Reading, Writing, And History


Slavery was not dying on the vine economically in 1860. It made money for the slave owners and for the society that nurtured them. There is no reason to suppose that it would have died of natural causes if the Civil War had not taken place; on the contrary, it would probably have grown stronger, and slave owners were justifiably confident about the future of the institution.

Slave agriculture was more efficient, not less so, than the northern system of family farming. The typical slave field hand worked harder and was more efficient than his white counterpart in the North.

Slavery was perfectly compatible with the industrial system, and slaves employed in industry “compared favorably with free workers in diligence and efficiency.”

Stability of slave families was encouraged under slavery, and “the belief that slave-breeding, sexual exploitation and promiscuity destroyed the black family” is a myth. Furthermore, the slave was about as well off, in a material sense, as the free industrial worker in the North. To be sure, slaves were exploited “in the sense that part of the income they produced was expropriated by their owners,” but over his lifetime the field hand received about 90 per cent of the income he produced.

Far from stagnating, the economy of the slave-state area was thriving, and between 1840 and 1860 per capita income increased more rapidly in the South than in the rest of the country.

All these things being so, why (the authors ask) have the respected historians who framed the conventional picture of slavery been so wrong? The answer is clear: they ignored “the role of mathematics and statistics in historical analysis.” Furthermore, the cliometrical picture is made even brighter by a series of “it must be remembered” warnings.

Thus: the slaves got a good diet whose energy value exceeded that of the average free man as late as 1879; it was long on sweet potatoes and corn, to be sure, but from a nutritional standpoint these are fine foods, and sweet potatoes are actually much better than white potatoes. The typical slave cabin was a log or frame shanty measuring about twenty by eighteen feet, with unglazed windows and usually with a planked floor; not palatial, but after all “much of rural America still lived in log cabins in the 1850’s.” Medical care did not always involve the service of regular physicians, but the brighter side here is that pneumonia and gastrointestinal maladies were the greatest killers of blacks, and for these “the services of doctors were either useless or harmful.” Slaves did get whipped, now and then, but “whipping was a common method of enforcing discipline on members of the laboring classes through the middle of the eighteenth century in both Europe and America,” and it remained in use in prisons throughout the nineteenth century.

All in all, this adds up to the sunniest picture of chattel slavery that has been presented since Appomattox, when the vogue for such pictures ceased. John C. Calhoun would have loved it, not to mention William L. Yancey, and about all that is lacking is a cultured voice in the background remarking wistfully: “After all, they really were happier in those days.”

This is more than a little odd, because the authors did not actually mean it that way. They were trying to get the black man out from under the deplorable image that generations of racist thought have fastened on him—the worst racists, apparently, being the sympathetic souls who condemned slavery because they thought it warped the black man’s soul and mind out of shape, making him sly, evasive, untruthful, and given to feigning a stupidity that was not native to him. The authors, in short, had the best intentions in the world. To present the black man in a different guise it was necessary to strip away the false picture of him that was painted by people who misunderstood the effect of the slave system, and to do this it was necessary to show the slave system in a different light. The fact that the result supports the position of the worst enemies the black man ever had must be accounted a distressing accident.… They just didn’t know it was loaded.

“The special contribution of the cliometricians,” write the authors, “rested on the capacity to apply the statistical methods and behavioral models of the social sciences to the dissection and analysis of the relevant historical problem. Success in this operation required, no less than in the operating room of a modern hospital, the adroit use of professional skills in a cool, detached manner.”

The picture builds itself irresistibly: a surgeon enters the operating room of a modern hospital to repair (let us say) a patient’s hernia. After making adroit use of his professional skills he winds up by cutting off the patient’s right leg.