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China Maritime Customs and China’s Trade Statistics, 1859-1948

Author(s):Lyons, Thomas P.
Reviewer(s):Wright, Tim

Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Thomas P. Lyons, China Maritime Customs and China’s Trade Statistics, 1859-1948. Trumansburg, NY: Willow Creek Press, 2003. viii + 168 pp. + data and text files on CD. $34.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-9729147-5-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Tim Wright, Chinese Studies, University of Sheffield.

Studies of the economic history of China (and of many other developing countries) are bedeviled above all by the lack of trustworthy economic statistics. By far the most reliable and comprehensive set of statistics on nineteenth and early twentieth-century Chinese economic history are those produced by the Maritime Customs, and there are few scholars of the period who do not use them extensively. So historians will be grateful to Thomas P. Lyons (Professor of Economics at Cornell University) for publishing this thorough guide to their conventions, reliability and compilation.

This book originates in Professor Lyon’s important work on the economic history of Fujian province (which spans the whole period from the nineteenth century to the present), and it must be stated immediately that the contents are more limited than the title suggests. Essentially this is an account of the compilation of the Customs statistics, but one based mainly on a case study of the Fujian tea trade — which was one of China’s main export trades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book is of broader relevance than just the tea industry, however, and the problems identified and the methods suggested can certainly be extrapolated to other situations. But that work is left to other scholars.

The book consists of two parts: a general analysis of the Customs organization and statistics (albeit with the examples still from the Fujian tea trade), and a detailed case study of the figures for Fujian tea exports and the way they can be used in Chinese economic history. In the first of five chapters, the author outlines the history, institutional structure and key functions of the Maritime Customs, as these changed over time. The second chapter outlines the structure and nature of the customs statistics. Although the various distinctions will be familiar in outline to most scholars who have worked on the figures, Lyons makes a major contribution by systematically explaining them. The third chapter points to the key problems in the statistics. Although the figures themselves have a high degree of reliability, when using them one has to be careful of variations in nomenclature and classifications, of issues arising from the aggregation of figures for different commodities — even different types of tea — or for different ports, of changes through time in degrees of inclusiveness (for example, increasing coverage of existing levels of trade, or inclusion and then exclusion of Taiwan and Manchuria), and of what is not covered in the statistics (much overland trade and all illegal trade).

The two chapters of Part II first examine what the customs statistics tell us about the tea trade of Fuzhou, and then expand the vision to take in the tea trade of the whole province of Fujian. The author illustrates the pitfalls that can face scholars by comparing the figures for Fuzhou tea exports he gathered directly from the Customs statistics with earlier series published by Robert Gardella and Chen Ciyu. It turns out that both the earlier series are an amalgam of figures for different variables, some for total exports to foreign countries, some for original exports to all destinations. Even if the differences are not very consequential, it is sobering to think that even a scholar as careful and thorough as Gardella can be misled by the intermediate sources from which he draws his statistical material. Finally, Lyons analyzes the issues involved in aggregating figures for tea exports over the whole province, and very productively shows how the Customs statistics can be used to cross-check other figures, for example those for the production and consumption of tea in the province (basically he shows that existing estimates of production in the early twentieth century are almost certainly too low).

Within each chapter, Lyons also provides a series of “boxes” — more detailed discussions of particular issues that are of tangential relevance to the general argument. Some of these are again extremely useful, for example Boxes 11 and 12 (pp. 77-85) on the format of the Returns of Trade that are the original source for most of the statistics used by scholars. Finally, with the book comes a CD that presents an extensive set of Customs data, mainly on the tea trade of Fujian. This includes sixty-five spreadsheets and seven documents, providing both a substantial amount of raw data on the tea industry and the aggregate estimates underlying all the charts and tables in the book, so that the author’s analysis is reproducible. One must hope that this is a harbinger of things to come, and that increasingly authors will provide in electronic form the raw data underlying their conclusions.

All scholars will be grateful to Lyons for making available such a thorough guide to the Customs Statistics, albeit one based on one particular (but important) case. In the future, scholars using these statistics will, at the minimum, be more aware of the institutional origins of the figures and the pitfalls involved in their use. As the author himself points out (pp. 154-155), there is an issue of the marginal productivity of effort in going into the level of detail and of thoroughness that he himself is prepared to invest. While some will, therefore, probably still want to use the available aggregate figures without going so deeply into the details, everyone will benefit from having a better idea of the problems involved.

Tim Wright is Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sheffield. His recent publications include Modern Chinese Economic History: Recent Chinese Studies, and “Distant Thunder: The Regional Economies of Southwest China and the Impact of the Great Depression,” Modern Asian Studies 34.3 (July 2000): 697-738. He is currently working on the history of the 1930s Great Depression in China, and on economic reform in the contemporary Chinese coal industry.

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment

Author(s):Rothschild, Emma
Reviewer(s):Hueckel, Glenn

Published by EH.NET (September 2002)

Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the

Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001.

ix + 353 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-674-00489-2; $18.95 (paper), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Glenn Hueckel, Department of Economics, Pomona College.

This is a book that will itself provoke in its readers a number of

“sentiments,” chief of which will be, no doubt, what Smith would have

described as a “sense of wonder” at the breathtaking range of the author’s

learning. Her exposition carries us beyond the works of the two authors in the

staring roles, beyond even those of the two chief supporting actors (Hume for

Smith; Turgot for Condorcet), to commentaries on Greek tragedies, studies of

medieval British labor markets, comments on a modern French philosophical

critique of “bourgeois society,” and much more. Indeed, since few

English-speaking readers will be able to measure up to Rothschild’s linguistic

skills, her commentary on a vast French literature, supplemented with

occasional German sources, cannot fail to prompt new lines of thought. The

argument is lavishly documented; her endnotes alone could provide the diligent

scholar with a rich syllabus for a long and highly instructive course of


The text, however, is a rather different matter. That initial reaction of

“wonder” will be, I fear, quickly tempered by a growing sense of aggravation

and disappointment as readers contemplate the interpretative structure the

author constructs from her sources, particularly as that structure concerns

Smith. Frequently, the reading advanced seems to be conditioned by the needs

of Rothschild’s argument rather than by the content of her sources. This is,

without question, a difficult book. The exposition is highly allusive,

carried along by hundreds of fragmentary quotations that are more tantalizing

than instructive. Not infrequently one longs for a series of simple

declarative sentences where one can get one’s bearings. Nevertheless,

“enlightenment” eventually arrives in the last chapter, where the author

finally makes explicit her organizing structure.

That structure is best described as comprising three layers of varying degrees

of complexity. At the simplest, most descriptive level, the author seeks to

“cast light” on her notion of eighteenth-century enlightenment. For this

purpose, the object of our attention is to be understood as “a universal, or

potentially universal disposition; … not a characteristic only of

philosophers,” but “a particular disposition of everyone.” This is a

disposition to “a discursive, disputatious, theorizing way of life” which

infuses all areas of existence, particularly the political and commercial

spheres (which, as the author is at pains to point out, are themselves

interrelated) (pp. 16, 31, 39, 49). It is at this level that the argument is

most instructive. The ideas of her authorities fit easily into this scheme,

and the arrangement reveals a number of fascinating insights that will enrich

our understanding of those authorities.

It will be evident from the book’s title that our attention is to be directed

at those enlightenment authors who were roughly a generation younger than

Quesnay and his physiocratic contemporaries. This is an important distinction

since that earlier generation has been criticized for the authoritarian stance

of their political views, a sort of “compulsory enlightenment” in which the

state was to shape the spirit of its people in the philosophers’ image of the

“laws of nature.” Indeed, our authors — Condorcet and Turgot; Smith and Hume

– were among those critics. The failure to maintain this important

distinction in the post-Revolutionary world led, we are told, to the false

portrayal of Smith and Condorcet as expressing that same “cold, rational, and

reflective calculation” associated with the previous generation of

Enlightenment writers in contrast to that “warmth” of sentiment said to

characterize post-Napoleonic thought (pp. 25-28; 34-39).

The author’s first objective is to rescue the reputations of Condorcet and

Smith from this frigid characterization. The task is accomplished for

Condorcet in chapters 6 and 7, the latter of which is slightly revised from

its earlier version appearing in the Historical Journal, 39.3

(September 1996): 677-701. These demonstrate quite satisfactorily that his

“principles … are strikingly different from the cold, unfeeling, all-summing

‘mechanical philosophy’ which is supposed to be characteristic of the French

enlightenment” (p. 212). His world not only permitted diversity of opinion but

encouraged it. Indeed that diversity is to be seen as “of central importance”

to the analysis of voting procedures that led to his famous conclusion that

aggregation of individual choices by majority vote will, under certain

circumstances, produce intransitive outcomes. Condorcet’s solution to the

problem was to envision constitutional procedures to manage that “political

dissonance” by encouraging “deliberation, delay, and the prospect of

reversibility.” His citizens would “vote interminably” on “everything from

property rights in ponds to the future constitution of representative

government” (pp. 188-89; 198-99; 204-05; 219-20).

In Smith’s case, the rescue occurs in chapter 2, which, like chapters 3 and 7,

is very slightly revised from an earlier publication (in the Economic

History Review, 1992, 45.2: 74-96). Here the problem is to explain how

Smith’s expansive views on “natural liberty” could come, within a decade of

his death, to be compressed in the minds of his countrymen to no more than a

narrow call for commercial freedom. Here the argument introduces us to the

oppressive social atmosphere in Britain of the 1790s, when widespread fear

that the terrors of the Revolution might be exported across the Channel made

very unpopular any discussion of reform, or even expressions of anything less

than wholehearted support for the war with France. We are reminded that

Stewart, Smith’s first biographer, read his “Account” of Smith’s life to the

Royal Society of Edinburgh at just the time when several of his countrymen

were on trial in the same city for sedition, for which they were eventually

convicted and transported. Some even appealed in their defense to the views

expressed in The Wealth of Nations, which, no doubt, made Smith’s less

reckless readers very nervous. Indeed, Stewart himself fell afoul of the

contemporary sensibilities a year later and was constrained to repudiate what

seems to modern eyes a very mild quotation from Condorcet included in an

earlier work. No wonder Stewart was at pains in his “Account” to distinguish

commercial freedom alone as conducive to national wealth, assuring his hearers

that the freedom of widespread political participation is not, in all cases,

necessary to the “happiness of mankind” (Smith, 1980, p. 310). It is, of

course, obvious that the reception and interpretation of an author’s work will

be influenced by the political and social environment of the time. Rothschild

has here given us a fascinating picture of how that environment influenced the

reception of Smith’s work in the 1790s. A similar story is told in chapter 4,

which contrasts Smith’s criticism of apprenticeship with the arguments

advanced in the debates leading to the 1814 repeal of the apprenticeship

clauses of the Elizabethan statute of artificers. Here too we see in detail

how the participants in those debates carefully chose from among Smith’s

broader arguments to support their own narrower purposes. These and the

intervening chapter 3 may well be the best in the book.

That intervening chapter (appearing in a shorter version in the Economic

Journal, 1992, 102.414: 1197-1210), completes the effort to rescue

Condorcet and Smith from that “cold” and “unfeeling” version of the

Enlightenment. Here we are concerned with the teachings of our authorities

regarding the grain trade because, we are told, “The political economy of food

has been an emblem, at least since the 1760s, of the heartlessness of the

liberal system” (p. 72; the like point is made with particular reference to

Smith on p. 61). Rothschild, however, is at pains to convince her readers that

Condorcet, Turgot, and Smith all “argued that free trade in corn is the best

means to avoid famine” (pp. 73-74). This will come as no surprise to

economists; but her brief survey of the arguments contained in Turgot’s

“Lettres” and Condorcet’s R?flexions on the grain trade (which, apart

from some brief excerpts from Turgot translated by Groenewegen, are not

available in English) will be of considerable help to scholars interested in

understanding how societies (and economic theory) respond to subsistence


It should by now be evident that Rothschild’s effort to describe the positions

advanced by her second-generation Enlightenment authors and to trace out how

the perception of those positions changed in the decades immediately following

the Revolutionary period does indeed cast new and revealing light on the

position of those authors in the pre-Revolutionary intellectual firmament.

About midway through the book, however, the argument shifts away from this

descriptive stance and turns ever greater attention to an evaluation of that

“liberal economic thought” associated with those authors. By the end of the

fifth chapter we are confronted with what Rothschild insists are the two

“shortcoming[s] of the liberal economic order.” The first is its alleged

failure to acknowledge “that individuals seek, on occasion, to pursue their

own (economic) interests by political means.” The second is the “inconstancy”

of that “liberal order.” The institutions comprising the world described by

Condorcet and Smith, being “the outcome of innumerable, unruly judgments, …

may or may not be good.” In this respect that structure “is very unlike a

divine providence … in which individuals should have confidence.” Or, as

the point is expressed in the last chapter, this “more insidious shortcoming

of the liberal orders … is that they do not contain within themselves the

sources of their own improved orderliness.” If, in their intellectual systems,

our authors deny the existence of a “divine providence” looking after things,

then they can have no certainty that those “innumerable, unruly judgments”

will lead to “improved orderliness” (pp. 157-58; 219-20). This uncertainty

provides the third facet of Rothschild’s organizational structure. As she puts

it on the penultimate page of her text, she “has been concerned in this book

with an economic thought in which uncertainty is the overwhelming condition of

commercial society.”

It must be admitted that this theme of “uncertainty” appears frequently in

various brief obiter dicta throughout the book, but the precise nature

of the “uncertainty” that is supposed to be at issue is not made explicit

until the last chapter. There it takes several forms, ranging from the trivial

to the profound. At its most mundane level, it is no more than normal market

risk: “The world of eighteenth-century commerce was insecure, or risky, in the

sense that it was full of new investments and new economic relationships” (pp.

239-40). Yes, replies the reader, and the same could be said for any other

century. To some degree, the uncertainty that is supposed to be at the heart

of “liberal economic thought” arises from capricious changes in the rules of

the game: “The new world of commerce was insecure, too, because it was subject

to frequent and often sudden changes in laws, regulations, and the

jurisprudence of property” (p. 240). But the key role in the argument is

played by those sources of uncertainty that correspond to Rothschild’s two

“shortcomings” of the “liberal order.” That enlightened disposition to “a

discursive, uneasy, self-conscious way of life” that produced the “political

dissonance” that so occupied Condorcet spills over into commercial life as

well: “The eighteenth-century system of commerce … was subject to continuing

flux not only in events, and in rules, but also in the dispositions of the

individuals … of whom the system is composed.” This “flux in the condition

of men is the essential circumstance of modern commerce, in Smith’s, Turgot’s,

and Condorcet’s description” (p. 241). The individuals who populate the world

envisioned by these authors are said to “have opinions about their own

interests, about the interests of the society, and about the policies which

are likely to promote those interests,” and they recognize that they can

promote their private interests through efforts to influence those policies:

“They are buying and selling, buying and selling; in the end, they are buying

and selling rules, and customs, and their own dispositions.” Apparently this

flaw in the “liberal economic system” is to be understood as a fundamental

internal contradiction and is, consequently, the source of “the system’s own

insecurity”: “The system of economic freedom is founded on the equality of all

individuals, and it is at the same time subversive of equality,” that

subversion arising from “the endless circle in which individuals become rich,

and use their money to buy power, to buy other individuals, and to influence

the ways in which other individuals think” (pp. 239; 245; 251-52). Here,

obviously, we have come to Rothschild’s first “shortcoming.” The connection to

the second is obvious: without the presumption of a benevolent, divine

creator, there can be no certainty that those shifting “dispositions of the

individuals” in the system will lead to a socially desirable outcome. But,

Rothschild insists, the system to which Smith, Hume, Condorcet, and Turgot all

subscribed “is not the sort of order which is directed, like the ‘movements of

nature,’ by an ‘all-wise Being,’ or by a single, unified theory” (p. 230).

Here then is the evaluative framework that Rothschild would have us adopt. It

portrays the social systems envisioned by Condorcet and Smith as infused by

uncertainty in various forms, all arising from the “continuing flux” in the

“dispositions” of a “discursive, disputatious” populace, that perpetual social

“dissonance” operating with no hope of a divine, guiding hand and,

consequently, plagued by the “shortcoming” that its agents might pursue their

private interest through anti-social means. But what of the supporting

argument? Can such a reading be shown to be consistent with the texts under

review? With respect to Condorcet, Rothschild’s evidence is extensive and

largely persuasive. Smith, however, simply will not permit himself to be

forced into this template for it attributes to his work positions that, in

several cases, are directly opposed to those which he actually advanced. At

nearly every point, the argument rests on selective omissions and

misrepresentations of the Smith texts. Consider, as illustration, just those

bearing on Rothschild’s two “shortcomings of the liberal order.”

If, as alleged by that first “shortcoming,” we fail to acknowledge that those

intelligent, “discursive,” “self-conscious,” agents in our enlightened world

will recognize the incentives to pursue their private interests through the

political system, then our only hope for future social improvement is to take

refuge in the hope that those agents will grow in social awareness and form

their own interests to those of society. As Rothschild puts it, the

Enlightenment’s “late eighteenth-century exponents” looked forward to “a

universe of small proprietors, most of whom are sufficiently foresighted to

understand that their own lasting self-interest, which coincides with the

interest of the society, consists in competing by economic means … and not

through political influence” (p. 158). Now, this seems a fair portrayal of

Condorcet’s position, at least as it was near the end of his life. Quoting

from her translation of one of his last texts, Rothschild observes that

Condorcet put his faith in reform. With “better laws, … ‘the interest in

acquiring things by illegitimate means will present itself less often, to a

smaller number of individuals, and in less diverse and less seductive forms'”

(p. 166). Here, no doubt, is the source of Rothschild’s claim of

“uncertainty.” There is nothing in this rendition of Condorcet’s vision to

inspire confidence in future improvement. It is, as Rothschild puts it, no

more than “a probabilistic judgment,” an “expression of confidence in the

disposition of individuals to discuss and to live by principles of morality;

to be mild and moderate, and to feel an increase of humanity, from the very

habit of conversing together” (p. 232). “The only source of certainty in such

a society,” we are told, “is to be found … in domestic virtues and domestic

conversations. … Condorcet … is prepared to defend the softness or

sweetness of modern life; to look forward to the ‘easy virtues’ of a world in

which improvements in education and laws would have made ‘the courage of

virtue almost useless.'” But, and here we see evidence of that second

“shortcoming,” Condorcet “also recognizes the frightening insecurity of such a

world, in which there is no foundation of political order, either in reverence

for divine right, or in fear, or in political virtue” (p. 235). Now, to make

her case, Rothschild must demonstrate the existence of Smithian parallels to

this rather bland, but insecure, Condorcevian society. Hence we are told that

Smith “was confident that there would be very little opportunity for violence

in a free, civilized, commercial society, and little advantage to be derived

from fraud” (p. 244). We are to take it that Condorcet’s “mild and moderate”

agents populate Smith’s world too. At any rate, we read that “Smith’s

political philosophy … is a description of a world without violent conflicts

over political principles, without revolutions, and without certainty” (p.

232). Presumably to echo Condorcet’s praise of the “softness or sweetness of

modern life,” we are assured that, for Smith, the “political virtues are the

virtues of humanity, and they are even, in some circumstances, the virtues of

women”; and we are offered a brief quotation in support: “‘Humanity is the

virtue of a woman,’ Smith wrote in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and

it … requires ‘no self-denial, no self-command, no great exertion of the

sense of propriety'” (p. 234).

By now, those familiar with Smith’s thought will be writhing in agony. Anyone

who is aware of Smith’s praise for the virtue of self-command (that from which

“all the other virtues seem to derive their principal luster”) will be

suspicious of any suggestion that it can be excluded from the “political

virtues.” The suspicion is confirmed when we take the trouble to check the

citation. Rothschild fails to warn us that the fragment concerning “humanity”

as “the virtue of a woman,” appears as the other half of a contrast with the

character of “generosity.” The meaning of the passage changes dramatically

when we return the fragment to its context: “Generosity is different from

humanity. … Humanity is the virtue of a woman, generosity of a man.” While

it is true that “[t]he most humane actions require no self-denial, no

self-command, no great exertion of the sense of propriety, … it is otherwise

with generosity.” This “masculine” virtue requires the “sacrifice [of] some

great and important interest of our own to an equal interest of a friend or of

a superior.” It is, in other words, the opposite of “humanity” in that it

does require “self-denial.” Now, perhaps Rothschild’s selective omission of

the other half of Smith’s rhetorical contrast could be excused if the omitted

concept was, in Smith’s system, excluded from the “political virtues,” but no

such defense is possible here. In the very next sentence, Smith takes his

illustrations from the fields of political and military conflict: “The man who

gives up his pretensions to an office that was the great object of his

ambition because he imagines that the services of another are better entitled

to it; the man who exposes his life to defend that of his friend, which he

judges to be of more importance; neither of them act from humanity;” rather,

they both exhibit the “self-denial” of “generosity” (Smith 1976b, p. 190-91).

Apparently Smith’s vision does include “conflicts over political principles”

and even battlefield sacrifice. His system contemplates revolution too, but

here that “divine order” supposedly missing from that system interposes

impediments to such violent disruption. As we will see shortly, Rothschild’s

peculiar refusal to acknowledge the role of a divine creator in Smith’s system

is the most puzzling aspect of her argument. The benevolent care of that deity

pervades his Theory of Moral Sentiments. “[T]o raise and support …

the great, the immense fabric of human society,” Smith wrote there, “seems in

this world, if I may say so, to have been the peculiar and darling care of

Nature.” To preserve that social fabric, “Nature” implants in us a disposition

to acquiesce in our rulers even when reason would have it otherwise: “That

kings are the servants of the people, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or

punished, as the public conveniency may require, is the doctrine of reason and

philosophy; but it is not the doctrine of Nature.” On the contrary, “Nature

would teach us to submit to them for their own sake.” This disposition to

submit to unjust rulers can apply even in the case “of the most brutal and

savage barbarians, of an Attila, a Gengis, or a Tamerlane.” This is not a

particularly noble characteristic. It arises from our disposition to admire

success and to despise failure even when those outcomes are the product of

chance or force. Nevertheless, even this “great disorder in our moral

sentiments” serves to preserve human society, particularly in the worst of

times. Consequently, “we may on this, as well as on many other occasions,

admire the wisdom of God even in the weakness and folly of man.” It may be a

“foolish admiration,” but by this tendency to admire those who, whether by

chance, by force, or by merit, succeed in achieving positions of political

leadership, the populace “are taught to acquiesce with less reluctance under

that government which an irresistible force imposes upon them, and from which

no reluctance could deliver them.” Where in passages such as these are we to

find any hint of Rothschild’s reading of Smith as envisioning “a world

without violent conflicts over political principles, without revolutions”? At

best, Smith’s world is one in which, by virtue of “the wisdom of God,” only

“the most furious passions, fear, hatred, and resentment … excited [to] the

highest degree” can rouse “the bulk of the people … to oppose [their

leaders] with violence” (Smith 1976b, pp. 53, 86, 252-53).

Nor does Smith’s vision of social order rest on a na?ve “confidence in the

disposition of individuals to live by principles of morality.” The agents who

populate Smith’s world exhibit all the faults we have come to know in fallible

humans. It is true that Smith’s ethics — his “theory of moral sentiments” —

rest on a presumed human capacity and desire to, through our imaginations,

“enter into” the situation of our fellows and to experience to a muted degree

their emotions. But it is also true that Smith was ready to acknowledge that

“self-deceit” — that “fatal weakness of mankind” — that too often prevents

us from checking and condemning behavior in ourselves that we would condemn in

others. Yet the “fabric of human society” requires that we all meet certain

accepted standards of decorum. Once again “Nature … has not left this

weakness … altogether without a remedy; nor has she abandoned us entirely to

the delusions of self-love.” Through our normal social interactions, we form

“certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or

to be avoided.” These “general rules of conduct” become “fixed in our mind” by

training and “habitual reflection.” Although “ultimately founded upon

experience of what … our moral faculties … approve, or disapprove of,”

their application does not require that all agents exhibit a finely-tuned

capacity for sympathy in all circumstances. A good thing too since “[t]he

coarse clay of which the bulk of mankind are formed, cannot be wrought up to

such perfection.” It is these general rules or duties that are the proximate

foundation of social order: “upon the tolerable observance of these duties

depends the very existence of human society, which would crumble into nothing

if mankind were not generally impressed with a reverence for those important

rules of conduct.” Finally, lest there be any remaining doubts as to the role

of a benevolent deity in Smith’s system, we are told in the next sentence,

“This reverence is still further enhanced by an opinion which is first

impressed by nature, and afterwards confirmed by reasoning and philosophy,

that those important rules of morality are the commands and laws of the

Deity,” a position which is elaborated on the subsequent pages (Smith, 1976b,

pp. 158-63).

We find in chapter 5 Rothschild’s defense of her claim that Smith’s system

exhibits those two “shortcomings” that she perceives in “liberal economic

thought.” The chapter advances the remarkable position that Smith’s “image of

the invisible hand is best interpreted as a mildly ironic joke” (p. 116; a

very brief summary of the argument appeared earlier in the American

Economic Review, 1994, 84.2: 319-22). This must be the case because “if it

were taken seriously,” the concept expressed by that metaphor “would have been

in conflict with several of Smith’s most profound convictions” (p. 136). What

is at issue here is not simply the metaphor itself but the concept which it is

taken to convey, that concept being, for Rothschild, that the individual

pursuit of private interest can produce an orderly aggregate outcome which

can, under some identifiable circumstances, be socially desirable (p. 121). It

is Smith’s expression of this concept that we are to take as intended as “an

ironic joke … on himself … [and] on his immense posterity as well” (p.


Among those of “Smith’s most profound convictions” with which this concept is

supposed to conflict is his well-known principle that merchants often pursue

their interest through political influence. By Rothschild’s argument, we may

take it that the notion of a spontaneous order conveyed by the invisible hand

metaphor was “un-Smithian and unimportant to his theory” because “Smith’s

criticisms of government and of established institutions are essential to his

economic thought; it is most unlikely that he would simply forget them in a

grand theory of the social good” (p. 128). But this bespeaks a remarkably

narrow reading. Smith did not “forget” his “criticisms” of public and private

institutions in his “grand theory”; they were part of his theory. Rosenberg

(1960) pointed out long ago that those “criticisms” were in fact original and

perceptive investigations of the incentive structures embedded in those

institutions, and the point has only been elaborated since. Rothschild is

quite right (p. 244) that Smith suggested in his jurisprudence lectures that

commercial relationships could improve the character of the participants, at

least with respect to their “probity and punctuality.” But as Rosenberg again

has elsewhere (1990) reminded us, Smith did not stop there. In his vision,

commercial society served to improve not only the character of the people but

also the legal structures that guide their actions and establish their

security of property right. The same philosopher who took account in his

ethics of the “coarse clay of which the bulk of mankind are formed” could not

fail to recognize in his investigation of market behavior that “such, it

seems, is the natural insolence of man, that he almost always disdains to use

the good instrument, except when he cannot or dare not use the bad one”

(Smith, 1976a, p. 799). He was quite aware that the individual pursuit of

private interest must be channeled by properly constructed incentive

structures (which include, of course, not only legal restraints but

competitive markets as well) to prevent recourse to the “bad instrument.” Only

when operating within such structures can we speak of an “invisible hand”

directing individual actions to a socially desirable outcome.

Yet Rothschild insists that there is “something oddly ingenuous in Smith’s

sudden invocation of the timid, virtuous merchant, led by the invisible hand

to pursue only harmonious interests” (p. 128). In violation of her own

injunction to understand the invisible hand reference in its broad, conceptual

sense, she here limits attention to “the invisible hand passage” in The

Wealth of Nations, where the merchant “does not, for example, seek to

collect together with other merchants to obtain special privileges for home

production.” No, not in this passage; but Smith was, no doubt, writing under

the reasonable presumption that his readers can be expected to recall the

countless other passages that warn of such collusion and propose incentive

structures designed to impede it.

Adding further to her portrayal of Smith as playing a sly joke on posterity

with his invisible hand metaphor, Rothschild would have us find it

“interesting … that in a chapter mainly concerned with British restrictions

on imports, Smith’s ingenuous merchant is described as a resident of

Amsterdam, trading in corn from K?nigsberg and fruit from Lisbon; he is a

cosmopolitan figure, far less tempted than any English merchant to pursue his

own advantage through political influence” (p. 128; the point recurs on p.

144). Now, any reader who takes the trouble to review the reference in its

context will find this to be a particularly egregious mischaracterization.

While it is not commonly mentioned, the particular social benefit supposed to

be achieved by the Wealth of Nations appearance of the invisible hand

is a preference for home over foreign investment, a principle that will seem

peculiar to modern readers accustomed to decisionmaking at the margin.

Nevertheless, the principle arises from Smith’s eighteenth-century view of

capital as “setting to work productive labor.” Capital employed domestically

“in purchasing in one part of the country in order to sell in another …

generally replaces by every such operation two distinct capitals.” But in

foreign trade, where one of the transactions occurs abroad, “the capital

employed … will give but one-half the encouragement to the industry or

productive labour of the country.” Hence, that famous invisible hand, which

Rothschild would have us believe is slyly applied by Smith to an Amsterdam

merchant “far less tempted” to pursue his interest through influence in the

British political arena, applies in fact to the domestic merchant who, in

“preferring the support of domestick to that of foreign industry, … intends

only his own security,” and is “in this, as in many other cases, led by an

invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” that end

being, in this case, the support of more domestic labor than would have been

accomplished had he traded abroad. That Amsterdam merchant trading between

Prussia and Portugal enters Smith’s story only as illustration of the lower

risk associated with domestic trade by providing the contrast of the greater

“unease” felt by the merchant engaged in foreign trade, where he is “separated

so far from his capital” (Smith, 1976a, pp. 368; 454-56).

This alleged “ingenuous” character of Smith’s invisible hand expression recurs

throughout the rest of the argument and is central to Rothschild’s case for

her first “shortcoming.” Upon its introduction, that “first conflict or

shortcoming of economic thought” is described as having to do with “the

transformation of money into political power” and is illustrated by the claim

that “[i]n Smith’s description of the invisible hand in the Wealth of

Nations, the circumstance that individuals pursue their economic

objectives by political means is largely ignored” (p. 154). It also provides a

spurious point of contrast between Smith and Condorcet, who is described as

“admirably explicit in addressing one shortcoming of liberal economic orders,

to do with the transformation of money into political power, and of political

power into the power to influence markets” (p. 166). All this is no more than

a figment of Rothschild’s misreading of Smith.

The foundation of Rothschild’s second “shortcoming” of “liberal economic

thought” is also to be found in chapter five. There is no denying the

“conception of providential order” long associated with Smith’s invisible hand

metaphor. That association provides Rothschild with one more reason to dismiss

that metaphor as “un-Smithian” — namely the conviction that Smith would have

found “very serious problems” in such a “theology of the invisible hand” (p.

129). However, her argument on this point, for all its lavish citations, is

nearly devoid of textual evidence from Smith himself, apart from the remark

that he frequently made known “his differences with Christian doctrines.”

This, of course, is no more than a red herring. That Smith had little patience

with the positions and practices of the established Christian denominations of

his time is obvious. But it is equally obvious that a deistic faith in a

benevolent creator does not rest on Christian doctrine. In support of her

claim, Rothschild can offer us little more than the statement of her “own view

… that … Smith’s and Hume’s religious opinions were indeed quite close,” a

view that no doubt explains why her case so frequently rests on appeals to

Hume rather than to Smith (e.g. pp. 120, 130, 134-35, 139). One could, of

course, argue (and Rothschild does, in passing) that Smith’s frequent

references to the “all-wise Author of Nature” (some of which we have already

noticed) were no more than a smokescreen intended to avoid the kind of

conflict with contemporary sensibilities that so dogged his friend. But the

frequency and apparent sincerity of those references are far greater than the

minimum necessary to satisfy the local keepers of the public morals. Certainly

Rothschild’s claim that Smith denied “the conception of providential order,”

or employed it as no more than “an ironic joke,” is directly opposed to recent

scholarship on the matter. One wishes that in all her footnotes, she had taken

notice of those studies that, with a good deal more relevant documentation,

manage to advance an opposing view (e.g. Evensky 1998; although it appeared

too late to help Rothschild, interested readers will want to consult Hill 2001

as well).

To be sure, Rothschild does acknowledge the common view that Smith professed

the existence of a benevolent creator and that his position on this matter

derived from the natural theology of Stoic philosophy. But she offers little

in rebuttal beyond the unsupported declaration that he “was influenced by

different Stoic doctrines”; that “[w]ithin the overall Stoic system, … it

was the idea of a providential order … to which Smith was most opposed” (p.

132) As to that, I will simply leave it to those interested to read for

themselves Smith’s own assessment of that “Stoical” system, where he assures

us that, even in our greatest extremity, when, in spite of our best efforts,

events “turn out the most unfortunate and disastrous, Nature has by no means

left us without consolation,” that consolation being drawn “from a firm

reliance upon, and reverential submission to, that benevolent wisdom which

directs all the events of human life, and which, we may be assured, would

never have suffered those misfortunes to happen had they not been

indispensably necessary for the good of the whole” (Smith 1976b, p. 292). Is

this an author who opposed the idea of a providential order?

In spite of its flaws, we can learn a great deal from Rothschild’s work here.

Her command of a vast and complex literature is awesome. She has been

scrupulous in identifying her authorities, and she has opened a number of new

and promising lines for further work. She has reminded us that the forces

unleashed by the French Revolution left their mark not only on the political

and social structures of the period but also on the intellectual structures

that conditioned the discourse of the nineteenth century and, at a remove, of

our own time. She has prompted us to look again at the intellectual

influences running in both directions across the Channel in the immediate

pre-Revolutionary period, and she has identified the sources to do so. No

doubt it is that great promise that heightens the disappointment we feel when

we encounter her efforts to turn those sources to purposes which they simply

will not support.


Evensky, Jerry. 1998. “Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy: The Role of Religion and

Its Relationship to Philosophy and Ethics in the Evolution of Society.”

History of Political Economy 30.1: 17-42.

Hill, Lisa. 2001. “The Hidden Theology of Adam Smith.” European Journal of

the History of Economic Thought 8.1:1-29.

Rosenberg, Nathan. 1960. “Some Institutional Aspects of the Wealth of

Nations.” Journal of Political Economy 68.6: 557-70.

1990. “Adam Smith and the Stock of Moral Capital.” History of Political

Economy 22.1: 1-18.

Smith, Adam. 1976a. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of

Nations. Edited by R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner. Oxford: Oxford

University Press.

1976b. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D. D. Raphael and A.

L. Macfie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1980. Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Edited by W. P. D. Wightman and

J. C. Bryce. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(The author, Emma Rothschild, is a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and

Director of the Center for History and Economics, King’s College.)

The reviewer, Glenn Hueckel, is the author of various articles on the history

of economic thought in the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century

The Abandoned Ocean: A History of United States Maritime Policy

Author(s):Gibson, Andrew
Donovan, Arthur
Reviewer(s):Boyce, Gordon

Published by EH.NET (September 2000)

Andrew Gibson and Arthur Donovan, The Abandoned Ocean: A History of United

States Maritime Policy. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South

Carolina Press, 2000. xiv + 362 pp. $39.95 (hardback), ISBN: 1-57003-319-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gordon Boyce, School of Economics and Finance, Victoria

University of Wellington, New Zealand.

In this well-written volume, Gibson and Donovan provide a concise analysis of

American maritime policy from the early republic to the present. Their aim is

to explain why since about 1860 the United States failed to achieve “its stated

goal of promoting a commercially viable merchant marine engaged in foreign

trade” even though a strong merchant navy was considered essential in times of

national emergency. In so doing, Gibson and Donovan endeavour to furnish the

historical background needed to guide future policy. Their advice is

unequivocal: the government should eliminate restrictions and subsidies in

order to let the industry operate freely on the same basis as its international


Yet, the argument does not come across as ideologically motivated or

doctrinaire. Indeed, Gibson and Donovan carefully explain that America made a

critical mistake by continuing to pursue protectionist practices. Specifically,

the authorities required U.S. flagged vessels to be U.S.-owned and -built and

reserved coastal trades for U.S. registered ships. Between 1830 and 1860, when

America had an international comparative advantage in shipbuilding and

formidable ship operating capabilities, these restrictions were unnecessary.

After the Civil War, which caused the destruction of a large part of the

national fleet, American shipbuilding lost its prowess as the shift from sail

to steam and from wood to iron and later steel conferred advantages upon

Britain’s shipyards. Yet, U.S. flag restrictions compelled domestic operators

to remain bound to an inefficient shipbuilding industry. The chosen solution

was to provide subsidies, but these were inadequate to prevent a continued

decline, especially as land ward opportunities offered greater returns. After

1880, the U.S. navy expanded as the country sought to enhance its international

position, but the merchant marine withered to the extent that by 1900, American

ships carried just eight percent of their country’s foreign trade. During World

War I, the consequences of this dangerous state of affairs finally revealed

themselves, and the government responded by building and operating a huge

fleet. It also passed the famous Shipping Act of 1916 which ignored

international practices and compelled domestic and foreign ship owners

servicing U.S. trades to operate within “open” conferences (rate-setting

cartel-like organizations) that were subject to federal regulation.

America’s policy settings were reinforced by subsequent legislation, which

offered the industry more support in the form of postal, construction, and

operating subsidies. The Shipping Act of 1920 committed the government to

preserving a merchant marine capable of supporting the nation’s trade and

acting as a naval reserve and the Act of 1936 compelled ship operators to offer

seafarers remuneration at levels above international standards. A divided union

movement created chronically unstable labour relations to which ship owners

responded by making generous concessions. Moreover, because the U.S.

shipbuilding industry failed to exploit fully innovations (including modular

construction) vessel costs were much higher than overseas. Subsidies, which

were especially wasteful and corrupt in the 1930s, propped up the edifice.

Political leaders were unwilling to make fundamental changes in the face of

opposition from politically powerful interest groups. The fire sales of vessels

that followed massive war-induced shipbuilding programmes gave the industry

temporary fillips that could not compensate in the long-term for a lack of

international comparative advantage.

By the 1980s, the link between commercial shipping and military support had

been all but broken by changes in sealift requirements. (The army required

Roll-on Roll-off vessels to carry heavy vehicles, but U.S. shipowners possessed

few of these craft with the result that the world had a very close call when

Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.) Moreover, subsidies were becoming increasingly

politically unpalatable. Currently, U.S. policies are completely out of touch

with international conventions that allow the use of flags of convenience and

support open registers.

Gibson and Donovan argue that the solution is to leave shipping free to meet

foreign competition. By eliminating onerous registry rules and allowing

American ship owners to buy vessels from foreign yards, to employ lower cost

labour, and permit the same type of tax advantages enjoyed by international

competitors, the U.S. might prevent the complete disappearance of its merchant

marine. In so doing, the nation could preserve the industry’s formidable

innovative capabilities, while securing commercial and perhaps strategic


The Abandoned Ocean is not a typical “policy” book; it is written in a

lively and compelling style, provides a broad context, and presents a clear

analysis. This splendid volume will attract government officials, business

historians, maritime historians, and economists. By highlighting the difficulty

of regulating an international industry this volume indirectly offers guidance

to those who might consider imposing restrictions on businesses like those

conducted over the internet. It also draws attention to the way in which

political factors that shape regulatory traditions can create enduring path

dependency. The chapters on recent developments are particularly valuable.

The Abandoned Ocean should be included in the reading lists of a variety

of courses, including the economics of regulation, policy formulation and

execution, and business and maritime history, as well. Individual chapters can

be used as required reading for historical survey courses to develop

maritime/international themes. Maritime historians will be anxious to see

Gibson and Donovan’s next work which examines the history of the container


Gordon Boyce’s publications include Information, Mediation and

Institutional Development: The Rise of Large-scale Enterprise in British

Shipping, 1879-1914, Manchester University Press, 1995.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

Author(s):Polanyi, Karl
Reviewer(s):Mayhew, Anne

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. 1944. xiii + 305.

Review Essay by Anne Mayhew, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tennessee.

Markets to Market to Protection: Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation

Karl Polanyi, once a World War I officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, a lecturer at the People’s University, and a member of the editorial staff of Vienna’s leading financial newspaper, who had been forced first from his native Hungary and then from Vienna by the turmoil of revolutions and dictatorships, began The Great Transformation as an exile in England at the end of the 1930s. He completed it in the U.S. during World War II. The task he set himself was to explain the political and economic origins of the collapse of nineteenth-century civilization, and the great transformation that Polanyi had lived through in the twentieth. As he saw it, four institutions were crucial to the economic and political order that had characterized the North Atlantic Community and its periphery in the nineteenth century: a balance of political power, the international gold standard, a self-regulating market system, and the liberal state. The SRM (self-regulating market) was “the fount and matrix of the system,” the “innovation which gave rise to a specific civilization” (p. 3).

The Great Transformation is a history of the SRM: of its emergence from the fact that the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries took place within a thoroughly commercial though not yet thoroughly market-organized economy; its nurture through the efforts of the liberal economists and statesmen of England in the first decades of the nineteenth century; and finally its demise as a consequence of the “protective reaction” to counteract the consequences that the SRM spawned. Two crucial differences between Polanyi’s analysis and that of most other historians of the economy and of the thought of the nineteenth century are so important to understanding his work that they must be made explicit even before their role in the larger argument is recounted. Polanyi differentiated between economic systems in which there were markets and the “starkly utopian” SRM of the nineteenth century. Markets are places or networks in which goods are bought and sold; they are human interactions organized by price, quality, and quantity of traded goods and services. The SRM was a society-wide system of markets in which all inputs into the substantive processes of production and distribution were for sale and in which output was distributed solely in exchange for earnings from sales of inputs. The second crucially distinct feature of Polanyi’s analysis is his argument that the SRM could not survive — not because of the distributional consequences that play the major role in Marx’s explanation of the inevitable collapse of capitalism — but because the starkly utopian nature of the SRM gave rise to a spontaneous counter movement, even among those enjoying increased material prosperity. Society is vital to humans as social animals, and the SRM was inconsistent with a sustainable society.

Polanyi developed his argument from the work of many economic historians, historians of thought, anthropologists, and others. The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was “an almost miraculous improvement in the tools of production,” but was also an equally powerful revolution in economic organization that was in part a consequence of the introduction of the new machines into an already commercially organized economy, and in part a social experiment. Up to this point the economies of much of Western Europe, and certainly of most of Britain, had been quite thoroughly commercialized: cottage industries, paid agricultural labor, and thriving trade in towns meant that most people earned money and used that money to buy the material stuff of life. However, as Polanyi also noted, control and regulation of markets by governments and other organizations were also widespread and common. Markets were controlled; they did not control until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In laying out this argument, Polanyi recognized the need to deal directly with the proposition, itself a creation of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century British thought, that market organization of economic activity was the natural state of human affairs. Polanyi was (counter to what many of his later critics say) quite well aware that markets and careful calculation of prices by buyers and sellers alike had long been important parts of many human societies. By use of logic and of the historical record, Polanyi developed a schema of “forms of economic integration”: that is, forms of organization for production and distribution, of which the familiar circular flow of an idealized capitalist economy (the SRM) is only one. Polanyi developed his schema for characterizing economies to show that economies could and had been organized in ways other than through an SRM. He argued that the organization of production and distribution in many societies had been accomplished through social relationships of kin or community obligations and counter obligations (reciprocity) and that other societies, on scales as small as a band of Kung bushmen or as large of Hammurabi’s empire, or even as large as the planned economy of the Soviet Union, employed redistributive systems.

In much of Western Europe a combination of redistributive and reciprocative systems dominated through the end of the feudal and manorial era, and came to be increasingly supplemented and then replaced by market trading, the control and encouragement of which was a major focus of medieval municipal and mercantilist national governments. (In The Great Transformation Polanyi also described “householding” as a form of integration, but in later work reclassified it as “redistribution writ small.”)

Then, toward the end of the eighteenth century, and with full force in the first half of the nineteenth century, two things happened. The rapidly expanding factory system altered the relationship between commerce and industry. Production now involved large-scale investment of funds with fixed obligations to pay for those funds. Producers were less and less willing to have either the supply of inputs or the vents for output controlled by governments. The second and closely related change was the development of economic liberalism as a body of thought that provided justification of a new set of public policies that facilitated transformation of land, labor, and capital into the “fictitious commodities” of a self-regulating system. Land (nature), labor (people), and capital (power of the purse) were not in fact produced for sale. Nor did the available quantity of land, labor, and capital disappear inconsequentially when relationships of supply and demand produced low input prices. This issue was, of course, particularly acute in the case of labor and led to the dismal conclusions of classical economics. Polanyi describes how, in spite of the threat to social order, the philosophy that came to be called “laissez faire” was “[b]orn as a mere penchant for non-bureaucratic methods . . . [and] evolved into a veritable faith in man’s secular salvation through a self-regulating market” (p. 135). Polanyi describes this evolution of British thought from the humanistic approach of Adam Smith, who wrote in a time of “peaceful progress,” through Malthus’s acceptance of poverty as part of the natural order, and on to the triumphant liberalism of the more prosperous 1830s. What is important is that a set of recommendations about public policy was transformed into widespread acceptance as the laws of a natural order.

Polanyi called the continuing tension and conflict between the efforts to establish, maintain, and spread the SRM and the efforts to protect people and society from the consequences of the working of the SRM “the double movement.” On one side was a concerted philosophical and legislative program to establish the SRM from the enclosures of the 1790s through the Poor Law Reform of 1834 to the Ricardian Bank Charter Act of 1844 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The other side was a widely varying, unorganized set of movements, legislative reforms, and administrative actions to limit the effects of self-regulation, from the Chartists through early legislation to limit the hours and places of work of women and children, through the growth of labor unions, and through the emergence of the Bank of England as lender of last resort, to reimposition of tariffs on foodstuffs, and to the first legislation presaging the welfare state. As the SRM was impaired in operation, justifications for international economic cooperation and the liberal state weakened.

Polanyi’s story of the tensions in and collapse of the self-regulating economies that developed in the first half of the nineteenth century differs sharply from the story that Marx anticipated and from the story that Marxian economists have told. Though Polanyi argues that perception and response to the damages of the SRM varied by class, and therefore “the outcome was decisively influenced by the character of the class interests involved,” (p. 161) it was not unfair distribution of total output via exploitation that caused the tensions and ultimate collapse of the SRM system. The working class did not rise up to overthrow the system. Rather, land owners and bankers as well as merchants, whose interests were often threatened by fluctuations in trade, joined workers in seeking protection. As they got protection, the SRM was “impaired,” eventually the point of collapse. Increasing protection so impaired the SRM that it could no longer coordinate the world’s economy when World War I destroyed Europe’s balance of power. The struggle to restore the nineteenth century system by reestablishing the gold standard destroyed the international financial system.

Dictatorships in some places and more benign management elsewhere emerged in nationally varying responses to the collapse of the SRM system. Polanyi was optimistic but uncertain about what the longer term results of the reaction to the nineteenth century utopian experiment in economic organization would be, and if he were alive today his answer might remain uncertain for, to a remarkable extent, the conflicting sides of Polanyi’s double movement still dominate debates in public policy. As neo-liberalism founded on faith in secular salvation through the natural emergence of a self-regulating market system has spread in Central and Eastern Europe and in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, so too have calls for protection of man, nature, and national interests. The framework that Polanyi provided for understanding the collapse of nineteenth century civilization and the rise of the troubled twentieth remains powerful.

Having said this, however, it must also be said that The Great Transformation contains some major errors of omission and interpretation. Most striking to me, as an economic historian of the United States, is his cavalier and quite wrong assertion that a double movement did not develop in the U.S. until after 1890 because, until then, “free land,” a ready supply of cheap labor, and a lack of commitment to keeping foreign exchanges stable meant that a fully self-regulating market did not exist and no protection was needed. This is plainly wrong. In addition, some students of England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century quarrel with his interpretation of the Speenhamland system of subsidies in aid of wages.

However, the strongest and most long lasting criticism of The Great Transformation has been directed at the passages where he argues that reciprocative and redistributive forms of integration have been much more common in human history than self-regulating market systems. These criticisms invariably focus, however, not on the forms of integration themselves but on the mistaken proposition that Polanyi assumed the forms to be founded on different human motives: the SRM on self-interest and rational calculation and reciprocative systems on kindness and generosity. (Far less has been said about motives associated with redistribution, probably because emphasis has been on the contrast between greed and kindness, and on the proposition that “you cannot change human nature,” with the associated proposition that the nineteenth century British economy was truly natural.) The original attack of this kind came, not from economists or economic historians, but from anthropologists whose disciplinary literature Polanyi had used in making his assertion. Beginning in the early 1960s, anthropologists, for reasons having to do with changing political structures in the worlds that they studied and because of the evolution of thought in their discipline, began to insist that the primitive and peasant peoples whom they studied were as rational as any westerners.

These anthropologists — known as formalists in the debates that ensued — found in Polanyi, and in the work of some of his followers such as George Dalton, a convenient target. They accused Polanyi and his followers of romanticism about other peoples. Description of behavior in reciprocative systems was fodder: “The premium set on generosity is so great when measured in terms of social prestige as to make any other behavior than that of utter self-forgetfulness simply not pay” (italics added, p. 46). To anthropologists, who ignored the crass and rational self-interest implied by the phrase that I have italicized, this smacked of saying that non-modern, non-western people were “different” and not self-interested and rational. They disagreed and by extension dismissed the rest of Polanyi’s argument about reciprocity and the SRM.

Very similar arguments have been mounted by some economists. The passage most often quoted in ridicule of Polanyi’s argument is this: “previously to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets . . . gain and profit made on exchange never before [the nineteenth century] played an important part in human economy” (p. 43). Deirdre McCloskey, both in print and in a heated exchange on the FEMECON list serve, faults Polanyi in a way that illustrates precisely the difficulty that many readers, anthropologists and economists alike, have had with the book. McCloskey says that Polanyi asked the right question, but gives the wrong answer in saying that markets played no important role in earlier human societies. As proof McCloskey cites evidence that, the further away from their source of obsidian the Mayan blade makers were, the less was the ratio of blade weight to cutting length. To McCloskey this indicates that “By taking more care with more costly obsidian the blade makers were earning better profits; as they did by taking less care with less costly obsidian” (1997, p. 484). Ergo, Polanyi is wrong, presumably about the existence of other forms of integration and their importance. To be more careful with harder to get valuables is certainly rational, but it is not evidence of how blade makers were provisioned with material means for their sustenance or joys.

It is one thing to note that people for whom shipment of obsidian was difficult treated it with care; another to assume that they used it to produce goods that they sold for profit. Polanyi is in fact careful to note that the range of human motives varies little across systems, with the specific form of action that any motive such as self-interest, generosity, anger, or jealousy may take dependent upon the system. The economic system does not, however, depend upon the presence, or absence of the preponderance of any one motive. That this is perhaps the most difficult point that Polanyi makes is itself testament to the success of those who created the justifications for the nineteenth century.

In the years after publication of The Great Transformation Polanyi and a number of colleagues and students expanded analysis of the forms of economic integration and produced the collection of essays published as Trade and Markets in Ancient Empires. Both books present Polanyi’s understanding of what made the economies of the nineteenth and of the twentieth centuries so different, and with such far-reaching consequences, Polanyi created a way of thinking about economies and societies that has had substantial impact on economic history, anthropology, and the study of the ancient Mediterranean. The Great Transformation remains important as a highly original contribution to the understanding of the Western past; it has been and is important in methodological debates in the social sciences. Beyond that, as the double movement continues, the book is likely to remain one of the best guides available to what brought us to where we are.

Annotated References:

Polanyi, Karl. 1944, 1957. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press by arrangement with Rinehart & Company, Inc. (The Beacon Press version remains in print and is the version for which page numbers are given in this essay. The book has been translated into and published in Hungarian, Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish).

Dalton, George. 1961. “Economic Theory and Primitive Society,” American Anthropologist 63 (Feb.): 1-25. [One of the articles that sparked the formalist-substantivist dispute in economic anthropology.]

Drucker, Peter. 1979. Adventures of a Bystander. New York: Harper & Row. [This book contains an account of the remarkable Polanyi family by a friend who knew them in Vienna.]

Duncan, Colin A.M. and David W. Tandy. 1994. From Political Economy to Anthropology: Situating Economic Life in Past Societies. Montreal and New York: Black Rose Books. [Selection of papers from annual Polanyi Institute Conference.]

Finley, Moses I. 1978. The World of Odysseus . New York: Viking Press. [Classic application of Polanyi to the ancient world.]

Halperin, Rhoda. 1988. Economies Across Cultures: Towards a Comparative Science of the Economy. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Mayhew, Anne. 1972. “A Reappraisal of the Causes of Farm Protest in the U.S., 1870-1900.” Journal of Economic History 32 (June): 464-475. [Though not acknowledged as such, this was an application of Polanyi’s ideas to the U.S. economy.]

Mayhew, Anne. 1980. “Atomistic and Cultural Analyses in Economic Anthropology: An Old Argument Repeated,” in John Adams, editor, Institutional Economics: Contributions to the Development of Holistic Economics . Boston: Martinus Nijhoff.

McCloskey, Deirdre N. 1997. “Polanyi was Right, and Wrong.” Eastern Economic Journal 23 (Fall): 483- 487.

North, Douglass C. 1977. “Markets and Other Allocation Systems in History: The Challenge of Karl Polanyi.” Journal of European Economic History 6 (Winter): 703-716.

Polanyi, Karl, Conrad M. Arensberg, and Harry W. Pearson. 1957. Trade and Market in the Early Empires: Economies in History and Theory. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press.

Sievers, Allen M. 1974. The Mystical World of Indonesia: Culture and Economic Development in Conflict. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. [Polanyi applied to development issues.]

Schaniel, William C. and Walter C. Neale. 2000. “Karl Polanyi’s Forms of Integration as Ways of Mapping.” Journal of Economic Issues 34 (March): 89-104.

Tandy, David W. 1997. Traders and Warriors: The Power of the Market in Early Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press. [Recent application of Polanyi to the ancient world.]

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Determinants of Economic Growth: A Cross-Country Empirical Study

Author(s):Barro, Robert J.
Reviewer(s):Dawson, John W.


Published by EH.NET (July 1998)

Robert J. Barro, Determinants of Economic Growth: A Cross-Country Empirical Study. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997. xii + 145 pp. $22.50 (cloth), $12.50 (paper); ISBN: 0-262-02421-7 (cloth), 0-262-52254-3 (paper).

Reviewed for EH.NET by John W. Dawson, Department of Economics, Bellarmine College.

Robert Barro and his associates have been leaders in assembling a vast empirical growth literature during the past decade. This book summarizes many of Barro’s own findings in this area and provides a general overview of the empirical research on growth to date.

The text of the book is divided into three chapters which are based on Barro’s Lionel Robbins Memorial Lectures, delivered at the London School of Economics in February 1996. The first chapter briefly reviews the history of growth theory and, in particular, describes the convergence hypothesis associated with neoclassical growth theory. The discussion quickly turns to the regression framework to be used throughout the rest of the book, which is based on the neoclassical framework.

In Chapter 1, the regression framework is applied to a panel of data covering roughly a hundred countries over the years 1965-1990 in an effort to determine what factors are important in explaining long-run growth. In using panel data instead of a pure cross section, the approach differs from Barro’s early work in this area (e.g., see Barro (1991)), but is not unlike the analysis in his more recent studies (see Barro and Sala-i-Martin (1995)). The findings highlighted in this chapter are that the growth rate of real per capita GDP is enhanced by better maintenance of the rule of law, smaller government consumption, longer life expectancy, more male secondary and higher levels of schooling, lower fertility rates, and improvements in the terms of trade. The data also support the notion of conditional convergence; that is, for given values of these variables, countries with a lower initial level of real per capita GDP grow faster. The analysis also looks at democracy and inflation as potential factors determining growth rates, but their roles are the topics of Chapters 2 and 3. Finally, Chapter 1 concludes with projections of growth rates through the end of the century based on the empirical framework developed earlier in the chapter.

Chapter 2 looks at the role of political freedom in determining growth rates; that is, whether or not a more democratic form of government promotes long-run growth. The findings suggest that increases in political rights initially increase growth but tend to retard growth once a moderate level of democracy has been attained, but Barro states that “one cannot conclude from this evidence that more or less democracy is a critical element for economic growth” (p. 61). With this, the analysis turns to developing a framework for determining the level of democracy over time and across countries. While this has largely been a topic of interest to political scientists, the main finding is that levels of democracy are a function of economic factors. In particular, “the positive relation between democracy and prior measures of prosperity–the Lipset [1959] hypothesis–is well established as an empirical regularity” (p. 86). The chapter closes with long-run forecasts of the level of democracy across countries based on the empirical model developed in the chapter.

The third chapter considers the effects of inflation on long-run economic performance. Inflation has received relatively little attention as a potential determinant of long-run growth, but the issue is particularly timely given many central banks’ apparent preoccupation with price stability as a policy goal. The major result is that inflation is estimated to have a negative effect on growth, but “the clear evidence for adverse effects of inflation comes from the experiences of high inflation [annual rates in excess of 20%]” (p.117). Barro devotes a large part of this chapter to dealing with endogeneity issues; that is, ensuring that causation is running from inflation to growth and not in the other direction.

Barro’s approach to studying the determinants of growth is very much data-driven. However, economic historians will be interested in various aspects of the analysis that look at the role of institutions in the growth process. The analysis in Chapter 1 includes a “rule of law” index which is intended to “gauge the attractiveness of a country’s investment climate by considering the effectiveness of law enforcement, the sanctity of contracts, and the state of other influences on the security of property rights” (p. 27). The rule of law index is found to be statistically significant in explaining growth. Chapter 1 also introduces a democracy index into the empirical framework, but a detailed discussion of this relationship is postponed until Chapter 2. In that discussion, the role of other institutional and cultural issues such as ethnolinguistic fractionalization, colonial heritage, and religious affiliation are considered in the growth-democracy relationship.

There is no indication of the intended audience for this book, but it appears to be rather versatile. It provides a very general but useful overview of modern growth theory with particular emphasis on the convergence hypothesis, and provides a fairly complete statement of current methodology and conclusions in the empirical growth literature. All of this could be useful to students of growth at the graduate level and to economists who are not current in the growth literature. More importantly, in my opinion, is the book’s potential for use in the undergraduate classroom and among laymen. With very few exceptions, most of the terminology used in the text is accessible to undergraduates. Most of the exceptions fall in the area of econometrics, but the use of graphs throughout the book to illustrate key estimated relationships largely eliminates this potential problem. I have also found that a lecture or two on basic regression analysis makes even the large tables of regression results accessible to advanced undergraduates. The exposition keeps mathematical notational to an absolute minimum, and uses everyday terminology in many cases to describe the more difficult concepts. Only in the discussion of the debate over cross-section versus panel estimation in Chapter 1 and the choice of instruments in Chapter 3 does the text become sufficiently thick to hinder the interested undergraduate reader.

In several instances the author’s emphasis of the results may need to be qualified. For example, Chapter 2 states that “one cannot conclude from this evidence that more or less democracy is a critical element for economic growth” (p. 61). In the concluding observations following Chapter 3, however, the results concerning democracy are reported as a main result of the analysis: “Increases in political rights initially increase growth but tend to retard growth once a moderate level of democracy has been attained” (p. 119). In addition, the reader may well leave Chapter 2 questioning the direction of causation between democracy and growth, given that empirical models of both are considered in that chapter. Similarly, the results concerning inflation may not be appropriately portrayed, in the end, as being perhaps entirely driven by experiences of inflation in excess of 20% annually. Despite these minor shortcomings, I am confident in saying that the book succeeds in its overall goal of providing a useful summary of the empirical evidence on the determinants of recent economic growth.


Barro, R.J., 1991, “Economic Growth in a Cross Section of Countries.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 106, 2 (May): 407-433.

Barro, R.J. and X. Sala-i-Martin, 1995, Economic Growth (New York: McGraw-Hill).

Lipset, S.M., 1959, “Some Social requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” American Political Science Review 53: 69-105.

John W. Dawson Department of Economics Bellarmine College

John Dawson is author of “Institutions, Investment, and Growth: New Cross-Section and Panel Data Evidence,” forthcoming in Economic Inquiry.


Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Blues: A History of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield System

Author(s):Cunningham III, Robert
Cunningham Jr., Robert M.
Reviewer(s):Gordon, Colin

EH.NET BOOK REVIEW Published by and EH.Net (June 1998)

Robert Cunningham III and Robert M. Cunningham Jr. The Blues: A History of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield System. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997. xii + 311 pp. Tables, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $36.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-87580-224-9.

Reviewed for H-Business by Colin Gordon , University of Iowa

The American health care system is an elaborate and chaotic and shifting compromise among doctors, employers, and insurers. As the providers of care, doctors have historically guarded their terrain, alternately portraying themselves as embattled entrepreneurs or selfless professionals, against the onslaught of “third parties,” especially insurers, organized patients, and the state. As the principal consumers of health care in the private welfare state of the postwar era, some employers have juggled their responsibility for employment-based benefits with the increasingly expansive (and expensive) scope of collectively-bargained health provision, the inflationary bias of third party billing, the periodic threat of state intervention, and the determination of other employers to avoid such burdens altogether. As the fiscal and actuarial intermediary between providers and consumers, commercial insurers have played both sides–sometimes (in their negotiations with providers and hospitals) the cost-conscious consumer, sometimes (in their role as HMOs) the parsimonious provider.

In all of this, a number of interests play (or have played) lesser roles. Between the early 1940s and the late 1960s, organized labor bargained a meager policy of wage replacement into an expansive package of service benefits for workers and dependents alike. Over the same era, the state mopped up around the failures of private provision, mostly by financing hospital construction and picking up some of the bad risks with Medicare and Medicaid. And hospitals, increasingly dependent on insurers and the state, played an increasingly passive political role. Perhaps most interestingly and importantly, two massive and intertwined nonprofit institutions–the Blue Cross (hospital insurance) and Blue Shield (physician insurance) Plans–straddled all of these interests to emerge as the principal intermediary between federal health programs and their clients, the nation=92s largest managed care network, and an important insurer in their own right.

For this reason alone, scholars should welcome the publication of The Blues, which pulls together a number of studies of local plans, the valuable but dated scholarship of Louis Reed (1947) and Odin Anderson (1975), and proprietary access to the Plans=92 archives. The early chapters are not terribly original and recount (somewhat woodenly) the early history of prepayment plans and the ways in which the Blues emerged as a middle ground between fee-for-service individualism and state regulation. Through these chapters, the authors persistently celebrate the innovations of the Blues=92 “pioneers,” while casting thinly-veiled aspersions at the extremists to the left (advocating national health insurance) and right (opposing all prepayment and contract practice).

While the middle chapters on the 1940s and 1950s continue to wander and wonder in the footsteps of leading Blues executives, they are valuable for the ways in which they connect the often arcane details of actuarial projection and hospital remuneration to the piecemeal construction of a private welfare state. In their largely futile effort to hold to the principal of “community rating,” the Blues underscored the persistent irony of private health insurance–that it was ultimately an exercise in avoiding risk rather than spreading it. In their increasingly elaborate brokering of the demands of hospitals, employers, and patients, the Blues underscored the limits of private health insurance–which quickly became obsessed with shuffling costs among the covered population and their employers and indifferent to the goal of expanding coverage.

Both the Blues, and this account, hit their stride with the consideration, passage, and administration of Medicare and Medicaid. Through these years, the Blues reacted in much the same way that leading managed care concerns would react during the debate over the Clinton Plan three decades later: vested interests in the private health care market by the 1950s, the Blues were leery that state intervention “would let the camel=92s nose [national health insurance] a little further into the tent” but also poised to administer any new federal program. In the ensuing debate, the Blues juggled the concerns of their various allies–the doctors, the hospitals, and organized labor–and traded politically on their unique experience with insuring the elderly. Indeed the Blues quickly took the administrative lead after 1965, effectively “capturing” a program they had resisted, questioned, and shaped in the decade preceding its passage. For the Part “A” hospitalization program, Blue Cross emerged as the designated intermediary in thirty-one states representing almost 90 percent of participating hospital beds; under the Part “B” medical insurance program, thirty-three of forty-nine designated carriers (covering about 60 percent of beneficiaries) were Blue Shield Plans.

The Blues closes with three chapters covering, in turn, the 1970s, the 1980s, and the early 1990s. The script for these decades is relatively familiar, and the authors place Blue Cross and Blue Shield at the center of a maelstrom of health care inflation, rapid technological change, fiscally-anxious federal programs, cost-conscious employers, and increasingly beleaguered consumers and workers. At times, this vantage point is quite valuable, given the close attention which the Blues necessarily paid to the deepening actuarial and inflationary crisis. At times, the Blues seem more like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of a much larger drama, and of which we only get the occasional glimpse.

This is a valuable book, although it is also something of a disappointment. The chronological sweep (virtually all of the twentieth century) is important, but each important episode has been recounted more effectively elsewhere. The relentless (and often celebratory) focus on the Blues lacks the critical consideration of a wider array of interests woven so well by Paul Starr and the leading historians (Rashi Fein, Theodore Marmor, Anne and Herman Somers) of Medicare. And, even on its own terms, The Blues often misses the ambiguities and contradictions of a system (captured nicely by David Rothman[1] and by Rosemary Stevens=92 fine introduction to this volume) which was both a pointedly private alternative to national health insurance and a quasi-public surrogate for the state. More broadly, this is a narrowly institutional account which never broaches the “big” questions about the peculiar trajectory of the American welfare state. Why did national health insurance falter in the United States while a national pension and unemployment system succeeded? What was the logic and implication of organizing private and public social provision around the “family wage” assumptions of social insurance? How did race and racism shape both the formative years of private and public health policies and the backlash against public programs which began in the late 1960s? In what ways did a shifting compromise of private interests–insurers, labor, employers, doctors, hospitals–shape private and public patterns of health provision? And why–in this account and in the larger logic of the American welfare state–are those on the receiving end considered beneficiaries or clients or dependents or consumers, but never citizens?


[1]. David Rothman, “The Public Presentation of Blue Cross, 1935-1965,” Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law 16:4 (Winter 1991), 671-693.


Subject(s):Education and Human Resource Development
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Robert W. Fogel: Visionary economic historian, generous mentor, eternal optimist

Written by: Dora Costa, Claudia Goldin, and Robert A. Margo


Generous Mentor, Eternal Optimist, Enthusiastic Guide

Robert W. Fogel was a visionary economic historian whose works and lectures have informed and incited for more than half a century and whose writings will continue to do so for decades to come.  He died on June 11, 2013 in his eighty-sixth year.  He had co-taught a graduate course at the University of Chicago that quarter and in the weeks before he died he was planning his Fall 2013 teaching.  “I’ve often told my students I’m not retiring. You’re going to have to carry me out in a wooden box.  I’m having too much fun,” he remarked to a recent class.

His fun was palpable to others and his enormous enthusiasm for the material he taught overflowed to his audience.  Legendary for encouraging students to pursue their ideas, he was an eternal optimist about their abilities and projects.  Bob had a fine sense of humor and his chuckle was an integral part of his speech.  He was known for his generosity and humanity.  A scholar of high standards, he often leavened criticism of students with a rare gentleness.

He taught by example the importance of being more interested in what others are doing than in oneself and that social time is a critical input to scholarly time.  No matter how busy he was he always found time to engage with others.  No opinion was too small to debate and no person too inconsequential to engage with.  He was, as well, an institution builder.  He founded the Development of the American Economy Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research in 1978 and it thrives until today.  He established the Center for Population Economics at the University of Chicago, although it has, sadly, passed along with him.  Bob thought big both in terms of his projects and the apparatus that buttressed them.

How Bob accomplished so much was due to his exceptional mind, laser beam vision and extraordinary work ethic.  It has been said that when the Nobel committee called him around 5:30am he was already up working in his office, as he was every day.

The Fogel System of Research

The Fogel system of research is characterized, in the first instance, by a question of contemporary relevance that requires the long lens of history.  The issues examined are big and are those that have engaged generations of scholars.  Because there are already a host of potential answers for the question and generally one that has dominated the literature, the Fogel system creates a “counterfactual.”  If the answer proposed to question Y is X (Y = what caused economic growth? and X = railroads), then the Fogel system must prove that if not for X (railroads) the premise of question Y would not have occurred (there would have been far less economic growth).  Finally, the Fogel system takes what appears to be an intractable problem (e.g., creating an economy without the railroad) and simplifies the answer into a single number.

Although the counterfactual is most associated with Fogel’s work on the railroads, it is also imbedded in his other work.  Much of the work on slavery addressed the counterfactual: “Had slavery not existed in the United States, the South would have been a wealthier region.”  That was the claim of many whose writings preceded Time on the Cross.  In his work on standards of living, the implicit counterfactual was: “Had incomes not risen in eighteenth century Europe mortality and morbidity would have been markedly worse.”  In this case, the counterfactual was shown to have been true.  Moreover, use of counterfactuals is inescapable.  If, as Fogel believed, the long lens of history is needed to inform the present, one must ask what the present would look like without some part of the long lens.  Each of the three major research projects of his career illustrates this fundamental methodological point.

The Projects

Bob’s reputation was largely made by his PhD dissertation on the railroads. He estimated that the “social savings of the railroad,” including both the interregional and intraregional portions, was between 6 and 7 percent of 1890 GNP.[1]  Whether that is a large or small number is in the eyes of the beholder.  But to many it was a small number relative to prior claims that the railroad was indispensable to American economic growth.  The main reason the estimate is not larger is that there were many substitutes for the railroad in the United States in the form of water transportation.  The social savings was much higher in places like Mexico where there were poorer substitutes for the railroad.

But Railroads and American Economic Growth went far beyond measuring the aggregate “treatment effect” of the Iron Horse.  The idea of jump-starting economic growth was a popular notion in the 1950s and big infrastructure projects were a potential lever for developing nations.  As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, Fogel had actively debated the work of Walt Rostow with his classmate Stan Engerman.  According to Rostow an economy could “take-off” because of a single innovation and, moreover, America did take-off in the 1840s through the railroad’s many backward linkages.  On the contrary, demonstrated Fogel, there was no take-off and backward linkages were neither extensive nor critical to growth in other sectors.  The railroads were not a magic bullet for economic growth because there are no magic bullets.

The Ivory Tower of the 1960s was no scholarly oasis from the intrusions of the real, political world.  Married to an African-American woman, Bob could not escape heated discussion of Civil Rights even at the dinner table.  Stan Engerman and he embraced the topic of slavery with all of its potential social and political improprieties.  Would slavery have died out, without a protracted, bloody, divisive, and costly Civil War?  No, because slavery was profitable and viable.  Was the relative poverty of the post-Civil War South a mere extension of slavery?  No, because the per capita income of antebellum white southerners was about equal to that of Midwestern farmers and because the southern economy grew at the national average between 1840 and 1860.  Were slave owners the principal economic beneficiaries of the Peculiar Institution because they ruthlessly “exploited” their chattel?  The answer is more complicated.  Fogel and Engerman uncovered precisely why the force of slavery produced enormous wealth.  The gang system made cotton and other staple crops cheaper and all of this eventually benefited consumers through lower prices.  Fogel and Engerman also maintained there was a record of black achievement during and after slavery that deserved celebration.  As expressed in the frontispiece to Time on the Cross—a dedication to Bob’s wife Enid, who predeceased him—“To Mary Elizabeth Morgan’s first daughter: She has always known that black is beautiful.”

Time on the Cross was applauded initially but backlash soon followed.  Throughout the give-and-take of the often acrimonious debate Bob and Stan maintained their good cheer and fundamental optimism that the scholarly dispute was to everyone’s benefit.  “It was an exchange,” Bob wrote in Without Consent or Contract, “in which there were no losers.”  Without Consent clarified that the ultimate issues of slavery were moral and that confronting these linked the historical study of slavery to the moral issues of the modern American dilemma.  Slavery was an abomination not because it was economically moribund but because slaves were denied basic human rights.  The abomination was perpetuated across generations and was assisted by institutionalized racism after the Civil War.  The moral indictment of racial discrimination and segregation underlying the Civil Rights Movement forms a continuum with Fogel’s moral indictment of slavery.

Work on slave living standards suggested that adult height could be used an indicator of health and wellbeing.  Preliminary research, completed in 1978, with numerous co-authors showed deterioration in the heights and life expectation of whites in the mid-nineteenth century.  The finding led to an exploration of archival data that could help improve our understanding of health and mortality changes from 1650 to 1910.  That search unearthed the military records in the U.S. National Archives and Bob’s realization that longitudinal data for the first cohort to reach age 65 in the twentieth century could be created by combining wartime service, pension, and census records of Union Army soldiers.

The Union Army project illustrates Bob’s dictum: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth spending ten years of your life doing it right.”  A project to collect the records of Union Army soldiers to study the effects of wartime and early life stress on older age mortality and morbidity, as well as the determinants of retirement, was proposed in 1986.  Funded in 1991 by the National Institute of Aging as Early Indicators of Later Work Levels, Disease, and Death, the project was renewed many times and was on-going at the time of Fogel’s death.  To date, the project has made available (at, the life histories of 39,000 white Union Army soldiers, 6,000 black Union Army soldiers, and detailed ward maps and ward statistics for selected cities.  The project is currently collecting the records of an additional 15,000 black Union Army soldiers and of Union Army soldiers who grew up in the large and unhealthy cities of the time and of those who lived to at least 95 years.

Findings from this research program on the health of men in the past led Bob to formulate a theory that he called “technophysio evolution,” described most recently in The Changing Body.   Adjustments to adverse conditions including a limited food supply, Bob argued, do not occur through crisis mortality but, rather, through chronic starvation producing a thin, stunted population.  The Bastille, according to Bob’s memorable image, was stormed by underweight Lilliputians.  Bob viewed the relationship between health and economic growth as an intergenerational one.  Nutritional status (a function of both nutritional intake and the demands made on that intake by work and disease) determines longevity and current work levels.  Work levels and intensity plus technology determine output.  Output in turn determines living standards and technological investments.  The standard of living in turn determines the nutritional status of the next generation.

Robert Fogel always made time in his full and demanding life for meaningful hobbies in woodworking and photography, both of which were pursued at highly skilled levels.  His pastimes and scholarship shared an essential feature.  An artful table has pleasing proportions, intricate detail and functionality.  A masterful photograph is a thoughtful, well-composed window on a larger world.  Robert Fogel’s outstanding attribute as a scholar was his ability to visualize and orchestrate the complete architecture of a project, each piece polished and in its proper place with the whole greater than the sum of the parts.  He could envision his research in final form long before any of the parts were complete.  In this he has no peers.

We were his students as his career was taking off and in full swing.  He then became famous, was awarded the Nobel, and had many demands on his time.  He also aged and developed various infirmities.  Bob always stressed the importance of family and his many students are like a family.  As he once said: “It is difficult to be orphaned at any age.”  We take solace and pleasure in the statement of a recent student that: “He was the best of scholars and a caring teacher.”  He was that—and more—for us.

References Cited

Floud, Roderick, Robert W. Fogel, Bernard Harris and Sok Chul Hong.  The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World since 1700.  NBER Series on Long-term Factors in Economic Development.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Fogel, Robert W.  Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964.

Fogel, Robert W. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989.

Fogel, Robert W. and Stanley L. Engerman.  Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery.  Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1974.

Fogel, Robert W. and Stanley L. Engerman.  Time on the Cross: Evidence and Methods, a Supplement.  Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1974.

[1] These figures add the interregional and intraregional estimates and use a blow-up factor of four.  The intraregional estimates are those with new canals and road resurfacing.  The lower figure takes some land out of cultivation and the higher one does not.

Project 2000/2001

Project 2000

Each month during 2000, EH.NET published a review essay on a significant work in twentieth-century economic history. The purpose of these essays was to survey the works that have had the most influence on the field of economic history and to highlight the intellectual accomplishments of twentieth-century economic historians. Each review essay outlines the work’s argument and findings, discusses the author’s methods and sources, and examines the impact that the work has had since its publication.

Nominations were received from dozens of EH.Net’s users. P2K
selection committee members were: Stanley Engerman (University of
Rochester), Alan Heston (University of Pennsylvania), Paul
Hohenberg, chair (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), and Mary
Yeager (University of California-Los Angeles). Project Chair was
Robert Whaples (Wake Forest University).

The review essays are:

Braudel, Fernand
Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century Time
Reviewed by Alan Heston (University of Pennsylvania).

Chandler, Alfred D. Jr.
The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business
Reviewed by David S. Landes (Department of Economics and History, Harvard University).

Chaudhuri, K. N.
The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660-1760
Reviewed by Santhi Hejeebu.

Davis, Lance E. and North, Douglass C. (with the assistance of Calla Smorodin)
Institutional Change and American Economic Growth.
Reviewed by Cynthia Taft Morris (Department of Economics, Smith College and American University).

Fogel, Robert W.
Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History
Reviewed by Lance Davis (California Institute of Technology).

Friedman, Milton and Schwartz, Anna Jacobson
A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960
Reviewed by Hugh Rockoff (Rutgers University).

Heckscher, Eli F.
Reviewed by John J. McCusker (Departments of History and Economics, Trinity University).

Landes, David S.
The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present
Reviewed by Paul M. Hohenberg (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).

Pinchbeck, Ivy
Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 
Reviewed by Joyce Burnette (Wabash College).

Polanyi, Karl
The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time
Reviewed by Anne Mayhew (University of Tennessee).

Schumpeter, Joseph A.
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy 
Reviewed by Thomas K. McCraw (Harvard Business School).

Weber, Max
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
Reviewed by Stanley Engerman.

Project 2001

Throughout 2001 and 2002, EH.Net published a second series
of review essays on important and influential works in economic
history. As with Project 2000, nominations for Project 2001 were
received from many EH.Net users and reviewed by the Selection
Committee: Lee Craig (North Carolina State University); Giovanni
Federico (University of Pisa); Anne McCants (MIT); Marvin McInnis
(Queen’s University); Albrecht Ritschl (University of Zurich);
Winifred Rothenberg (Tufts University); and Richard Salvucci
(Trinity College).

Project 2001 selections were:

Borah, Woodrow Wilson
New Spain’s Century of Depression
Reviewed by Richard Salvucci (Department of Economics, Trinity University).

Boserup, Ester
Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure
Reviewed by Giovanni Federico (Department of Modern History, University of Pisa).

Deane, Phyllis and W. A. Cole
British Economic Growth, 1688-1959: Trends and Structure
Reviewed by Knick Harley (Department of Economics, University of Western Ontario).

Fogel, Robert and Stanley Engerman
Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery
Reviewed by Thomas Weiss (Department of Economics, University of Kansas).

Gerschenkron, Alexander
Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective
Review Essay by Albert Fishlow (International Affairs, Columbia University).

Horwitz, Morton
The Transformation of American Law, 1780-1860
Reviewed by Winifred B. Rothenberg (Department of Economics, Tufts University).

Kuznets, Simon
Modern Economic Growth: Rate, Structure and Spread
Reviewed by Richard A. Easterlin (Department of Economics, University of Southern California).

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel
The Peasants of Languedoc
Reviewed by Anne E.C. McCants (Department of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

North, Douglass and Robert Paul Thomas
The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History
Reviewed by Philip R. P. Coelho (Department of Economics, Ball State University).

de Vries, Jan
The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis, 1600-1750
Review Essay by George Grantham (Department of Economics, McGill University).

Temin, Peter
The Jacksonian Economy
Reviewed by Richard Sylla (Department of Economics, Stern School of Business, New York University).

Wrigley, E. A. and R. S. Schofield
The Population History of England, 1541-1871: A Reconstruction

Project Coordinator and Editor: Robert Whaples (Wake Forest

Slavery in the United States

Jenny Bourne, Carleton College

Slavery is fundamentally an economic phenomenon. Throughout history, slavery has existed where it has been economically worthwhile to those in power. The principal example in modern times is the U.S. South. Nearly 4 million slaves with a market value estimated to be between $3.1 and $3.6 billion lived in the U.S. just before the Civil War. Masters enjoyed rates of return on slaves comparable to those on other assets; cotton consumers, insurance companies, and industrial enterprises benefited from slavery as well. Such valuable property required rules to protect it, and the institutional practices surrounding slavery display a sophistication that rivals modern-day law and business.


Not long after Columbus set sail for the New World, the French and Spanish brought slaves with them on various expeditions. Slaves accompanied Ponce de Leon to Florida in 1513, for instance. But a far greater proportion of slaves arrived in chains in crowded, sweltering cargo holds. The first dark-skinned slaves in what was to become British North America arrived in Virginia — perhaps stopping first in Spanish lands — in 1619 aboard a Dutch vessel. From 1500 to 1900, approximately 12 million Africans were forced from their homes to go westward, with about 10 million of them completing the journey. Yet very few ended up in the British colonies and young American republic. By 1808, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the U.S. officially ended, only about 6 percent of African slaves landing in the New World had come to North America.

Slavery in the North

Colonial slavery had a slow start, particularly in the North. The proportion there never got much above 5 percent of the total population. Scholars have speculated as to why, without coming to a definite conclusion. Some surmise that indentured servants were fundamentally better suited to the Northern climate, crops, and tasks at hand; some claim that anti-slavery sentiment provided the explanation. At the time of the American Revolution, fewer than 10 percent of the half million slaves in the thirteen colonies resided in the North, working primarily in agriculture. New York had the greatest number, with just over 20,000. New Jersey had close to 12,000 slaves. Vermont was the first Northern region to abolish slavery when it became an independent republic in 1777. Most of the original Northern colonies implemented a process of gradual emancipation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, requiring the children of slave mothers to remain in servitude for a set period, typically 28 years. Other regions above the Mason-Dixon line ended slavery upon statehood early in the nineteenth century — Ohio in 1803 and Indiana in 1816, for instance.

Population of the Original Thirteen Colonies, selected years by type

1750 1750 1790 1790 1790 1810 1810 1810 1860 1860 1860


White Black White Free Slave White Free Slave White Free Slave
Nonwhite Nonwhite Nonwhite
108,270 3,010 232,236 2,771 2,648 255,179 6,453 310 451,504 8,643 - Connecticut
27,208 1,496 46,310 3,899 8,887 55,361 13,136 4,177 90,589 19,829 1,798 Delaware
4,200 1,000 52,886 398 29,264 145,414 1,801 105,218 591,550 3,538 462,198 Georgia
97,623 43,450 208,649 8,043 103,036 235,117 33,927 111,502 515,918 83,942 87,189 Maryland
183,925 4,075 373,187 5,369 - 465,303 6,737 - 1,221,432 9,634 - Massachusetts
26,955 550 141,112 630 157 182,690 970 - 325,579 494 - New Hampshire
66,039 5,354 169,954 2,762 11,423 226,868 7,843 10,851 646,699 25,318 - New Jersey
65,682 11,014 314,366 4,682 21,193 918,699 25,333 15,017 3,831,590 49,145 - New York
53,184 19,800 289,181 5,041 100,783 376,410 10,266 168,824 629,942 31,621 331,059 North Carolina
116,794 2,872 317,479 6,531 3,707 786,804 22,492 795 2,849,259 56,956 - Pennsylvania
29,879 3,347 64,670 3,484 958 73,214 3,609 108 170,649 3,971 - Rhode Island
25,000 39,000 140,178 1,801 107,094 214,196 4,554 196,365 291,300 10,002 402,406 South Carolina
129,581 101,452 442,117 12,866 292,627 551,534 30,570 392,518 1,047,299 58,154 490,865 Virginia
934,340 236,420 2,792,325 58,277 681,777 4,486,789 167,691 1,005,685 12,663,310 361,247 1,775,515 United States

Source: Historical Statistics of the U.S. (1970), Franklin (1988).

Slavery in the South

Throughout colonial and antebellum history, U.S. slaves lived primarily in the South. Slaves comprised less than a tenth of the total Southern population in 1680 but grew to a third by 1790. At that date, 293,000 slaves lived in Virginia alone, making up 42 percent of all slaves in the U.S. at the time. South Carolina, North Carolina, and Maryland each had over 100,000 slaves. After the American Revolution, the Southern slave population exploded, reaching about 1.1 million in 1810 and over 3.9 million in 1860.

Population of the South 1790-1860 by type

Year White Free Nonwhite Slave
1790 1,240,454 32,523 654,121
1800 1,691,892 61,575 851,532
1810 2,118,144 97,284 1,103,700
1820 2,867,454 130,487 1,509,904
1830 3,614,600 175,074 1,983,860
1840 4,601,873 207,214 2,481,390
1850 6,184,477 235,821 3,200,364
1860 8,036,700 253,082 3,950,511

Source: Historical Statistics of the U.S. (1970).

Slave Ownership Patterns

Despite their numbers, slaves typically comprised a minority of the local population. Only in antebellum South Carolina and Mississippi did slaves outnumber free persons. Most Southerners owned no slaves and most slaves lived in small groups rather than on large plantations. Less than one-quarter of white Southerners held slaves, with half of these holding fewer than five and fewer than 1 percent owning more than one hundred. In 1860, the average number of slaves residing together was about ten.

Slaves as a Percent of the Total Population
selected years, by Southern state

1750 1790 1810 1860
State Black/total Slave/total Slave/total Slave/total
population population population population
Alabama 45.12
Arkansas 25.52
Delaware 5.21 15.04 5.75 1.60
Florida 43.97
Georgia 19.23 35.45 41.68 43.72
Kentucky 16.87 19.82 19.51
Louisiana 46.85
Maryland 30.80 32.23 29.30 12.69
Mississippi 55.18
Missouri 9.72
North Carolina 27.13 25.51 30.39 33.35
South Carolina 60.94 43.00 47.30 57.18
Tennessee 17.02 24.84
Texas 30.22
Virginia 43.91 39.14 40.27 30.75
Overall 37.97 33.95 33.25 32.27

Sources: Historical Statistics of the United States (1970), Franklin (1988).

Holdings of Southern Slaveowners
by states, 1860

State Total Held 1 Held 2 Held 3 Held 4 Held 5 Held 1-5 Held 100- Held 500+
slaveholders slave slaves Slaves slaves slaves slaves 499 slaves slaves
AL 33,730 5,607 3,663 2,805 2,329 1,986 16,390 344 -
AR 11,481 2,339 1,503 1,070 894 730 6,536 65 1
DE 587 237 114 74 51 34 510 - -
FL 5,152 863 568 437 365 285 2,518 47 -
GA 41,084 6,713 4,335 3,482 2,984 2,543 20,057 211 8
KY 38,645 9,306 5,430 4,009 3,281 2,694 24,720 7 -
LA 22,033 4,092 2,573 2,034 1,536 1,310 11,545 543 4
MD 13,783 4,119 1,952 1,279 1,023 815 9,188 16 -
MS 30,943 4,856 3,201 2,503 2,129 1,809 14,498 315 1
MO 24,320 6,893 3,754 2,773 2,243 1,686 17,349 4 -
NC 34,658 6,440 4,017 3,068 2,546 2,245 18,316 133 -
SC 26,701 3,763 2,533 1,990 1,731 1,541 11,558 441 8
TN 36,844 7,820 4,738 3,609 3,012 2,536 21,715 47 -
TX 21,878 4,593 2,874 2,093 1,782 1,439 12,781 54 -
VA 52,128 11,085 5,989 4,474 3,807 3,233 28,588 114 -
TOTAL 393,967 78,726 47,244 35,700 29,713 24,886 216,269 2,341 22

Source: Historical Statistics of the United States (1970).

Rapid Natural Increase in U.S. Slave Population

How did the U.S. slave population increase nearly fourfold between 1810 and 1860, given the demise of the trans-Atlantic trade? They enjoyed an exceptional rate of natural increase. Unlike elsewhere in the New World, the South did not require constant infusions of immigrant slaves to keep its slave population intact. In fact, by 1825, 36 percent of the slaves in the Western hemisphere lived in the U.S. This was partly due to higher birth rates, which were in turn due to a more equal ratio of female to male slaves in the U.S. relative to other parts of the Americas. Lower mortality rates also figured prominently. Climate was one cause; crops were another. U.S. slaves planted and harvested first tobacco and then, after Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793, cotton. This work was relatively less grueling than the tasks on the sugar plantations of the West Indies and in the mines and fields of South America. Southern slaves worked in industry, did domestic work, and grew a variety of other food crops as well, mostly under less abusive conditions than their counterparts elsewhere. For example, the South grew half to three-quarters of the corn crop harvested between 1840 and 1860.


Central to the success of slavery are political and legal institutions that validate the ownership of other persons. A Kentucky court acknowledged the dual character of slaves in Turner v. Johnson (1838): “[S]laves are property and must, under our present institutions, be treated as such. But they are human beings, with like passions, sympathies, and affections with ourselves.” To construct slave law, lawmakers borrowed from laws concerning personal property and animals, as well as from rules regarding servants, employees, and free persons. The outcome was a set of doctrines that supported the Southern way of life.

The English common law of property formed a foundation for U.S. slave law. The French and Spanish influence in Louisiana — and, to a lesser extent, Texas — meant that Roman (or civil) law offered building blocks there as well. Despite certain formal distinctions, slave law as practiced differed little from common-law to civil-law states. Southern state law governed roughly five areas: slave status, masters’ treatment of slaves, interactions between slaveowners and contractual partners, rights and duties of noncontractual parties toward others’ slaves, and slave crimes. Federal law and laws in various Northern states also dealt with matters of interstate commerce, travel, and fugitive slaves.

Interestingly enough, just as slave law combined elements of other sorts of law, so too did it yield principles that eventually applied elsewhere. Lawmakers had to consider the intelligence and volition of slaves as they crafted laws to preserve property rights. Slavery therefore created legal rules that could potentially apply to free persons as well as to those in bondage. Many legal principles we now consider standard in fact had their origins in slave law.

Legal Status Of Slaves And Blacks

By the end of the seventeenth century, the status of blacks — slave or free — tended to follow the status of their mothers. Generally, “white” persons were not slaves but Native and African Americans could be. One odd case was the offspring of a free white woman and a slave: the law often bound these people to servitude for thirty-one years. Conversion to Christianity could set a slave free in the early colonial period, but this practice quickly disappeared.

Skin Color and Status

Southern law largely identified skin color with status. Those who appeared African or of African descent were generally presumed to be slaves. Virginia was the only state to pass a statute that actually classified people by race: essentially, it considered those with one quarter or more black ancestry as black. Other states used informal tests in addition to visual inspection: one-quarter, one-eighth, or one-sixteenth black ancestry might categorize a person as black.

Even if blacks proved their freedom, they enjoyed little higher status than slaves except, to some extent, in Louisiana. Many Southern states forbade free persons of color from becoming preachers, selling certain goods, tending bar, staying out past a certain time of night, or owning dogs, among other things. Federal law denied black persons citizenship under the Dred Scott decision (1857). In this case, Chief Justice Roger Taney also determined that visiting a free state did not free a slave who returned to a slave state, nor did traveling to a free territory ensure emancipation.

Rights And Responsibilities Of Slave Masters

Southern masters enjoyed great freedom in their dealings with slaves. North Carolina Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin expressed the sentiments of many Southerners when he wrote in State v. Mann (1829): “The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” By the nineteenth century, household heads had far more physical power over their slaves than their employees. In part, the differences in allowable punishment had to do with the substitutability of other means of persuasion. Instead of physical coercion, antebellum employers could legally withhold all wages if a worker did not complete all agreed-upon services. No such alternate mechanism existed for slaves.

Despite the respect Southerners held for the power of masters, the law — particularly in the thirty years before the Civil War — limited owners somewhat. Southerners feared that unchecked slave abuse could lead to theft, public beatings, and insurrection. People also thought that hungry slaves would steal produce and livestock. But masters who treated slaves too well, or gave them freedom, caused consternation as well. The preamble to Delaware’s Act of 1767 conveys one prevalent view: “[I]t is found by experience, that freed [N]egroes and mulattoes are idle and slothful, and often prove burdensome to the neighborhood wherein they live, and are of evil examples to slaves.” Accordingly, masters sometimes fell afoul of the criminal law not only when they brutalized or neglected their slaves, but also when they indulged or manumitted slaves. Still, prosecuting masters was extremely difficult, because often the only witnesses were slaves or wives, neither of whom could testify against male heads of household.

Law of Manumission

One area that changed dramatically over time was the law of manumission. The South initially allowed masters to set their slaves free because this was an inherent right of property ownership. During the Revolutionary period, some Southern leaders also believed that manumission was consistent with the ideology of the new nation. Manumission occurred only rarely in colonial times, increased dramatically during the Revolution, then diminished after the early 1800s. By the 1830s, most Southern states had begun to limit manumission. Allowing masters to free their slaves at will created incentives to emancipate only unproductive slaves. Consequently, the community at large bore the costs of young, old, and disabled former slaves. The public might also run the risk of having rebellious former slaves in its midst.

Antebellum U.S. Southern states worried considerably about these problems and eventually enacted restrictions on the age at which slaves could be free, the number freed by any one master, and the number manumitted by last will. Some required former masters to file indemnifying bonds with state treasurers so governments would not have to support indigent former slaves. Some instead required former owners to contribute to ex-slaves’ upkeep. Many states limited manumissions to slaves of a certain age who were capable of earning a living. A few states made masters emancipate their slaves out of state or encouraged slaveowners to bequeath slaves to the Colonization Society, which would then send the freed slaves to Liberia. Former slaves sometimes paid fees on the way out of town to make up for lost property tax revenue; they often encountered hostility and residential fees on the other end as well. By 1860, most Southern states had banned in-state and post-mortem manumissions, and some had enacted procedures by which free blacks could voluntarily become slaves.

Other Restrictions

In addition to constraints on manumission, laws restricted other actions of masters and, by extension, slaves. Masters generally had to maintain a certain ratio of white to black residents upon plantations. Some laws barred slaves from owning musical instruments or bearing firearms. All states refused to allow slaves to make contracts or testify in court against whites. About half of Southern states prohibited masters from teaching slaves to read and write although some of these permitted slaves to learn rudimentary mathematics. Masters could use slaves for some tasks and responsibilities, but they typically could not order slaves to compel payment, beat white men, or sample cotton. Nor could slaves officially hire themselves out to others, although such prohibitions were often ignored by masters, slaves, hirers, and public officials. Owners faced fines and sometimes damages if their slaves stole from others or caused injuries.

Southern law did encourage benevolence, at least if it tended to supplement the lash and shackle. Court opinions in particular indicate the belief that good treatment of slaves could enhance labor productivity, increase plantation profits, and reinforce sentimental ties. Allowing slaves to control small amounts of property, even if statutes prohibited it, was an oft-sanctioned practice. Courts also permitted slaves small diversions, such as Christmas parties and quilting bees, despite statutes that barred slave assemblies.

Sale, Hire, And Transportation Of Slaves

Sales of Slaves

Slaves were freely bought and sold across the antebellum South. Southern law offered greater protection to slave buyers than to buyers of other goods, in part because slaves were complex commodities with characteristics not easily ascertained by inspection. Slave sellers were responsible for their representations, required to disclose known defects, and often liable for unknown defects, as well as bound by explicit contractual language. These rules stand in stark contrast to the caveat emptor doctrine applied in antebellum commodity sales cases. In fact, they more closely resemble certain provisions of the modern Uniform Commercial Code. Sales law in two states stands out. South Carolina was extremely pro-buyer, presuming that any slave sold at full price was sound. Louisiana buyers enjoyed extensive legal protection as well. A sold slave who later manifested an incurable disease or vice — such as a tendency to escape frequently — could generate a lawsuit that entitled the purchaser to nullify the sale.

Hiring Out Slaves

Slaves faced the possibility of being hired out by their masters as well as being sold. Although scholars disagree about the extent of hiring in agriculture, most concur that hired slaves frequently worked in manufacturing, construction, mining, and domestic service. Hired slaves and free persons often labored side by side. Bond and free workers both faced a legal burden to behave responsibly on the job. Yet the law of the workplace differed significantly for the two: generally speaking, employers were far more culpable in cases of injuries to slaves. The divergent law for slave and free workers does not necessarily imply that free workers suffered. Empirical evidence shows that nineteenth-century free laborers received at least partial compensation for the risks of jobs. Indeed, the tripartite nature of slave-hiring arrangements suggests why antebellum laws appeared as they did. Whereas free persons had direct work and contractual relations with their bosses, slaves worked under terms designed by others. Free workers arguably could have walked out or insisted on different conditions or wages. Slaves could not. The law therefore offered substitute protections. Still, the powerful interests of slaveowners also may mean that they simply were more successful at shaping the law. Postbellum developments in employment law — North and South — in fact paralleled earlier slave-hiring law, at times relying upon slave cases as legal precedents.

Public Transportation

Public transportation also figured into slave law: slaves suffered death and injury aboard common carriers as well as traveled as legitimate passengers and fugitives. As elsewhere, slave-common carrier law both borrowed from and established precedents for other areas of law. One key doctrine originating in slave cases was the “last-clear-chance rule.” Common-carrier defendants that had failed to offer slaves — even negligent slaves — a last clear chance to avoid accidents ended up paying damages to slaveowners. Slaveowner plaintiffs won several cases in the decade before the Civil War when engineers failed to warn slaves off railroad tracks. Postbellum courts used slave cases as precedents to entrench the last-clear-chance doctrine.

Slave Control: Patrollers And Overseers

Society at large shared in maintaining the machinery of slavery. In place of a standing police force, Southern states passed legislation to establish and regulate county-wide citizen patrols. Essentially, Southern citizens took upon themselves the protection of their neighbors’ interests as well as their own. County courts had local administrative authority; court officials appointed three to five men per patrol from a pool of white male citizens to serve for a specified period. Typical patrol duty ranged from one night per week for a year to twelve hours per month for three months. Not all white men had to serve: judges, magistrates, ministers, and sometimes millers and blacksmiths enjoyed exemptions. So did those in the higher ranks of the state militia. In many states, courts had to select from adult males under a certain age, usually 45, 50, or 60. Some states allowed only slaveowners or householders to join patrols. Patrollers typically earned fees for captured fugitive slaves and exemption from road or militia duty, as well as hourly wages. Keeping order among slaves was the patrollers’ primary duty. Statutes set guidelines for appropriate treatment of slaves and often imposed fines for unlawful beatings. In rare instances, patrollers had to compensate masters for injured slaves. For the most part, however, patrollers enjoyed quasi-judicial or quasi-executive powers in their dealings with slaves.

Overseers commanded considerable control as well. The Southern overseer was the linchpin of the large slave plantation. He ran daily operations and served as a first line of defense in safeguarding whites. The vigorous protests against drafting overseers into military service during the Civil War reveal their significance to the South. Yet slaves were too valuable to be left to the whims of frustrated, angry overseers. Injuries caused to slaves by overseers’ cruelty (or “immoral conduct”) usually entitled masters to recover civil damages. Overseers occasionally confronted criminal charges as well. Brutality by overseers naturally generated responses by their victims; at times, courts reduced murder charges to manslaughter when slaves killed abusive overseers.

Protecting The Master Against Loss: Slave Injury And Slave Stealing

Whether they liked it or not, many Southerners dealt daily with slaves. Southern law shaped these interactions among strangers, awarding damages more often for injuries to slaves than injuries to other property or persons, shielding slaves more than free persons from brutality, and generating convictions more frequently in slave-stealing cases than in other criminal cases. The law also recognized more offenses against slaveowners than against other property owners because slaves, unlike other property, succumbed to influence.

Just as assaults of slaves generated civil damages and criminal penalties, so did stealing a slave to sell him or help him escape to freedom. Many Southerners considered slave stealing worse than killing fellow citizens. In marked contrast, selling a free black person into slavery carried almost no penalty.

The counterpart to helping slaves escape — picking up fugitives — also created laws. Southern states offered rewards to defray the costs of capture or passed statutes requiring owners to pay fees to those who caught and returned slaves. Some Northern citizens worked hand-in-hand with their Southern counterparts, returning fugitive slaves to masters either with or without the prompting of law. But many Northerners vehemently opposed the peculiar institution. In an attempt to stitch together the young nation, the federal government passed the first fugitive slave act in 1793. To circumvent its application, several Northern states passed personal liberty laws in the 1840s. Stronger federal fugitive slave legislation then passed in 1850. Still, enough slaves fled to freedom — perhaps as many as 15,000 in the decade before the Civil War — with the help (or inaction) of Northerners that the profession of “slave-catching” evolved. This occupation was often highly risky — enough so that such men could not purchase life insurance coverage — and just as often highly lucrative.

Slave Crimes

Southern law governed slaves as well as slaveowners and their adversaries. What few due process protections slaves possessed stemmed from desires to grant rights to masters. Still, slaves faced harsh penalties for their crimes. When slaves stole, rioted, set fires, or killed free people, the law sometimes had to subvert the property rights of masters in order to preserve slavery as a social institution.

Slaves, like other antebellum Southern residents, committed a host of crimes ranging from arson to theft to homicide. Other slave crimes included violating curfew, attending religious meetings without a master’s consent, and running away. Indeed, a slave was not permitted off his master’s farm or business without his owner’s permission. In rural areas, a slave was required to carry a written pass to leave the master’s land.

Southern states erected numerous punishments for slave crimes, including prison terms, banishment, whipping, castration, and execution. In most states, the criminal law for slaves (and blacks generally) was noticeably harsher than for free whites; in others, slave law as practiced resembled that governing poorer white citizens. Particularly harsh punishments applied to slaves who had allegedly killed their masters or who had committed rebellious acts. Southerners considered these acts of treason and resorted to immolation, drawing and quartering, and hanging.


Market prices for slaves reflect their substantial economic value. Scholars have gathered slave prices from a variety of sources, including censuses, probate records, plantation and slave-trader accounts, and proceedings of slave auctions. These data sets reveal that prime field hands went for four to six hundred dollars in the U.S. in 1800, thirteen to fifteen hundred dollars in 1850, and up to three thousand dollars just before Fort Sumter fell. Even controlling for inflation, the prices of U.S. slaves rose significantly in the six decades before South Carolina seceded from the Union. By 1860, Southerners owned close to $4 billion worth of slaves. Slavery remained a thriving business on the eve of the Civil War: Fogel and Engerman (1974) projected that by 1890 slave prices would have increased on average more than 50 percent over their 1860 levels. No wonder the South rose in armed resistance to protect its enormous investment.

Slave markets existed across the antebellum U.S. South. Even today, one can find stone markers like the one next to the Antietam battlefield, which reads: “From 1800 to 1865 This Stone Was Used as a Slave Auction Block. It has been a famous landmark at this original location for over 150 years.” Private auctions, estate sales, and professional traders facilitated easy exchange. Established dealers like Franklin and Armfield in Virginia, Woolfolk, Saunders, and Overly in Maryland, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee prospered alongside itinerant traders who operated in a few counties, buying slaves for cash from their owners, then moving them overland in coffles to the lower South. Over a million slaves were taken across state lines between 1790 and 1860 with many more moving within states. Some of these slaves went with their owners; many were sold to new owners. In his monumental study, Michael Tadman (1989) found that slaves who lived in the upper South faced a very real chance of being sold for profit. From 1820 to 1860, he estimated that an average of 200,000 slaves per decade moved from the upper to the lower South, most via sales. A contemporary newspaper, The Virginia Times, calculated that 40,000 slaves were sold in the year 1830.

Determinants of Slave Prices

The prices paid for slaves reflected two economic factors: the characteristics of the slave and the conditions of the market. Important individual features included age, sex, childbearing capacity (for females), physical condition, temperament, and skill level. In addition, the supply of slaves, demand for products produced by slaves, and seasonal factors helped determine market conditions and therefore prices.

Age and Price

Prices for both male and female slaves tended to follow similar life-cycle patterns. In the U.S. South, infant slaves sold for a positive price because masters expected them to live long enough to make the initial costs of raising them worthwhile. Prices rose through puberty as productivity and experience increased. In nineteenth-century New Orleans, for example, prices peaked at about age 22 for females and age 25 for males. Girls cost more than boys up to their mid-teens. The genders then switched places in terms of value. In the Old South, boys aged 14 sold for 71 percent of the price of 27-year-old men, whereas girls aged 14 sold for 65 percent of the price of 27-year-old men. After the peak age, prices declined slowly for a time, then fell off rapidly as the aging process caused productivity to fall. Compared to full-grown men, women were worth 80 to 90 percent as much. One characteristic in particular set some females apart: their ability to bear children. Fertile females commanded a premium. The mother-child link also proved important for pricing in a different way: people sometimes paid more for intact families.

Source: Fogel and Engerman (1974)

Other Characteristics and Price

Skills, physical traits, mental capabilities, and other qualities also helped determine a slave’s price. Skilled workers sold for premiums of 40-55 percent whereas crippled and chronically ill slaves sold for deep discounts. Slaves who proved troublesome — runaways, thieves, layabouts, drunks, slow learners, and the like — also sold for lower prices. Taller slaves cost more, perhaps because height acts as a proxy for healthiness. In New Orleans, light-skinned females (who were often used as concubines) sold for a 5 percent premium.

Fluctuations in Supply

Prices for slaves fluctuated with market conditions as well as with individual characteristics. U.S. slave prices fell around 1800 as the Haitian revolution sparked the movement of slaves into the Southern states. Less than a decade later, slave prices climbed when the international slave trade was banned, cutting off legal external supplies. Interestingly enough, among those who supported the closing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade were several Southern slaveowners. Why this apparent anomaly? Because the resulting reduction in supply drove up the prices of slaves already living in the U.S and, hence, their masters’ wealth. U.S. slaves had high enough fertility rates and low enough mortality rates to reproduce themselves, so Southern slaveowners did not worry about having too few slaves to go around.

Fluctuations in Demand

Demand helped determine prices as well. The demand for slaves derived in part from the demand for the commodities and services that slaves provided. Changes in slave occupations and variability in prices for slave-produced goods therefore created movements in slave prices. As slaves replaced increasingly expensive indentured servants in the New World, their prices went up. In the period 1748 to 1775, slave prices in British America rose nearly 30 percent. As cotton prices fell in the 1840s, Southern slave prices also fell. But, as the demand for cotton and tobacco grew after about 1850, the prices of slaves increased as well.

Interregional Price Differences

Differences in demand across regions led to transitional regional price differences, which in turn meant large movements of slaves. Yet because planters experienced greater stability among their workforce when entire plantations moved, 84 percent of slaves were taken to the lower South in this way rather than being sold piecemeal.

Time of Year and Price

Demand sometimes had to do with the time of year a sale took place. For example, slave prices in the New Orleans market were 10 to 20 percent higher in January than in September. Why? September was a busy time of year for plantation owners: the opportunity cost of their time was relatively high. Prices had to be relatively low for them to be willing to travel to New Orleans during harvest time.

Expectations and Prices

One additional demand factor loomed large in determining slave prices: the expectation of continued legal slavery. As the American Civil War progressed, prices dropped dramatically because people could not be sure that slavery would survive. In New Orleans, prime male slaves sold on average for $1381 in 1861 and for $1116 in 1862. Burgeoning inflation meant that real prices fell considerably more. By war’s end, slaves sold for a small fraction of their 1860 price.

Source: Data supplied by Stanley Engerman and reported in Walton and Rockoff (1994).


That slavery was profitable seems almost obvious. Yet scholars have argued furiously about this matter. On one side stand antebellum writers such as Hinton Rowan Helper and Frederick Law Olmstead, many antebellum abolitionists, and contemporary scholars like Eugene Genovese (at least in his early writings), who speculated that American slavery was unprofitable, inefficient, and incompatible with urban life. On the other side are scholars who have marshaled masses of data to support their contention that Southern slavery was profitable and efficient relative to free labor and that slavery suited cities as well as farms. These researchers stress the similarity between slave markets and markets for other sorts of capital.

Consensus That Slavery Was Profitable

This battle has largely been won by those who claim that New World slavery was profitable. Much like other businessmen, New World slaveowners responded to market signals — adjusting crop mixes, reallocating slaves to more profitable tasks, hiring out idle slaves, and selling slaves for profit. One well-known instance shows that contemporaneous free labor thought that urban slavery may even have worked too well: employees of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, went out on their first strike in 1847 to protest the use of slave labor at the Works.

Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross

Carrying the banner of the “slavery was profitable” camp is Nobel laureate Robert Fogel. Perhaps the most controversial book ever written about American slavery is Time on the Cross, published in 1974 by Fogel and co-author Stanley Engerman. These men were among the first to use modern statistical methods, computers, and large datasets to answer a series of empirical questions about the economics of slavery. To find profit levels and rates of return, they built upon the work of Alfred Conrad and John Meyer, who in 1958 had calculated similar measures from data on cotton prices, physical yield per slave, demographic characteristics of slaves (including expected lifespan), maintenance and supervisory costs, and (in the case of females) number of children. To estimate the relative efficiency of farms, Fogel and Engerman devised an index of “total factor productivity,” which measured the output per average unit of input on each type of farm. They included in this index controls for quality of livestock and land and for age and sex composition of the workforce, as well as amounts of output, labor, land, and capital

Time on the Cross generated praise — and considerable criticism. A major critique appeared in 1976 as a collection of articles entitled Reckoning with Slavery. Although some contributors took umbrage at the tone of the book and denied that it broke new ground, others focused on flawed and insufficient data and inappropriate inferences. Despite its shortcomings, Time on the Cross inarguably brought people’s attention to a new way of viewing slavery. The book also served as a catalyst for much subsequent research. Even Eugene Genovese, long an ardent proponent of the belief that Southern planters had held slaves for their prestige value, finally acknowledged that slavery was probably a profitable enterprise. Fogel himself refined and expanded his views in a 1989 book, Without Consent or Contract.

Efficiency Estimates

Fogel’s and Engerman’s research led them to conclude that investments in slaves generated high rates of return, masters held slaves for profit motives rather than for prestige, and slavery thrived in cities and rural areas alike. They also found that antebellum Southern farms were 35 percent more efficient overall than Northern ones and that slave farms in the New South were 53 percent more efficient than free farms in either North or South. This would mean that a slave farm that is otherwise identical to a free farm (in terms of the amount of land, livestock, machinery and labor used) would produce output worth 53 percent more than the free. On the eve of the Civil War, slavery flourished in the South and generated a rate of economic growth comparable to that of many European countries, according to Fogel and Engerman. They also discovered that, because slaves constituted a considerable portion of individual wealth, masters fed and treated their slaves reasonably well. Although some evidence indicates that infant and young slaves suffered much worse conditions than their freeborn counterparts, teenaged and adult slaves lived in conditions similar to — sometimes better than — those enjoyed by many free laborers of the same period.

Transition from Indentured Servitude to Slavery

One potent piece of evidence supporting the notion that slavery provides pecuniary benefits is this: slavery replaces other labor when it becomes relatively cheaper. In the early U.S. colonies, for example, indentured servitude was common. As the demand for skilled servants (and therefore their wages) rose in England, the cost of indentured servants went up in the colonies. At the same time, second-generation slaves became more productive than their forebears because they spoke English and did not have to adjust to life in a strange new world. Consequently, the balance of labor shifted away from indentured servitude and toward slavery.

Gang System

The value of slaves arose in part from the value of labor generally in the antebellum U.S. Scarce factors of production command economic rent, and labor was by far the scarcest available input in America. Moreover, a large proportion of the reward to owning and working slaves resulted from innovative labor practices. Certainly, the use of the “gang” system in agriculture contributed to profits in the antebellum period. In the gang system, groups of slaves perfomed synchronized tasks under the watchful overseer’s eye, much like parts of a single machine. Masters found that treating people like machinery paid off handsomely.

Antebellum slaveowners experimented with a variety of other methods to increase productivity. They developed an elaborate system of “hand ratings” in order to improve the match between the slave worker and the job. Hand ratings categorized slaves by age and sex and rated their productivity relative to that of a prime male field hand. Masters also capitalized on the native intelligence of slaves by using them as agents to receive goods, keep books, and the like.

Use of Positive Incentives

Masters offered positive incentives to make slaves work more efficiently. Slaves often had Sundays off. Slaves could sometimes earn bonuses in cash or in kind, or quit early if they finished tasks quickly. Some masters allowed slaves to keep part of the harvest or to work their own small plots. In places, slaves could even sell their own crops. To prevent stealing, however, many masters limited the products that slaves could raise and sell, confining them to corn or brown cotton, for example. In antebellum Louisiana, slaves even had under their control a sum of money called a peculium. This served as a sort of working capital, enabling slaves to establish thriving businesses that often benefited their masters as well. Yet these practices may have helped lead to the downfall of slavery, for they gave slaves a taste of freedom that left them longing for more.

Slave Families

Masters profited from reproduction as well as production. Southern planters encouraged slaves to have large families because U.S. slaves lived long enough — unlike those elsewhere in the New World — to generate more revenue than cost over their lifetimes. But researchers have found little evidence of slave breeding; instead, masters encouraged slaves to live in nuclear or extended families for stability. Lest one think sentimentality triumphed on the Southern plantation, one need only recall the willingness of most masters to sell if the bottom line was attractive enough.

Profitability and African Heritage

One element that contributed to the profitability of New World slavery was the African heritage of slaves. Africans, more than indigenous Americans, were accustomed to the discipline of agricultural practices and knew metalworking. Some scholars surmise that Africans, relative to Europeans, could better withstand tropical diseases and, unlike Native Americans, also had some exposure to the European disease pool.

Ease of Identifying Slaves

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Africans, however, was their skin color. Because they looked different from their masters, their movements were easy to monitor. Denying slaves education, property ownership, contractual rights, and other things enjoyed by those in power was simple: one needed only to look at people to ascertain their likely status. Using color was a low-cost way of distinguishing slaves from free persons. For this reason, the colonial practices that freed slaves who converted to Christianity quickly faded away. Deciphering true religious beliefs is far more difficult than establishing skin color. Other slave societies have used distinguishing marks like brands or long hair to denote slaves, yet color is far more immutable and therefore better as a cheap way of keeping slaves separate. Skin color, of course, can also serve as a racist identifying mark even after slavery itself disappears.

Profit Estimates

Slavery never generated superprofits, because people always had the option of putting their money elsewhere. Nevertheless, investment in slaves offered a rate of return — about 10 percent — that was comparable to returns on other assets. Slaveowners were not the only ones to reap rewards, however. So too did cotton consumers who enjoyed low prices and Northern entrepreneurs who helped finance plantation operations.

Exploitation Estimates

So slavery was profitable; was it an efficient way of organizing the workforce? On this question, considerable controversy remains. Slavery might well have profited masters, but only because they exploited their chattel. What is more, slavery could have locked people into a method of production and way of life that might later have proven burdensome.

Fogel and Engerman (1974) claimed that slaves kept about ninety percent of what they produced. Because these scholars also found that agricultural slavery produced relatively more output for a given set of inputs, they argued that slaves may actually have shared in the overall material benefits resulting from the gang system. Other scholars contend that slaves in fact kept less than half of what they produced and that slavery, while profitable, certainly was not efficient. On the whole, current estimates suggest that the typical slave received only about fifty percent of the extra output that he or she produced.

Did Slavery Retard Southern Economic Development?

Gavin Wright (1978) called attention as well to the difference between the short run and the long run. He noted that slaves accounted for a very large proportion of most masters’ portfolios of assets. Although slavery might have seemed an efficient means of production at a point in time, it tied masters to a certain system of labor which might not have adapted quickly to changed economic circumstances. This argument has some merit. Although the South’s growth rate compared favorably with that of the North in the antebellum period, a considerable portion of wealth was held in the hands of planters. Consequently, commercial and service industries lagged in the South. The region also had far less rail transportation than the North. Yet many plantations used the most advanced technologies of the day, and certain innovative commercial and insurance practices appeared first in transactions involving slaves. What is more, although the South fell behind the North and Great Britain in its level of manufacturing, it compared favorably to other advanced countries of the time. In sum, no clear consensus emerges as to whether the antebellum South created a standard of living comparable to that of the North or, if it did, whether it could have sustained it.

Ultimately, the South’s system of law, politics, business, and social customs strengthened the shackles of slavery and reinforced racial stereotyping. As such, it was undeniably evil. Yet, because slaves constituted valuable property, their masters had ample incentives to take care of them. And, by protecting the property rights of masters, slave law necessarily sheltered the persons embodied within. In a sense, the apologists for slavery were right: slaves sometimes fared better than free persons because powerful people had a stake in their well-being.

Conclusion: Slavery Cannot Be Seen As Benign

But slavery cannot be thought of as benign. In terms of material conditions, diet, and treatment, Southern slaves may have fared as well in many ways as the poorest class of free citizens. Yet the root of slavery is coercion. By its very nature, slavery involves involuntary transactions. Slaves are property, whereas free laborers are persons who make choices (at times constrained, of course) about the sort of work they do and the number of hours they work.

The behavior of former slaves after abolition clearly reveals that they cared strongly about the manner of their work and valued their non-work time more highly than masters did. Even the most benevolent former masters in the U.S. South found it impossible to entice their former chattels back into gang work, even with large wage premiums. Nor could they persuade women back into the labor force: many female ex-slaves simply chose to stay at home. In the end, perhaps slavery is an economic phenomenon only because slave societies fail to account for the incalculable costs borne by the slaves themselves.


For studies pertaining to the economics of slavery, see particularly Aitken, Hugh, editor. Did Slavery Pay? Readings in the Economics of Black Slavery in the United States. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1971.

Barzel, Yoram. “An Economic Analysis of Slavery.” Journal of Law and Economics 20 (1977): 87-110.

Conrad, Alfred H., and John R. Meyer. The Economics of Slavery and Other Studies. Chicago: Aldine, 1964.

David, Paul A., Herbert G. Gutman, Richard Sutch, Peter Temin, and Gavin Wright. Reckoning with Slavery: A Critical Study in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976

Fogel , Robert W. Without Consent or Contract. New York: Norton, 1989.

Fogel, Robert W., and Stanley L. Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. New York: Little, Brown, 1974.

Galenson, David W. Traders, Planters, and Slaves: Market Behavior in Early English America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986

Kotlikoff, Laurence. “The Structure of Slave Prices in New Orleans, 1804-1862.” Economic Inquiry 17 (1979): 496-518.

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

Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch “Capitalists Without Capital” Agricultural History 62 (1988): 133-160.

Vedder, Richard K. “The Slave Exploitation (Expropriation) Rate.” Explorations in Economic History 12 (1975): 453-57.

Wright, Gavin. The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton, 1978.

Yasuba, Yasukichi. “The Profitability and Viability of Slavery in the U.S.” Economic Studies Quarterly 12 (1961): 60-67.

For accounts of slave trading and sales, see
Bancroft, Frederic. Slave Trading in the Old South. New York: Ungar, 1931. Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

For discussion of the profession of slave catchers, see
Campbell, Stanley W. The Slave Catchers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

To read about slaves in industry and urban areas, see
Dew, Charles B. Slavery in the Antebellum Southern Industries. Bethesda: University Publications of America, 1991.

Goldin, Claudia D. Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820-1860: A Quantitative History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1976.

Starobin, Robert. Industrial Slavery in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

For discussions of masters and overseers, see
Oakes, James. The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Roark, James L. Masters Without Slaves. New York: Norton, 1977.

Scarborough, William K. The Overseer: Plantation Management in the Old South. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1966.

On indentured servitude, see
Galenson, David. “Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis.” Journal of Economic History 44 (1984): 1-26.

Galenson, David. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Grubb, Farley. “Immigrant Servant Labor: Their Occupational and Geographic Distribution in the Late Eighteenth Century Mid-Atlantic Economy.” Social Science History 9 (1985): 249-75.

Menard, Russell R. “From Servants to Slaves: The Transformation of the Chesapeake Labor System.” Southern Studies 16 (1977): 355-90.

On slave law, see
Fede, Andrew. “Legal Protection for Slave Buyers in the U.S. South.” American Journal of Legal History 31 (1987). Finkelman, Paul. An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1981.

Finkelman, Paul. Slavery, Race, and the American Legal System, 1700-1872. New York: Garland, 1988.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. Slavery and the Law. Madison: Madison House, 1997.

Flanigan, Daniel J. The Criminal Law of Slavery and Freedom, 1800-68. New York: Garland, 1987.

Morris, Thomas D., Southern Slavery and the Law: 1619-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Schafer, Judith K. Slavery, The Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Tushnet, Mark V. The American Law of Slavery, 1810-60: Considerations of Humanity and Interest. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Wahl, Jenny B. The Bondsman’s Burden: An Economic Analysis of the Common Law of Southern Slavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Other useful sources include
Berlin, Ira, and Philip D. Morgan, eds. The Slave’s Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas. London: Frank Cass, 1991.

Berlin, Ira, and Philip D. Morgan, eds, Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the Americas. Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Engerman, Stanley, and Eugene Genovese. Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Fehrenbacher, Don. Slavery, Law, and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Franklin, John H. From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Genovese, Eugene D. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South . Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 1989.

Hindus, Michael S. Prison and Plantation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Margo, Robert, and Richard Steckel. “The Heights of American Slaves: New Evidence on Slave Nutrition and Health.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 516-538.

Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime. New York: Appleton, 1918.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Steckel, Richard. “Birth Weights and Infant Mortality Among American Slaves.” Explorations in Economic History 23 (1986): 173-98.

Walton, Gary, and Hugh Rockoff. History of the American Economy. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1994, chapter 13.

Whaples, Robert. “Where Is There Consensus among American Economic Historians?” Journal of Economic History 55 (1995): 139-154.

Data can be found at
U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, 1970, collected in ICPSR study number 0003, “Historical Demographic, Economic and Social Data: The United States, 1790-1970,” located at

Citation: Bourne, Jenny. “Slavery in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 26, 2008. URL

Hours of Work in U.S. History

Robert Whaples, Wake Forest University

In the 1800s, many Americans worked seventy hours or more per week and the length of the workweek became an important political issue. Since then the workweek’s length has decreased considerably. This article presents estimates of the length of the historical workweek in the U.S., describes the history of the shorter-hours “movement,” and examines the forces that drove the workweek’s decline over time.

Estimates of the Length of the Workweek

Measuring the length of the workweek (or workday or workyear) is a difficult task, full of ambiguities concerning what constitutes work and who is to be considered a worker. Estimating the length of the historical workweek is even more troublesome. Before the Civil War most Americans were employed in agriculture and most of these were self-employed. Like self-employed workers in other fields, they saw no reason to record the amount of time they spent working. Often the distinction between work time and leisure time was blurry. Therefore, estimates of the length of the typical workweek before the mid-1800s are very imprecise.

The Colonial Period

Based on the amount of work performed — for example, crops raised per worker — Carr (1992) concludes that in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake region, “for at least six months of the year, an eight to ten-hour day of hard labor was necessary.” This does not account for other required tasks, which probably took about three hours per day. This workday was considerably longer than for English laborers, who at the time probably averaged closer to six hours of heavy labor each day.

The Nineteenth Century

Some observers believe that most American workers adopted the practice of working from “first light to dark” — filling all their free hours with work — throughout the colonial period and into the nineteenth century. Others are skeptical of such claims and argue that work hours increased during the nineteenth century — especially its first half. Gallman (1975) calculates “changes in implicit hours of work per agricultural worker” and estimates that hours increased 11 to 18 percent from 1800 to 1850. Fogel and Engerman (1977) argue that agricultural hours in the North increased before the Civil War due to the shift into time-intensive dairy and livestock. Weiss and Craig (1993) find evidence suggesting that agricultural workers also increased their hours of work between 1860 and 1870. Finally, Margo (2000) estimates that “on an economy-wide basis, it is probable that annual hours of work rose over the (nineteenth) century, by around 10 percent.” He credits this rise to the shift out of agriculture, a decline in the seasonality of labor demand and reductions in annual periods of nonemployment. On the other hand, it is clear that working hours declined substantially for one important group. Ransom and Sutch (1977) and Ng and Virts (1989) estimate that annual labor hours per capita fell 26 to 35 percent among African-Americans with the end of slavery.

Manufacturing Hours before 1890

Our most reliable estimates of the workweek come from manufacturing, since most employers required that manufacturing workers remain at work during precisely specified hours. The Census of Manufactures began to collect this information in 1880 but earlier estimates are available. Much of what is known about average work hours in the nineteenth century comes from two surveys of manufacturing hours taken by the federal government. The first survey, known as the Weeks Report, was prepared by Joseph Weeks as part of the Census of 1880. The second was prepared in 1893 by Commissioner of Labor Carroll D. Wright, for the Senate Committee on Finance, chaired by Nelson Aldrich. It is commonly called the Aldrich Report. Both of these sources, however, have been criticized as flawed due to problems such as sample selection bias (firms whose records survived may not have been typical) and unrepresentative regional and industrial coverage. In addition, the two series differ in their estimates of the average length of the workweek by as much as four hours. These estimates are reported in Table 1. Despite the previously mentioned problems, it seems reasonable to accept two important conclusions based on these data — the length of the typical manufacturing workweek in the 1800s was very long by modern standards and it declined significantly between 1830 and 1890.

Table 1
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked in Manufacturing, 1830-1890

Year Weeks Report Aldrich Report
1830 69.1
1840 67.1 68.4
1850 65.5 69.0
1860 62.0 66.0
1870 61.1 63.0
1880 60.7 61.8
1890 60.0

Sources: U.S. Department of Interior (1883), U.S. Senate (1893)
Note: Atack and Bateman (1992), using data from census manuscripts, estimate average weekly hours to be 60.1 in 1880 — very close to Weeks’ contemporary estimate. They also find that the summer workweek was about 1.5 hours longer than the winter workweek.

Hours of Work during the Twentieth Century

Because of changing definitions and data sources there does not exist a consistent series of workweek estimates covering the entire twentieth century. Table 2 presents six sets of estimates of weekly hours. Despite differences among the series, there is a fairly consistent pattern, with weekly hours falling considerably during the first third of the century and much more slowly thereafter. In particular, hours fell strongly during the years surrounding World War I, so that by 1919 the eight-hour day (with six workdays per week) had been won. Hours fell sharply at the beginning of the Great Depression, especially in manufacturing, then rebounded somewhat and peaked during World War II. After World War II, the length of the workweek stabilized around forty hours. Owen’s nonstudent-male series shows little trend after World War II, but the other series show a slow, but steady, decline in the length of the average workweek. Greis’s two series are based on the average length of the workyear and adjust for paid vacations, holidays and other time-off. The last column is based on information reported by individuals in the decennial censuses and in the Current Population Survey of 1988. It may be the most accurate and representative series, as it is based entirely on the responses of individuals rather than employers.

Table 2
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, 1900-1988

Year Census of Manu-facturing JonesManu-


OwenNonstudent Males GreisManu-


GreisAll Workers Census/CPS All Workers
1900 59.6* 55.0 58.5
1904 57.9 53.6 57.1
1909 56.8 (57.3) 53.1 55.7
1914 55.1 (55.5) 50.1 54.0
1919 50.8 (51.2) 46.1 50.0
1924 51.1* 48.8 48.8
1929 50.6 48.0 48.7
1934 34.4 40.6
1940 37.6 42.5 43.3
1944 44.2 46.9
1947 39.2 42.4 43.4 44.7
1950 38.7 41.1 42.7
1953 38.6 41.5 43.2 44.0
1958 37.8* 40.9 42.0 43.4
1960 41.0 40.9
1963 41.6 43.2 43.2
1968 41.7 41.2 42.0
1970 41.1 40.3
1973 40.6 41.0
1978 41.3* 39.7 39.1
1980 39.8
1988 39.2

Sources: Whaples (1990a), Jones (1963), Owen (1976, 1988), and Greis (1984). The last column is based on the author’s calculations using Coleman and Pencavel’s data from Table 4 (below).
* = these estimates are from one year earlier than the year listed.
(The figures in parentheses in the first column are unofficial estimates but are probably more precise, as they better estimate the hours of workers in industries with very long workweeks.)

Hours in Other Industrial Sectors

Table 3 compares the length of the workweek in manufacturing to that in other industries for which there is available information. (Unfortunately, data from the agricultural and service sectors are unavailable until late in this period.) The figures in Table 3 show that the length of the workweek was generally shorter in the other industries — sometimes considerably shorter. For example, in 1910 anthracite coalminers’ workweeks were about forty percent shorter than the average workweek among manufacturing workers. All of the series show an overall downward trend.

Table 3
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, Other Industries

Year Manufacturing Construction Railroads Bituminous Coal Anthracite Coal
1850s about 66 about 66
1870s about 62 about 60
1890 60.0 51.3
1900 59.6 50.3 52.3 42.8 35.8
1910 57.3 45.2 51.5 38.9 43.3
1920 51.2 43.8 46.8 39.3 43.2
1930 50.6 42.9 33.3 37.0
1940 37.6 42.5 27.8 27.2
1955 38.5 37.1 32.4 31.4

Sources: Douglas (1930), Jones (1963), Licht (1983), and Tables 1 and 2.
Note: The manufacturing figures for the 1850s and 1870s are approximations based on averaging numbers from the Weeks and Aldrich reports from Table 1. The early estimates for the railroad industry are also approximations.

Recent Trends by Race and Gender

Some analysts, such as Schor (1992) have argued that the workweek increased substantially in the last half of the twentieth century. Few economists accept this conclusion, arguing that it is based on the use of faulty data (public opinion surveys) and unexplained methods of “correcting” more reliable sources. Schor’s conclusions are contradicted by numerous studies. Table 4 presents Coleman and Pencavel’s (1993a, 1993b) estimates of the average workweek of employed people — disaggregated by race and gender. For all four groups the average length of the workweek has dropped since 1950. Although median weekly hours were virtually constant for men, the upper tail of the hours distribution fell for those with little schooling and rose for the well-educated. In addition, Coleman and Pencavel also find that work hours declined for young and older men (especially black men), but changed little for white men in their prime working years. Women with relatively little schooling were working fewer hours in the 1980s than in 1940, while the reverse is true of well-educated women.

Table 4
Estimated Average Weekly Hours Worked, by Race and Gender, 1940-1988

Year White Men Black Men White Women Black Women
1940 44.1 44.5 40.6 42.2
1950 43.4 42.8 41.0 40.3
1960 43.3 40.4 36.8 34.7
1970 43.1 40.2 36.1 35.9
1980 42.9 39.6 35.9 36.5
1988 42.4 39.6 35.5 37.2

Source: Coleman and Pencavel (1993a, 1993b)

Broader Trends in Time Use, 1880 to 2040

In 1880 a typical male household head had very little leisure time — only about 1.8 hours per day over the course of a year. However, as Fogel’s (2000) estimates in Table 5 show, between 1880 and 1995 the amount of work per day fell nearly in half, allowing leisure time to more than triple. Because of the decline in the length of the workweek and the declining portion of a lifetime that is spent in paid work (due largely to lengthening periods of education and retirement) the fraction of the typical American’s lifetime devoted to work has become remarkably small. Based on these trends Fogel estimates that four decades from now less than one-fourth of our discretionary time (time not needed for sleep, meals, and hygiene) will be devoted to paid work — over three-fourths will be available for doing what we wish.

Table 5
Division of the Day for the Average Male Household Head over the Course of a Year, 1880 and 1995

Activity 1880 1995
Sleep 8 8
Meals and hygiene 2 2
Chores 2 2
Travel to and from work 1 1
Work 8.5 4.7
Illness .7 .5
Left over for leisure activities 1.8 5.8

Source: Fogel (2000)

Table 6
Estimated Trend in the Lifetime Distribution of Discretionary Time, 1880-2040

Activity 1880 1995 2040
Lifetime Discretionary Hours 225,900 298,500 321,900
Lifetime Work Hours 182,100 122,400 75,900
Lifetime Leisure Hours 43,800 176,100 246,000

Source: Fogel (2000)
Notes: Discretionary hours exclude hours used for sleep, meals and hygiene. Work hours include paid work, travel to and from work, and household chores.

Postwar International Comparisons

While hours of work have decreased slowly in the U.S. since the end of World War II, they have decreased more rapidly in Western Europe. Greis (1984) calculates that annual hours worked per employee fell from 1908 to 1704 in the U.S. between 1950 and 1979, a 10.7 percent decrease. This compares to a 21.8 percent decrease across a group of twelve Western European countries, where the average fell from 2170 hours to 1698 hours between 1950 and 1979. Perhaps the most precise way of measuring work hours is to have individuals fill out diaries on their day-to-day and hour-to-hour time use. Table 7 presents an international comparison of average work hours both inside and outside of the workplace, by adult men and women — averaging those who are employed with those who are not. (Juster and Stafford (1991) caution, however, that making these comparisons requires a good deal of guesswork.) These numbers show a significant drop in total work per week in the U.S. between 1965 and 1981. They also show that total work by men and women is very similar, although it is divided differently. Total work hours in the U.S. were fairly similar to those in Japan, but greater than in Denmark, while less than in the USSR.

Table 7
Weekly Work Time in Four Countries, Based on Time Diaries, 1960s-1980s

Activity US USSR (Pskov)
Men Women Men Women
1965 1981 1965 1981 1965 1981 1965 1981
Total Work 63.1 57.8 60.9 54.4 64.4 65.7 75.3 66.3
Market Work 51.6 44.0 18.9 23.9 54.6 53.8 43.8 39.3
Commuting 4.8 3.5 1.6 2.0 4.9 5.2 3.7 3.4
Housework 11.5 13.8 41.8 30.5 9.8 11.9 31.5 27.0
Activity Japan Denmark
Men Women Men Women
1965 1985 1965 1985 1964 1987 1964 1987
Total Work 60.5 55.5 64.7 55.6 45.4 46.2 43.4 43.9
Market Work 57.7 52.0 33.2 24.6 41.7 33.4 13.3 20.8
Commuting 3.6 4.5 1.0 1.2 n.a n.a n.a n.a
Housework 2.8 3.5 31.5 31.0 3.7 12.8 30.1 23.1

Source: Juster and Stafford (1991)

The Shorter Hours “Movement” in the U.S.

The Colonial Period

Captain John Smith, after mapping New England’s coast, came away convinced that three days’ work per week would satisfy any settler. Far from becoming a land of leisure, however, the abundant resources of British America and the ideology of its settlers, brought forth high levels of work. Many colonial Americans held the opinion that prosperity could be taken as a sign of God’s pleasure with the individual, viewed work as inherently good and saw idleness as the devil’s workshop. Rodgers (1978) argues that this work ethic spread and eventually reigned supreme in colonial America. The ethic was consistent with the American experience, since high returns to effort meant that hard work often yielded significant increases in wealth. In Virginia, authorities also transplanted the Statue of Artificers, which obliged all Englishmen (except the gentry) to engage in productive activity from sunrise to sunset. Likewise, a 1670 Massachusetts law demanded a minimum ten-hour workday, but it is unlikely that these laws had any impact on the behavior of most free workers.

The Revolutionary War Period

Roediger and Foner (1989) contend that the Revolutionary War era brought a series of changes that undermined support for sun-to-sun work. The era’s republican ideology emphasized that workers needed free time, away from work, to participate in democracy. Simultaneously, the development of merchant capitalism meant that there were, for the first time, a significant number of wageworkers. Roediger and Foner argue that reducing labor costs was crucial to the profitability of these workers’ employers, who reduced costs by squeezing more work from their employees — reducing time for meals, drink and rest and sometimes even rigging the workplace’s official clock. Incensed by their employers’ practice of paying a flat daily wage during the long summer shift and resorting to piece rates during short winter days, Philadelphia’s carpenters mounted America’s first ten-hour-day strike in May 1791. (The strike was unsuccessful.)

1820s: The Shorter Hours Movement Begins

Changes in the organization of work, with the continued rise of merchant capitalists, the transition from the artisanal shop to the early factory, and an intensified work pace had become widespread by about 1825. These changes produced the first extensive, aggressive movement among workers for shorter hours, as the ten-hour movement blossomed in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston. Rallying around the ten-hour banner, workers formed the first city-central labor union in the U.S., the first labor newspaper, and the first workingmen’s political party — all in Philadelphia — in the late 1820s.

Early Debates over Shorter Hours

Although the length of the workday is largely an economic decision arrived at by the interaction of the supply and demand for labor, advocates of shorter hours and foes of shorter hours have often argued the issue on moral grounds. In the early 1800s, advocates argued that shorter work hours improved workers’ health, allowed them time for self-improvement and relieved unemployment. Detractors countered that workers would abuse leisure time (especially in saloons) and that long, dedicated hours of work were the path to success, which should not be blocked for the great number of ambitious workers.

1840s: Early Agitation for Government Intervention

When Samuel Slater built the first textile mills in the U.S., “workers labored from sun up to sun down in summer and during the darkness of both morning and evening in the winter. These hours ? only attracted attention when they exceeded the common working day of twelve hours,” according to Ware (1931). During the 1830s, an increased work pace, tighter supervision, and the addition of about fifteen minutes to the work day (partly due to the introduction of artificial lighting during winter months), plus the growth of a core of more permanent industrial workers, fueled a campaign for a shorter workweek among mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, whose workweek averaged about 74 hours. This agitation was led by Sarah Bagley and the New England Female Labor Reform Association, which, beginning in 1845, petitioned the state legislature to intervene in the determination of hours. The petitions were followed by America’s first-ever examination of labor conditions by a governmental investigating committee. The Massachusetts legislature proved to be very unsympathetic to the workers’ demands, but similar complaints led to the passage of laws in New Hampshire (1847) and Pennsylvania (1848), declaring ten hours to be the legal length of the working day. However, these laws also specified that a contract freely entered into by employee and employer could set any length for the workweek. Hence, these laws had little impact. Legislation passed by the federal government had a more direct, though limited effect. On March 31, 1840, President Martin Van Buren issued an executive order mandating a ten-hour day for all federal employees engaged in manual work.

1860s: Grand Eight Hours Leagues

As the length of the workweek gradually declined, political agitation for shorter hours seems to have waned for the next two decades. However, immediately after the Civil War reductions in the length of the workweek reemerged as an important issue for organized labor. The new goal was an eight-hour day. Roediger (1986) argues that many of the new ideas about shorter hours grew out of the abolitionists’ critique of slavery — that long hours, like slavery, stunted aggregate demand in the economy. The leading proponent of this idea, Ira Steward, argued that decreasing the length of the workweek would raise the standard of living of workers by raising their desired consumption levels as their leisure expanded, and by ending unemployment. The hub of the newly launched movement was Boston and Grand Eight Hours Leagues sprang up around the country in 1865 and 1866. The leaders of the movement called the meeting of the first national organization to unite workers of different trades, the National Labor Union, which met in Baltimore in 1867. In response to this movement, eight states adopted general eight-hour laws, but again the laws allowed employer and employee to mutually consent to workdays longer than the “legal day.” Many critics saw these laws and this agitation as a hoax, because few workers actually desired to work only eight hours per day at their original hourly pay rate. The passage of the state laws did foment action by workers — especially in Chicago where parades, a general strike, rioting and martial law ensued. In only a few places did work hours fall after the passage of these laws. Many become disillusioned with the idea of using the government to promote shorter hours and by the late 1860s, efforts to push for a universal eight-hour day had been put on the back burner.

The First Enforceable Hours Laws

Despite this lull in shorter-hours agitation, in 1874, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first enforceable ten-hour law. It covered only female workers and became fully effective by 1879. This legislation was fairly late by European standards. Britain had passed its first effective Factory Act, setting maximum hours for almost half of its very young textile workers, in 1833.

1886: Year of Dashed Hopes

In the early 1880s organized labor in the U.S. was fairly weak. In 1884, the short-lived Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU) fired a “shot in the dark.” During its final meeting, before dissolving, the Federation “ordained” May 1, 1886 as the date on which workers would cease working beyond eight hours per day. Meanwhile, the Knights of Labor, which had begun as a secret fraternal society and evolved a labor union, began to gain strength. It appears that many nonunionized workers, especially the unskilled, came to see in the Knights a chance to obtain a better deal from their employers, perhaps even to obtain the eight-hour day. FOTLU’s call for workers to simply walk off the job after eight hours beginning on May 1, plus the activities of socialist and anarchist labor organizers and politicians, and the apparent strength of the Knights combined to attract members in record numbers. The Knights mushroomed and its new membership demanded that their local leaders support them in attaining the eight-hour day. Many smelled victory in the air — the movement to win the eight-hour day became frenzied and the goal became “almost a religious crusade” (Grob, 1961).

The Knights’ leader, Terence Powderly, thought that the push for a May 1 general strike for eight-hours was “rash, short-sighted and lacking in system” and “must prove abortive” (Powderly, 1890). He offered no effective alternative plan but instead tried to block the mass action, issuing a “secret circular” condemning the use of strikes. Powderly reasoned that low incomes forced workmen to accept long hours. Workers didn’t want shorter hours unless their daily pay was maintained, but employers were unwilling and/or unable to offer this. Powderly’s rival, labor leader Samuel Gompers, agreed that “the movement of ’86 did not have the advantage of favorable conditions” (Gompers, 1925). Nelson (1986) points to divisions among workers, which probably had much to do with the failure in 1886 of the drive for the eight-hour day. Some insisted on eight hours with ten hours’ pay, but others were willing to accept eight hours with eight hours’ pay,

Haymarket Square Bombing

The eight-hour push of 1886 was, in Norman Ware’s words, “a flop” (Ware, 1929). Lack of will and organization among workers was undoubtedly important, but its collapse was aided by violence that marred strikes and political rallies in Chicago and Milwaukee. The 1886 drive for eight-hours literally blew up in organized labor’s face. At Haymarket Square in Chicago an anarchist bomb killed fifteen policemen during an eight-hour rally, and in Milwaukee’s Bay View suburb nine strikers were killed as police tried to disperse roving pickets. The public backlash and fear of revolution damned the eight-hour organizers along with the radicals and dampened the drive toward eight hours — although it is estimated that the strikes of May 1886 shortened the workweek for about 200,000 industrial workers, especially in New York City and Cincinnati.

The AFL’s Strategy

After the demise of the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) became the strongest labor union in the U.S. It held shorter hours as a high priority. The inside cover of its Proceedings carried two slogans in large type: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” and “Whether you work by the piece or work by the day, decreasing the hours increases the pay.” (The latter slogan was coined by Ira Steward’s wife, Mary.) In the aftermath of 1886, the American Federation of Labor adopted a new strategy of selecting each year one industry in which it would attempt to win the eight-hour day, after laying solid plans, organizing, and building up a strike fund war chest by taxing nonstriking unions. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners was selected first and May 1, 1890 was set as a day of national strikes. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 workers gained the eight-hour day as a result of these strikes in 1890. However, other unions turned down the opportunity to follow the carpenters’ example and the tactic was abandoned. Instead, the length of the workweek continued to erode during this period, sometimes as the result of a successful local strike, more often as the result of broader economic forces.

The Spread of Hours Legislation

Massachusetts’ first hours law in 1874 set sixty hours per week as the legal maximum for women, in 1892 this was cut to 58, in 1908 to 56, and in 1911 to 54. By 1900, 26 percent of states had maximum hours laws covering women, children and, in some, adult men (generally only those in hazardous industries). The percentage of states with maximum hours laws climbed to 58 percent in 1910, 76 percent in 1920, and 84 percent in 1930. Steinberg (1982) calculates that the percent of employees covered climbed from 4 percent nationally in 1900, to 7 percent in 1910, and 12 percent in 1920 and 1930. In addition, these laws became more restrictive with the average legal standard falling from a maximum of 59.3 hours per week in 1900 to 56.7 in 1920. According to her calculations, in 1900 about 16 percent of the workers covered by these laws were adult men, 49 percent were adult women and the rest were minors.

Court Rulings

The banner years for maximum hours legislation were right around 1910. This may have been partly a reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding female-hours legislation in the Muller vs. Oregon case (1908). The Court’s rulings were not always completely consistent during this period, however. In 1898 the Court upheld a maximum eight-hour day for workmen in the hazardous industries of mining and smelting in Utah in Holden vs. Hardy. In Lochner vs. New York (1905), it rejected as unconstitutional New York’s ten-hour day for bakers, which was also adopted (at least nominally) out of concerns for safety. The defendant showed that mortality rates in baking were only slightly above average, and lower than those for many unregulated occupations, arguing that this was special interest legislation, designed to favor unionized bakers. Several state courts, on the other hand, supported laws regulating the hours of men in only marginally hazardous work. By 1917, in Bunting vs. Oregon, the Supreme Court seemingly overturned the logic of the Lochner decision, supporting a state law that required overtime payment for all men working long hours. The general presumption during this period was that the courts would allow regulation of labor concerning women and children, who were thought to be incapable of bargaining on an equal footing with employers and in special need of protection. Men were allowed freedom of contract unless it could be proven that regulating their hours served a higher good for the population at large.

New Arguments about Shorter Hours

During the first decades of the twentieth century, arguments favoring shorter hours moved away from Steward’s line that shorter hours increased pay and reduced unemployment to arguments that shorter hours were good for employers because they made workers more productive. A new cadre of social scientists began to offer evidence that long hours produced health-threatening, productivity-reducing fatigue. This line of reasoning, advanced in the court brief of Louis Brandeis and Josephine Goldmark, was crucial in the Supreme Court’s decision to support state regulation of women’s hours in Muller vs. Oregon. Goldmark’s book, Fatigue and Efficiency (1912) was a landmark. In addition, data relating to hours and output among British and American war workers during World War I helped convince some that long hours could be counterproductive. Businessmen, however, frequently attacked the shorter hours movement as merely a ploy to raise wages, since workers were generally willing to work overtime at higher wage rates.

Federal Legislation in the 1910s

In 1912 the Federal Public Works Act was passed, which provided that every contract to which the U.S. government was a party must contain an eight-hour day clause. Three year later LaFollette’s Bill established maximum hours for maritime workers. These were preludes to the most important shorter-hours law enacted by Congress during this period — 1916’s Adamson Act, which was passed to counter a threatened nationwide strike, granted rail workers the basic eight hour day. (The law set eight hours as the basic workday and required higher overtime pay for longer hours.)

World War I and Its Aftermath

Labor markets became very tight during World War I as the demand for workers soared and the unemployment rate plunged. These forces put workers in a strong bargaining position, which they used to obtain shorter work schedules. The move to shorter hours was also pushed by the federal government, which gave unprecedented support to unionization. The federal government began to intervene in labor disputes for the first time, and the National War Labor Board “almost invariably awarded the basic eight-hour day when the question of hours was at issue” in labor disputes (Cahill, 1932). At the end of the war everyone wondered if organized labor would maintain its newfound power and the crucial test case was the steel industry. Blast furnace workers generally put in 84-hour workweeks. These abnormally long hours were the subject of much denunciation and a major issue in a strike that began in September 1919. The strike failed (and organized labor’s power receded during the 1920s), but four years later US Steel reduced its workday from twelve to eight hours. The move came after much arm-twisting by President Harding but its timing may be explained by immigration restrictions and the loss of immigrant workers who were willing to accept such long hours (Shiells, 1990).

The Move to a Five-day Workweek

During the 1920s agitation for shorter workdays largely disappeared, now that the workweek had fallen to about 50 hours. However, pressure arose to grant half-holidays on Saturday or Saturday off — especially in industries whose workers were predominantly Jewish. By 1927 at least 262 large establishments had adopted the five-day week, while only 32 had it by 1920. The most notable action was Henry Ford’s decision to adopt the five-day week in 1926. Ford employed more than half of the nation’s approximately 400,000 workers with five-day weeks. However, Ford’s motives were questioned by many employers who argued that productivity gains from reducing hours ceased beyond about forty-eight hours per week. Even the reformist American Labor Legislation Review greeted the call for a five-day workweek with lukewarm interest.

Changing Attitudes in the 1920s

Hunnicutt (1988) argues that during the 1920s businessmen and economists began to see shorter hours as a threat to future economic growth. With the development of advertising — the “gospel of consumption” — a new vision of progress was proposed to American workers. It replaced the goal of leisure time with a list of things to buy and business began to persuade workers that more work brought more tangible rewards. Many workers began to oppose further decreases in the length of the workweek. Hunnicutt concludes that a new work ethic arose as Americans threw off the psychology of scarcity for one of abundance.

Hours’ Reduction during the Great Depression

Then the Great Depression hit the American economy. By 1932 about half of American employers had shortened hours. Rather than slash workers’ real wages, employers opted to lay-off many workers (the unemployment rate hit 25 percent) and tried to protect the ones they kept on by the sharing of work among them. President Hoover’s Commission for Work Sharing pushed voluntary hours reductions and estimated that they had saved three to five million jobs. Major employers like Sears, GM, and Standard Oil scaled down their workweeks and Kellogg’s and the Akron tire industry pioneered the six-hour day. Amid these developments, the AFL called for a federally-mandated thirty-hour workweek.

The Black-Connery 30-Hours Bill and the NIRA

The movement for shorter hours as a depression-fighting work-sharing measure built such a seemingly irresistible momentum that by 1933 observers predicting that the “30-hour week was within a month of becoming federal law” (Hunnicutt, 1988). During the period after the 1932 election but before Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, Congressional hearings on thirty hours began, and less than one month into FDR’s first term, the Senate passed, 53 to 30, a thirty-hour bill authored by Hugo Black. The bill was sponsored in the House by William Connery. Roosevelt originally supported the Black-Connery proposals, but soon backed off, uneasy with a provision forbidding importation of goods produced by workers whose weeks were longer than thirty hours, and convinced by arguments of business that trying to legislate fewer hours might have disastrous results. Instead, FDR backed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). Hunnicutt argues that an implicit deal was struck in the NIRA. Labor leaders were persuaded by NIRA Section 7a’s provisions — which guaranteed union organization and collective bargaining — to support the NIRA rather than the Black-Connery Thirty-Hour Bill. Business, with the threat of thirty hours hanging over its head, fell raggedly into line. (Most historians cite other factors as the key to the NIRA’s passage. See Barbara Alexander’s article on the NIRA in this encyclopedia.) When specific industry codes were drawn up by the NIRA-created National Recovery Administration (NRA), shorter hours were deemphasized. Despite a plan by NRA Administrator Hugh Johnson to make blanket provisions for a thirty-five hour workweek in all industry codes, by late August 1933, the momentum toward the thirty-hour week had dissipated. About half of employees covered by NRA codes had their hours set at forty per week and nearly 40 percent had workweeks longer than forty hours.

The FSLA: Federal Overtime Law

Hunnicutt argues that the entire New Deal can be seen as an attempt to keep shorter-hours advocates at bay. After the Supreme Court struck down the NRA, Roosevelt responded to continued demands for thirty hours with the Works Progress Administration, the Wagner Act, Social Security, and, finally, the Fair Labor Standards Acts, which set a federal minimum wage and decreed that overtime beyond forty hours per week would be paid at one-and-a-half times the base rate in covered industries.

The Demise of the Shorter Hours’ Movement

As the Great Depression ended, average weekly work hours slowly climbed from their low reached in 1934. During World War II hours reached a level almost as high as at the end of World War I. With the postwar return of weekly work hours to the forty-hour level the shorter hours movement effectively ended. Occasionally organized labor’s leaders announced that they would renew the push for shorter hours, but they found that most workers didn’t desire a shorter workweek.

The Case of Kellogg’s

Offsetting isolated examples of hours reductions after World War II, there were noteworthy cases of backsliding. Hunnicutt (1996) has studied the case of Kellogg’s in great detail. In 1946, 87% of women and 71% of men working at Kellogg’s voted to return to the six-hour day, with the end of the war. Over the course of the next decade, however, the tide turned. By 1957 most departments had opted to switch to 8-hour shifts, so that only about one-quarter of the work force, mostly women, retained a six-hour shift. Finally, in 1985, the last department voted to adopt an 8-hour workday. Workers, especially male workers, began to favor additional money more than the extra two hours per day of free time. In interviews they explained that they needed the extra money to buy a wide range of consumer items and to keep up with the neighbors. Several men told about the friction that resulted when men spent too much time around the house: “The wives didn’t like the men underfoot all day.” “The wife always found something for me to do if I hung around.” “We got into a lot of fights.” During the 1950s, the threat of unemployment evaporated and the moral condemnation for being a “work hog” no longer made sense. In addition, the rise of quasi-fixed employment costs (such as health insurance) induced management to push workers toward a longer workday.

The Current Situation

As the twentieth century ended there was nothing resembling a shorter hours “movement.” The length of the workweek continues to fall for most groups — but at a glacial pace. Some Americans complain about a lack of free time but the vast majority seem content with an average workweek of roughly forty hours — channeling almost all of their growing wages into higher incomes rather than increased leisure time.

Causes of the Decline in the Length of the Workweek

Supply, Demand and Hours of Work

The length of the workweek, like other labor market outcomes, is determined by the interaction of the supply and demand for labor. Employers are torn by conflicting pressures. Holding everything else constant, they would like employees to work long hours because this means that they can utilize their equipment more fully and offset any fixed costs from hiring each worker (such as the cost of health insurance — common today, but not a consideration a century ago). On the other hand, longer hours can bring reduced productivity due to worker fatigue and can bring worker demands for higher hourly wages to compensate for putting in long hours. If they set the workweek too high, workers may quit and few workers will be willing to work for them at a competitive wage rate. Thus, workers implicitly choose among a variety of jobs — some offering shorter hours and lower earnings, others offering longer hours and higher earnings.

Economic Growth and the Long-Term Reduction of Work Hours

Historically employers and employees often agreed on very long workweeks because the economy was not very productive (by today’s standards) and people had to work long hours to earn enough money to feed, clothe and house their families. The long-term decline in the length of the workweek, in this view, has primarily been due to increased economic productivity, which has yielded higher wages for workers. Workers responded to this rise in potential income by “buying” more leisure time, as well as by buying more goods and services. In a recent survey, a sizeable majority of economic historians agreed with this view. Over eighty percent accepted the proposition that “the reduction in the length of the workweek in American manufacturing before the Great Depression was primarily due to economic growth and the increased wages it brought” (Whaples, 1995). Other broad forces probably played only a secondary role. For example, roughly two-thirds of economic historians surveyed rejected the proposition that the efforts of labor unions were the primary cause of the drop in work hours before the Great Depression.

Winning the Eight-Hour Day in the Era of World War I

The swift reduction of the workweek in the period around World War I has been extensively analyzed by Whaples (1990b). His findings support the consensus that economic growth was the key to reduced work hours. Whaples links factors such as wages, labor legislation, union power, ethnicity, city size, leisure opportunities, age structure, wealth and homeownership, health, education, alternative employment opportunities, industrial concentration, seasonality of employment, and technological considerations to changes in the average workweek in 274 cities and 118 industries. He finds that the rapid economic expansion of the World War I period, which pushed up real wages by more than 18 percent between 1914 and 1919, explains about half of the drop in the length of the workweek. The reduction of immigration during the war was important, as it deprived employers of a group of workers who were willing to put in long hours, explaining about one-fifth of the hours decline. The rapid electrification of manufacturing seems also to have played an important role in reducing the workweek. Increased unionization explains about one-seventh of the reduction, and federal and state legislation and policies that mandated reduced workweeks also had a noticeable role.

Cross-sectional Patterns from 1919

In 1919 the average workweek varied tremendously, emphasizing the point that not all workers desired the same workweek. The workweek exceeded 69 hours in the iron blast furnace, cottonseed oil, and sugar beet industries, but fell below 45 hours in industries such as hats and caps, fur goods, and women’s clothing. Cities’ averages also differed dramatically. In a few Midwestern steel mill towns average workweeks exceeded 60 hours. In a wide range of low-wage Southern cities they reached the high 50s, but in high-wage Western ports, like Seattle, the workweek fell below 45 hours.

Whaples (1990a) finds that among the most important city-level determinants of the workweek during this period were the availability of a pool of agricultural workers, the capital-labor ratio, horsepower per worker, and the amount of employment in large establishments. Hours rose as each of these increased. Eastern European immigrants worked significantly longer than others, as did people in industries whose output varied considerably from season to season. High unionization and strike levels reduced hours to a small degree. The average female employee worked about six and a half fewer hours per week in 1919 than did the average male employee. In city-level comparisons, state maximum hours laws appear to have had little affect on average work hours, once the influences of other factors have been taken into account. One possibility is that these laws were passed only after economic forces lowered the length of the workweek. Overall, in cities where wages were one percent higher, hours were about -0.13 to -0.05 percent lower. Again, this suggests that during the era of declining hours, workers were willing to use higher wages to “buy” shorter hours.

Annotated Bibliography

Perhaps the most comprehensive survey of the shorter hours movement in the U.S. is David Roediger and Philip Foner’s Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (1989). It contends that “the length of the working day has been the central issue for the American labor movement during its most vigorous periods of activity, uniting workers along lines of craft, gender, and ethnicity.” Critics argue that its central premise is flawed because workers have often been divided about the optimal length of the workweek. It explains the point of view of organized labor and recounts numerous historically important events and arguments, but does not attempt to examine in detail the broader economic forces that determined the length of the workweek. An earlier useful comprehensive work is Marion Cahill’s Shorter Hours: A Study of the Movement since the Civil War (1932).

Benjamin Hunnicutt’s Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work (1988) focuses on the period from 1920 to 1940 and traces the political, intellectual, and social “dialogues” that changed the American concept of progress from dreams of more leisure to an “obsession” with the importance of work and wage-earning. This work’s detailed analysis and insights are valuable, but it draws many of its inferences from what intellectuals said about shorter hours, rather than spending time on the actual decision makers — workers and employers. Hunnicutt’s Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day (1996), is important because it does exactly this — interviewing employees and examining the motives and decisions of a prominent employer. Unfortunately, it shows that one must carefully interpret what workers say on the subject, as they are prone to reinterpret their own pasts so that their choices can be more readily rationalized. (See EH.NET’s review:

Economists have given surprisingly little attention to the determinants of the workweek. The most comprehensive treatment is Robert Whaples’ “The Shortening of the American Work Week” (1990), which surveys estimates of the length of the workweek, the shorter hours movement, and economic theories about the length of the workweek. Its core is an extensive statistical examination of the determinants of the workweek in the period around World War I.


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Whaples, Robert. “Winning the Eight-Hour Day, 1909-1919.” Journal of Economic History 50, no. 2 (1990b): 393-406.

Whaples, Robert. “Where Is There Consensus Among American Economic Historians? The Results of a Survey on Forty Propositions.” Journal of Economic History 55, no. 1 (1995): 139-154.

Citation: Whaples, Robert. “Hours of Work in U.S. History”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL