Whose history?

“History is written by victors” (attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte)

R.B. Fogels’ Time on the Cross must have created quite a stir by its iconoclastic approach to conventional wisdom about slavery. The ideological burden of the topic seems to weigh heavily on readers even today, witness the many emotional comments in my well-used library copy of the book. To this day, its audience studying American Slavery cannot accept any other summary of the peculiar institution than utter horror about all its aspects.

Nobody, least of all the author, claims, of course, that the idea of slavery itself is anything but abhorrent. Moral and philosophical values of liberty and self-determination are, if anything, even dearer to us today than they generally were when 19th century abolitionists undertook their struggle. What is worth noting, however, is that these well-meaning abolitionists employed as much, if not more, misinformation as their opponents did. The end may well have justified the means, and society usually accepts such methodology as valid for attaining purposes of a higher good (the fact that every ideology, including totalitarian ones, used this approach, lies well beyond the scope of the present commentary). But, in the social sciences, one should not confuse ideological and political campaigning with valid methods of inquiry aimed at yielding verifiable, reproducible and above all “objectively sustainable” data. And yet this is precisely what has happened with the topic of slavery in the United States.

It did not help that abolitionists did not really know or understand the South, so their accounts were necessarily based on secondary sources. It also did not help that any and all however rare scientific studies obviously molded the available data to support their theses, or were not rigorous enough to be objective and authoritative. Hence a de novo analysis of primary sources such as the one conducted by Fogel shows that the reality of a slave’s life may well have been quite different from what has been imprinted on mass consciousness both before and after the Declaration of Emancipation.

All this is by no means to say that a slave’s life was anything but miserable. The question is, however, how much more miserable it really was than the lives of contemporary poor freedmen, or poor white laborers, and how prevalent gratuitous cruelty and abuse were throughout antebellum society in general.

Leaving further elaboration on these questions to researchers like Fogel, since it is rather difficult to meaningfully quantify suffering, we may turn to the main arguments set forth by the more educated among the abolitionists: that of pervasive exploitation of slaves and of the inherent inefficiency of the South’s economic system that was primarily based on slavery.

To think in economic terms, we need to leave aside momentarily and for the sake of a dispassionate argument any emotional impact of considering human beings as mere capital. And yet, considering that slaves were, in fact, an investment, and indeed worth considerable sums on the market (owners in the United States – whilst not in the Caribbean colonies – would typically break even only after 29 years of rearing a slave child, and the going rate for a prime-age adult was anywhere between $1,000-$2,000 at a time when the annual maintenance of the same slave would cost approximately $48), it would not have seemed to make good business sense to abuse and neglect a rather costly investment arbitrarily, much less to enable mere ego trips of white supremacy. Evidently, there had to have existed a number of sadistic and otherwise mean slave owners and overseers. But to claim that slaves were systematically abused by beatings, torture, and starvation, all facts known to adversely affect life expectancy and thus financial amortization, would testify to very bad economic sense of their owners.

And that would, in fact, support precisely the second major rational claim of abolitionists – that slavery was an inherently inefficient system. Let’s stop and think about it for a moment. How can UNPAID labor (i.e., a workforce limited on the side of costs to feeding, clothing, and housing disbursements) be more expensive than PAID labor (such as the one provided by white workers and freedmen)? To be sure, slavery was most certainly never abolished in the history of mankind on the grounds of it being too expensive. Humanitarian, not economic, reasons prompted the repeal of bondage laws. In fact, slave labor was resorted to whenever a breakdown of social institutions allowed for such conditions – witness the all but rare incidents of forced labor in times of war and occupation even in modern and in quite recent history. If forced labor survived well into the 21st century (the UN still fights to resolve the problem of human trafficking, and customary public international law as recognized by applicable treaties and conventions expressly sanctions forced labor under conditions of “military necessity” and other select circumstances), why would it suddenly have outlived its economic viability and utility in the United States before the Civil War?

There is, however, a clear difference between the disposable nature of slaves in modern history (e.g., in forced labor camps and concentration camps as instituted under Nazi occupation) and the economic system of North American antebellum slavery. The former relied on an almost unlimited supply of free workforce (besides Jews and Gypsies, it mostly drew on captured Slavs – the Eastern Europeans with their telling ethnic moniker – and even some Germanic dissidents were sentenced to “re-education” in forced labor camps). Thus, under Nazi ideology, it made however limited economic sense to cut maintenance costs below subsistence levels and to use a high turnover of workers. In the U.S. , however, slaves were expensive, their supply was rather limited, and, in the later stages of the institution, the economy relied for supply mostly on domestic breeding rather than on African imports. To kill off the work base – and its reproductive base along with it – by excessive negligence would have been highly counterintuitive in view of a rational optimization of life-long ownership rights to “human chattel.”

But these perceptions are perhaps excessively based on current-day accounts of slavery. Modern human trafficking is a short-term business model aimed at squeezing maximal return out of people whose useful lifespan as a slave is rather short. In the case of trafficking in children as sex slaves, a few years of “work” brings on not only puberty, but also communicable diseases that significantly reduce their value, as happens routinely with child prostitutes in South and South-East Asia. Those children are usually paid for (to the relatives or traffickers), and needed to work off the “debt” incurred by their “owners” in order to finance their “acquisition.” Such a system of indentured servitude (without the sexual component) was prevalent in 19th century Europe where children were commonly sold (“rented out”) as servants and laborers for a given period of time. Another model of modern day slavery is that of women forced into prostitution. The case of Bosnian sex slaves imported from Russia and Ukraine to service international observers of the civil war in former Yugoslavia under U.N. command involved a similar pressure to “work off the debt” to human traffickers who had brought the women into the country under false premises of legitimate work in hotels and bars. (For comparison, the compensation for losing such a woman by the client due to her death or of her running away was calculated to amount to approximately $2,000-$3,000, which is quite a different valuation from the going rate of a prime-aged slave of about $1,000-$2,000 almost two centuries earlier in the American South at a very different purchasing power equivalent.  This comparably low price reflects the increasingly disposable nature of a modern day slave). Similarly, illegal immigrants around the world (not only in the United States, but also in Europe) unable to pay their illegal passage into the country often need to work off their debt to the traffickers through forced labor in areas such as farming and manufacturing. All such cases include limited term servitude geared towards deriving maximum profit for the beneficiary of slave labor, regardless of life-long consequences on the well-being of such slaves.

Another aspect of the abolitionist argument as to the inefficiency of the Southern economy was the strikingly blatant racism of their claims. Slaves were, in their parlance and opinion, child-like beings incapable not only of learning commercially meaningful skills, but even of doing menial work well. The fact that many of the most vocal abolitionists were Northerners without much contact with black people in the first place, who thus based their  opinions on assorted prejudices and literary fantasies, may explain such an approach. But, again assuming for argument’s sake the accuracy of their assessment, how would it help the country to free such “lesser” workers, make them “independent” and thus responsible for their own economic viability, if they were clearly unable to survive on their own in this society due to lack of skills and maturity? If the abolitionist claims of far superior efficiency and utility of white workers for Southern plantations held true and was indeed the secret of plantations’ prosperity, did they plan on starving the three million soon-to-be freedmen who were, according to them, entirely uncompetitive in free market circumstances and thus inevitably headed toward becoming a public charge? History showed just how wrong all those “economic” predictions of the abolitionist camp turned out to be: the Southern economy was, in fact, deeply affected by Emancipation. Slaves were, after all, not economically replaceable by better skilled white paid laborers. But then, can we blame activists for using fallacies to obtain a politically desirable and morally commendable result? Their ends did justify the means, after all.

Approaching the issue from a European background foreign to the national trauma of U.S. race relations, I am bound to step on somebody’s toes in matters of political sensitivity. And yet, such an outsider’s view can be beneficial to people locked into a politically correct indoctrination to the extent of rejection of any views – or, indeed, facts – incompatible with popular “awareness” of this horrendous ghost of the past. The remarks left by previous readers in my library copy of Time on the Cross are a case in point.

In a way, this fervent belief in an official version of history, a version whose denial calls for slurs and accusations of lack of patriotism, reminds me of experiences with the published histories of certain Central and East European nations. There, a comparative reading of national historical accounts of various neighboring countries is quite instructive to see how the idea of national victimhood is incompatible with the competing claims of another nation arising from the same events. What for one nation was a heroic recovery of a God-given right to other lands was for the other an unwarranted attack on similarly God-given ownership of the same tract by the sovereign that happened to hold it at a given moment in the ever-shifting tides of history. The painful breaking away of one ethnic group to establish a separate nation state was celebrated as a triumph of long-overdue and denied independence by others.

History is written by the victors. But more specifically, it is actually written by the more vocal supporters of the idea that won. Relying on anecdotal and necessarily subjective accounts, often by the proponents of one political view that has for whatever random reasons prevailed over another, is bound to result in misinterpretations of history. That is why the underappreciated return to boring technical sources – cliometrics as propagated by Fogel – while not as attractive for writers and readers who understandably prefer more colorful narratives, may shed much more light on what has actually happened. Or it may not: as one can see at almost every turn in economics, the interpretation of data is vulnerable to manipulation stemming from the researcher’s own a priori bias and assumptions, and it is difficult, not to mention laborious, to disentangle misinterpretation from bona fide analysis without taking recourse to the entire sample of original data. The vulnerabilities of quantitative analysis in history are impressively exemplified in the scandal surrounding Michael Bellesiles’s Arming America. Still, accounting, church, and census records constitute considerably more reliable “facts” than diaries and written accounts of people simply relating narratives. Unfortunately, a good story sells much better, not to mention easier, than sound statistical analysis, even a story conveyed by adequate verbal interpretation. Maybe readers should reconsider what they want history to be – an art of the pen and discipline of the humanities, or a social science. In any case, it is of the utmost importance not to confuse the two, lest we slide inadvertently into the traps of ideological indoctrination such as historical revisionism to fit it to a particular view of events and situations – be that the projection of the image of a racial struggle, of class warfare, or of any other revolutionary or counter-revolutionary effort.

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