Thursday, January 14, 2010

'Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery'

This book review appeared in The Washington Times on Monday, November 13, 1989. Historical note: Four years after this review was published, the book’s author, Robert Fogel, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Science.

An honest examination of the slave economy 

By Robert William Fogel
Norton. $22.50, 502 pages

"Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery” is a remarkable book that sheds new light on a historical topic that until now has been characterized by exaggerated mythology and moral grandstanding.

Robert William Fogel, director of the Center for Population Economics at the University of Chicago, does not shy away from facts that will leave people aghast. At the same time, however, in an afterword, he provides a moral critique of slavery that is fitting for the latter 20th century and, in retrospect, superior to that relied upon by the various groups and individuals who opposed slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War.

The book is the result of nearly a quarter-century’s worth of research by a team of historians, demographers and economists at the University of Chicago. It is, in fact, the third of three volumes by the same title, the first two consisting of technical papers. This primary volume condenses those findings into a readable whole.

That is not to say the book is an easy read — far from it. It would be more correct to say, however, that it is two books, one difficult and one not. The difficult part is the first half, which takes an unprecedented, in-depth look at the economics and culture of slavery in the New World. To readers who are not comfortable with numbers, this lengthy section is rough going.

The second part, which traces the rise of the anti-slavery movement in Britain and the United States, is a tour de force of historical writing. It flows smoothly, yet incorporates disparate elements of antebellum history that, on the surface, seem unrelated, and Mr. Fogel deftly draws these elements together.

Mr. Fogel will no doubt initiate controversy with his firm assertion that, far from being a primitive and decaying economy, the South was at its most prosperous on the eve of the Civil War and that slavery was in- deed an efficient and productive way to organize that economy. Moreover, he argues — and offers more than enough evidence to prove it — that slaves were better fed, clothed and housed than free laborers in the North.

This may be why opponents of slavery waited until the 1850s before they attempted to use economic arguments to bolster their case; they knew that, empirically, the slave economy was sound. Only moral arguments — whether based in religion or secular philosophy — provided the foundation for an effective case against slavery.

What makes this book most interesting is its tendency to give greater emphasis to those elements of antebellum politics that have been given short shrift by other historians, particularly those popularizing historians who write our high-school and college textbooks. For example, most political trivia buffs recognize in the Know-Nothing Party just one notable fact — that the Know-Nothings held the first political convention for purposes of nominating a presidential candidate. Other people might remember that the Know-Nothings were anti-Catholic nativists who stole the stone contributed by the pope to the building of the Washington Monument.

Mr. Fogel, however, makes it clear that the Know-Nothings were a force to be reckoned with in U.S. politics throughout the 1850s and made a major contribution to the realignment of party allegiances that made the Republican victory of 1860 possible, and thus the end of slavery.

Know-Nothings sent more than 70 representatives to Congress, for instance, and controlled the state government of Massachusetts. Their ability to organize the working classes who felt threatened by immigrant labor fertilized the soil for the anti-slavery parties seeking to seed their ideas among new constituencies. Mr. Fogel writes: “It is ironic that so ignoble a movement as anti-Catholic nativism should have played so large a role in the ultimate victory of the crusade to abolish slavery.”

The role of religion in the end of slavery also cannot be ignored. In Britain and the United States, Quakers, Methodists and evangelicals (in particular, not to exclude others) paved the intellectual highway for others to dispose of the idea — which had lasted at least 3,000 years — that slavery was acceptable and a normal part of the nature of human society.

On both sides of the Atlantic, religious thinkers became prolific pamphleteers and letter-writers, trying to change the minds of so many others for whom slavery was not yet a moral issue. At the end of the 17th century, when almost all others rejected anti-slavery sentiments, one small religious group, the Quakers, maintained that slavery was unmitigated evil. It is a true testament to the power of religious faith that by the 1880s, that position was held almost universally by believers in the Western world.

In both Britain and America, the anti-slavery campaign intersected with other important political developments. Most people would think that anti-slavery politics was set apart because of its moral importance. This was not the case. In Britain, anti-slavery issues were tied up with Catholic emancipation, the extension of suffrage to the lower classes, parliamentary reform and the fear of radicalism in the aftermath of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars.

In the United States, the antislavery movement faced great hurdles, not the least of which was that of the first nine presidents, seven were slaveholders. Moreover, the South was overrepresented in Congress because three-fifths of the slaves were counted in the census to determine representation.

Mr. Fogel writes: “Southerners also were installed as Speaker of the House in 28 of the preceding 35 years (up to 1850); they were a majority of the Supreme Court and of the Cabinet; and every Senate president pro tern since the ratification of the Constitution had been a slaveholder.” These facts were cited by anti-slavery activists as evidence of the political conspiracy of “Slave Power”: Slavery’s mere existence in the South meant the political enslavement of all Americans.

By the mid-1850s, opponents of slavery also claimed “Slave Power” was an economic conspiracy. Mr. Fogel says such arguments were wrong, in light of recent cliometric research on mid-l9th century economic conditions, but they were convincing at the time.

Though leaders of the movement such as William Lloyd Garrison opposed changing their fundamental case against slavery from moral to economic grounds, “the principal basis of the antislavery appeal did suddenly shift from ‘Christian duty’ to ‘the pocketbook.’ The shift took place between 1854 and 1856 and the political success was immediate and spectacular. The new approach transformed the antislavery movement from a minor political factor into a powerful political force that could control the national agenda.”

Mr. Fogel admits there is still much to learn about the slavery era, many more texts to examine, more artifacts to unearth. Until that time, however, his recent book likely will serve as the definitive report on slave economy and slave culture, and his interpretation of the anti-slavery movement should have few detractors.

Richard Sincere Jr. is a Washington-based issues analyst and writer.

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