Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s 1974 book Time on the Cross: The Economics of Negro Slavery is a mythbusting revisionist tour of the reality of slavery as it existed in the American South.
Everything you think you know about slavery is false. Math nerds will love this book (it comes with a separate quantitative appendix) because it relies on modern statistical methods, representative samples, and comparative analysis instead of value judgments to unravel the economics of slavery.
In ten years, I haven’t read another book about slavery that is more insightful or that has done more to alter my perception of slavery than this one.
Myth #1: Slavery was a moribund institution in 1861.
Slavery was a profitable, robust institution in 1861.
The drain of slaves from the Border States to the Old Southwest wasn’t signaling the death of slavery. Instead, this was merely a part of the long term shift in the Southern economy from tobacco to cotton (Tobacco was King in 1790, Cotton was King after 1820) and the geographic center of slavery away from Chesapeake Bay and toward the Lower Mississippi Valley.
“Freedom” wasn’t discredited in the North by the mass migration of Yankees from the inferior soils of New England to the richer soils of the Midwest. “Freedom” wasn’t discredited in Britain either by the inability of the British to compete in a free market with Midwestern agricultural produce.
The drain of slaves away from the Border States only proves that slavery had better opportunities in cotton in the Southwest.
Myth #2: In 1861, slavery had reached its geographic limits. The planters had run out of land.
Slavery was nowhere close to running out of land in 1861.
Most of the Deep South was less than a generation removed from the frontier. Texas wasn’t admitted to the Union until 1845. By the 1920s, 3x as much land in the South was planted in cotton as had been the case under the Confederacy.
If the War Between the States had not intervened, the cotton plantations would have expanded until World War I to keep up with growing world demand. The price of slaves would have increased and the planters would have become significantly wealthier than they were in 1861.
The South’s need to expand into places like Kansas was politically motivated by the balance of power within the Union, not economically motivated: the South surrendered its claim to Kansas and most of the Western territories after secession in 1861 because it never really needed those areas to expand the plantation system.
Myth #3: Slavery was hopelessly inferior to free labor.
The large cotton plantations in the Deep South were the most efficient and productive type of agricultural enterprise in America in 1861.
Slave labor on the cotton plantations was more efficient and productive than free labor on Southern farms. Free labor on Southern farms, which was often supplemented by slavery, was more efficient and productive still than free labor without slavery on Northern farms.
Slavery was more efficient and productive than free labor because slaves could be “driven” in gangs which made greater use of division of labor. Henry Ford would later use the same principle in his automobile assembly lines in the twentieth century. Compared to slavery, free labor in the form of craftsmanship is more disorganized, expensive, and smaller scale.
Myth #4: Slavery retarded the industrialization of the South.
The South was the equal of the North in railroad mileage per capita. There were more railroads in the North, but that was because the North had a greater need for railroads than the South, most of which is below the Atlantic Fall Line and could make greater use of navigable rivers for transportation.
The idea that slavery retarded the growth of railroads is absurd: there were more railroads in the South than anywhere in the world at the time but the North, there were more railroads in Cuba than Spain and the rest of “free” Latin America combined. In both the South and Cuba, slavery was a great stimulus to the expansion of railroads, which used railroads to reduce transportation costs of bringing cotton and sugar to market.
In cotton textile production in 1860, the North was “backward” relative to Britain, whose cotton textile production was more than double that of the North, which was four times greater than the South, which was greater than the per capita textile production of other countries such as India, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Germany.
In pig iron production in 1860, the North was “backward” relative to Britain, whose pig iron production was over four times greater than the North, and Belgium, whose pig iron production was almost twice that of the North, which was over six times greater than the South. The South also lagged behind France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Sweden in pig iron production.
The South lagged behind the North in railroads because we had less need for railroads, cotton textile production because the North and Britain had a comparative advantage over the South in water-power, and in pig iron production because the North, Britain, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and other countries had a more fortuitous geological advantage over the South in that regard.
In our own times, the Gulf Coast towers over the North in petroleum production and refining, but that is also due to a more fortuitous geological endowment.
Myth #5: Slaves were ruthlessly exploited. We owe them reparations.
The average return on slavery for a planter after the subtraction of costs was only 10 percent. The government in our own times takes a much greater bite out of the earnings of “free laborers.”
Myth #6: Black women were raped en masse on the plantations.
It turns out that the average rate of miscegenation which resulted in mulatto offspring on a Southern plantation was somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 out of every 100 births.
How then do we explain the level of White admixture into the black population? It is because mulattoes are not only produced by black-white miscegenation. They are also produced by mulatto-black miscegenation. The rape of black women on Southern plantations was discouraged by planters because it undermined their workforce and consequently the profitability of their plantations.
The truth is that when planters “exploited women” it was usually the scores of “free” White prostitutes who worked in brothels on account of their poverty. Planters were also rich men who could afford to keep White mistresses in town. The evidence shows that planters overwhelmingly preferred to maintain illicit relationships with high and low class White women over their slaves.
The blackest areas in America are in the Deep South in the former plantation belts. The mulattoes flourished in the cities and there weren’t many cities in the Antebellum South. The White admixture into the black population is more a product of the movement of ex-slaves to the cities and particularly free black women working as prostitutes than is commonly thought.
Myth #7: The slaves were horribly mistreated.
Slaves were capital investments. The profits of the planters depended on maintaining the health of their laborers. The slave interest never tired of reminding its antagonists that under slave society labor was capital whereas in free society labor and capital are in conflict.
James Henry Hammond summed up this worldview in a pithy letter to British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson:
“Among the innovations of modern times following the decay of villeinage,” has been the creation of a new system of slavery. The primitive and patriarchial, which may also be called the sacred and natural system, in which the laborer is under the personal control of a fellow being, endowed with the sentiments and sympathies of humanity, exists among us.
It has been almost everywhere else superseded by the modern artificial money-power system, in which man – his threws and sinews, his very being, are all subjected to the dominion of Capital – a monster without a heart – cold, stern, arithmetical – sticking to the bond – taking ever “the pound of flesh” – working up human life with Engines, and retailing it out by weight and measure.
His name of old was “Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell from Heaven.” And it is to extend his Empire, that you and your deluded coadjutors dedicate your lives. You are stirring up mankind to overthrow our Heaven-ordained system of servitude, surrounded by innumerable checks, designed and planted deep in the human heart by God and nature, to substitute the absolute rule of this “Spirit Reprobate,” whose proper place was Hell.”
Few people are aware that the slave diet was nutritionally superior (the planters made sure that their labor force was superbly fed) to the modern black diet. Slaves were 3x less likely to commit suicide than Whites. They had a greater life expectancy than “free” laborers in Northern cities like Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia. They lived in better housing. They had greater access to healthcare and social security on the plantations than “free” laborers did in Northern cities.
The truth is that Southern slaves had the same life expectancy as the French. They had one of the highest material standard of livings in the world at the time. Their infant mortality rate was comparable to Southern Whites. They had a significantly higher birthrate than the British and most contemporary Europeans like the Irish and Russians who lived on the precipice of famine under freedom.
Only 33 percent of the time of the slaves was spent doing anything related to cotton. Only a fraction of the time of the slaves in the cotton fields was intense gang labor. Slaves spent the majority of their time doing things like tending to livestock, building fences, improving the property, raising food crops, etc. Most of their time was spent doing the same tasks that occupied the “free” White yeomanry in the South.
In terms of their work week and working hours, “free” laborers on Northern farms that specialized in dairy production put in more hours than slaves on Southern plantations. The slaves were off Sunday and most of Saturday. Their work year wasn’t much different from the “free” work year in the North.
The real substantial difference between “free” labor and slave labor was in the organization of labor and the incentives to labor. In the South, authoritarian incentives like whipping was used to compel the slaves to labor – on the more disciplined plantations, the average annual rate of whipping was 0.7 whippings per field hand. In the North, libertarian incentives like starvation and the misery of poverty was used to compel “free” laborers to work for Northern capitalists.
In the South, the starvation weapon was never used to compel slaves to labor. Even when slaves faked illnesses, planters usually gave them the day off. It was better to lose a day of labor from a slave than to take the chance on the deterioration of the slave’s health and the total loss of the capital invested in the slave. A slave didn’t become a profitable investment for a planter until age 27 so illness in the workforce was taken very seriously.
In the North, “free” laborers were more expendable to capitalists because they could easily be replaced by new immigrants fresh off the boat from somewhere like Ireland or Italy. The slave trade was illegal in the South after 1807.
Myth #8: Slavery couldn’t thrive in the cities.
The lack of slaves in the cities was due to the inelasticity of slavery in the countryside. Slaves in the cities could be more easily replaced by “free” laborers than slaves in the countryside. Driving was used on the plantations. “Free” laborers were averse to driving and were a poor substitute.
Myth #9: “Slavebreeders” in the Upper South broke apart slave families to sell blacks into slavery for profit in the Lower South.
No historian has ever been able to find a single documented example of a “stud” plantation in Virginia.
The overwhelming majority of the slaves in the Upper South moved to the Lower South as entire plantations moved from one region to the other. This tore apart “White families” as White Southerners moved from the Atlantic South to the Gulf South.
The Legacy of Freedom
The true nature of slavery in the South explains the collapse of the Southern economy in the late nineteenth century.
In the absence of coercive methods, the planters couldn’t maintain the system of driving on the plantations, which had been the secret of slavery’s success, by paying wages to the freedmen. By introducing black freedom into the plantation system, Southern agriculture became less efficient, less productive, less profitable, and smaller scale.
The result of abolition was the collapse of property values and a downward spiral into poverty that ruined everyone from planters to the yeomanry to the former slaves. The plantations were broken into smaller parcels and rented out to legions of sharecroppers. As a result, the many advantages of the plantation system to the slaves – the healthcare, the social security, the diet, the housing, the physical security, the ability to borrow at prime rates through the planter, etc. – were lost.
By 1895, the ex-slaves in the American South were worse off in many ways after thirty years of free society than they had been under slavery. Their life expectancy, skill set, diet, housing, per capita income and other major indicators of human development significantly declined. (Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Decline of American Slavery, p.101):
“So, although much work needs to be done on the collection and analysis of data, the preliminary findings based on three different sources of data point to the same conclusion: The shift of the majority of black agriculturalists from the large-scale farms of the antebellum era to the family-size farms of 1880 explains most of the postwar decline in the productivity of southern agriculture and thus in southern per capita income. This loss of productivity was a price that most black agriculturalists were willing to pay for the greater freedom and other benefits derived from family farming.”
Nor was this an isolated case.
The effective result of freedom was also true of post-abolition Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba and many other areas of the “Golden Circle.” The flight of the blacks from the plantations, their refusal to work under drivers for wages, and the resulting disorganization and inefficiency of “free” black labor created the same kind of crushing poverty and scarcity in places where wealth and abundance had once been the rule under slavery.
Fogel and Engerman deserve more than a Nobel Prize for reminding us that freedom has a dark side.