Americans tend to assume that modern historiography has produced a full and complete understanding of slavery in the United States, as a shameful pre-modern institution, existing in isolation from America’s later success. But while we have long since rejected the idealistic depiction of happy slaves and paternalistic masters, we have not yet begun to grapple with the full extent of slavery’s horrors—or its link to the expansion of the country, the political battles that caused the Civil War, or the growth of our modern capitalist economy. As historian Edward Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told, slavery and its expansion were central to the evolution and modernization of our nation in the 18th and 19th centuries, catapulting the US into a modern, industrial and capitalist economy. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a sub-continental cotton empire. By 1861 it had five times as many slaves as it had during the Revolution, and was producing two billion pounds of cotton a year. It was through slavery and slavery alone that the United States achieved a virtual monopoly on the production of cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and was transformed into a global power rivaled only by England.
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