Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross
"A Symposium on Time on the Cross"
Reckoning with Slavery: Critical Essays in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery
Anyone who recalls the uncritical enthusiasm that greeted the publication of Time on the Cross a year and a half ago will be shocked by the three volumes of criticism under review. Their combined effect is devastating. A study of slavery that at first seemed exceptionally important, if contentious, now appears at least to be severely flawed and possibly not even worth further attention by serious scholars. This is hardly the fate one would have predicted for a book that the Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom called “a remarkable achievement,” “absolutely stunning, quite simply the most exciting and provocative book I’ve read in years.” Or which inspired the Columbia economist Peter Passell, in his review for The New York Times, to declare: “If a more important book about American history has been published in the last decade, I don’t know about it.” It has, he said, “with one stroke turned around a whole field of interpretation and exposed the frailty of history done without science.”
The enthusiasm of the book’s initial reception and the intensity of the attack now being mounted against it leave one uncertain what questions to ask about Time on the Cross—should we ask how such an important book can be so severely flawed, in spite of its importance? Or how a book with such deep flaws could ever have been thought important? To understand these wildly contradictory judgments we must return to the puzzling book itself.
Time on the Cross was written by two scholars trained primarily as economists, Robert W. Fogel and Stanley Engerman. The book advances two major themes. The first dramatically revises the history of slavery; the second is a polemic on behalf of scientific method in history.
Fogel and Engerman contend that slavery in the United States was far more successful economically and far less vicious in its impact on the personality and culture of blacks than most historians have thought. Their view contrasts sharply with the interpretations formulated by such conventional historians as Kenneth Stampp, Stanley Elkins, and Eugene Genovese. These scholars differ markedly among themselves, but each finds in the history of the peculiar institution ample grounds for both white guilt and black rage.
Although the authors of Time on the Cross grant the immorality of slavery, they depict it as a rational business enterprise in which the interests of master and slave often converged. Precisely because the master was a rational businessman and the slave his valuable property, there could exist no general incentive for abusive treatment. The authors condemn harsher views of slavery as a “perversion of the history of blacks” that serves to “corrode and poison” race relations by making it appear that blacks were deprived of all opportunities for cultural development for their first two and a half centuries on American soil. Like Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll, and most other recent contributions to the history of slavery, Time on the Cross is intended to soften the stark image of the concentration camp that Stanley Elkins so…
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