Upward in Slavery

Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery

by Robert William Fogel
Norton, 539 pp., $22.50

Without Consent or Contract: Evidence and Methods

edited by Robert W. Fogel, edited by Ralph A. Galantine, edited by Richard L. Mannings

Without Consent or Contract: Technical Papers Volume I: Markets and Productions Volume II: Conditions of Slave Life and the Transition to Freedom

edited by Robert W. Fogel, edited by Stanley L. Engerman

Slavery has come under intense scrutiny during two periods of American history: from the Revolution through 1865, and since the 1950s. During the antebellum years, when the question was what to do about slavery, constitutional concerns about the property rights of slave owners and the extent of congressional authority defined the limits of the dispute until the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Southern planters then decided that secession was the only way to guarantee that nothing would be done about slavery. Four years of warfare disproved their judgment. Slavery disintegrated in the Confederacy and died in the months following Appomattox. The end of slavery helped to make four years of carnage a noble cause, and it seemed to eliminate the most formidable barrier confronting American blacks.

During the years that intervened between the Civil War and the stirrings of the modern civil rights movement, only a few historians—most notably W.E.B. Du Bois and Ulrich Bonnell Phillips—considered slavery worthy of serious study. Prominent historians looked elsewhere for their interpretations of American history: to the frontier; to the conflict between agrarians and industrialists; to the liberal tradition. Until World War II, leading interpretations of the Civil War emphasized the insignificance of slavery. One school argued that the war contested lofty principles of states’ rights: revisionists claimed nothing worthwhile was at stake on the corpse-strewn battlefields. Slaves and slavery simply did not seem important to most scholars. With the exception of Du Bois and several other black writers, most historians—like Phillips—had few doubts about the inferiority of blacks. The important fact about slavery was that it was finished. What more was there to say?

Plenty, it turned out. The politics of post–World War II America raised the question of racism in the United States. The Nazis’ genocidal atrocities made racism disreputable among many establishment whites for the first time in modern history. The growing strength and assertiveness of the NAACP and other black organizations made civil rights more than a marginal political issue. In discussions of what to do about racism the legacy of slavery unavoidably came to the surface. What one thought about racism had a great deal to do with what one thought about slavery. And what one thought about both racism and slavery had much to do with what one thought about the United States in the modern world. In 1949, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. summoned historians to consider the implications of the decade just past for the history of slavery and the Civil War. “There are certain essential issues on which it is necessary for the historian to have a position if he is to understand the great conflicts of history,” Schlesinger wrote.

These great conflicts are relatively few because there are few enough historical phenomena which we can confidently identify as evil…. And human slavery is certainly one of the few issues of whose evil we can be sure. It is not just “a very ancient labor system”; it is …

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Letters

The Economics of Slavery’ March 1, 1990