A paper for the Econ history
Week of 10/14/13
• Wahl, Jenny B.. "Slavery in the United States." EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples,
August 15 2001 URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/wahl.slavery.us and on WebCT. In particular
the section titled, “PROFITABILITY, EFFICIENCY, AND EXPLOITATION”
• Fogel, Robert W., and Stanley L. Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro
Slavery. New York: Little, Brown, 1974. Excerpt. “The Anatomy of Exploitation” in Whaples,
R. and D. C. Betts, Eds. (1995). Historical Perspectives on the American economy. New York,
Cambridge University Press. Pp. 141-176 Available on WebCT.
• Gutman, H. G. (1975). Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross. Urbana, IL:
University of Illinois Press. Pp. 5-13 (on WebCT under Gutman.pdf)
• Podcast interview with Stanley Engerman about the book and slavery in general: http://
www.econtalk.org/archives/2006/11/engerman_on_sla.html (approx. 1 hour, 16mb) Great resource!
• Gordon “Transition: Civil War” pp. 190-210
Writing assignment (Wed 10/16 or Thurs 10/17): Briefly discuss Fogel and Engerman’s argument about
Slavery from an economic perspective and Gutman’s criticisms. In your opinion, who is right?
There is no correct answer, you must make a carefully argued analysis.
Slavery is primarily an economic phenomenon surrounded by sociological and political systems that justify
and support it. Most historians after the Civil War viewed slavery as bad - not only ethically, but also
as a system that was economically inefficient and propped up by various political and racist institutions.
Furthermore, the slave-based plantation was seen as antithetical to the development of manufacturing and a
modern society. In 1974, Robert Fogel, an economics Nobel laureate, with his co-author Stanley Engerman,
set off a fire storm of controversy with their book, “Time on the Cross.” The book was reviewed extensively
in academic journals and, unusually, in the popular press, including the New York Review of Books. Fogel
and Engerman’s major points were: 1) Slavery was a rational and profitable way for Southerners to organize
their affairs; and 2) the material conditions of life for slaves compared favorably with that available to free
northern factory workers. Their conclusions provoked numerous other scholars to respond, including entire
Journal issues and books We will examine both sides of this argument by reading an excerpt from Fogel
and Engerman’s book and reading a critical review by Gutman. This debate reveals some general aspects
of economic research, including: 1) the distinction between values and efficiency; and 2) how academic
researchers engage in discourse over a controversial analysis. As you read pay attention to the substantive
issues of the economics of slavery and also to the debate over methods and interpretation. The readings are
complex and you should read with an emphasis on understanding the argument rather than memorizing the
details. The most logical order of reading these would be to read Wahl’s overview of slavery as an economic
system (you will note emphasis on production, and demography as central to the economic approach), then
read the Fogel and Engerman excerpt (which presents a very different view of slavery than a history course)
and finally read Gutman’s critique.
Reading questions and issues to consider:
1. What were the economic circumstances that underlie the slave plantation?
2. What were the economic and material conditions of slavery?
3. Was slavery economically profitable? Was slavery simply an economic investment? Was it part of a
holistic system? Was the system fundamentally a rational economic decision?
4. Was slavery fundamentally antithetical to manufacturing?
5. Was slavery economically doomed to extinction? Was the Civil War necessary?
6. Ultimately, does the Fogel and Engerman argument undermine or support the morality of slavery?
Does their argument support or undermine a racist view of slave labor as inherently lazy and
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