-routine records for ihe cotton-picking season. Such records, giving daily activities performed by each field hand, are available for several plantations, although not for Leak’s (its books have no record of nonpicking activities)…

On both plantations, cotton-picking was the only activity in which the percentage of male field hands was lower than in the number of potential man days during the harvest season, which utilized between 73 and 83% of the plantation’s field-labor capacity. The male field hands’ position was predominant in raising other crops and in other, more strenuous, activities that coincided with picking. This clearly indicates that, in allocating their labor force, planters were not misled by considerations of absolute advantages, but followed rational criteria, and were guided by the comparative advantage of productive resources such as that of female over male slaves in cotton picking.

Division of labor and specialization called for a great deal of coordination and organizational skill on the part of plantation management in order to realize the gainful potential of specialization and interdependence by making the plantation an efficient, coordinated, and precisely operated unit.

So, because the slave owners allocated labour according to comparative advantage, the best slaves (whether prime-age males, or the smartest of the population) were not all harvesting cotton. Those with lower picking ability were, in part, manning the harvest crew.


But there were also many slaves who picked well below the mean. Baptist makes considerable effort to describe slaves — by name, in most instances — who were made to pick 200, 300, even 400 lbs of cotton per day. From his narrative one might forget that 100 lbs/day was the actual average f0r slave cotton plantations in 1860. But at least he tells you the average. Here is the chart presented in The Half Has Never Been Told :

pick rate

The above was adapted by Baptist from Olmstead & Rhode’s scatter plot :

pickrates regression

The variation around the mean not only is pretty big but also it gets bigger with time. So when Baptist talks about all those farms with huge daily average outputs, be sure to remember there were many grossly unproductive ones.


Lastly, a short word on Caribbean sugar. It had achieved the apex of the plantation gang labour system in the 18th century. And the picture is less clouded by revolutionary technologies like the gin or vast frontier expansion or new cultivars. It was a crop production system particularly egregious for gang labour and cruel, high-mortality working conditions.

Eltis et al. 2005 generates estimates for labour productivity growth in 1674-1801 for Caribbean sugar by inferring from movements in the prices of sugar and slaves. The estimation method is not nearly as good as the one for southern slave cotton by Olmstead & Rhode. But for what it’s worth, under several different assumptions the long-run growth of slave labour productivity in Caribbean sugar was dramatically less than US cotton 1800-60 :

caribbean sugar productivity

The above shows fluctuations of the level of productivity, not rates of growth. When productivity was rising, growth rates were on the order of 0.2-0.4% per year. But the movements are extremely volatile, with little or no long-term trend ultimately.

Postscript : In the long tradition started by Eric Williams, Baptist makes extravagant claims about the indispensability of the American cotton-slave machine to Western industrialisation. I guess that will be addressed in part 3 !

This entry was posted in cotton, Edward Baptist, historians of capitalism, Slavery, The Half has never been told and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Baptism by Blood Cotton

  1. Pingback: Time on the Cross Summary | Pseudoerasmus

  2. Yudi says:

    PE: regarding your link to F&E’s summary of their arguments in Time on the Cross and Without Consent or Contract, how many of their arguments have withstood the test of time and/or are generally accepted by the economic history community?


  3. Pingback: Plant breeding, not working slaves harder, drove cotton efficiency gains in the US South | Pseudoerasmus

  4. Yudi — Well I was going to blog about that question (but a short one!), because I keep reading historians claim TOC has been debunked completely. There’s a wide gulf in the perception of F&E’s work between economic historians (i.e., economists who do history) and regular historians.

    It’s difficult to get one’s head around the evolution of the debate on all the issues, because there are so many claims in TOC, so many criticisms and defences, and so many nuanced modifications. Suffice it to say, some claims (like the viability and health of the slave economic system in 1860 or the economic dynamism and vitality of the antebellum South in general) had already been widely accepted at the time TOC came out. I think the claim that survived the least modified was the one about the relative productive efficiency of slave and free economies, but I think there’s still disagreement about the reasons for the efficiency gap. Other claims — the “whipping index”, the positive incentives, the material condition of slaves, their imputed income — were much much more controversial and did not fare well under scrutiny.

    There was a survey taken in 1995 about questions in US economic history


  5. Pingback: Controversial review of book on slavery by Economist magazine - Page 12

  6. Yudi says:

    Thanks for the answer. I’d be interested in seeing a blog post, too.


  7. Pingback: Critique of the productivity claim in E. Baptist’s new book on slavery (blog) « Economics Info

  8. Sam says:

    If you want to know about the conditions of slavery might be a good idea to start with the testimony of the slaves.

    Amazingly many thought they were better off as slaves. More than you would think. Thinking about the way they were treated might be more realistic if people compared them to mules, horses or sled dogs. I know they’re not but that’s the way they were treated. People don’t beat their horses for no reason at all and they generally care for them even though they’re beast of burden. I think that’s exactly the way the slaves were looked upon and treated. Maybe this is why some looked favorably upon their masters. A sled dog, while worked hard, looks up to his master.


  9. M.G. says:

    Thank you for these two excellent posts on the question of U.S. slave cotton-picking economics.

    “Enslavers used cotton-picking records to measure and record each enslaved person’s output. Such ledgers served, along with the scale and the whip, as key parts of the ‘whipping-machine’ system that raised cotton output steadily over time”.

    1) You’ve read Baptist, I haven’t: On what does he base the above claim? I recall Fogel and Engerman getting in trouble for taking the records of a few plantations where owners gave lavish incentives/rewards to their slaves, and generalizing that to a majority of them. Is that what Baptist is doing here? Or does he have documentary proof that the above was widespread?

    2) The graph you show from Baptist with pounds per day per worker from 1800 to 1860: Most of the dramatic increase seems to have come from 1800-1835, while there’s very little from 1835-1860. Do you have any speculations on that? Did Baptist?

    3) Have you read any of Frederick Olmsted’s A journey in the seaboard slave states (1856)? I read about fifteen books on slavery for my last post, and his was the one I had the hardest time putting down (aside from the ex-slave narratives). Highly engaging, and also gets lots of opinions on the ‘efficiency of slave labor’ question from working plantations owners themselves. Quite revealing.


  10. (1) He inferred from a combination of plantation ledgers (recording cotton picking tallies), oral testimony from slaves, and other testimony from overseers and third parties.

    (2) My guess : the completion of the expansion into the southwestern frontier of the southern states. Baptist has very little quantitative reasoning in the book.

    (3) No I haven’t read it.


  11. Pingback: Counterfactuals of coal, sugar, cotton, and slaves | Pseudoerasmus

  12. Rosario says:

    I appreciate the sources provided and insights but I’m still not fully understanding the purpose of the critique. Is the issue with the claim that productivity went up by 400% due to the pushing system? I feel the critic is missing the broader purpose of Baptist’s book (and thesis regarding slavery production for that matter). That slavery was very profitable and integral to the growth of American and global capitalism in the 19th century.

    Just appraising the history intuitively one must accept that the system of chattel slavery would not have been perpetuated (both culturally and politically) if it were not profitable. This is the point Baptist made throughout the book. It was profitable, splitting hairs over productivity percentages does not change that. Some may argue the prevalence of slavery over free labor was the result of a shallow “free labor” pool in the antebellum south but one look at population statistics show a more than adequate population of small land holding (i.e. non-plantation) or non-landholding (transient) white potential laborers at a more than appropriate age to be picking cotton at the supposed similar “free labor” rates. Other arguments given typically revolve around the fear of revolution or rebellion (along the lines of Haiti) but this is a red-herring and buttressing the myth of “the south’s peculiar institution”. If that fear were ever present why did the system accelerate after the Haitian revolution? There should have been more than enough examples of the supposed efficacy of free labor from the North (anywhere really, industrialization and wage laborers were well known economically by the late 18th century) to provide enough time for them to “change the system” post Haitian Revolution. You would think given the vicious efficiency of Capitalist to derive profit one plantation owner would have “tried-out” free labor and found its miraculous benefits. Yet this never happened, and it took a horrible civil war to overturn this economic order. Even today the mantra holds, “money talks”, and, in addition writes history.

    Also, considering post Civil-War sharecropper picking rates as a good counterpoint to bond-laborer picking rates misses the reality that sharecroppers were slaves in all but name alone. When 50% of your cotton crop goes to your landlord in addition to rent and perpetual harassment your labor is anything but free. Note that this sharecropping system of pure exploitation continued until mechanized picking came to the South in the 30s and 40s (which corresponded to the Second Great Migration). Ultimately, I feel people take issue with this book because it takes a moral position and does not back down. It challenges technical narratives, which are deeply flawed and ignorant of the bias of economic numbers, particularly when they carry an ideological agenda, say a free-market Capitalist one. In addition, and this issue runs deeper for many readers I assume, Baptist is questioning the values of Capitalists (both then and, indirectly, now). Implicitly he is claiming that Capitalism was behind the monstrosity of American chattel slavery. Slavery did not exist in spite of the system, it was an integral part of it.


  13. Pingback: McCloskey: Cotton wasn’t crucial to the British industrial revolution | Pseudoerasmus

  14. Pingback: The Baptist Question Redux: Emancipation & Cotton Productivity | Pseudoerasmus

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