I spent the afternoon searching my internet browsing history for an article I read last semester which gave me pause. From The Chronical Review, Shackles and Dollars, by senior reporter Marc Parry, describes a collision of two disciplines over The Half Has Never Been Told, a book describing slave migration within the U.S.. by Cornell history professor Edward Baptiste.
While the following is a summary of the article, I urge all readers to make time to read it in its entirety (which is found here). I am sure you’ll find something of interest I left out for the sake of brevity.
Baptiste argues that the tripling of daily cotton picking from the years 1805 and 1860 was driven by torture. Per the article “Baptiste describes how planters assigned picking quotas to slaves, whipped them if they failed to meet the targets, and steadily increased picking expectations for workers. Slaves avoided the lash by learning to pick faster.”
The prospect of torture, itself, is not driving the criticism by economists and historians. Alan Olmsted, a professor of economic history at UC-Davis, Trevon Logan, a professor of economics at (The) Ohio State University, and Paul Rhode, chair of economics and professor at the University of Michigan find the methodology behind the research to be troubling. They describe Baptist’s work as a book plagued by double counting, omitted contradictory evidence, and sources stretched too thin. The economists argue that little can be claimed without sound quantitative analysis. Historians seem to disagree.
Parry neatly sums up the great divide:
When economists gripe about historians retreating from economics, historians offer a counternarrative: “The problem is the economists left history for statistical model building,” says Eric Foner, a historian of 19th-century America at Columbia University. “History for them is just a source of numbers, a source of data to throw into their equations.” Foner considers counterfactuals absurd. A historian’s job is not to speculate about alternative universes, he says. It’s to figure out what happened and why. And, in the history that actually took place, cotton was extremely important in the Industrial Revolution.
To me, an economist in training, this article is not a discussion of diverging perceptions of slavery productivity between two disciplines; I see this as the divergence between exceptional and poor research.
Counterfactuals, an economist’s best friend, show what the world would have looked like had only one thing been different. According to economists, claiming that an input is essential to an output implies that without the input, the output is impossible to create. However, this does not seem to be the case with slavery (the labor input) and cotton (the output). Douglas Irwin, a professor of economics at Dartmouth, rightly points out that cotton was grown elsewhere without slaves. Additionally, Irwin notes that cotton production continued to grow after the abolishment of slavery.
So, all things equal, we find ourselves, soon after the civil war, in a world where slavery does not exist, the implication of torturing your workers gone with it, yet cotton production does not fall.
The economics of Baptist is troubling, but the racist nature of the argument is gut wrenching. Again, from the article:
Logan, who is African-American, cuts down Baptist for misusing slave testimony in a misguided effort at racial amelioration. Baptist has suggested that his book could help liberate African-Americans from the shame of being the descendants of slaves… “I was not freed from shame from having read Baptist’s book,” he writes. “… American slavery will never be a source of pride for anyone. It is time to accept that fact.”
While researchers hammer out philosophical differences, it is vital that we remember to be thoughtful when seeking truth in America’s shame. Historians are right; we cannot think of this as nothing more than an empirical exercise. We owe those who built our universities (public and private), our financial system, and our White House not only scholarly objectivity but an immense amount of respect.