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Fair Play for Olmsted

In response to:

The Jolly Institution from the May 2, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

I have not yet seen the two-volume economic study of slavery, Time on the Cross, by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, but assuming, as I confidently do, that Vann Woodward correctly represented the authors’ criticisms of Frederick Law Olmsted [NYR, May 2], I should like to make two points, bearing not on the economics of slavery but on Olmsted’s attitude toward it.

Professor Woodward says that the authors blame the “abolitionists,” especially Olmsted, for promulgating the widely-held theory that slavery was economically less profitable than free labor; and that the authors further contend that the abolitionists’ “unconscious racism” led them, in accounting for its unprofitability, to fasten on slave laborers the stigma of laziness, stupidity, incompetence, etcetera.

In the first place, Olmsted was not an abolitionist—unless the term is stretched to cover anyone who favored the eventual abolition of slavery. Olmsted was a proponent of gradual and compensated emancipation, a doctrine repugnant to genuine do-it-now-and-let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may abolitionists, who saw no reason to pay slaveowners for property originally stolen.

In the second place, if Olmsted was an unconscious racist—and amateur psyching could no doubt “prove” that he was that, and an unconscious homosexual/vegetarian as well—his comments on the generally poor quality of slave labor as he observed it do not sustain the charge: he specifically attributed the inferiority of the work performed by slaves to, not the slaves’ racial or native inferiority, but to their enslaved condition, which as a rule left them without incentive to do more than loaf through the forced minimum of work. He remarked a number of times on slaves, offered responsibility and incentive, who worked admirably, and he concluded that their performance effectually rebutted the racial-inferiority theory; and he was, in fact, sympathetic with workmen who, having nothing to gain by more than minimal exertion, put forth nothing more.

I hope these comments will somewhat clarify Olmsted’s “abolitionism” and “unconscious racism.”

Laura Wood Roper

Washington, DC

C Vann Woodward replies:

Both Laura Roper and I are at a disadvantage in this matter. She has not read the book I was reviewing and I have not read her book on Olmsted. But I have read a lot of Olmsted, and I do not believe Fogel and Engerman have misrepresented his views on the Negro slaves. They are careful to point out that, unlike Cassius Marcellus Clay and Hinton Rowan Helper, abolitionists with whom he is compared, Olmsted “was a man of intense goodwill toward Negroes.” They add that, “if our objective were to evaluate the man, his enlightenment would certainly deserve more emphasis than his biases.”

Biases he undoubtedly had, however, the racial biases of his time, attitudes tagged “racism” by another generation with other attitudes. While he believed that Negroes could “become thoroughly civilized,” he did not think that “in one generation or two the effects of centuries of barbarism and slavery are to be extinguished” or that Negroes “are ever to become Teutons or Celts.” He went further to say that, “The African races compared with the white, at least Teutonic, have greater vanity or love of approbation, a stronger dramatic and demonstrative character, more excitability, less exact or analytic minds, and a nature more sensuous, though (perhaps from want of cultivation) less refined.” As for their work habits, he thought they were “far less adapted for steady, uninterrupted labor than we are, but excel in feats demanding agility and tempestuous energy.”

The point Fogel and Engerman are making is that partly because of Olmsted’s strong opposition to slavery, partly because of his northern chauvinism, but also in part because of his racial biases, he grossly underestimated the efficiency, productivity, and dependable character of slave labor and helped fix upon the black man the stereotype of laziness, incompetence, stupidity, and unreliability that has crippled and handicapped him down to the present time. If these revisionists are correct, on the other hand, black slave labor was far more efficient and productive than free white labor of the mid-nineteenth century.

It should be added that if these or any other writers leave the impression that all abolitionists (among whom they do not include Olmsted) and antislavery people held the same racial biases, they certainly should be corrected. While it is true that most of them would today be called “racists” (a cliché overdue for retirement), they ranged from Helper at one extreme to Garrison at the other. Olmsted fell somewhere in between.

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