Advertisement

Can a Moral Evil Be an...

<i> Genovese is a historian of the Old South who lives in Atlanta</i>

Not until the last quarter of the 17th Century did the world begin to abandon its routine acceptance of slavery as a natural and proper component of the social order. Until then, slavery had remained virtually unchallenged in Christian as well as non-Christian societies, theologically sanctioned and legally enforced. But with the expansion of European power across the Atlantic, slavery took a decisive turn. An increasingly moribund socio-economic system that enslaved people of all races received new life on a racial basis, with black peoples cast as those legitimately to be enslaved.

In time, black slavery succumbed to powerful coalitions of political and economic interests, spurred by an outraged public opinion that could not reconcile it with Christian conscience. Most countries abolished slavery with only minimal violence, but in the South, it went down with the Confederacy in a blood bath of unprecedented proportions.

Robert W. Fogel, in “Without Consent or Contract,” grounds a bold history of Southern slavery and the origins of secession in a rich international context, comparing slavery and abolition in the South with those in other countries. Written for the general public, it has two parts: “Slavery as an Economic and Social System” and “The Ideological and Political Campaign Against Slavery.” Three additional co-authored volumes of documentation and analysis for specialists, to be published later this year, contribute to making “Without Consent or Contract” a landmark.

In 1974, Fogel and Stanley Engerman created a sensation with “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery,” which invoked economic theory and sophisticated methods of measurement to argue that slavery had proven an economic success, in no danger of internal collapse and with a bright future. To develop their case, they moved from economic to social history and advanced a wide range of controversial and often infuriating theses about slave life and Afro-American culture.

Advertisement

Almost immediately, they came under heavy fire from economists, who questioned some of their theories, methods and calculations, and from historians, most of whom unsuccessfully tried to disguise their inability to understand the technical work. Fogel and Engerman held their ground and continued to collect and refine their data, while, with the integrity that has marked their academic careers, they substantially modified their argument in response to sound criticism and their own wider historical research. Of special note, the early crudities have given way here to a balanced and well-crafted, if still in some respects arguable, account of the black experience in slavery.

“Time on the Cross” was the work of economists who were learning to work as historians and who sometimes stumbled badly. Fogel--Engerman too in his separate work--has since developed into a historian of parts and has written a first-rate book that deserves to rank with the best books of the greatest historians of slavery and the secession crisis: Ulrich Bonnel Phillips and Kenneth Stampp, Allan Nevins and David Potter.

Fogel has avoided the temptation into which almost all economists fall when they write history--that of reducing politics, ideology and social life to economic causation. Simultaneously, he has exposed as silly the efforts of those, especially our fashionable “social historians,” to proceed as if the economy could be treated with only passing notice.

Few historians have more skillfully integrated economic with social, intellectual and political history to demonstrate both the importance and the limits of economic developments--the material reality and the perception of it. Especially noteworthy are Fogel’s discussions of the religious origins and moral foundations of abolitionism.

Advertisement

His subtle analyses demonstrate a firm grasp of theological and ecclesiological issues--this from a man who 15 years ago displayed little sensitivity to and much ignorance of the centrality of the churches--not to mention spiritual values--to the great socio-economic transformations of 19th-Century America. His careful account of the intricacies and significance even of strictly theological shifts would do honor to a specialist in religious history.

“Without Consent or Contract” ought to provide pleasurable as well as instructive reading for anyone interested in the most fateful of our national crimes and the most fearful of our national crises. Fogel writes well. He does not write elegantly or with notable literary power, but he does write clearly, presenting complicated data and ideas in a manner any intelligent reader may follow. He respects his readers and displays confidence in their ability to grasp economic and theological complexities, if laid out in plain English.

As with every good book, this one may be criticized for matters large and small. One of the most puzzling features of Fogel’s performance is the almost total absence of a consideration of Southern culture and society. The culture and society of the North are sketched with impressive skill, but those of the South appear here largely as the object of some fair northern perceptions, and even more--and dangerous--misperceptions. The more’s the pity, since Fogel’s brief and scattered attempts to view the South as subject are generally praiseworthy. Had he devoted half as much space to an elaboration of his view of Southern culture and society as he devoted to Northern, he would have immeasurably strengthened the very case he was making.

As it is, he presents a South that largely reacted against Anglo-Northern attacks. He does, however, do a fine job of showing that the slaveholders had some reason for declaring that slavery offered the blacks greater security and even better working and living conditions than the free labor system was offering British and American laborers. His account of the horrible working and living conditions in Britain and the North constitutes only one of several set pieces that are worth the price of the book.

Advertisement

The slight treatment of Southern culture and society reflects the deepest underlying flaw in this impressive book. For Fogel has modified but not abandoned the central vision of “Time on the Cross,” which views the Old South as a bourgeois society and a mere variant of a burgeoning transatlantic capitalism. Certainly, as his painstaking work amply demonstrates, the slave economy of the South, like that of other countries in the Americas, arose from and remained embedded in the world market, and Southern culture and society could not escape the deep penetration of bourgeois values and practices.

Here and elsewhere, Fogel is open to criticism for the counterfactual projection of a slave society that could have generated an industrial revolution, had it not been overthrown militarily. He thereby unwisely slights the massive impediments that slavery produced--impediments that would have threatened even an independent slave republic with military as well as economic backwardness relative to the hostile great powers it would have to face. There are, in short, caveats that might be filed in a much longer review, including some that would apply to his generally fine treatment of Northern politics.

By skirting the richness of Southern political and social thought, moral philosophy, theology and ecclesiology, poetry, fiction and much else, let alone the reigning mentality, he misses the extent to which the slave-holding South was creating an alternate and anti-bourgeois model for a new world order. Abraham Lincoln did not make that mistake. Fogel, along with our historian colleagues, might profit from the literary studies of Lewis P. Simpson, the greatest of the historians of Southern culture, as well as from the penetrating analyses offered by such anti-capitalist Southern conservatives as Allan Tate, Richard Weaver and M. E. Bradford.

Probably the most wrong-headed criticism of “Time on the Cross” has charged it with being “racist,” since it portrays blacks as efficient workers in an economic success story. That book, like this one, has a different message--that economic performance provides no index of morality, justice or decency. Fogel believes, to the contrary, that sometimes only political and military force can overthrow palpably evil systems that are capable of adequate and even stunning economic achievements. His personal afterword restates his argument movingly.

Advertisement

It is by no means above challenge in its specifics--e.g., in its notion of the probable consequences of a Confederate victory. But its brave and thoughtful assault on the easy identification of economic with political and moral progress compels urgent attention today.

This splendid book is, among other things, a powerful moral tract.


Advertisement