<p><strong>A New View of Slavery</strong></p>
<p><em>Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery.</em><br />
by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman.<br />
<em>Little, Brown. 286 pp. $8.95.</em></p>
<p><em>Time on the Cross: Evidence and Methods&mdash;A Supplement.</em><br />
by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman.<br />
<em>Little, Brown. 267 pp. $12.50.</em></p>
<p>The main themes of <em>Time on the Cross</em> are already familiar: they have been presented in book reviews, in newspaper reports, in television programs. Fogel and Engerman have reexamined all the material available on the economics of Negro slavery, and they, together with their students and other scholars, have also collected, from original sources, new bodies of material on the economics of the plantation, the operations of the slave market, the impact of slavery on the Negro family, and the like. They list thirteen such bodies of material now available in &ldquo;machine-readable&rdquo; form, meaning that computations can be performed on them, different hypotheses tested, refined, rejected, and accepted, in a way that was simply not possible before the use of computers to perform operations on historical data. These bodies of data include material on tens of thousands of farms taken from the manuscript schedules of the censuses of 1850 and 1860, probate records on 80,000 slaves, invoices on sales of 5,000 slaves in New Orleans, and so forth. As Fogel and Engerman write:</p>
<p>. . . the traditional interpretation of slavery has been under intensive critical review for almost a decade and a half by historians and economists who are trained in the application of quantitative methods to historical problems. This review involves the processing of large quantities of numerical data. Although these data have been available for some time, the techniques required to analyze and interpret them systematically were not perfected until after the close of World War II. Then a series of rapid advances in economics statistics, and applied mathematics, together with the availability of high-speed computers, put information long locked in obscure archives at the disposal of a new generation of scholars.</p>
<p>Despite the awesome apparatus of theory and technology that has been brought to bear on this problem, and the thoroughness of the research (398 references are listed in the <em>Supplement</em>), the conclusions are simple and can be easily summarized. Slavery was an economically rational and successful system of production. It was not kept in force by economically irrational factors, such as the prestige involved in owning many slaves, or the desire of white plantation owners to lead a gracious life (or, if these were factors in the survival of slavery, they are not needed to explain its continuance, for slavery was profitable). Slavery was &ldquo;not inefficient compared with free agriculture. Economies of large-scale production, operation, effective management, and intensive utilization of labor and capital made Southern slave agriculture 35 per cent more efficient than the Northern system of family farming.&rdquo; Further: &ldquo;The typical slave field hand was not lazy, inept, and unproductive. On average he was harder-working and more efficient than his white counterpart.&rdquo; Further: &ldquo;The course of slavery in the cities does not prove that slavery was incompatible with an industrial system or that slaves were unable to cope with an industrial regimen. . . .&rdquo; Further: &ldquo;The belief that slave-breeding, sexual exploitation, and promiscuity destroyed the black family is a myth. . . . It was to the economic interest of planters to encourage the stability of slave families and most of them did so. Most slave sales were either of whole families or of individuals . . . at an age when it would have been normal for them to have left the family.&rdquo; And further: &ldquo;The material . . . conditions of the lives of slaves compared favorably with those of free industrial workers.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Some of the results are indeed surprising, and yet they are not likely to be challenged, one would think, for some time except for detail, in view of the enormous work and great ability that have gone into this research effort. (Fogel, the senior author, is Professor of Economics and History at the University of Chicago, Taussig Research Professor in Economics at Harvard for 1973-74, and will be Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at Cambridge University in 1975-76; he is the author of a highly regarded study on the role of railroads in American economic development which also came out with surprising results. He is also the only historian ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences.)</p>
<p>To consider some of the surprising details: if we take the evidence of biological survival, it turns out that slaves did <em>best</em> in the United States. The United States took only 6 per cent of all slave imports to the Western Hemisphere between 1500 and 1870; but in 1825 it had 36 per cent of the slaves in the hemisphere. If the experience of slaves in the United States had duplicated that of slaves in the West Indies or Brazil, the black population of the United States would have been only a small fraction of what it is today. In the West Indies and Brazil the number of slaves was maintained by imports, and there was a natural decrease, not increase, of their number based on the ratio of births to deaths. This reflected the fact that outside the United States it was cheaper to import new slaves rather than permit or maintain the conditions that enabled the growth to maturity of slave children.</p>
<p>It should be made clear that Fogel and Engerman do not enter into the extensive debate that began with Frank Tannenbaum's <em>Slave and Citizen</em> in 1947 and was given new life by Stanley Elkins's <em>Slavery</em> in 1959 on the comparison of the characteristics of slavery in the United States and the rest of the Americas as a result of different systems of law, religion, and morality. In this debate, from the perspective of the relative morality and humanity of the various slave systems, and their impact on subsequent racial relations, Latin America began with a large advantage over the United States. Fogel and Engerman, concentrating on economics rather than law, religion, and social relations, turn the tables in favor of the United States. But it is clear the &ldquo;superiority&rdquo; in the treatment of slaves in the United States is, from their point of view, based solely on economic considerations by slaveholders. Either the economics of slavery were different in the West Indies and Brazil, and thus led to an objectively crueler situation for slaves&mdash;in terms of their chances for survival and reproduction; or the slaveholders of those areas were not as rational as slaveholders in the United States. I would suspect Fogel and Engerman would be happier with the first interpretation.</p>
<p>In any case, after <em>Time on the Cross</em> it can hardly be argued that the Negro family was destroyed by slavery in the United States while being maintained by the slave systems of Latin America because of royal and church protection and the traditions of a pre-capitalist society. Quite the opposite seems to be the case, and this is perhaps the most surprising of the Fogel-Engerman findings. Thus, it has long been held that slaves in the Old South were bred for export to the New South. This interregional trade, Fogel and Engerman assert, was very small: most slaves migrated to the New South along with their masters, as complete families. The largest center for the interregional slave trade was New Orleans. There does seem on the surface to have been a good deal of trade in young children: &ldquo;9.3 per cent of the New Orleans sales were of children under thirteen.&rdquo; But &ldquo;this could easily have been explained by orphans.&rdquo; They argue that slave families were quite stable, and emphasize the fact that average age of first birth was a high 22.5 years. This, in a well fed population (&ldquo;the energy value of their diet exceeded that of free men . . . by more than 10 per cent&rdquo;). The infant death rate of Southern slaves was virtually the same as that of Southern whites, suggesting not only that conditions for health were equivalent, but that slave maternal care was good.</p>
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<p>But now the question arises: What does it all mean? Why should a reinterpretation of the economic value of slavery be of such great interest and importance? What I have in mind is not what this means for traditional history, or for the conventional understanding of the economics of slavery, but what the <em>implications</em> of these findings are for our understanding of the position of blacks in the United States, the responsibility of whites for that condition, and the prospects of future relations between the races in the United States. No investigation into the Negro past or present in the United States is without political implications&mdash;and Fogel-Engerman understand that well. Consider two such issues that have not remained the preserve of scholars. One is of course the question of the Negro family and the interpretation of the high rates of female-headed families and children born to unmarried mothers that have been apparent in recent decades. As we well know in view of the controversy that followed Daniel P. Moynihan's report on the Negro family, it was not possible to contain this as an issue of either historical or sociological scholarship. There are possible policy implications in any findings, and findings are therefore in some sense weapons. Similarly, there has been a certain amount of discussion and there is increasing research (also using quantitative methods) on the contrasts and similarities in the economic, social, and political careers of Negroes and white immigrant groups in this country. Once again, discussion of this issue has had to proceed with great caution: findings may be weapons. And so with Fogel-Engerman on slavery.</p>
<p>But the issue is&mdash;what kind of weapon, and in whose hands? And here matters become very confused indeed. The same findings can be used for different political purposes, and the assumption that has dominated so much of the reaction to scholarly work on blacks&mdash;that we know or can project what the political effect of a finding will be&mdash;has often turned out to be false. Thus, for a long time it was assumed that evidence on the conditions of the black slum areas would lead to greater public action to alleviate those conditions. If the conditions portrayed were so bad, it was argued (this seemed to be the reasoning of much television journalism), then the shame would be greater, the guilt greater, the redress greater. But of course just the opposite reaction was also possible: if conditions were so bad, nothing could be done, or the fault that the reporter wished to ascribe to the system was shifted by the observer to the individual. Sometimes a specific intention was actually subverted. Moynihan's report, it was just about forgotten in the dispute that followed it, was issued when he was with the Department of <em>Labor</em>, and called of course for the strengthening of the Negro family through a program &ldquo;to eliminate poverty&rdquo; by jobs and income. This, if it was ever noticed, was immediately ignored. The aim, it was charged, of a report titled &ldquo;The Case for National Action,&rdquo; was to make a case for <em>no</em> action.</p>
<p>Much the same thing could be said about the argument over the comparison of the Negro and the white immigrant: it could cut both ways. If the Negro was like the immigrant, then we could be optimistic about his more or less rapid incorporation into the American polity and society with the help of certain useful programs. On the other hand, an opposite conclusion could also be drawn: if he was like the immigrant, why did he need any special programs at all? And opposing implications for action could also be drawn from the opposite conclusion, that the Negro was not like the immigrant: either massive social intervention was necessary to improve his position, or&mdash;as in the case of the black slum and family&mdash;it was &ldquo;their&rdquo; fault and &ldquo;we&rdquo; didn't have to bother.</p>
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<p>I undertake this recounting of old stories not to suggest that Fogel-Engerman will suffer for their research (they may or may not) but rather to suggest there is an inevitable ambiguity in what the truth, as scholars recover it, implies as to <em>any</em> course of action, as to <em>any</em> existing reality. Fogel and Engerman undertook their research with the same scholarly passion that characterized Fogel's iconoclastic analysis of the role of railroads in American economic development, But whereas the latter study could only arouse debates among economic historians (one doubts whether even the railroad operators cared anymore), the present work has already aroused a larger and more confused debate, because far more people will feel that the conclusions say something about them, their values, their fate, their country, their political stances.</p>
<p>Whatever contemporary implications may be drawn from <em>Time on the Cross</em>, there is no reason to think they <em>necessarily</em> follow from an ambiguous mass of data which refuses, like the Delphic oracle, to speak in clear language as to larger meaning. And thus we must resist any assertion that Fogel-Engerman &ldquo;intended&rdquo; to rehabilitate the white South, or American society, or to show that slavery was &ldquo;better&rdquo; than people think it was. First of all we should listen to their own view of contemporary implications:</p>
<p>During the past decade we frequently presented papers to scholarly conferences or to faculty colloquia . . . on various aspects of our research into the economics of slavery. Sometimes, after the end of a discussion, one of our colleagues would come up to us with a nervous smile, ask, &ldquo;What are you guys trying to do? Sell slavery?&rdquo; We answered: &ldquo;No. And even if we were, you wouldn't buy it. No one would buy it.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Nevertheless, one necessary implication of rehabilitating the Negro past as they have done is also to rehabilitate to some extent the American South and American society. If the slaves were such good workers and parents, it was because conditions in the United States&mdash;as against Brazil and the West Indies&mdash;permitted them to be so. Another implication is to shift the emphasis in the kind of rehabilitation of the Negro past that black and other historians have been recently engaged in. The main line of this other kind of rehabilitation has been to emphasize slave revolts, slave resistance, slave sabotage. If the evidence for slave revolts was thin&mdash;it was, compared with the record of Brazil, for example&mdash;then these historians argued that the laziness, stealing, and malingering of the slaves was a form of underground resistance. Fogel-Engerman accept the evidence that the record of rebellion is very scanty (as is the evidence for suicide), but <em>deny</em> that the slave was a poor or unwilling worker. They are forced to this conclusion by their evidence, and hope to make of it something that present-day blacks can take pride in. But one must be skeptical whether this rehabilitation based on the best evidence will satisfy many blacks. Would not black pride demand a history of slave rebels rather than one of good slave workers with stable families?</p>
<p>But it would be premature to take Fogel-Engerman too eagerly as a rehabilitation of the Southern treatment of slaves&mdash;even if a treatment based on rational economic calculation&mdash;for there is more coming from the cliometricians which will throw quite a different light on white treatment of slaves. If the black slave had good health, a strong family, good working skills and capacities, managerial skills (many slaves managed farms and plantations), then what happened afterward? The rehabilitation of the slave-owning South can only lead to the unveiling of a post-Civil War record in both South and North that reduced the Negro, in all measurable ways, <em>below</em> the level he had achieved under slavery. And as a matter of fact, this record is now being compiled by the same methods that were used to change our view of slavery. As Fogel and Engerman write:</p>
<p>One of the worst consequences of the traditional interpretation of slavery is that it has diverted attention from the attack on the material conditions of black life that took place during the decades following the end of the Civil War. By exaggerating the severity of slavery, all that has come after it has been made to appear as an improvement over previous conditions. The relatively low levels of wages of freed blacks, the relatively low-skill composition of the black labor force, the relatively poor condition of black health, the relative shortness of black life expectations&mdash;these and other conditions of the post-Civil War decades have been explained largely as the unfortunate inheritance of the era of slavery. While many have recognized that obstacles continued to be placed in the path of blacks struggling for self-improvement, it has been widely assumed that the primary factors in the slow pace of progress were the disabilities with which blacks emerged from slavery. Only time would overcome the lack of black skills and the unfortunate habits toward work and morality inculcated in blacks by the conditions of slavery. Whatever blame there was for the unsatisfactory conditions of blacks after the Civil War thus rested with a class which no longer existed (the master class) or, unfortunately, with blacks themselves.</p>
<p>During the last few years, the attention of cliometricians has begun to shift from the antebellum to the postbellum era. While the findings thus far are extremely tentative, the evidence that is beginning to accumulate suggests that the attack on the material conditions of the life of blacks after the Civil War was not only more ferocious, but, in certain respects, more cruel than that which preceded it. It appears that the life expectations of blacks declined by 10 per cent between the last quarter century of the antebellum era and the last two decades of the 19th century. The diet of blacks deteriorated. Studies of the diet of black sharecroppers in the mid-1890's indicate that they were protein- and vitamin-starved. The health of blacks deteriorated. Sickness rates in the 1890's were 20 per cent higher than on slave plantations. The skill composition of the black labor force deteriorated. Blacks were squeezed out of some crafts in which they had been heavily represented during the slave era and were prevented from entering the new crafts that arose with the changing technology of the last half of the 19th century and the first half of 20th. The gap between wage payments to blacks and whites in comparable occupations increased steadily from the immediate post-Civil War decades down to the eve of World War II.</p>
<p>In other words: those who are ready to enter this debate on the basis of brief summary, and either to condemn Fogel-Engerman for showing the slave was better off than we believed, or to take delight in their demonstration that the white South was not as bad as we believed, should withhold their condemnation or approval. After Fogel-Engerman&mdash;we are being warned&mdash;there comes Herbert Gut-man with his sobering story of the destruction of the black family in the post-Civil War North. What this teaches us is that we should be cautious in making use of scholarship for politics. The two are indeed different realms. This brilliant book should be taken as what it is: an uncovering of a further measure of historical truth. The bearing of this truth on contemporary social reality and action is too complex for easy debates and the scoring of simple points, and we do scholarship of this quality no favor when we force it to unravel the present and the future, as well as the past.</p>

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