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Reading, Writing, And History

July 2024
10min read

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:

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.

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.

And it is, after all, the arrogance that is the keynote of this work. Implicit throughout is the assumption that here, at last and for the first time, the way to find historical truth has been perfected. The grail has at last been found, and down from the mountain comes a solemn voice proclaiming its words of assurance: Ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you … well, if not exactly free, at least somewhat dazed.

A great breakthrough in history cliometrics is not; but it is a break-through in the field of publicity.

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