The Jolly Institution

Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery

by Robert William Fogel, by Stanley L. Engerman
Little, Brown, 286 pp., $8.95

Time on the Cross: Evidence and Methods—A Supplement

by Robert William Fogel, by Stanley L. Engerman
Little, Brown, 267 pp., $12.50

The “Cliometricians,” as they call themselves, have married the muse of history to the science of mathematics. These statistical historians are extremely sensitive and defensive about the union for they are aware that traditional devotees of Clio, most historians, regard the marriage as a mésalliance, a forced union of incompatibles. Confronted with equations they cannot read, with techniques they cannot understand, with copious data beyond their comprehension, traditional historians have reacted defensively and belligerently themselves. They see their authority challenged, their humanistic values threatened, their canons of criticism ridiculed, and their cherished classics derided as “soft,” impressionistic, and unscientific. It is not surprising that some of them have overreacted.

Cliometricians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman (especially the former) are by now scarred veterans of this guerrilla war in the academy. In this all-out assault on American slavery historians, they have adopted a strategy somewhat more propitiatory than is customary among militant quantifiers. They admit that “history cannot be reduced merely to a science,” that there are no completely “errorless data,” that “not all questions have unambiguous answers,” that even they are at times “forced into speculation,” have not “expunged all ideological influences from this book,” and are “combining the methods of science with the concerns of humanism.” The reader is titillated with the warning that “this will be a disturbing book to read,” that its “revolutionary” findings were “initially discounted, even rejected out of hand” by the authors themselves. They plead for “forbearance on the part of the reader” and promise that “this forbearance will prove worthwhile.”

As a further concession, they present their findings in the first volume “in as nontechnical a manner as possible” in perfectly intelligible if undistinguished prose for the general reader. The second is given over to documentation, defense of method, algebraic equations, tables and graphs, and computer language beyond the comprehension of laymen. A third of this second volume is devoted to a ruthless scourging of traditional historians of slavery, whether of the left or the right, for their slipshod and unscientific ways, and to the merciless clobbering of a few unfortunate victims. Even in the “nontechnical” volume of findings the rattle of electronic equipment is heard off stage, and the reader is coerced by references to “vast research effort involving thousands of man and computer hours” and inconceivable mountains of statistical data. Propitiation and concession do not diminish in the slightest the deadly seriousness of the attack.

The object of the attack is the entire “traditional” interpretation of the slave economy, and the authors define this in “five main propositions” as follows: “1. that slavery was generally an unprofitable investment, or depended on trade in slaves to be profitable, except on new, highly fertile land; 2. that slavery was economically moribund; 3. that slave labor and agricultural production based on slave labor were economically inefficient; 4. that slavery caused the economy of the South to stagnate, or at least retarded its growth, during the antebellum era; and 5. that slavery provided extremely harsh …

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Letters

Complaint August 8, 1974

Fair Play for Olmsted June 13, 1974