Time on the Cross Research Paper

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Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s two-volume revisionist study, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, is the most widely known and controversial work ever written on the subject of slavery. Indeed, it is arguably the most widely known and controversial work ever written in the entire field of economic history. The celebrity and controversy surrounding the publication of Time on the Cross in 1974 were related not only to its conclusions, but also to its methodology and rhetorical style, and the study has continued to spark debate since it was first published.

By the early twenty-first century, the field of economic history had lost much of the vitality it had in the 1970s. It may therefore be difficult for some to imagine a time when a technical work such as Time on the Cross could command space in mass-circulation newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, and Newsweek, and when economic historians made the rounds on the TV talk-show circuit. But Time on the Cross represented a kind of harmonic convergence of method, subject, authors, readers, and cultural milieu.

During the 1960s the venerable field of economic history was reinvented, mainly by small cadres of economists who explicitly and self-consciously brought economic theory, mathematics, and formal methods to a field that had previously been dominated by scholars trained in history departments and in traditional historical approaches. As a result, practitioners of the “new economic history,” such as Fogel and Engerman, spent much of the 1960s and 1970s revising and reinterpreting standard accounts of U.S. economic history. Although both Fogel and Engerman wrote on other topics, from the late 1960s on, they, along with many of their graduate students, worked assiduously on the economic history of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. In so doing, they turned the field of slavery studies upside down.

In 1974, the year Time on the Cross was published, the general consensus on slavery among historians of the American South was that slavery was a singularly exploitative, inefficient, and unprofitable system of labor organization. Slaves themselves were viewed as reluctant, recalcitrant, and inefficient workers, and the consensus was that their material lives were pinched, their emotional lives were stunted, and their family lives were disjointed and transient, if not incidental. For their part, slaveholders were viewed as “traditional,” or “paternalistic,” and nonentrepreneurial (or even anticapitalistic) in mindset and behavior. They were believed to be more concerned with aristocratic trappings and conspicuous consumption than with production, prices, and the bottom line. Moreover, despite scholarly outliers such as Frank and Harriet Owsley, who called attention to the importance of yeoman farmers and small slaveholders in the region, most students of slavery in the American South focused their attention on large planters, and this narrow focus served to render normative what was actually a very small and exceptional group. Furthermore, slavery and the slave system were said to have had deleterious long-run developmental consequences for the South as a region, rendering it poor and backward, particularly in comparison to the northern part of the United States.

Fogel and Engerman challenged all of these positions and more in Time on the Cross. Basing their “iconoclastic” findings on “the application of quantitative methods” (principally neoclassical economic theory, statistics, and applied mathematics) to historical materials, they concluded, among other things, that slavery was an efficient, profitable, and vibrant system of labor organization; that African American slaves labored hard and purposively, sharing much the same work ethic that motivated free Americans; that Southern agriculture was highly productive—even more productive than agriculture in the North; that Southern slaveholders, including planters, were capitalistic, entrepreneurial, and bullish on the future; and that slaves, though exploited to a degree, enjoyed relatively good material living standards and, generally speaking, were able to sustain stable families and family ties. More broadly, they claimed that the slave economy of the South was not only healthy and growing rapidly in the antebellum period, but that it was also, in comparative terms, one of the most modern and advanced economies in the entire world at that time.

After a short honeymoon period of prizes, fawning reviews, and unstinting praise, Time on the Cross came under heavy critical fire from both traditional historians and some fellow “new economic historians.” Fogel and Engerman’s critics attacked from several different directions. Some criticized the authors’ approach and methods; others attacked both the assumptions and the evidentiary base upon which the authors’ findings were based; still others challenged the authors’ purportedly condescending and vainglorious rhetoric; and some questioned the implications of the authors’ findings, even if valid.

No wallflowers, Fogel and Engerman mounted a robust defense of their findings. In this effort, they were joined by their students and research associates, as well as by many other economic historians who found their approach, methods, and conclusions worth defending. The response to the publication of Time on the Cross was unprecedented in the normally quiet little field of economic history. Essays, both pro and con, proliferated in technical journals, and entire books were devoted to attacking Fogel and Engerman’s findings. Conferences and symposia on Time on the Cross were held throughout the decade of the 1970s, and for a time the study, or at least the nontechnical first volume of the two-volume work, became a staple on reading lists and course syllabi at American universities.

By the 1980s, Time on the Cross had taken many direct hits from critics and fallen out of favor among many students of American slavery. Although economic historians challenged parts of Fogel and Engerman’s argument on technical grounds—such as finding fault with some of their estimates, measurements, and assump-tions—the most damaging blows were struck by traditional historians, who were particularly critical of Fogel and Engerman’s conclusions regarding the mindset and behavior of enslaved African Americans, and of what they viewed, rightfully or wrongfully, as the authors’ relatively benign depiction of the system of slavery itself.

Fogel issued an impressive rejoinder in 1989 with the publication of Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, which was followed in 1992 by two supplementary volumes of corroborative “technical papers” coedited by Fogel and Engerman. In the 1989 volume, Fogel, writing in a more subdued scholarly tone, defended much of the argument advanced in Time on the Cross, albeit with some qualifications, particularly in the section on the workings of the domestic slave trade.

Despite the study’s many strengths, Without Consent or Contract did not make nearly the splash made by Time on the Cross fifteen years earlier. By the 1990s, the “new economic history” was no longer new, and many of Fogel and Engerman’s “iconoclastic” 1974 findings on the economics of slavery seemed less jarring. Indeed, some had been more or less absorbed into the master narrative of American economic history.

If greater acceptance among the initiated helps to explain the rather subdued reception to Without Consent or Contract, the decline of economic history as a field of study was also a factor. By the early 1990s, few nonspe-cialists were paying attention to any work being done in this increasingly esoteric and marginalized area of study. Given this fact, it is not surprising that Fogel’s receipt (along with Douglass C. North) of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1993 for “applying economic theory and quantitative methods to historical puzzles” did not rekindle the high-profile debate over Time on the Cross. Even so, outside of the spotlight, major figures in economic history, such as Gavin Wright, have continued to spar with Fogel and Engerman over issues raised in their combustible 1974 study.


  1. David, Paul, et al. 1976. Reckoning with Slavery: A Critical Study in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Fogel, Robert William. 1989. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: Norton.
  3. Fogel, Robert William. 2003. The Slavery Debates, 1952–1990. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
  4. Fogel, Robert William, and Stanley L. Engerman. 1974. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown.
  5. Fogel, Robert William, and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. 1992. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, Technical Papers. 2 vols. New York: Norton.
  6. Gutman, Herbert G. 1975. Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  7. Owsley, Frank L. 1949. Plain Folk of the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
  8. Smith, Mark M. 1998. Debating Slavery: Economy and Society in the Antebellum American South. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Wright, Gavin. 2006. Slavery and American Economic Development. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

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