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Between Slavery and Capitalism: The Legacy of Emancipation in the American South

Author(s):Ruef, Martin
Reviewer(s):Wright, Gavin

Published by EH.Net (December 2014)

Martin Ruef, Between Slavery and Capitalism: The Legacy of Emancipation in the American South.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. xvii + 285 pp.  $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-16277-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Gavin Wright, Department of Economics, Stanford University.

Martin Ruef, the Egan Family Professor of Sociology and director of Markets and Management Studies at Duke University, has published numerous analyses over the past decade on the transition from slavery to new labor systems in the American South, primarily in sociological journals.  Between Slavery and Capitalism collects and updates these articles.  Because these subject areas have received much attention from economic historians, the book provides an opportunity to compare approaches and perspectives between two hybrid disciplines.

Between Slavery and Capitalism is notable in its effort to develop data sets that allow comparisons between antebellum and postbellum outcomes.  Most studies specialize in either one of these eras or the other, perhaps because the historical issues and institutional structures seem so different, but also because direct quantitative comparisons are difficult.  Ruef makes effective use of sources that bridge the wartime divide, including life histories of ex-slaves from interviews conducted by the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project; R.G. Dun Credit Reports for southern businesses; and labor contracts recorded by the Freedmen’s Bureau between 1865 and 1867.  The last of these is used in Chapter 2 to compare the relative evaluations of labor attributes (age, gender, and occupational skill) under slavery and free labor markets.  The exercise shows that differentials by age and gender were more pronounced under slavery than under free labor, and that the relative value of slave labor peaked much earlier in the life cycle.   One would not want to draw major historical conclusions from such a narrow sample of labor contracts, but it is helpful to have quantitative confirmation of the proposition that the change in property-rights regimes did make an economic difference.

Subsequent chapters take up a diverse array of topics: persistence of antebellum status distinctions among emancipated slaves; restructuring of labor systems on plantations; trade and credit networks in the South; differences among counties in growth performance; and U.S. emancipation in comparative perspective.  My discussion here will focus on the plantation chapter, which features new evidence bearing on an episode in institutional change much-discussed by economic historians.

In the aftermath of war and emancipation, reports of large-scale black migration were widespread.  Whereas economists tend to view labor mobility as a natural individual response to market opportunities, Ruef instead takes the view that the decision to leave the plantation was a bold and risky move with uncertain consequences, best understood as an interdependent choice process featuring network externalities and “tipping points” (pp. 109-113).  The author tracks plantation departures from wartime through 1870, using the WPA interviews (pp. 120-125).  The resulting pattern does exhibit a classic S-shaped form (p. 120), but because the inflection point occurs with the end of the war in 1865, this is not particularly strong confirmation for a threshold effect.  Nonetheless, Ruef’s analysis is an interesting possible addition to the economic historian’s toolkit, with potential connections to recent work by Kenneth Chay and Kaivan Munshi (2014), who model black voting behavior and regional outmigration as collective-action phenomena.   When it comes to relating these departures to the emergence of new labor systems, however, doubts begin to arise.

From this reviewer’s perspective, Ruef gets off on the wrong foot by entitling the chapter “The Demise of the Plantation.”  True, Ransom and Sutch (1977) have a chapter with the same name, drawing on the same census data showing declining farm size.  The author acknowledges that big land ownership units were largely maintained, and he even quotes Charles Aiken’s view (1998) that the disappearance of the plantation is a myth (p. 106); but he seems to view this as merely terminological rather than substantive persistence.  That labor relationships changed fundamentally after emancipation is not at issue.  The question is the survival of the plantation as a managerial entity. The 1880 census figures cannot be used to settle the matter, because enumerators were instructed to count each tenant plot as an independent farm, even if it was part of a larger operational unit (Virts 1987).   Many of these “tenant plantations” retained aspects of centralized management, such as the “through-and-through” system, but the agricultural census did not enumerate these operations until a special report issued in 1916.  Ruef does not acknowledge this phenomenon, much less address the interpretive issue.

Indeed, the analysis never gets very deeply into the substance of the choices faced by landlords or laborers.  The author does not engage the work of Ralph Shlomowitz (1982) or Gerald Jaynes (1986), both of whom recount the process by which the centralized “wage plantation” gave way first to an intermediate form known as the “squad system,” before devolving to the nuclear family tenant as the basic unit.  A governing constraint was that payments had to be post-harvest, because of the two-peak character of labor requirements in cotton and uncertainty about price; early decisions were strongly influenced by the fact that the price of cotton was falling rapidly, as world markets adjusted to the return of American supply. In this setting, bargains struck at the start of the season looked like bad deals (and were often defaulted) by the end.  All of these considerations are neglected by Ruef.  For a book whose unifying theme is uncertainty, these are major omissions.

The author’s claim to methodological distinctiveness is the notion of uncertainty, distinguishing “classical” uncertainty (where the probability distribution of outcomes is unknown) from “categorical” uncertainty (where even the kinds of outcomes are not known), both of which are to be distinguished from “risk” with a known probability distribution.   This all sounds profound, but this reviewer finds it hard to see the historical content behind these abstractions. The issue comes to a head in a concluding section called “the escalation of uncertainty” in which the author concludes that “predicting the position of the freedman and woman in Southern society seemed a far more uncertain exercise in 1880 than it had been after the Civil War” (p. 190).  An informed historical observer might well argue precisely the opposite.  The wide-open range of political and economic outcomes that seemed possible in 1865 had been sharply limited by 1880, as cotton laborers could then choose among at most a handful of reasonably well-defined tenure options.  Perhaps this is a matter of disciplinary perspectives, but the variability of plausible interpretations suggests that the uncertainty trope does not really add much to historical understanding.


Aiken, Charles (1998). The Cotton Plantation South since the Civil War. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Chay, Kenneth, and Kaivan Munshi (2014). “Black Networks After Emancipation: Evidence from Reconstruction and the Great Migration,” Working Paper.

Jaynes, Gerald (1986).  Branches without Roots: Genesis of the Black Working Class in the American South, 1862-1882.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch (1977). One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shlomowitz, Ralph (1982).  “The Squad System on Postbellum Cotton Plantations,” in Orville Vernon Burton and Robert C. McMath (eds.), Toward a New South? Studies in Post-Civil War Southern Communities.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Virts, Nancy (1987).  “Estimating the Importance of the Plantation System in Southern Agriculture in 1880,” Journal of Economic History 47: 984-988.

Gavin Wright is the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History at Stanford. His latest book is Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South (Belknap Press, 2013).

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Business History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century