A review of The Slavery Debates, 1952-1990: A Retrospective by Robert W. Fogel

Robert Fogel's retrospective on his own distinguished career is a guide to one of the stormiest but also most fruitful chapters in the development of American historical writing. The editors at the Louisiana State University Press have provided a succinct guide to this retrospective:

In the 1950's young scholars spurred by the burgeoning civil rights movement challenged the prevailing historical canon on American slavery, which held that slavery, while inefficient and unprofitable was overall socially benign. The ensuing 'slavery debates' encompassed a reexamination of almost every aspect of American slavery and became one front in a battle waged over the place of cliometrics—the use of quantitative and statistical methods to analyze historical problems. Legendary economist and historian Robert William Fogel was at the forefront of the revisionists in the debates, and in his enlightening memoir he offers a personal account of the role cliometrics played in rethinking the economics of slavery and the South.

Fogel chronicles the controversy surrounding his and colleague Stanley Engerman's groundbreaking book, Time on the Cross, one of the most fiercely debated works of U.S. history in the 20th century. Using cliometrics, the authors revealed slavery to be a profitable and ef- ficient labor system, demonstrating that economic growth and technological progress were possible even in a deeply immoral system. Fogel also recounts the emergence of a new generation of intellectual and political historians who questioned the progressive synthesis.

Among the young scholars in the 1950s who challenged the prevailing historical canon on slavery, no less than Fogel, was one he never mentions. Before the publication of Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, in 1959, there had been no book, or serious study of any kind, by American historians, on the great debates. The debates themselves were a lengthy sequel to Lincoln's House Divided speech, which had declared that the government of the United States could not remain permanently half slave and half free. "Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South."

The debates had been ignored, because historians did not recognize the crisis that Lincoln believed existed, in which the nation would be compelled to choose either the path of freedom or of despotism. They did not believe in any such test, such as that asserted in the Gettysburg Address, as to whether popular government under the rule of law would survive. In substance, they agreed with Stephen Douglas that, as the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution had made a government half slave and half free, there was no reason why the nation could not continue indefinitely half slave and half free. All that was necessary, according to Douglas, was that the people of each state and territory decide for themselves, whether or not to have slavery among their domestic institutions. This was the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which Douglas held to be the true principle of American republicanism. Lincoln held to the very different doctrine, that all men are created equal, that the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed, and that no man, whether in a majority or minority, had any right to govern another man without his consent. This debate, which divided not only Lincoln and Douglas, but the American people at the deepest level of their consciousness, is completely ignored by Fogel and the cliometricians he so ably represents.

Lincoln's leading biographer in the 1950s, James Garfield Randall—still the giant name in Lincoln scholarship—was convinced that Douglas's policy of "popular sovereignty" in the territories, would lead as surely to freedom as Lincoln's demand for a Congressional ban on slavery's further extension into the territories. He did not think that there was any real or important difference between Lincoln and Douglas on slavery, and he could find no reason to justify the fact that it was almost the only issue that they debated.

An important reason for Randall believing as he did was his acceptance of the thesis of an article by Charles Ramsdell in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review of October 1929, entitled "The Natural Limits of Slavery Expansion." The Ramsdell thesis can be summarized as holding that slavery would not have gone into any of the virgin territories, because it would not have been profitable to the slave-owners. Ramsdell's tacit premise was the limited profitability of slave labor, because of the limited ability of Negroes.

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The ill-regard, or non-regard, in which the Lincoln-Douglas debates have so long been held, was the result of the conviction that nothing substantial or serious was at issue in them. Nothing was at issue because—it was believed—the question of slavery in the territories had been settled by forces beyond the control of any of the parties. Freedom on the plains of Kansas and beyond was destined whether Lincoln or Douglas prevailed, because the historical process towards freedom was an irresistible force. The great object of public policy was therefore to avoid sectional conflict and civil war while great changes in social no less than in economic organization were taking place. According to the prevailing academic opinion of the mid-20th century, the enemies of sanity in the antebellum period were the politicians who inflamed the passions of the people on both sides of the slavery question making political compromises impossible. And the politician who more than any other profited by insisting that the slavery question was a moral question, was Abraham Lincoln.

Contrary to the widespread public belief that Lincoln is our greatest hero, his reputation among historians, as it applies to his rise to power, is anything but favorable. I believe my 1959 book on the debates is the first scholarly work to take a favorable view of Lincoln in the 1850s. I hasten to add that Don Fehrenbacher's Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, came shortly afterwards.

Although ignoring Abraham Lincoln and the free soil movement's campaign against slavery in the territories, Fogel and his cliometricians have nonetheless dealt a body blow to the idea of a natural limit of slavery expansion, as well as to the idea that the problem of slavery would be solved by inexorable forces of progressive history. The advent of cliometrics into American historical writing began with the publication in 1958 in the Journal of Political Economy of "The Economics of Slavery in the Antebellum South," by Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer. According to Fogel, this groundbreaking and epochal publication "attracted little public notice." However, it did attract my notice at a time that I was in the latter stages of writing Crisis of the House Divided. I incorporated its conclusions into a chapter debunking the "natural limits" thesis, giving definitive support thereby to Lincoln's conviction that nothing but political means could prevent the indefinite expansion of slavery.

Conrad and Meyer provided powerful empirical support to the proposition that in the 1850s the return on an investment in slave property compared favorably with any alternative investment. When Fogel and Engerman began work on Time on the Cross, preliminary research indicated "that southern agriculture was 9 percent more efficient than free northern agriculture." They believed that this was "absurd." They attempted to "adjust" this result. But the result of their research ran in the opposite direction: "the relative advantage of slave agriculture rose from 9 to 39 percent." This in a nutshell is the characteristic discovery of the vast enterprise of cliometrics, as applied to antebellum slavery. It represents a reversal of virtually all the conventional wisdom concerning the profitability of slavery, including even that of the abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln. But it vastly increases the plausibility of the conviction of both the abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln, that nothing but political means could have placed slavery "in the course of ultimate extinction."

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Slavery Debates is a comprehensive review of the 40 years of quantitative empirical research by the cliometricians that has cast a blinding light on the economic reality of slavery and, ultimately, on the political power of the interest in slavery. It has demonstrated that rapid economic and technological progress can take place within the framework of an immoral system. Among the disturbing discoveries is the extraordinary profitability of the harsh gang system on the large plantations. "Slaves were neither lazy nor incompetent. They were energetic and skillful workers, both on their master's account and for themselves." Nothing better summarizes the findings of the cliometricians than the following: "If we treat North and South as separate nations and rank them among the countries of the world, the South would stand as the fourth most prosperous nation of the world in 1860. The South was more prosperous than France, Germany, Denmark, or any of the countries of Europe except England." It is also shocking to learn that, between the years 1840 and 1860, "the South was growing more rapidly than the North." But "it was not primarily developments within the agricultural sector that explained the South's favorable performance. The main factor was the restructuring of the southern economy, which involved a substantial shift of resources from agricultural to non-agricultural sectors."

Fogel and his cliometricians are trained economists—Fogel received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1993—who more or less stumbled on to the slavery question. Their enterprise was to test the applicability of the quantitative methods of contemporary social science to a historical topic. I believe they have applied these methods more successfully to the past than political or social scientists have done to the present. They have not however imitated the aforesaid scientists in regarding moral judgments as "value judgments" that are beyond the capacity of reason to decide. Their entire approach to slavery is that of a great moral evil, an evil in no way mitigated by its economic success. Nowhere, however, do they explain by what process of ratiocination they arrive at the judgment of slavery as evil. Fogel makes occasional mention of the role of evangelical religion in opposing slavery, but says almost nothing about Jefferson, Lincoln, or the logic of the Declaration of Independence. In general, Fogel identifies with the abolitionists—without discriminating the different kinds of abolitionists or, more generally, of free soilers (like Lincoln), who were not abolitionists. Cliometricians have added greatly to our understanding of the immensity of the economic interest in slavery, and thereby to the immensity of slavery as a political problem. But they remain economists who seem uninterested if not blind to the perspective of the political men of Lincoln's generation, and to what it meant to grapple at first hand with the monster.