Reading, Writing, And History

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And the real trouble here seems to be that the science of cliometrics has been called on to do something that lies out of its reach. The historian’s task begins after the statistical work has been completed, no matter how much ingenuity, industry, and intelligence have been applied to the collection, analysis, and interpretation of figures. The authors of this book say it themselves quite succinctly by writing that “while the cliometricians have been able to construct reasonably reliable indexes of the material level at which blacks lived under slavery, it has been impossible, thus far, to devise a meaningful index of the effect of slavery on the personality or psychology of blacks.” They can tell, in other words, whether the slaves got enough to eat, whether slave owners made money, and whether slave labor was efficient—but not what slavery did to the black man and to the white society that tolerated slavery because slavery was profitable.

But that is the whole point. History pivots on profound intangibles that cannot be explicated by mathematical formulas. We fought our most terrible war because slavery somehow was doing intolerable things to the people of America, black and white alike. One of the things that made it impossible to end slavery without a war may indeed have been the grim fact that the institution paid , but the cliometricians can hardly take exclusive credit for discovering that fact. Mr. Kenneth Stampp, who is far from being a cliometrician’s hero, made that discovery before they did, simply by applying the traditional tools of the conventional historian.

What is woefully lacking in the cliometricians’ work is the awareness that the most intricate scientific apparatus can do no more than take the historian over the surface of the underlying truth. Building ingenious equations to process selected figures, working with rigorous insistence that the only important facts are the ones that can be proved mathematically, these science-minded persons have discovered a significant fork in the path of historical progress—and with the noblest of intentions have blithely taken the wrong branch. They might do well to ponder the warning given the physical scientists recently by J. Bronowski, director of the Salk Institute’s Council for Biology in Human Affairs, in the summer, 1974, issue of The American Scholar . Said Mr. Bronowski: It is pointless to think about knowledge and keep on talking all the time about science. The activities of the arts are jusl as profoundly (“characteristically,” in the professional word), as specifically human, as the activities of the sciences.… We know what other people feel because we have shared these feelings.

Against this, balance the definitions presented in Time on the Cross: “Belief” means an unverified proposition which is held to be true, and “knowledge” refers to propositions which have been verified according to a set of objective criteria such as those employed in statistics or in various fields of science.

One of the abolitionists’ sharpest complaints used to be that the woman slave on the plantation was subject to sexual exploitation by the man who owned her. The authors admit that there probably were owners like that: “No doubt such sexual abuses were encouraged by a legal system which not only deprived slave women of the right to legal remedy but sanctioned the right of slaveholders to manipulate the private lives of their chattels.” But the real question, we are assured, is “the impact of economic forces,” and these were ranged on the side of human decency. What we are urged to bear in mind is that “the main thrust of the economic incentives generated by the American slave system” operated against this sort of thing. It seems noteworthy that slave owners frequently warned their overseers, in writing, and not without sternness, against such infamies.

Yet something wrong did seem to be going on, even if it cannot be shown mathematically. There was, before the Civil War (and after it too, for that matter), a distinguished South Carolina woman named Mary Boykin Chesnut, who was mistress of one of the great slave plantations of the South and whose diary has for years been treated as an essential source book. Mrs. Chesnut saw slavery close-up, and apparently the one thing she did not see was the force of economic incentives protecting the female slave. She wrote: Under slavery, we live surrounded by prostitutes, yet an abandoned woman is sent out of any decent house. Who thinks any worse of a Negro or mulatto woman for being a thing we can’t even name? God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system, a wrong and an iniquity! Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own.

Computers had not been invented during Mrs. Chesnut’s life, and it never would have occurred to her that the observed evil which made her so heartsick would lose its horrors when studied, a century later, in the light of knowledge based on propositions verified by objective criteria. Her own knowledge was based on what she herself had seen, and in her innocence she did not know that what she had seen had scant evidential value. The unconscious but all-pervasive arrogance of the men who have at last found the keys to history had not yet come into view.