Reading, Writing, And History


In his effort to reconstruct the past the historian is haunted by the knowledge that absolute, across-theboard certainty is hard to come by. Like the poet Whittier, who spoke of “believing where we cannot prove,” he lays blind hands on such facts as he is able to get and lets the logic derived from their size and shape tell him what kind of building he is going to put up. If he has assembled enough facts and made the right deductions, he can be reasonably satisfied that his finished work is a good reproduction of the long-vanished original. By dint of hard work, logic, and the insights born of a creative imagination he has a truthful replica of the long ago and far away.

He hopes. He can be certain about little but the obvious. He may, for instance, be perfectly sure that the Battle of Gettysburg took place in and around a little Pennsylvania town early in July of 1863; but precisely why it happened then and there instead of at some other time and place, what really motivated the men who fought there, and what the whole business really meant then and now and in the future—these are matters about which he may have beliefs but no outright certainties. It is significant that although historians have written many millions of words about that battle, the final truth seems best embodied in a few paragraphs written by Abraham Lincoln, who was no historian at all but simply a man who had done a power of brooding.

Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman Little, Brown and Co., 286 pp., $8.95

What we know of the past, in other words, depends pretty largely on who tells us about it. The dust of the years hangs in the air and lies deeply on the hills and valleys where our fathers walked, and the reality that once existed simply is not there any more. It left a haunting shadow in the drifting haze, a faint outline of paths on which we can no longer walk; it can be imagined, or logically deduced, but no one can actually touch it. There are times when the historian needs a streak of the poet, who can see around corners and under the crust of the past. This is bad, because poets always wind up by asking us to take something on faith, and we live in a generation that considers faith a crutch for the backward. We want hard facts that could if necessary be taken into court or that could at least be imparted to the press by the staff of a congressional committee, and the historian cannot always come up with such things. His lot would be simpler (and he is bound to reflect on this once in a while) if history were a science.

It is an appealing thought. Science has to do with facts that are very hard indeed. The physical scientist can prove the accuracy of his findings. He can subject them to rigorous mathematical analysis, sustaining farflung theorems by equations that can neither be understood by the vulgar nor refuted by the learned. The uncertainty principle haunts him only rarely, in an outlying province of physics—but it is central to everything the poor historian does. The scientist never has to say “It seems to me.” He knows. The historian is bound to have moments of envy. If only he too could enjoy certainty! To see straight to the heart of things, instead of groping in the haunted twilight, would be pleasant indeed.

So, inevitably, the effort is being made. The social scientist has come into being, immaculately conceived in the realms of pure academic thought; and instead of dealing with the imperfect accounts written by men of biased mind and defective vision, he goes to the area where things can be infallibly measured and counted and classified. He assembles statistics—unending bales of statistics, from census reports and actuarial records and the files of courthouses, customs houses, and trade associations—these he processes with a battery of equations of marvelous ingenuity. After this (or perhaps before—it is hard to be sure) the figures are fed into the receptive arms of that unfailing servant, guide, and master of modern man, the computer. What comes out, properly presented, must be hard fact.

The social scientist thus has devised a new tool for historians and a new name for the tool and for himself. He has invented the science of cliometrics, has in the process become himself a cliometrician, and has ushered in the cliometric revolution, whose tumbrels are waiting to carry off the conventionally minded leaders of the Old Regime.

What cliometric history looks like and where it takes you are made manifest in an outspoken book, Time on the Cross: the Economics of American Negro Slavery , written by the most notable of the cliometricians, Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman. The book is accompanied by a supplement subtitled Evidence and Methods , which is slightly thicker than the volume it supplements and infinitely more opaque, consisting largely of the equations, fact sheets, and graphs used in various steps of the cliometric process.

The authors claim that historians and economists “trained in the application of quantitative methods to historical problems” have at last uncovered “the main features of the actual operation of the slave economy.” This requires revision and correction of the traditional characterization of that economy, and the revised version of historic truth must now include the following points: