I am currently reading, and recommending to pretty much anyone who will listen, Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.” Baptist’s focus is on the way slavery developed in the United States, especially in the 19th century before the Civil War. His main thesis is that, far from being a pre-modern regional phenomenon restricted to the South, slavery became utterly central to the accumulation of our national wealth; many northerners profited handsomely from enormously expanded entrepreneurial opportunities made possible by a massive increase in the production of cotton. Whereas in 1791 the U.S. produced only one percent of the world’s cotton, by 1860, U.S. cotton production had soared to 67 percent of a vastly larger world total (over five times its size in 1791). Cotton represented in 1860 fully 61 percent of all U.S. exports.
Baptist also describes how nineteenth-century cotton slavery was even more draconian than it had been in the plantations on the eastern seaboard in the eighteenth century. Ripped from their families on the eastern plantations, slaves were taken to newly claimed lands in the Cotton Belt (some in forced marches in chains). Although slaves could distinguish themselves on the old plantations by special skills, for example, as blacksmiths or seamstresses, the new cotton slavery called only for laboring “hands.” Slaves were subjected to a “pushing system” that extracted ever-increasing productivity through the threat (and fact) of torture during virtually every waking hour.
Economists and political scientists — such as Samuel Huntington, Gregory Clark and Thomas Piketty have noted that it was not until the beginning of the industrial revolution in England in the 1790s that Western economies could escape the “Malthusian trap” and begin accumulating national wealth. This “Great Divergence,” as Huntington called it, ultimately led to the standards of living we in the developed world experience today. No nation showed any significant economic growth before the end of the 18th century. Only when the knitting machines in Manchester’s textile mills could hum with cotton (provided, by 1850, almost entirely by American slaves) could wealth accumulation take off and begin to make possible the investments on which even our current prosperity depends.
This brings me to Eli Whitney, and to us here at Yale. In 1793, Whitney invented the cotton gin, a device that separates cotton fibers from seeds, making it possible to process significantly larger amounts of cotton than can be done by hand. To take advantage of this invention, however, ever-greater amounts of cotton must be grown and picked, and this is where the new cotton slavery came in.
Whitney was not a Southern planter, and he did not himself own slaves. He was a Massachusetts native who graduated from Yale in 1792, the year before he invented the cotton gin. Whitney’s invention, however, reinvigorated what had become a declining slave economy. Moreover, it provided an essential support to the more torturous form that slavery took in driving the cotton-led national expansion of wealth.
“Eli Whitney 1792 Occupied this Room,” it reads atop the door of the office of the chair of Yale’s Philosophy Department in Connecticut Hall, where I sometimes sit. But Whitney is only an especially vivid example of many of us at Yale who have profited from slavery in ways we tend not to think about, or perhaps even know.
This past spring, Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. If you haven’t read it, I hope you will. Coates bases his case on indignities, exploitation and theft — Jim Crow “kleptocracy” — to which African-Americans were subjected after emancipation. That is part of its eloquence. Even not taking into account slavery at all, there is a strong case for reparations. When we add to this the role slavery played in the capital accumulation on which our very national treasure depends, the case for reparations strengthens immeasurably.
Sitting here in Connecticut Hall, it occurs to me to ask: What is our responsibility, here at Yale?
Stephen Darwall is the Andrew Downey Orrick Professor of Philosophy at Yale. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Oct. 16
A previous version of this column misstated the first name of Edward Baptist.