In Memoriam



By Robert A. Margo and Paul W. Rhode

Stanley (Stan) Lewis Engerman was a scholar of the highest rank. His publications – 21 monographs or edited books, four of which were multiple volumes; 100+ journal articles and book chapters; and innumerable reviews, comments, and the like — profoundly shaped the field of economic history over the past sixty years. Stan’s generosity to students and colleagues near and far was legendary. He died on May 11, 2023, at age 87.

Stan was born on March 14, 1936 in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Irving, was a wholesale salesman (who, according to the 1940 census, sold window shades) and his mother, Edith (née Kaplan), was a housewife. Stan and his sister Natalie lived with Irving, Edith, and Edith’s mother Pauline (born in Poland) at 1740 East 17th Street, a short ride by public transportation to Coney Island or Brighton Beach. Immediately recognizable today in his handsome yearbook photograph with a mile-wide smile (“A friend for every freckle” is the quote appearing below the photo), Stan graduated from Brooklyn’s James Madison High School in 1952, where he was student manager of the basketball team, sports editor for the student newspaper, and a member of the math club. He attended New York University, receiving bachelor’s (1956) and master’s degrees (1958) in accounting, after which his career path took a sharp detour when he entered the PhD program in political economy at Johns Hopkins University, receiving his doctorate in 1962.

Although Stan’s dissertation and first publication (“Regional Aspects of Stabilization Policy”) were in public finance, he quickly shifted into economic history. At Hopkins he met fellow student Robert W. Fogel, with whom he would soon forge a large-scale research collaboration of enormous productivity and influence. After short stints as an instructor at Johns Hopkins (1960-61), and assistant professor at Yale (1962-63), Engerman moved to the University of Rochester. He rapidly climbed the academic ladder to Associate Professor (1966-71); Full Professor (1971-84); and, lastly in 1984, an endowed chair, the John H. Munro Professorship in Economics and in History, which he held in emeritus at the time of his death.

Engerman’s second publication was his first in economic history. Published in 1966 in Explorations in Entrepreneurial History (which later became Explorations in Economic History), “The Economic Impact of the Civil War” showed that the War was an economic disaster, especially in the South. A follow-up article (“The Effects of Slavery on the Southern Economy”) published a year later in the same journal set forth many of the themes that would occupy his celebrated joint research with Robert Fogel. Reprinted several times, both articles are classics.

Engerman’s collaboration with Fogel developed rapidly over the next decade. His first book, The Reinterpretation of American Economic History, published in 1971 and edited with Fogel, contained chapters by leading cliometricians on virtually every topic of importance using the theoretical and statistical tools of economics to challenge time honored explanations. An article (“The Relative Efficiency of Slavery: A Comparison of Northern and Southern Agriculture in 1850 and 1860”) co-authored with Fogel and published the same year in Explorations, argued that total factor productivity in agriculture was higher in the South than in the North. The authors cautioned that published census data could not distinguish between the productivity of free versus slave agriculture in the South, so it was possible that the result reflected higher efficiency of Southern free farms, as opposed to slave agriculture.

In 1974 Little, Brown, and Company published Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, in two volumes – one for the general reader, with limited use of tables and figures and no econometrics; and a second, with notes and technical analysis. According to Fogel and Engerman, the slave system was more flexible, dynamic, and economically efficient than commonly believed. Building on the earlier 1971 article, the book claimed that southern plantations produced more output per unit of input than free farms in the North or South. Slave-owners achieved their economic objectives by deploying a mixture of positive incentives – rewards and opportunities for advancement – and negative incentives—whippings and other punishments. They placed greater emphasis on maintaining family stability and providing adequate material conditions to expand the slave labor force than commonly believed. The enslaved responded by making the best they could of their lives and work under the coercive system. There was every sign that, in 1860, American slavery was economically viable and would continue to expand, absent the military intervention of the Civil War.

Not surprisingly, Fogel and Engerman’s bold claims provoked strong debate, as they were designed to do. Subsequently, many of the key criticisms were addressed by Fogel and Engerman in the two articles (1977, 1980) in the American Economic Review; in Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (1989); and Without Consent’s three supplementary volumes, two of which Fogel and Engerman (1992) edited jointly. Fogel and Engerman’s slavery project is unquestionably a landmark in the field; its findings and those of the critics permanently transformed how scholars view the economic history of the Peculiar Institution.

By the 1980s Engerman’s partnership with Fogel had run its course. He continued to write on slavery — the slave trade, abolition, and the transition to free labor markets – sometimes alone, or with historian co-authors, such as Seymour Drescher, David Eltis, Herbert S. Klein, and Robert Paquette. Stan also worked with colleagues from the early days of Cliometrics. He collaborated with Robert Gallman to co-edit an important NBER conference volume, Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth (1986), and the magisterial three-volume Cambridge Economic History of the United States (1996-2000). With Lance Davis, Engerman co-wrote Naval Blockades in Peace and War: An Economic History since 1750 (2006).
Stan also had one more grand collaboration in him. Inspired by Douglass North, who shared the Nobel Prize in Economics with Fogel in 1993, Engerman and Kenneth Sokoloff wrote several celebrated papers culminating in Economic Development in the Americas since 1500 (2012). Their analysis began with the Caribbean where European powers had established colonies, which turned into sugar-producing slave economies. Initially these performed well relative to the mainland American colonies but all eventually fared poorly. Initial factor endowments mattered more than the different colonizers’ cultures or legal origins.

Engerman and Sokoloff broadened their geographic coverage across the Americas, distinguishing between two main paths of development. The first path was formed in places with high early population potential. After conquest and disease wiped out the local indigenous populations, a small number of Europeans founded large-scale plantations using imported African slave labor. The second branch was the Aztec/Inca Empires—urban areas that extracted tribute from surrounding groups. Here a small number of Europeans arrived and established themselves as collectors of the tribute and coerced labor from the more sizeable indigenous population that survived contact. In both branches, the Europeans were a small elite in very unequal societies and they used their political power to perpetuate their status.

The second path was areas with low early population potential. Here, high land-to-labor ratios led to more equal distributions of wealth. Greater equality led to institutional developments encouraging greater participation in the economy, polity, and society. There was an earlier spread of suffrage, common-school education, literacy and wider participation in invention, business formation, and economic life in general. The initial endowments led to different degrees of economic inequality which in turn, lead to different paths of institutional development with lasting consequences for economic performance. The Engerman-Sokoloff project complemented related work by Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James Robinson, producing an explosion of additional research that continues to the present.

We live in a bibliometric era. Stan Engerman never established a Google Scholar (GS) profile, but it is possible to approximate his by tabulating citations. Our best estimate (as of late June 2023) is that Engerman amassed close to 16,000 GS citations during his lifetime, for an H-index of 49 and an i10 index of 90. These are impressive statistics — not many economic historians, past or present, have done better. Time on the Cross is cited most frequently (2,488 citations), followed by two of the Engerman-Sokoloff articles — “Factor Endowments: Institutions and Differential Paths of Growth Among New World Economies” (2,438 citations) and “History Lessons: Institutions, Factor Endowments, and Paths of Development in the New World” (1,871 citations).

Stan received many honors, including the Bancroft Prize (1975) for Time on the Cross. He was a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association (2006); a Presidential Fellow of the Economic History Association (2019); and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1985), and of the Cliometric Society (2010). His grants include awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He was Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge (1998-99); and President of the Economic History Association (1984-85) and of the Social Science History Association (1992).

While Stan advised many graduate students – perhaps most notably, David Eltis, one of the great historians of the slave trade – his mentorship extended far beyond the classroom. Because he actually read the thousands of books stored at his office and home, his knowledge truly was encyclopedic, which he shared freely with anyone who asked. He encouraged all to send him their working papers, which he commented on at length by return mail (later, by email). Long before interdisciplinarity became a buzzword in universities, Stan walked the walk and talked the talk, for real and always. His appointment as a history professor was not simply a courtesy – he was as deeply respected by professional historians as by his fellow economists.

Stan’s wife, Judy, whom he married in 1963 and with whom he had three sons – David, Mark, and Jeff — pre-deceased him in 2019. He is survived by his sister, Natalie Mayrsohn; his three sons and their families. Our worldwide community mourns and misses him terribly.