At some point, every graduate student in history has to read Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross – a large-scale quantitative study of American slavery. I’ve read a lot of history books and I’ve never known another book which provokes such visceral dislike from graduate students as Time on the Cross. They rightly insist that the psychological element of slavery is too important to simply gloss over with massive data banks. Furthemore, the statistics and conclusions that Fogel and Engerman used were, in spots, questionable. For example, using one planter’s record book, the authors argued that each slave was only whipped something like 7.2 times per year and so slavery wasn’t as brutal as its conventional image. As if one severe whipping in an entire lifetime wouldn’t be bad enough. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Read Time on the Cross for yourself – it’s an interesting read, but do so with a critical eye. But in all fairness the data bank used in this book is a truly indespensable historical treasure trove. Time on the Cross is also one of very few books that I know of which actually inspired a book-length rebuttal from another scholar. I wrote this “classic” review for a class taught by my friend Richard Starnes. That week another student read and reviewed Time on the Cross and I did the same for Herbert Gutman’s equally important Slavery and the Numbers Game.
I’ve not been posting much lately, but over the past three or four weeks, I’ve read Eugene D. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. I’ve not made time to read every day, but considering it’s length and density, Genovese is not something you read quickly unless you are highly motivated. Nevertheless, I hope to finish it tomorrow morning and have a review read for my loyal reader(s) in the next few days. It’s one of the most important and entertaining books ever written on slavery and I only hope I can do it justice. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this older review.
When first published, Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel’s Time on the Cross (2 Vols., 1974) attracted an unusually high amount of attention from the popular media, much of it positive. Time on the Cross presented mounds of numerical evidence compiled from various archives and interpreted through large-scale quantitative analysis. The authors insisted that the traditional view of American slavery was incorrect: slaves worked hard and experienced social mobility, masters supported the creation of strong slave families, and bondsmen internalized the “protestant work ethic.” In fact, American slavery is a story “achievement under adversity” (5). Perhaps the key to the book’s popular critical acclaim lies in the second volume, where Fogel and Engerman present their evidence and complicated mathematical formulas. The authors used a second volume full of complicated formulas so that few could understand, much less criticize their work. Time on the Cross turned out to be a beautiful but flimsy house of cards.
While the evidence seemed impenetrable, Herbert G. Gutman published his own book-length rebuttal of Time on the Cross and nailed Fogel and Engerman to this proverbial cross. Gutman found that the authors’ evidence was non-representative, badly misinterpreted, and deeply flawed. He challenged Fogel and Engerman’s contention that slaves were seldom whipped, that owners encouraged the creation of stable families, and that slaves embraced the protestant work ethic and Victorian sexual mores. Gutman also asserted the authors ignored many important facets of slavery. For example, Fogel and Engerman looked at probate records and invoices from slave sales in New Orleans and found that slave couples moved west together with their owners. Thus, the interstate slave trade related to the opening of the west did not destroy black families. Gutman found this evidence incomplete because Fogel and Engerman did not account for the fact that slave’s spouses were not always owned by the same master. Furthermore, the authors of Time on the Cross did not consider adult parents, extended family, friends, and neighbors left behind when determining whether or not the slave trade disrupted slave families and communities. After looking at these factors, Gutman created his own statistical models and thereby convincingly refuted Fogel and Engerman. This is only one example. Throughout the book, Gutman systematically attacked the authors’ evidence and mathematical formulas. Gutman, however, saved the crusher for his conclusion: Fogel and Engerman asked the wrong questions and used the same conceptual framework of U. B. Philips, Kenneth Stampp, and Stanley Elkins. Instead of asking how slaves helped shape their world, these historians reduced slaves to cogs in a machine who only reacted to external stimuli. While Fogel and Engerman touted their work as path breaking, Gutman found it pitifully outdated.
Gutman’s book is a very careful and convincing analysis of a very provocative book. He has no problem with cliometrics per se, but found Fogel and Engerman’s conceptual approach inadequate. Although Gutman’s mathematical abbreviations for the authors’ names and book title (“E+F” and “T/C”) give the book a sarcastic tone, Slavery and the Numbers Game is an excellent primer for graduate students wishing to use quantitative analysis in theses and dissertations. By showing how easily numbers can be twisted, Gutman demonstrates the pitfalls surrounding quantitative analysis and gives a stern warning for any young academic looking to pursue that path. Moreover, Gutman reminds us that the questions a historian asks are just as important as their conclusions. Unfortunately, Slavery and the Numbers Game did not receive the same popular audience as Time on the Cross. Although they did not intend to, the picture of slavery and postwar black society that Fogel and Engerman depict comes off as declensionist. By getting their facts and approach wrong, hinting that in some ways slavery was better than freedom, and adopting the “blame the victim” (176) approach, Fogel and Engerman have given ammunition to unreconstructed southerners who still use this book to defend the Old South.