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 subtly superimposed over the plantation in Slavery (1959). But it overshoots the mark.
To support their own benign interpretation, the authors present masses of computer-digested quantitative evidence purporting to show, for example, that slaves were rarely whipped, seldom sold, and usually able to maintain a stable family life. Food, housing, and medical care, they claim, were good by contemporary standards. Under these favorable conditions slaves became imbued with the work ethic and adopted the prudish sexual mores of the Victorian era. The typical slave as represented by Time on the Cross is reminiscent of a Horatio Alger figure in his eagerness to rise from field hand to artisan to slave driver or even overseer. These were the major steps in an occupational hierarchy within slave society that the authors describe as being remarkably well differentiated and open to talent.
Inspired less by the whip than by positive inducements and the values favoring achievement they had internalized, the typical slave, according to Time on the Cross, worked so diligently that the South was 35 percent more efficient in agricultural production than the North. Without denying the injustice of slavery, the authors calculate that the economic benefits of the plantation’s large scale and elaborate organization were so great that blacks actually received more income as slaves than they would have as free farmers. And although a share of their earnings was expropriated by the master, his share was only about 10 percent, “well within the modern tax rate on workers.” The master’s modest rate of expropriation did not prevent him from making a healthy profit or the South from being among the most economically advanced regions of the world.
In short, Fogel and Engerman contend that the slave experience is a fitting object of modern black pride—not merely to the limited extent that slaves resisted or evaded the coercions of the system, but more importantly because slavery was an unusually efficient productive system in which slaves willingly participated, feeling they had a genuine stake in its success.
How could previous historians of slavery have failed to see these things? How could the historical profession have so misled the American public about what is, after all, the most fateful chapter in the nation’s past? The methodological argument of Time on the Cross, which at times threatened to dominate the book, emerged in response to this often repeated question, with its arch connotations of disciplinary competition and institutional rivalry. The answer was simple: previous students of slavery, Fogel and Engerman said, exaggerated the severity of the system, in part out of neo-abolitionist sentimentality and in part out of a covert racism that refuses to attribute the work ethic to non-whites. But mainly their methods failed them. They erred because they employed the unscientific methods of conventional historical scholarship.
The authors of Time on the Cross are proponents—missionary is the more apt word in Fogel’s case—of our generation’s version of scientific history, known as “econometric history,” or the “new economic history,” or, more broadly, “cliometrics.” As exponents of the cliometric approach, Fogel and Engerman characteristically (though not uniformly, as we shall see) disdain impressionistic judgments based on diaries, correspondence, newspaper accounts, and other merely literary sources that are the mainstay of conventional history. Instead they and dozens of their research assistants scoured the country to gather information on slave life from manuscript census returns, probate records, and other sources of quantitative data. These data were then fed into computers and analyzed by means of sophisticated statistical techniques and the elegant mathematical equations of modern econometric theory. The authors claim to have amassed more data on slavery and dealt with it in a more scientific manner than any previous investigator.
Appearances to the contrary, the principal feature of the cliometric approach is neither its preference for hard, quantitative data nor its reliance on computer technology and mathematics. Rather, it is the effort to specify explicitly the usually implicit assumptions about causation that underlie and make possible any explanation of human behavior. When formally stated and systematized, these theoretical assumptions constitute the cliometrician’s “model,” and in the ideal case the model should be clear enough to express in the perfectly unambiguous form of an algebraic equation. The mathematical aspect of the method derives from this effort to specify assumptions rigorously. 1
Conventional historians tend to dismiss all this painstaking specification of assumptions as misplaced precision, or, worse, a futile aping of scientific method. If a cliometrician were to write the history of the crucifixion, according to a current historical joke, he would begin by counting the nails. But the cliometricians are on strong ground when they reply that conventional historians often get away with fuzzy thinking by leaving their theoretical assumptions implicit, or, as is often the case, simply unexamined.
On the surface, cliometrics is an austere and rigorous discipline that minimizes the significance of any statement that cannot be reduced to a clear empirical test (“operationalized”). But beneath the surface one often finds startling flights of conjecture, so daring that even the most woolly-minded humanist might gasp with envy.
The soft, licentious side of cliometrics derives, paradoxically, from its reliance on mathematical equations. Before the cliometrician can use his equation to explain the past, he must assign an empirical value to each of its terms, even if the relevant empirical data have not been preserved or were never recorded. When an incomplete historical record fails—as it often does—to supply the figures that the cliometrician’s equations require him to have, it is considered fair play to resort to estimation, just so long as he specifies the assumptions underlying his estimates. And although cliometrics requires that these and all other assumptions be made explicit, it sets no limits at all on the number of assumptions one may make, or how high contingent assumptions may be piled on top of each other—just so they are explicit.
Pyramiding assumptions in this manner is an art-within-a-science whose finest practitioners achieve brilliant results without forgetting the ethereal nature of the medium in which they work. But inherent in the art is a temptation to see how high one’s assumptions can be stacked before they begin to topple. That temptation brings out the daredevil in all cliometricians occasionally, and the Evel Knievel of the profession is Robert Fogel. His now classic “counterfactual” study of the railroad perfectly exemplifies the daredevil impulse that lurks just beneath the austere surface of cliometrics. It is precisely this impulse that has gotten Time on the Cross in such deep trouble.
Fogel’s aim in Railroads and American Economic Growth (1964) was austere: to test empirically the widespread notion that the coming of the railroad contributed greatly to the industrial growth of the United States. But to carry out this aim Fogel shifted into his daredevil mood: he concocted a railroadless United States in 1890. After all, to say that the railroad helped to cause economic growth is to say that if the railroad had not existed, economic growth would have been retarded. So Fogel built a counterfactual world by estimation: he estimated how much it would have cost in the absence of railroads to expand the canal system to its maximum potential; how much more shippers would have paid if they had been forced to rely on wagons and boats alone; how much income would have been forgone by steel manufacturers and other suppliers of the railroad if they had lost their best customer—and so on at great length.
All historians bemoan the incompleteness of the historical record, but Fogel’s problem was quite different: he needed data that had never existed and could only be estimated. This is a game for which the rules have yet to be written. Each estimate introduced a new chain of assumptions—all explicit, of course, to anyone who cared to burrow through them. The difficulties of making reliable estimates were compounded by his choice of the year in which to test the railroad’s impact, 1890, six decades after the railroad’s introduction, when the entire society had adjusted to its presence in the most subtle ways. No surgeon struggling to excise a malignant growth from a living body ever faced so difficult a task.
R. W. Fogel, "The Specification Problem in Economic History," Journal of Economic History, Vol. 27 (Sept. 1967), pp. 283-308.↩
R. W. Fogel, “The Specification Problem in Economic History,” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 27 (Sept. 1967), pp. 283-308.↩