Interpretations of Slavery: Fogel and Engerman


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Class Discussion

Class Discussion


Class Discussion

Class Discussion

Emily Dixon

Fogel and Engerman

Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, two historians of the later twentieth century, interpreted the issue of slavery, in slavery’s defense. In their Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, they used quantitative methods to show that the slaves were skilled and efficient workers, that the black family was both of vigorous health and of strength. They also felt that the institution of slavery was prosperous due to its rewards towards both slaves and their masters. Apparently, slave workers were better off than the Northern industrial workers, as some could rise up to managerial positions on their plantations, families usually did not have to separate, and the abuse was not harsh.

According to Fogel and Engerman, it may be that the most important technological advance (in relation to agriculture) after 1800 was in the realm of management over slave work. The organizational methods permitted these southern planters, or slaves, to capture the potential benefit of economies large scale production. Although upholding the efficient management systems was often successful, providing the systems were sometimes a main constraint on plantations, due to their optimal size.

The most gravity seemed in regard to the debate over labor management. It was a critical issue, as the economy rose or fell with it. There was no aspect of labor management that seemed too trivial for debate or consideration, whether they be issues of diet, marriage, housing, etc. Fogel and Engerman believed that no matter what differences were regarded to these issues, the majority had the same, ultimate objective of slave management. This was the creation of a highly disciplined, highly specialized, and well coordinated labor force. For example, when conducting field labor, gangs, or teams were formed where the interdependence of labor was crucial. Fogel and Engermen perceived these large scale operations on plantations as super efficiencies that were featured by "the organization of slaves into highly disciplined, interdependent teams capable of maintaining a steady and intense rhythm of work".


Fogel and Engerman were highly concerned with one man, Frederick Law Olmstead’s interpretation of slavery. According to them, Olmstead did not appreciate the team work, coordination, and fierce effort, that they were so obviously intrigued with. Olmstead felt that although the slaves may have worked harder, they could not accomplish more than the northern laborers in the same amount of time. Olmstead disagreed yet again with the way from which slavery persisted as he described many un-free laborers as unfit to work by either age, insanity, crippled, or some infirmity. He also felt that the labor force was too large among slaves. However, Fogel and Engerman felt that bringing a larger population into the labor force was an advantage because  they were able to put out more labor potential than the free economy could.

Fogel and Engerman wrote that black laborers were far from ordinary peasants with pre-industrial rhythms of work. They were labored under a regimen that was more of a "modern assembly line". Fogel and Engerman felt as though black slaves had a great impact on today’s industrial society because they were the first group to be trained in the work rhythms that later became today’s industry. Fogel and Engerman thought that the slaves were proud of their work as "it was not the slaves but men like Olmstead who retained a ‘pre-industrial peasant mentality,’ who viewed the teamwork, coordination, and intensity of effort achieved by black field hands as "stupid, plodding, machine like, and painful to witness’. Is this to say that the black laborers did not mind their way of living?

Fogel and Engerman spent many arguments on defending slave labor as superior to free farms, as there was some kind of superiority of the slaves themselves, and not the machinery used. They attributed the advantages of plantations to both, the "superior management of the planters" as well as to the "superior quality of black labor" but mostly towards the high quality of the slave labor. Fogel and Engerman wrote the idea that even though management lay in the hands of the white people, they should not receive all credit because blacks, although slaves, were a vital part of the management and so the economic success should be attributed to them.

False Stereotypes

Fogel and Engerman brought up a rather controversial issue. How could so many people be against the blacks, and insult them for their inability as functioning like humans, but then use them as slaves? Fogel and Engerman attributed the misrepresentation of the capability of slaves by antebellum critics to their racism. They found it ironic that the "false stereotype" of black labor was fashioned by those who opposed slavery and tried to destroy the chains of bondage. Why would they be helping the slaves if they did not even see them as worth a human soul?

They wrote- "While keenly aware of the torment which these false stereotypes have helped to impose on blacks for more than a century, we are, as social scientists, impressed by this exceptional demonstration of the power of ideology to obliterate reality, and we obliterate it as an unparalleled opportunity to investigate the complex interrelationships between ideas and the material circumstances of life."

They were obviously interested in the existence of false stereotypes, more so how they persisted, than how they came about. Basically, they felt that many racist people must have come together with their views in such a quantity that they formed an almost indestructible image of black incompetence. Fogel and Engerman knew that they could not settle the issues because more research must have been done to explain the persistence and emergence of these issues. They interpreted the issue, nevertheless.

They interpreted these issues as follows. The belief in black incompetence was initially emerged by the racial theories that came into prominence during the 1800s. The theories were embraced by people around the whole country; Northerners, Southerners, and critics, or defenders of slavery. The theories asserted that blacks and whites were of a different species, or at least blacks were an inferior species. That blacks were from Africa was attributed to their biological defects. There were sometimes attributions made between racial differences and geographic factors. Some saw blacks’ "backwardness" as having to do with their "savage" ancestry. Basically, no matter the cause, blacks were perceived as lazy, unintelligent, and childlike in various ways.

Then there are the critics and defenders of slavery. Both believed in the inferiority of blacks. Critics; those opposing slavery, believed that slavery was retarding the developments of blacks. They felt as though slavery had caused blacks to be criminals, in a short sense. The defenders, like Fogel and Engerman, argued that their system had a beneficial development on blacks and pushed them to the outer limits of their capacity. Even though they were thought of as an inferior race, defenders thought that they were induced to work harder and thus produce more than white labor. Some blacks were trained in handicrafts and other arts, thus achieving a status under slavery that was better than they would have obtained under freedom. Fogel and Engerman believed that slave labor was more efficient and productive than the labor of free blacks. The critics of slavery emphasized its failings while the defenders emphasized its accomplishments, and were even more intrigued that they accomplished this through "inferior human material".

In retrospect, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman were defenders of slavery. They believed that they were more skilled and determined than free blacks because they were pushed harder. Slaves were, in their eyes, better off. They helped the initialization of an efficient economy, and thus attained pride. Thus these two historians interpreted slavery as an efficient economic system.

Works Cited

Fogel, Robert and Stanley Engerman. Conflict and Consensus. Massachusetts: D.C. Health and Company, 1988. 282-298


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