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Freedom’s Story is made possible by a grant from the Wachovia Foundation. Freedom’s Story Advisors and Staff The Varieties of Slave Labor . Daniel C ...
Economic historians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, sharing Stampp’s social attitudes, disagreed with his economic argument. In Time On The Cross (1974), they took issue with the notion that slavery was uneconomic and slave laborers inefficient. Comparing output per worker they found the slaves’ exceeded that of northern free laborers and that slavery was a spur to southern agriculture and a rational choice for southern planters. Indeed, they argued that slavery surpassed in efficiency by a considerable margin the northern practice of family farming. They credited the enslaved for much of this success. Rather than incompetent dolts (an assessment they considered racist even among those who rejected racialist assumptions), they saw workers who absorbed the Protestant ethic and responded to incentives rather than punishments to impel an expanding southern economy. They adduced an econometric model they viewed as “scientific” and as providing the basis for a more objective account than previous studies of slave labor. But their findings, highly publicized, were also highly controversial and perhaps were most effectively refuted in an essay by Herbert Gutman and Richard Sutch in “Sambo Makes Good, or Were Slaves Imbued with the Protestant Work Ethic” (in Paul A. David et al. , Reckoning with Slavery: A Critical Study in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery ). Gutman and Sutch charged that Fogel and Engerman paid more attention to their model than to the evidence and that much of their data were unrepresentative. They particularly ridiculed the diminished role of compulsion in Fogel and Engerman’s model because, among other reasons, it seemed to suggest that slaves embraced their condition: that slavery was a career choice rather than forced labor. The issue of accommodation and the nature of the relationship between master and slave was a big part of Eugene Genovese’s work. In Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1972) he used a paternalist model, which he was careful to assert did not mean gentle or genial, to show an organic relationship as existing between the planters and their laborers. Within this framework he was able to write with particular sensitivity about the complex mixture of discord and affection that governed work in the Big House and the constant tension surrounding drivers and other bondsmen in authority, caught as they were between the apparent source of their power and a freighted responsibility to their community. But the most original advance in looking at slave labor was made by Peter Wood’s Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1974) because it shifted focus to the colonial period and to the lower South, which had largely been neglected and where slaves had a much stronger influence than historians had previously considered. Not only did his work expand the range of activities that engaged the enslaved, but he regarded their African background as contributing to their talents and usefulness. His work set the stage for an entirely new look at slave labor and has, in one way or another, influenced much of what has come since. To sample more recent studies that consider slave labor and its economic and social consequences look at Ira Berlin, “Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America,” American Historical Review 85 (1980), and S. Max Edelson, Plantation Enterprise in Colonial South Carolina (2006).