Massa's in de Cold, Cold Computer
Time, June 17, 1974

The young folks roll on the little cabin floor...
'Tis summer, the darkies are gay.

—Stephen Foster


by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman
Vol. I, 286 pages, Vol. II, 267 pages; Little, Brown; $8.95 and $12.50.

IF I AM a better historian than other men, Jules Michelet once observed, it is because I have a larger table. The French historian's graceful bow to the supremacy of broad and easily retrievable research over insight has now been carried to devastating extremes by the authors of this provocative book. Fogel, 47, is a professor of economics and history at the universities of Chicago and Rochester. Engerman, 38, is professor of economics and history at Rochester. Together they have stirred up a fuss among a new wing of historians known as cliometricians because their methods marry Clio, the muse of history, to the practice of quantifying the past with the help of computers. They are armed with bar graphs, data banks and masses of statistics from all sorts of sources (some, like the New Orleans slave market records from 1804 to 1862, previously unexplored). They also have more or less proved that traditional "impressionistic" historians persistently wrote about American slavery in delusive and polemical stereotypes.

Among the most widely accepted and notable errors, the authors suggest, was the belief that slavery was economically dying in 1860, that slave labor was inefficient and slovenly, and—most important—that slavery produced hideously hard conditions of life for the average slave. Not so, say Fogel and Engerman, offering statistics on per capita income and return on capital to prove it. Slavery was booming in 1860, and plantations were 40% more efficient than Northern agriculture.

Simon Legrees existed, the authors are quick to admit. But, the book suggests, the moonlight and molasses nostalgia of a Stephen Foster may somewhat more accurately describe the average relationship between slave and master than any serious historian has been willing to admit for years. The authors blend statistics on everything from the percentage of blacks in skilled plantation trades to the average age of black mothers at the time of their first-born child. The result is a vision of plantations as businesses administered in ways that suggest both a Victorian family and a paternalistic corporation eager to encourage worker morale in the interest of higher profits. Slaves, the book says, did almost all the skilled work of the plantations and most of the overseeing. In some cities, more than 25% of adult male slaves were skilled artisans, and when they were lent out for hire they shared the take with Massa.

Slaves seem to have eaten more and better food than the population of the U.S. as a whole, and indeed had more protein in their diets than the recommended minimum for Americans in 1964. What is more, slave owners encouraged slaves with bonuses and fostered a degree of family pride largely dependent on black fathers as heads of families. (Even though the marriage of slaves was technically illegal, de facto monogamous marriages were practiced with the support of plantation owners. Food, clothing, housing and tools were issued to individual families in the father's name.) Time on the Cross suggests, too, that slave owners rarely exploited black females sexually: it was bad for morale. As proof, the book reports briskly that in a noncontraceptive society, after 23 decades of slavery, the nonwhite population was only 7.7% mulatto.

Down from Slavery?

Masters apparently did not break up slave families by selling individual members down the river either, at least not in significant numbers. Along with broader auction statistics, the book offers in support of this point the continuous record of 19 plantations with 3,900 slaves. Over a 90-year period, only seven slaves were sold away.

When first confronted by Time on the Cross Black Psychologist Kenneth Clark remarked, "Would the authors recommend a return to slavery?" It may not have been fair, but it was an understandable question. Americans, liberal and conservative, black and white, have an enormous psychological interest in blaming slavery and the demoralization of the black family through cruelty and servitude for many of the ills that afflict blacks in modern society. If the search for a usable past consists of finding a view of yesterday that instructs and encourages today for the benefit of tomorrow, what good in 1974 can come of saying anything good about the dreadful institution of slavery?

Both Fogel and Engerman are liberals. (Fogel is married to a black woman.) They admit to being shocked by the reports that issued from their computer. The whole question of seeking truth aside, the authors claim that preoccupation with the enduring legacy of slavery has too long kept both blacks and whites from paying enough attention to the horrifying inequality of opportunity for blacks from the Reconstruction period onward, which may do more to explain black social conditions today than the rigors of plantation life. The achievements—in administration, artisan skills and dollar earnings—of plantation blacks when given a chance and incentive seem to support this point.

Because the book also takes up the authors' beliefs about how so many historians misread the past—through misuse of figures, inadequate training in economics and statistics, reliance on isolated eyewitness accounts and subjective "impressions"—it offers a fascinating insight into how historians work, and how living political attitudes affect views of the dead past. Any stigma will do to beat a vicious dogma. Accordingly, says Time on the Cross, the trail of historical error began with the rhetorical zeal of abolitionists. Justly considering slavery a crime against God and man, they did not hesitate to exaggerate its iniquities and weakness. Abolitionists like Frederick Law Olmsted and Cassius Marcellus Clay and slavery critics like Fanny Kemble were the main source of early stories about widespread cruelty and sexual abuse, and the assertion that slavery was an economic disaster that retarded the growth of the South. The inefficiency of plantations and black labor came as a natural corollary, both in logic and because many abolitionists, ironically, were racists who assumed black inferiority as a matter of course. Olmsted, a New Yorker, traveled in the South but stoutly asserted that slaves did a third to a half as much work as "the commonest, stupidest Irish domestic drudges at the North." Opined Cassius Clay: "God made them for the sun and the banana."

Such views, especially regarding economics and slave inefficiency, lasted into the 20th century, when they were adapted by Historian U.B. Phillips, a Southern racist whose aim was to rehabilitate the cruel plantation owners. Though he successfully showed that many slaves were well fed and cared for, he accepted the notion that plantations were not run for a profit. Instead, he argued, plantations, "were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people."

Dumbfoundingly, Phillips's American Negro Slavery, published in 1918, remained a dominant force in slave historiography for 30 years. Despite WPA interviews with former slaves in the 1930s and the work of a number of black historians, which went largely ignored, it was not until the period between Gunnar Myrdal's American Dilemma in 1944 and Kenneth Stampp's The Peculiar Institution (1956) that emphasis began to be placed on environment and the effects that slavery had on blacks and black culture. The stereotype of childlike, lackadaisical behavior of plantation blacks remained, though it now began to be explained away in all sorts of sympathetic, guilt-ridden and ingenious ways. Stampp regarded it as a kind of defense against the pressures of the peculiar institution. Historian Stanley Elkins' Slavery (1959) even suggested that "Sambo, the typical plantation slave ... docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing," resembled not so much a kind of survivor's soft-shoe sabotage of Massa as the form of demoralization and infantilism that set in among inmates of Nazi concentration camps.

Slippery Statistics

Traditional historians already regard the sociologists and statisticians now invading their discipline as so many Visigoths likely to ruin the already declining quality of written history, substitute accounting for breadth of vision and insight, and eventually relegate old-school historians to peripheral pursuits like intellectual history. In the past, the humanists have managed to hold off the invasion with light scholarly musket fire. Statistics and averages are misleading. (Everyone knows the story of the nonswimming statistician who drowned in trying to wade a river with an average depth of three feet.) Sociologists are well known for expending a king's ransom on graph paper, conferences and field work to prove something that everybody knows, e.g., there is some likelihood you will marry the girl next door. Besides, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once said, "Almost all important questions are important precisely because they are not susceptible to quantitative answers."

Time on the Cross is offered not as a complete history but as a corrective. The authors bow to the need for psychological studies. They are clearly aware that their statistical base is sometimes small and that their inferences about average well-being on the plantation is morally irrelevant to the outrage of slavery, the psychological anguish it caused, and the agonized voices of individual slaves that have come down from the dark past. Yet the authors, generally moderate, are quite merciless when dealing with what they regard as the fumbling ignorance of Stampp, Elkins and Phillips on the subject of economics and statistics. The message is perfectly clear. Historians who do not have these tools could grope for another hundred years in subjective confusion and never be able even to evaluate or rebut the work of the cliometricians.

It is too early to know what sort of traditional defense (or "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em" strategy) may result from this by far the most massive assault yet by the Visigoths. Preliminarily, though, cliometrics seems to have scored heavily. TIME consulted a dozen American scholars, many of whom had read the book in advance of publication.

All thought that the statistics were sometimes sparse, that they should and would be subjected to extreme scrutiny. Many pointed out the limitations of economics in re-creating the past. Historian Harold Woodman noted, for instance, that the book's use of per capita income as an index of economic growth is questionable when applied to a nonindustrial society. Economic Historian Murray Rothbard said, "Cliometrics doesn't work for the current economy, so how could it work on information from 1860?" Sociologist Orlando Patterson questioned some of the inferences that Fogel and Engerman draw from their statistics, such as the assumption that young black girls were prudish, not promiscuous, because the average age of black slave women on having a first child was 22.

Sense of Life

But such reservations aside, most were considerably impressed. Stanley Elkins admitted that he would have to revise his thinking in the light of the authors' persuasive arguments but added that the book does not convey the sense of what life was like for a slave. We still need, he said, "an imaginative re-creation of slavery on the level of Faulkner." Some, like the University of Chicago's Louis Gottschalk, were hostile and skeptical at first. "My reaction was: even if it's true, I don't want to believe it." Eventually he concluded that the importance of the book could be compared with Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," put forward in 1893.

That may be going a bit far. The book is likely to change the way history is written in the future, both for good and ill. It surely should be the most controversial volume on American history since 1913, when Charles A. Beard was called a hyena (and worse) merely for pointing out that the U.S. Constitution had been drawn up by property-owning lawyers who had much to gain by its adoption.