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The Slavery Debates, 1952-1990: A Retrospective

Author(s):Fogel, Robert William
Reviewer(s):Carlson, Leonard

Published by EH.NET (February 2006)

Robert William Fogel, The Slavery Debates, 1952-1990: A Retrospective. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. ix + 106 pp. $23 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8071-2881-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Leonard Carlson, Department of Economics, Emory University.

This short book by Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel gives a survey of the historical literature published before 1990 about the economics of slavery, the economy of the South before 1860, and the origins of the emancipation movement. This book is a tour de force that gives Fogel’s judgments about which issues are settled and his view of a new consensus about southern economic history.[1] I can only mention a few highlights in what follows. The book has a bibliography but no footnotes and a reader seeking citations for some of the points made in the book will need to search the bibliography or look at the earlier Without Consent or Contract. There are three main chapters: “Breaking Away from the Phillips Tradition,” “Coming to Terms with the Economic Viability of Slavery” and “Toward a New Synthesis on the Shaping of American Civilization.”

Fogel sees the debate about the nature of slavery in the South as part of a larger intellectual debate between the “old” anthropology (which saw races as being innately superior or inferior) and the “new” anthropology of Franz Boas (which saw human beings as innately equal but shaped by different cultural circumstances). To Fogel World War II was in part a struggle between the “old” anthropology (championed by the Nazis) and the “new” anthropology (championed by the allies, including the United States). This gives a new twist to Keynes’ observation that madmen in authority distill their ideas from “academic” scribblers. The paradox for the U.S. was that it fought the Nazis at the same time that it practiced segregation in its own army and at home, a contradiction that had be resolved after World War II.

Chapter one begins with a discussion of U.B. Phillips, whose work published in the early twentieth century dominated the scholarly work on slavery for many years. Fogel condemns the racism in Phillips’ research (the old anthropology), but praises him for setting forth a number of interesting hypotheses, many of which have held up to recent research. Phillips concluded that masters in the South treated slave relatively well and that slavery itself was an unprofitable relic that lead masters to pursue status rather than profit. The view that slavery was unprofitable and a burden on the economic development of the both South and the U.S. became embedded in the work of progressive historians such as Charles and Mary Beard. This view was also embraced by historians with a Marxist emphasis. Kenneth Stamp in a 1952 article (hence the date in the title) and his 1956 book, the Peculiar Institution, launched a major challenge to the dominant interpretation. Unlike Phillips, Stamp argued that slaves were treated in a harsh and more dehumanizing manner. In 1957 Conrad and Meyer added a new dimension to the historical debate by using theory and data to address the old question of whether slavery was profitable. Scholars also pursued other lines of inquiry that have helped shape a revised view of slavery and the anti-slavery movement. For example, John Blassingame, John Hope Franklin, and Eugene Genovese explored the development of a separate black culture under slavery. Other scholars began to explore the impact of evangelical religion on American life.

The second lecture deals with debates about the economics of the slave system and the treatment received by slaves in the South. Much of the discussion was generated by challenges to conclusions reached either by Conrad and Meyer or Fogel and Stanley Engerman in Time on the Cross. Conrad and Meyer concluded that an investment in a slave could have earned a master a normal rate of return — that is, slavery was profitable. This result was very controversial to many scholars in the 1950s and 1960s and their results were challenged in a variety of ways. The conclusion that in static terms slavery was profitable is now generally accepted by economists, however, as is the conclusion that per capita incomes were growing in the South up to the Civil War. In Time on the Cross, Fogel and Engerman went further and concluded that slavery in the South was a viable, flexible form of capitalism. They also found that slaves had a standard of living and level of treatment by masters that were not as harsh as Stamp had claimed. This set loose a torrent of criticism, much of it very hostile. Fogel concludes that in the end there were no losers from all the controversy. Fogel does, however, cite a letter to him from John Meyer that asks rhetorically “… how would you react to listening to one hour of fairly substantive implications that you lacked sensitivity to the race issue?” I don’t think that it is too big a leap to conclude that Fogel himself relates very well to Meyer’s rhetorical question in light of some critiques of Time on the Cross.

Fogel and Engerman were the first to argue that farms in the South in general, and slave plantations in particular, were an average more efficient than northern free farms, based on a sample of farms drawn from the census. Their conclusion was hotly debated in scholarly journals. Over time the argument was refined into a claim that there were economies of scale in gang labor on plantations. Some recent empirical studies support that conclusion and Fogel sees the issue as settled. I expect that we have not seen the end of research on this topic, however.

One particularly controversial set of issues raised in Time on the Cross concerned the argument that slaves had won for themselves a better standard of living than Stamp had claimed. In discussing these issues, Fogel gives special attention to the work of Stephen Crawford and Richard Steckel, two of his former graduate students. Using evidence from interviews with former slaves recorded in the 1930s, Crawford found that there was more stability in the typical slave family than earlier research had concluded. Slaves on large plantations fared better than those on small plantations, which might explain some differences with earlier research. Data on slave heights analyzed by Steckel show that slaves were well fed and lived long lives, once they were old enough to work in the fields. Slaves were not well-fed as children, however, (there was apparently little protein in the diet) and slave mothers were often required to work hard during the first and third trimesters of pregnancy, which had adverse effects on both mother and child.

In Fogel’s opinion from the Civil War to present the traditional condemnation of slavery, the “Republican indictment of slavery,” rested on the assumption that slavery was inefficient. However, the fact that slavery was profitable does not make it a just or moral system. In place of the older view, Fogel argues that slavery was immoral because it: 1) gave one group of people legal rights to exercise personal domination over another; 2) denied slaves economic opportunity; 3) denied slaves citizenship; and 4) denied slaves cultural identification.

The third section, “Toward a New Synthesis on the Shaping of American Civilization,” addresses the abolition movement and the end of slavery. Progressive historians had downplayed morality as a cause of the Civil War. In this view, the South blocked needed changes and a northern victory was essential for America’s rise as an industrial power in the later part of the nineteenth century. But if slavery wasn’t dying out and the North was not held down by the South, why did the anti-slavery movement ultimately succeed and why did the North fight to keep the South in the union? In contrast to the economic origins emphasized by the progressive historians, Fogel argues that the slavery issue became an important issue because many people saw slavery as against the wishes of God. This view grew out of the moral sensibility that arose out of the evangelicalism that resulted from the “second great awakening” in the 1830’s. This religiously-based condemnation of slavery led to heated political debate about whether slavery should be allowed in new territories in the West. The Whig party split into northern and southern branches over the issue and faded from national importance.

The 1850s also saw increased hostility toward immigrants, especially Catholic immigrants, by native workers who feared that they would lose their jobs to new workers willing to take lower wages. This tension was further fueled by economic recession in the mid 1850’s. One result was the growth of the nativist Know Nothing Party which was opposed to immigrants and Catholics. Fogel argues that enterprising politicians in the 1850’s blended the anti-slavery movement, anti-immigrant fears and remnants of the Whig Party to form the ultimately successful Republican Party. The Republicans rallied around the cause of keeping slavery out of western territories. Southerners responded to these attacks on slavery in the territories by trying ever harder to allow slavery to spread. Fogel’s nuanced view is sure to stimulate interesting new research — as will his emphasis on the impact of religious movements on political reform.

Undoubtedly this short book will be widely cited and should be read by anyone interested in the economic history of slavery or, indeed, the economic history of the United States.

Note: 1. This is the fourth major review of the literature on slavery and the South by Fogel. A reader new to this literature would benefit by looking at all of them, since each covers somewhat different topics and a reader can see the evolution of Fogel’s thinking. These are found in Reinterpretation of American Economic History (1971), Time on the Cross (1974), and Without Consent or Contract (1989).

Leonard Carlson teaches a course on the political economy of the U.S. South. His research interests are in the economic history of the United States, the economics of federal Indian policy, applied microeconomics, and labor economics.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII