Memory  /  Debunk

How The 1619 Project Rehabilitates the ‘King Cotton’ Thesis

The New York Times’ series on slavery relies on bad scholarship to make an argument with an inauspicious history.

Dubious statistical claims and shoddy research practices are alarmingly common in the broader NHC literature. Those who rely on it repeat these mistakes. In the 1619 Project, Desmond uses another of Baptist’s stats to attribute a 400 percent increase in the daily yield of cotton-picking between 1800 and 1860 to the systematization of whipping and torture as a means of increasing production. This “calibrated torture” thesis forms the central claim of Baptist’s 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told, purporting to show that slave-based production was a capitalistic enterprise at its core and, furthermore, that modern industrial-management techniques (the recording of daily outputs, the comparative tracking of employee productivity, the keeping of double-entry accounting books) take a page from the most evil chapter of American history.

Yet again, Baptist’s thesis is built on misinterpreted evidence — or perhaps intentional deception. He bases his argument on the empirical work of economists Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, who assembled decades of plantation records to study the growth in cotton-crop yields before the Civil War. Olmstead and Rhode discovered the same 400 percent increase in cotton-picking rates yet found a completely different cause: The yields grew primarily as a result of technological improvements to the crop from cross-breeding different strains of cotton seed.

Olmstead and Rhode published a stinging rebuke of Baptist’s work, showing empirically that cotton-picking yields tended to follow daily variations across the crop season, not Baptist’s posited use of a torture-enforced quota system. In addition to his faulty GDP statistics, they showed that Baptist severely overstated the amount of wealth tied up in slavery. “The upshot,” they note, “is that slaves represented an important share of U.S. wealth but not nearly as great as Baptist claimed.”

They also uncovered evidence of Baptist massaging the details of primary-source accounts such as slave narratives to bolster his thesis. This included adding words to slave testimonies and blending passages from disparate sources to change their meaning. These suspicious edits make accounts of the treatment of slaves appear more similar to modern-day managerial tactics.

The economists do not contest or downplay the violent reality of plantation life, acknowledging openly that the widespread “use of violence or the threat of violence increased slave output.” But they document several instances of Baptist playing fast and loose with the evidence, either to exaggerate the resemblance of chattel slavery to modern managerial practices or to inflate the size of the plantation system and treat it as the single dominant economic force in antebellum America.