Historians vs. Economists: The History of Slavery

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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 2013’s ’12 Years a Slave’

A new article over at The Chronicle of Higher Education provides an excellent review of a controversy that has been brewing over the last couple years that should be of interest to those who care about history and economics. The controversy surrounds the new history of slavery and capitalism, marked by books like Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams, Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, and especially Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told. The main claim among these historians is that slavery was essential to American capitalism and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. Economists and other social scientists are not convinced. “Most economic historians,” the article states,

have argued that “cotton textiles were not essential to the Industrial Revolution,” and that cotton production did not necessarily depend on slavery, according to [Dartmouth economist] Douglas A. Irwin…Summarizing economists’ thinking…Irwin points out that cotton was grown elsewhere in the world without slaves. Cotton production continued to rise in the United States even after slavery was abolished. “In this view, the economic rise of the West was not dependent on slavery,” Irwin says, “but came about as a result of an economic process described by Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations — a process that depended on free enterprise, exchange, and the division of labor.”

Economists see the problem with the new histories on slavery as

stem[ming] in part from how the discipline of history has developed. In the ’60s and ’70s, historians and economists battled over economic history. But as historians turned toward culture, and economists became more quantitative, economic history increasingly became just a subfield of economics. For a variety of reasons, including the 2008 crisis, historians are turning their attention back to financial matters. But they “did not build up their tools in order to understand the material world,” says Rhode. “And they carry along certain ideological positions which they hold fervently and are not willing to test.” Historians, he says, “can’t be making stuff up.”

Historians, however, see economic history as too reductive:

“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.

Some economists who attack the new slavery studies are “champion nitpickers,” adds Foner…”They’re barking up the wrong tree. They’re so obsessed with detail that they don’t really confront the broader dynamics of the interpretations. Yes, I’m sure there are good, legitimate criticisms of the handling of economic data. But in some ways I think it’s almost irrelevant to the fundamental thrust of these works.”

The article is an excellent introduction to an important controversy in historical scholarship. Check it out.