Slavery, Power and Cliometrics: A Brief Comment on Rosenthal

By Eric Hilt


Caitlin Rosenthal’s contribution to the newest issue of Capitalism (“Capitalism when Labor was Capital”) makes a welcome effort to stimulate interactions between historians and economists. Rosenthal identifies a lack of clarity regarding the meaning of capitalism as one barrier to such interactions. I suspect that another barrier, with regard to the topic of slavery in particular, is that the economic history literature on that subject is quite contentious.

Historians obviously know about Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s 1974 book Time on the Cross and the controversy it generated. But anyone interested in the literature that evolved out of that controversy is confronted by a tangle of papers and books published in the many rounds of challenges to Time on the Cross, replies from the authors, counter-replies, and so on. Perhaps for this reason, the many valuable insights that were produced by that literature have not had much influence on the new works on slavery by historians.

In my own contribution to the same issue of Capitalism, “Revisiting Time on the Cross After 45 Years: The Slavery Debates and the New Economic History,” I revisit that literature, in the hope of making it more accessible to people from other fields. I also offer a synthesis of more recent work on slavery by economists that relates to the questions posed by Fogel and Engerman. Rather than attempt to comment on all of Rosenthal’s paper, here I would like discuss some insights from the literature on Time on the Cross that relate to some parts of it. Rosenthal’s discussion of power in the analysis of slavery relates quite closely to important elements of the debates on Time on the Cross.

Power and coercion played central roles in the analysis of Fogel and Engerman, and in the controversies surrounding their analysis. For example, Time on the Cross argued that the gang labor system was the ultimate source of the productivity advantages of slave agriculture. The power to compel the enslaved to work within that system, which Fogel and Engerman argued free laborers would reject, was one of the main advantages of slavery in their view. Although they did not emphasize whippings and other forms of violence to the same extent, Fogel and Engerman’s analysis of slavery as a brutal but efficient labor system clearly has echoes in some of the new books by historians on slavery, particularly Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told.

Yet critics of Fogel and Engerman disputed the importance of the gang system and the claim that the productivity gains from slavery resulted from its properties as a system of labor organization. Instead, they argued that slavery is better understood as a system of property rights. Property rights in labor enabled slave owners to solve important problems inherent in agriculture. This view holds that the advantage of slavery was that it enabled slave owners to purchase large amounts of labor and compel that labor to move to areas where none was available for hire. In addition, at times of peak demand, the slave owners could compel all of their slaves to work in the fields, including those that normally did not do so. Power and coercion are still at the center of the story, but it was somewhat different forms of coercion that may have been responsible for some of the most important advantages of slavery. For an elaboration of this view, see Wright (2006), Fleisig (1976), and Naidu (2020).

These insights are relevant to Rosenthal’s discussion of the debates surrounding The Half Has Never Been Told. Rosenthal argues that coercion played an important role in stimulating productivity in slave agriculture, and notes that the threat of whippings likely enabled slave owners to accelerate the picking rates of the enslaved (p. 330). This is of course correct. But there were many different forms of coercion in slavery, and considering the implications of slavery as a system of property rights rather than simply a labor organization system may produce additional insights into its sources of productivity.

The power of slave owners over the enslaved had other implications beyond the production process, of course. Among the most controversial claims of Time on the Cross were those related to the treatment of the enslaved. For example, Fogel and Engerman argued that slave owners had a strong financial incentive to ensure that whippings were used judiciously and that the enslaved were adequately fed, since brutal treatment or malnourishment would risk damaging their most valuable assets. They also argued that the sexual exploitation of the enslaved was relatively rare, and concluded that American slavery was generally humane.

In the literature that was produced in the wake of Time on the Cross, these claims were discredited quite thoroughly. All of the empirical evidence offered by Fogel and Engerman in support of these arguments was disputed, and recent research on the living conditions of the enslaved has presented a much bleaker picture.

But more importantly, Fogel and Engerman’s analysis of these issues reveals that they failed to understand the implications of the vast power held by slave owners over their human property. Even if whippings were rare (and they likely were not), living under the threat of whippings would have terrorized enslaved people. And even if sexual exploitation occurred only infrequently, the risk that it could occur may have led enslaved young women to make awful choices like agreeing to marriages that they would have preferred to avoid, if that offered some measure of protection. The power of slave owners to whip, rape, or sell their human property would have had profound implications for the well-being of the enslaved, even if that power were exercised only rarely.

In the years since the 1970s, the tools of game theory, which are well-suited to the analysis of threats and strategic behavior, have become widely used in economics. Economists have made significant advances in applying those tools to the study of violence in slavery; the most important of these contributions is Chwe (1990). Fogel and Engerman’s attempt make inferences about the consequences of living under the threat of whippings from a simple count of whippings actually meted out is an error economic historians are very unlikely to repeat.

Nonetheless I believe Rosenthal is correct in her argument that historians working on slavery are in an excellent position to produce unique insights into issues such as these. Through close readings of archival sources, it may be possible to understand the consequences of slave owners’ power over the enslaved in ways that cannot be observed in the quantitative sources that are the focus of most economists’ research.

I welcome the return of historians to economic topics in their work, and I hope it leads to more interactions across the disciplines. On the topic of slavery in particular, scholars from both fields would benefit from greater engagement with each other’s work. So much of the disciplinary training of historians is a natural complement to the disciplinary training of economists.

About the author: Eric Hilt is Professor of Economics at Wellesley College. His research focuses on the history of American business organizations and their governance, and more generally on the role of legal institutions in shaping economic and financial development. He is a research associate in the Development of the American Economy Program of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and I am on the editorial board of the Journal of Economic History.


Chwe, Michael. 1990. “Why Were Workers Whipped? Pain in a Principal-Agent Model,” Economic Journal 100, no. 403: 1109-21.

Fleisig, Heywood. 1976. “Slavery, the Supply of Agricultural Labor, and the Industrialization of the

South.” Journal of Economic History 36: 572–597.

Naidu, Suresh. 2020. “American slavery and labor market power,” Economic History of Developing Regions, 35:1, 3-22.

Wright, Gavin. 2006. Slavery and American economic development. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press.

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