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Can a Moral Evil Be an Economic Success? : WITHOUT CONSENT OR CONTRACT: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery by Robert William Fogel (W. W. Norton: $22.50; 539 pp.) : THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN SLAVERY: Evidence and Methods (Robert William Fogel with Ralph A. Galantine, Richard L. Manning et al . ) : THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICAN SLAVERY, Volume I Technical Papers: Markets and Production Volume II Technical Papers: Conditions of Slave Life and Transition to Freedom (Robert William Fogel with Stanley L. Engerman et al . )

February 18, 1990|Eugene D. Genovese | Genovese is a historian of the Old South who lives in Atlanta

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.

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.

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.

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