For an economist who said slavery was a...

A NOBEL PRIZE

October 14, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

A NOBEL PRIZE for an economist who said slavery was a benign and beneficial social and economic institution? How politically incorrect can you get?

Robert Fogel shared the Nobel with economist Douglass North this week for their way of applying quantitative economic theory to the study of history. The book that made Fogel and "Cliometrics" (Clio, the muse of history; -metric, the science of measuring) famous was "Time on the Cross." It was probably as controversial an academic work as any published in recent decades. It had its origins at Hopkins.

Fogel and Stanley Engerman were graduate students in economics here in the late 1950s. They became interested in slavery. Fogel, a New Yorker, later recalled that at the time he had the usual beliefs about slavery: It was a cruel, inefficient and dying institution.

But over a decade of study produced "Time on the Cross." It argued, among other things, that slaves were healthier, lived longer and were better fed, housed and otherwise provided for than urban white industrial workers in the North (echoing with statistics, tables and graphs the heroic couplets of William Grayson's "The Hireling and the Slave" of 1854). Plantation society was complex; slaves served in a variety of capacities, including managerial. There were almost no white overseers. Blacks were better workers than whites: Slave agriculture was more productive than the agricultural enterprises of the North.

Slave society was male-dominated and slave families patriarchal. Families were formed by the slaves' decisions, not the slave owners'. There were almost no "breeding farms." Families were stable and almost never broken up by owners. Most first births were to mature, married mothers.

The book came out in 1974, and what a reception! Many traditional historians attacked it for (1) sneering at their approach to writing history, which, in fact, Fogel and Engerman did do, and (2) endorsing slavery, which, in fact, they did not do.

One of the reasons they gave for writing the book was to show that contemporary problems of black Americans are related to something other than the legacy of slavery.

Another ex-Hopkins man, historian C. Vann Woodward, said this about that in his review of the book:

"The traditional picture of the pitiful, emasculated slave is the standard rationalization of policy makers for modern problems of the black minority. It runs like a litany through 'background' papers on welfare, employment, the 'matriarchal' family, the public schools. It turns up in Supreme Court opinions and presidential addresses. It has become the conventional way of shifting responsibility for the faults and failings of the free enterprise system to the shoulders of a forgotten and long discredited class of a remote period."

* * *

The Old South was in the news in another way recently.

Monday: "Dixie."

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