Guest Post: Correcting an Incorrect “Corrective”

Edward E. Baptist is the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. He would like to “thank Joshua Rothman, Jefferson Cowie, Louis Hyman, and David Silbey for advice on this piece of writing, and The Junto for letting me publish in their space.”

edwardbaptist-thehalfHow was an immense increase in the “efficiency” of cotton production achieved in the nineteenth century? The question cuts to the heart of the debates over the history of U.S. slavery.

Last week, The Junto linked to sociologist John Clegg’s review in Critical Historical Studies, which considered several recent books on slavery and capitalism. This blog reported Clegg’s take on The Half Has Never Been Told as a “corrective.” Clegg attacks my argument that intense coercion drove a 400% increase in the efficiency of cotton-picking slave labor in the U.S. South between 1800 and 1860. His critiques directly build on the work of economists Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode. In a series of essays, they asserted that efficiency actually increased because of improved seeds. In a recent issue of the Journal of Economic History, Olmstead appears somewhat displeased that I disagree with their assertions.

But “correctives” had better be correct. In this critique of The Half, there are holes big enough to push a bale of cotton through.

I’ll focus on just one here. This hole tunnels back to a fundamental error in Olmstead and Rhode’s story about cotton picking. I place great value on their documentary research, because it maps the upward quantitative trend of picking rates in U.S. short-staple cotton. By 1860 ever-growing cotton-picking efficiency helped drop the real price of the world’s most crucial commodity to 25% of what it had been in 1800.

While Olmstead and Rhode attribute the efficiency increase to enslavers’ adoption, especially from the 1820s onward, of new, more “pickable” breeds of upland cotton, I interpret the data very differently. I argue in my book that improvements in cotton seeds are likely to have been part–but only part—of the reason for this increase. On slavery’s cotton frontier, slavery’s survivors reported, torture as a labor-management strategy was the ultimate cause of increased efficiency.

However, Clegg and Olmstead, who dismiss ex-slaves’ testimony as mere “anecdote,” believe they have a trump card. In contrast to the rise in picking efficiency in the interior, Olmstead and Rhode’s data from a handful of lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia plantations that grew Sea-Island cotton shows no change in picking rate between 1800 and 1860. Assuming that labor management in both lowcountry and upcountry was essentially the same, they conclude that the increase in upland cotton-picking rates can only be attributed to improved seeds. Clegg echoes this claim, asserting that it refutes my argument.

By this point anyone familiar with the history of slavery in the pre-Civil War South has probably spotted the error. It’s a doozy. It invalidates Clegg’s “corrective.” It reveals a flaw in Olmstead and Rhode’s reasoning, refuting their attempt to demonstrate a non-anecdotal correlation between cotton seeds and cotton picking.

Some of the best-known historians of U.S. slavery have exquisitely documented the way enslavers in the Carolina-Georgia lowcountry extracted labor. In rice and in sea-island cotton production, enslavers assigned enslaved people a “task” or specific quantity of work to accomplish before the end of the day. So many rice seedlings to replant, so many pounds of sea-island cotton to pick, etc. If they accomplished the task, lowcountry slaves could go home, tend to their own gardens, or help family members finish their own tasks. Task done, day done.

Historians have not only demonstrated that the labor output demanded by these tasks hardly changed before emancipation. They’ve also—and Clegg will be interested to hear this—explained why that was so. For one thing, long-established lowcountry slave communities resisted increases in labor requirements.

Historians of slavery have also known for decades that enslavers used a very different system to extract, supervise, and measure slave labor in “upland” cotton. Outside the lowcountry, enslaved people had to work till sundown, and they did so under direct surveillance and threat of violence. As my book demonstrates, in the new, non-lowcountry areas, enslavers often demanded a specific number of pounds of cotton as a minimum, but pickers had to keep going until dark. Poundage in deficit led to whippings. Poundage in excess of one’s quota led to increases in the quota.

Because the labor systems in the two cotton regimes were profoundly different we simply cannot demonstrate that different kinds of seeds, rather than different labor systems, caused the difference between sea-island cotton-picking rates and “upland” cotton-picking rates. Olmstead and Rhode’s postulate, crucial also to Clegg’s “corrective,” assumes everything it has to prove and is therefore irrelevant.

But this logic fail isn’t just an error. It’s also a revelation: Clegg, Olmstead, and Rhode haven’t thought carefully about (and may be unfamiliar with) historical work on the lowcountry task system. Otherwise, Olmstead and Rhode would not be advancing an untenable argument, nor would Clegg be building untenable critiques on their work.

It’s unclear why economists and sociologists would publish articles about slave labor—let alone pass scathing judgment on books for their account of historical slave labor—when they apparently haven’t done basic reading on the history of slave labor. The difference between task and gang systems is so basic that AP U.S. History students learn it—you can even get flash cards.

Yet here’s what is clear. Some scholars axiomatically refuse to accept the implications of the fact that brutal technologies of violence drove slave labor. They retreat into homo economicus fallacies to resist considering the question of whether in some cases violence increased, or was calibrated over time to enhance production. They evade consideration of survivors’ testimony about those changes, insisting that this data is “anecdotal”—as if the enslavers’ claims on which they build arguments are epistemologically any different.

I’m not going to dismiss Clegg’s review, although I will correct some of its other incorrect “correctives” elsewhere. And in contrast to Olmstead’s claim that The Half Has Never Been Told is “flawed beyond repair,” I’m not going to level that kind of judgment at his work, either. After all, I couldn’t do my own work nearly as effectively without his and Rhode’s basic finding of increasing cotton-picking efficiency under slavery. But if economists and sociologists are going to make claims about the history of slavery, they should familiarize themselves with the work done by historians of slavery.

[N.B. John Clegg has responded to this post in the comments below.]

32 responses

  1. “Yet here’s what is clear. Some scholars axiomatically refuse to accept the implications of the fact that brutal technologies of violence drove slave labor. They retreat into homo economicus fallacies to resist considering the question of whether in some cases violence increased, or was calibrated over time to enhance production. They evade consideration of survivors’ testimony about those changes, insisting that this data is “anecdotal”—as if the enslavers’ claims on which they build arguments are epistemologically any different.”

    Such an important point. And one that, I think, goes beyond the history of slavery. As the humanities/interpretive social sciences are increasingly marginalized in higher education in favor of some mythic objectivity located in “neutral” data sets, there is the risk that these kinds of histories, which rely on reading texts and taking into consideration of all types of evidence, will be further marginalized themselves. Any scholar, regardless of discipline, should be skeptical of themselves when they readily assume that numbers and accounting tell the entire story of slavery over and against narratives and knowledge that came from the enslaved – there is, as you suggest, a politics to this, one that is sadly still occluded. It’s worth noting that, while the “data” of economic history is of course important, it is also precisely one of the archival ways that the life of the enslaved are obscured.

    • I say, the data-literate have a greater capacity for informed scepticism about that type of evidence than the data-non-literate. The fact that nearly every assertion made by Fogel and Engerman in 1974 was disputed and controverted by other economists over the course 10 years is a testament to this.

      • Yet that suggests that the proper mode of historical truth is best determined by economic/quantitative historians, something of which I, as “data non-literate, am more than skeptical…

        • No, what I said has nothing to do with the “proper mode of historical truth”. I was merely saying that scepticism about data and their sources (what you would call ‘interrogating’ them) are best left to the numerate. And in fact, economic historians/social scientists argue about data all the time and their debate is more substantive and serious than when non-quantitative types apply their rather scepticism.

  2. Or historians of slavery should be more familiar with the work of the cliometricians who debated every aspect of slavery in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. A big part of that debate was about isolating the productivity advantage of gang labour.

    But we know that history departments have essentially banished that cliometric work from their collective memories.

    The table below is from chapter 12 of Fogel & Engerman’s Without Consent & Contract: Markets & Production, Technical Papers, Volume 1. The chapter is an expanded version of an article which originally appeared in the American Economic Review in 1977 (“Explaining the Relative Efficiency of Slave Agriculture in the Antebellum South”).

    You will notice that farms in the New South, where the gang system was prevalent, were indeed more productive than farms in the Old South, where the task system predominated. However, a part of the advantage (about 15%) existed for farms with ZERO slaves as well. Even the remainder of the largest gap (about 40% for intermediate farms between the Old and New South) would partly reflect the differences in soil quality and land improvements. So this probably sets an upper bound on the productivity advantage of the gang system relative to the task system.

    Of course the above table captures productivity differences for the entire agricultural sector, not cotton per se, but Baptist never makes that distinction when he haphazardly cites numbers out of Fogel.

  3. Baptist wrote: “Last week, The Junto linked to sociologist John Clegg’s review in Critical Historical Studies, which considered several recent books on slavery and capitalism. This blog reported Clegg’s take on The Half Has Never Been Told as a ‘corrective.'”

    NB: Posts written by individual members or guest posters reflect the view(s) of the authors and do not represent a consensus on the part of the blog as whole. Arguments or characterizations in individual posts are made by the post’s author, not by “this blog” as a whole.

  4. Baptist is actually kicking dust with this business about gang vs task systems. Olmstead & Rhode’s dataset includes Old South plantations which grew the putatively higher-yielding Upland cotton varieties. The cotton picking rates on these plantations grew 1.52% per annum, as opposed to the 2.13% per annum in the New South plantations using the same Upland varieties. So ostensibly we have two different management systems — Old vs New South — but those Old South farms which used Upland cotton still managed 75% of the annual growth in picking rates as the New South farms also using Upland cotton. (This small annual difference cumulated to a big one over the decades.) The remaining 25% annual difference in picking rates would at least partly reflect differences in soil quality between the old and the new South.

    • Baptist uttered:

      “Because the labor systems in the two cotton regimes were profoundly different we simply cannot demonstrate that different kinds of seeds, rather than different labor systems, caused the difference between sea-island cotton-picking rates and “upland” cotton-picking rates.”

      Sea Island Cotton (presumably task system):

      Upland Cotton in Old South and Upland Cotton in New South

      If the cotton-picking productivity growth were due primarily to the slave management system, then the Upland cotton in the Old South (2nd chart) should be as pathetic looking as the Sea Island cotton chart. But it isn’t.

      It’s all in the Olmstead & Rhode paper whose argument is dismissed by Baptist in this post.

      Baptist’s argument is refuted.

  5. Allegorical or not, there is a reference to Baptist’s “whipping machine” in a novel by Epes Sargent, “Peculiar: A Tale of the Great Transition.” Perhaps his use of the term indicates its spread in popular culture. He neatly emphasizes the culpability of the Yankee and the hypocrisy of church leaders in driving production.

    Here is relevant the passage from page 23 of the 1863 edition (University Press, Cambridge):
    Heard Mr. Palmer preach. After hearing the latter on the duties of slaves, tried to run away. Was caught and taken to a new patent whipping machine, recently introduced by a Yankee. Here was left for a whipping. Bought off the Yankee with five dollars, and taught him how to stain my back so as to imitate the marks of the lash. Thus no discredit was brought on the machine. A week after was sold to a Red River planter, Mr. Carberry Ratcliff.

    (In fact, a planter family with the similar name of Ratliff was related by marriage to the Sargents in Louisiana and Mississippi through Adam Louis Bingaman, Jr., of Natchez. Bingaman married Julia Maria Sargent, the daughter of Judith Sargent Murray, after graduating from Harvard. Judith Sargent Murray, the early advocate for women’s independence from Massachusetts, tutored the children of plantation owners. Her brother, Winthrop Sargent, was the first Territorial Governor of Mississippi.)

  6. We have known for a long time that productivity increased in the sense that cotton production grew more rapidly than the number of enslaved people. This increase in productivity was a key part of Fogel and Engerman’s argument that slavery was dynamic capitalist system. Part of that increase is known to have arisen from westward movement on to more productive soil. Olmstead and Rhode collected data from picking books and found that differences in soil did not appear to explain all of the improvement in productivity. They attempt to explain the rest of the improvements in productivity. Like Baptist, they argue that planters used picking books and whips to enforce maximum effort from slaves. Unlike Baptist they argue that planters used plant breeding to increase the amount of cotton that could be picked with maximum effort. They show that new cotton varieties were being developed and introduced. They consider the possibility that it was improvements in the management of slaves, but rejected this idea because they found large increases in productivity where there were also innovations in plant breeding (upland cotton) and not where there were few improvements in plants (sea island cotton).

    In his book, Baptist does not refer to Olmstead and Rhode’s data indicating differences in productivity growth between upland and sea island cotton growers. Consequently, he does not directly address their argument. Instead, he rejects Olmstead and Rhode’s argument by noting that “while some planters obsessively chased the latest fad for cotton seed varieties … others argued that new breeds added nothing to the picking qualities of the Petit Gulf. So something that cannot be explained by the seeds happened to increase a continuous increase in productivity.” No doubt some planters did feel this way, but there are no citations provided. Moreover, the argument is equivalent to me rejecting global warming because my brother in law doesn’t believe it.

    Now, Baptist explicitly rejects the evidence based upon differences between upland and sea island production. In his book, Baptist refers to differences in the methods of work organization between rice growers and cotton growers: “In those rice swamps, each day enslavers assigned each worker a specific job. Custom fixed the volume of each daily piece of labor….” “As historians have pointed out, a long history of “negotiations” between masters’ power and the cunning of the enslaved had created the task system. It contained benefits for to the left hand and right. Those who finished early could tend their own gardens, help others to work, or simply relax for an hour or two. Without direct supervision, forced labor was generally inefficient, but tasking relieved enslavers of this dilemma by offering diligent slaves an incentive: free time. No wonder owners who tried to increase customary tasking levels and limit free time faced direct or covert resistance.” He now tells us that the task system applied to sea island cotton production as well. He directs us to Coclanis. I think, however, that Coclanis also focuses primarily on rice production, and as far as I know does not argue that all sea island cotton producers used a task system. Since all of the data in Olmstead and Rhode is from picking books, it seems possible that these planters were interested in pushing their slaves as any others keeping such detailed records. It is not even obvious why they would keep daily picking books under the task system.

    Assume for the sake of argument that Baptist is correct about the sea island cotton. The available evidence is then consistent with either his claim or Olmstead and Rhode. We are still left with the more fundamental problem: Baptist does not actually provide any evidence in support of his own argument. Baptist’s argument is that increases in productivity came primarily from the use of torture to push enslaved people harder. He provides plenty of evidence that planters used record books and whips to push enslaved people to exert the maximum effort. But we already knew that. There is no doubt that many planters used a combination of record keeping and torture to try to force people to their maximum production. Both planters and former slaves reported it. He provides evidence that quotas and picking increased over time, but we already knew that too. Merely showing that picking quotas went up and productivity increased is just as consistent with Olmstead and Rhode.

    What is new in Baptist’s book is the argument that continuous innovations in record keeping and torture were able to increase the effectiveness of coercion over time. He claims that planters developed new and better ways of forcing slaves to exert the maximum effort and that slaves found new and faster ways of picking. To increase productivity over six decades these innovations had to be communicable knowledge, knowledge that could be passed on. As Clegg points out, however, Baptist does not provide direct evidence of either the techniques for new and better coercion or the techniques for faster picking being passed on. Picking books and whips existed in the first decade of the nineteenth century. What were the later planter innovations? What were the techniques for faster picking? I don’t know if such evidence exists but I did not find it in Baptist.

    In my own reading of slave narratives, I don’t recall accounts of enslaved people passing on techniques for faster picking. I also did not find this in Baptist’s book. At least some accounts of picking in slave narratives seem to suggest that it was regarded as a skill that could be developed with repetition but was limited by an individual’s aptitude. Baptist quotes from Charles Ball that “a man who has arrived at the age of twenty five before he sees a cotton field will never, in the language of the overseers, become a crack picker.“ Ball came to cotton picking late, and never became a crack picker. I don’t think he described anyone revealing to him faster ways to pick. Solomon Northrup also came to cotton picking late in his life, and, if I remember correctly, explained that he was eventually taken out of the field because he was never able to improve his speed. He did not describe other slaves instructing him on how to pick faster. Some examples from slave narratives of people passing on knowledge about picking would have helped to support Baptist’s argument.

  7. I also think Clegg made a strategic mistake in focusing so much on the specific flaws in Baptist’s book. His larger point about the need to define capitalism seems to have been lost in back and forth between people, including myself, who agree or disagree with Baptist..

    • Hi Brad — just quickly on this small point; that “strategic mistake” might well be just as much mine as Clegg’s. I put the critique of Baptist in the middle of my post about Clegg’s article, and even though I think I accurately captured the true focus of the piece, which as you rightly say was about the need to define capitalism, it’s clearly been the specifics of the Baptist case that have captured the attention of the commenters.

      • No. I think Clegg placed too much emphasis on it in his essay, particularly because it was not clear that all of the flaws he was noting arose from the failure to define capitalism. I did, however, find it to be an interesting essay. I especially liked his bringing Brenner into the debate. I remember the first time I read Brenner’s 1977 New Left Review paper, back in 1984, thinking it was an amazing paper.

        • Which is kind of ironic because someone else (Marshall Steinbaum) was just arguing the Baptist thesis is consistent with Acemoglu and Wolitsky’s “Economics of Labour Coercion” (as though somehow Olmstead & Rhode are inconsistent). I mention this only because the A&W paper purports to be a formalisation of Brenner’s argument in “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development” (collected in The Brenner Debate).

          • I’m not sure I buy the links in that chain. I thought Brenner had two contributions. One was about the analysis of institutional change and the other was about what sort of institutions promote economic growth. First, he argued, like earlier authors, that relative price changes can induce institutional change but added that the direction of change depends upon the initial institutional framework. He illustrated this with his analysis of the decline of serfdom in the West and the intensification of serfdom in the East. Second, these institutional changes then sent the two regions on divergent paths of economic development. The path of the West led to a dynamic economic system because of the need to compete for resources. Unproductive firms (farms) would be unable to compete for inputs with more productive firms. Survival as a capitalist depended upon constantly revolutionizing production. Whether one agrees with him, or not, Brenner was clear about what he meant by capitalism and its role in explaining the rise of the West.

            A and W seem to formalize the first part of Brenner, changes in relative prices have different effects on labor organization depending on initial conditions, but don’t think they addressed the second. It also was not entirely clear to me what their formalization added to Brenner.

            I think Clegg suggests that Baptist also missed the second part of Brenner’s argument: he did not give sufficient attention to planters’ intense competition for factors of production.

  8. I notice that Baptist does not address (at all) the review by Trevon Logan in the Journal of Economic History. It appears immediately after the Olmstead review. Logan’s review struck me because he very clearly claims that Baptist’s book contains some troubling racial assumptions that have been overlooked in the controversy about the book. He goes on to say that this could have been ignored due to the fact that there is very little racial diversity of those in the debate. He says, more or less, that the job Baptist gives himself in the book implies that blacks still need the help/aid/direction of a white historian to tell their story. I found that particularly provocative (and perhaps of more general interest that debates about productivity) because it gets to the issue of racial consciousness in doing work on slavery.

    Perhaps it’s just me, but for Baptist to completely ignore the critique of a black economic historian who is critical of the racial assumptions of his work is quite, quite ironic and someone should definitively call him out for it.

  9. This is the classic example of emphasizing quantitative data over qualitative. Quantitative data cannot explain why something took place. It can offers clues and show figures and percentages, but it cannot answer the WHY questions. Only qualitative research can do that. Baptist went after qualitative data while Olmstead and Rhode used quantitative data. I’ll side with Baptist.

    • In other words, that invention called statistics (let alone causal inference) must be totally useless I guess. I wonder how it is that you have formed any belief about any statistically described data at all.

      • Real simple. I learned how to work with both quantitative and qualitative data in education studies through the doctoral program at a university. If you read Creswell and other experts in the field of research you would find out the differences between the two types of methodologies. You would also discover the limitations of statistical research as well as how inductive and deductive reasoning work.

        By the way, drop the alias. If you cannot use your real name in an academic blog then you have nothing of value to say that I should respect.

  10. I am frankly skeptical of the assertion of a causal relationship between increased efficiency in the production of cotton and the dropping market price of the commodity. It is clear that the price dropped and efficiently in some regions increased, but in other regions it did not. The low-country producers were not “driven” out of business by the upland producers, regardless of the organization of the labor force.

    Market price is determined by demand relative to supply. Certainly, if supply outpaces demand prices drop, but at below some price the cost of production is not met and producers stop production and do something else. That this did not happen to any great extent suggests the facilcy of the entire arguement.

    • If it’s a less productive company, it dies. If it’s less productive farmland, the price of the farmland drops, so it’s still worth producing cotton there, until the productivity is so low relative to the price that it’s better to switch to corn or give up and let the fields go to timber—which has happened on a massive scale in America.

  11. Pingback: The Baptist Question Redux: Emancipation & Cotton Productivity | Pseudoerasmus

  12. I’m happy to see that Baptist has responded to one of my criticisms, and I look forward to his promised response to my other arguments. I hope to soon write a guest post on this blog, reflecting on the wider implications of this debate, but first I want to directly respond to Baptist’s response, which boils down to the suggestion that the task system might explain low productivity growth on low-country cotton plantations.

    I think this suggestion is worth taking seriously. Despite being a mere sociologist, I’m aware of the literature on the task system, as are the economists Olmstead and Rhode, who refer to it in their work. Our difference with Baptist is not a matter of differing sources but of differing interpretations. It is plausible that a less productive system of labor management was preserved on lowland plantations growing long staple Sea Island cotton (which was marketed separately from short staple upland varieties). But existing scholarship does not provide unambiguous support for such a conclusion. Nor can it explain why productivity on upland plantations rose by a factor of four.

    While an opposition between lowland “task” and upland “gang” labor may be adequate for AP history flashcards, specialists tend to guard against such a simplistic dichotomy. Both Edmund Morgan and Peter Coclanis (the authors Baptist linked in his response) acknowledge that some upland cotton plantations were completely organized along task lines (including, it appears, Hammond’s Silver Bluff plantation, a discussion of which Baptist also links to, apparently unaware that it was an upland plantation). While all agree that planting and cultivation on upland plantations tended to be organized in gangs, *cotton picking* (the subject of this discussion) was generally tasked in both regions. Indeed, what Baptist calls “the pushing system” in upland cotton picking is itself a variant of tasking, albeit one where slaves were punished for going under the task rather than rewarded with free time for going over it. Baptist is essentially claiming that upland planters set the task as a minimum and allowed it to vary among slaves and over time, whilst lowland planters set the task as a more or less constant maximum. As Brad Hansen points out above, if this is true it is unclear why Sea Island planters meticulously recorded the daily pickings of individual slaves in the account books that Olmstead and Rhode have digitized. Yet this hypothesis is not implausible given what we know about other differences between upland and lowland work cultures. Unfortunately studies of lowland plantations tend to focus on rice, and more research will be needed to establish whether Sea Island cotton was indeed picked in a systematically different manner.

    However, even if Baptist is right that cotton picking was organized entirely differently on lowland cotton plantations (e.g. if slaves were typically rewarded with free time during the harvest) this wouldn’t necessarily explain the stagnant productivity observed on them. Morgan argues that Sea Island planters adopted the task system because it proved a more efficient way to extract cotton from slaves—by providing them with greater incentives—rather than because slave resistance prevented them from introducing the more productive labor management techniques employed in the uplands. If Morgan is right (and he remains the foremost authority on the subject) then Baptist’s alternative hypothesis becomes less plausible.

    Lastly, even if Baptist is right that labor organization alone explains low productivity on Sea Island plantations, this cannot save his main argument that torture was the “ultimate cause” of the fourfold labor productivity growth on *upland* plantations from 1800 to 1860. The Sea Island contrast was only one of a number of criticisms that have been made of this argument (by Olmstead, Hansen, Pseudoerasmus and myself). To briefly reiterate these:
    1. Baptist fails to explain why slaveowners in 1800 were willing to accept a quarter of the daily output of cotton they received in 1860, when according to him all they needed to do was to apply more violence. Were they too bound by moral feeling for their slaves?
    2. Baptist would presumably say no. Instead his claim is that it took slaves a long time to adapt to “the pushing system.” But he fails to account for why it took 50-60 years. Studies of the labor process often find that “learning by doing” can be a major factor in productivity growth. But with technology held constant this effect is usually found to play out over months or years, not generations.
    3. While Baptist’s description of a uniform “system” of continually increasing quotas is consistent with the increase of average annual picking rates in Olmstead and Rhode’s data, it is not consistent with sub-annual trends and cross-sectional variation. As Olmstead points out in his response, there is a lot of day-to-day variation in picking rates, as well as periods of decline towards the end of the season. This suggests that the “ratcheting effect” described by Baptist (due to enforced competition) was inoperative in the short term. There was also a tremendous amount of variation in average picking rates between plantations, and this variation increased over time, suggesting there was not much systematicity to “the pushing system.”
    4. If torture were all that was required to reach high levels of productivity growth how do we explain centuries of stagnant productivity on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil? Historians of these regions would be surprised to learn that slaveowners there had any qualms about torturing slaves.
    5. Daily picking rates from the early twentieth century, from sharecroppers who used the same primitive technology as slaves but were not whipped, are 25 to 50% higher than in 1860. At a minimum this demonstrates that torture is not necessary to achieve productivity growth beyond the level Baptist is trying to explain (of course this is not to suggest that torture was unnecessary under slavery, just that it could be substituted with other “free labor” incentives and/or biological innovation. Baptist, in a comment to an earlier post, cited evidence of total productivity decline in the aftermath of the civil war, but this data does not consist of cotton picking rates, and the best study (Ransom and Sutch) attributes it to a reduction in labor time).

    Baptist has still not responded to any of these objections.

    But leaving aside these reasons to doubt Baptist’s argument, the biggest problem with it is the sheer paucity of evidence he presents in its defense. He cites data from only one plantation (the Prudhomme plantation of Natchitoches Louisiana), where he claims the introduction of the pushing system led average picking rates to more than double between the 1830s and 1850s. Not only do we have no reason to take this single case as representative, but there is evidence of picking rates on this plantation for only one year in the 1830s, hardly enough to estimate a decennial average. Moreover, in examining Prudhomme letters and account books I have been unable to find any mention of the new system of labor discipline that Baptist claims was introduced between the 1830s and 50s.

    It is this supposed evidence, and not the testimony of ex-slaves, that I criticized in my review as “anecdotal.” Which brings me to the thorny issue of Baptist’s rhetorical tactics. Baptist has repeatedly suggested that his critics are either dismissing the experience of formerly enslaved people or denying that coercion played a central role in the slave labor process. In fact, with the exception of a scurrilous review that the Economist was forced to retract, his critics have done no such thing. In my review I drew on a comprehensive analysis of interviews with former slaves, as well as published slave narratives. My comments on Baptist’s work were framed by an argument about the compatibility of capitalism and violence, as well as a criticism of Fogel and Engerman for downplaying the essential brutality of slavery. My critique of Baptist is not that he overestimates the extent of slaveowner violence in the fully-fledged cotton kingdom of the 1850s, but that in order to make violence the central cause of productivity growth he ends up *underestimating* the extent of violence in 1800. Olmstead makes essentially the same point in his review: “Slavery was a disgustingly vicious institution in 1860, but it was also a disgustingly vicious institution in 1800.”

    Yet Baptist continues to frame this debate as about “seeds vs. coercion” and “numbers vs. testimony”, in spite of the fact that both are false oppositions. Everyone agrees that brutal coercion lay at the bleeding heart of the slave labor process, and that without such coercion productivity would have been lower than it was. But it does not follow that a new technique of coercion caused a fourfold increase in productivity over 50-60 years. Numbers and testimony can both provide vital information, and as far as I know none of the scholars who have criticized Baptist’s handling of numbers have questioned any of the testimony he has presented. But then it’s striking that Baptist never seems to provide any actual citations of the testimony on which his argument are supposedly based in these exchanges with his critics. If he were to do so it would perhaps allow us to have a more rewarding discussion of these important sources.

    The issue of testimony raises questions about the goal of history writing. There are of course multiple legitimate goals. Baptist’s technique of “evocative history” combines slave narratives and interviews to create what he call “composite characters”. Several commentators, including Trevor Burnard and Trevor Logan, have strongly criticized this technique, accusing Baptist of “ventriloquizing” formerly enslaved people and using the experience of survivors as vehicles for rhetorical ends. More charitably, we might interpret Baptist’s use of testimony as primarily descriptive rather than explanatory. This technique allows Baptist to depicts the horrors of slavery in all their gruesomeness, and his argument about torture draws on the moral outrage that every reader will appropriately feel when confronted with these horrors. But evocative writing and an earnest moral stand should not be confused with convincing explanation. The idea that torture is the “ultimate cause” of long-run productivity increases may be morally satisfying, for it allows us to focus on one of the most awful features of a deeply repugnant institution. But with the meager evidence Baptist has provided, this argument does not bear critical scrutiny. In my forthcoming post I will put forward an alternative explanation and try to show why I think this debate has important implications for our understanding of capitalism, both past and present.

  13. Pingback: Continuing the Debate on Slavery and Capitalism « The Junto

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  16. I would like to weigh-in on the Baptist/Clegg/Pseudoerasmus debate on whether the lack of productivity growth in picking Sea Island vs. upland cotton invalidates Baptist’s hypothesis. This comparison is literally like apples-to-oranges as the plant species were different (Gossypium barbadense as opposed to G. hirsutum). The authors acknowledge that lowland planters cultivating the former relied upon the task rather than gang system of labor, but do not explain why they found that method preferable or retained it in light of the gang system’s ostensibly greater productivity on upland plantations.

    The prized Sea Island long-staple fibers were far more delicate than those of the upland plants, with great sensitivity to sun, water, rough handling, and extended exposure to air that would destroy the very properties for which this cotton received a significantly higher price (typically 2x-3x that of upland for the middling grades, and considerably higher for the finest ones). It was for this reason that the saw-toothed gins and mechanical baling machines use on upland could not be employed in processing Sea Island cotton. Moreover, even those using McCarthy roller gins to process Sea Island cotton had to limit the machine’s running speed well below its maximum capacity to avoid harming the finer grades.

    Planters of Sea Island cotton faced production gating factors not found on upland plantations. In addition to the need for careful picking, because buyers of the expensive Sea Island grades demanded rigid quality control, Sea Island required extra sorting, cleaning, and moting steps before and after ginning, in addition to the final quality check of hand-packing, that rendered its processing stubbornly labor intensive despite the use of mechanized gins. Moreover, the fiber, whether as seed cotton or clean-ginned, could not be left exposed to air for any length of time before the vegetable oil that contributed to its silky feel began to evaporate, necessitating relatively quick processing and packing in bags rather than in square bales. Consequently, unlike the more stable seasonal labor demands on upland plantations, the picking-ginning-packing season represented a time of peak demand on Sea Island plantations.

    Picking rates on Sea Island plantations were never going to be as high as those on upland ones for the simple fact that the cotton was harder to pick. The plants grew as high as eight feet tall, versus an average of about three to four feet for upland plants, and as previously noted, the cotton had to be picked with greater care so as not to damage the delicate fibers. After the switch from slave to free labor, wage workers demanded higher compensation for picking Sea Island cotton as their daily production was lower. A U.S. Department of Commerce bulletin from 1916 (“Cotton Production in the United States”), as the boll weevil began to eradicate the species, noted that labor shortages limited Sea Island production due to “objection to the small and partially closed sea-island bolls on the part of the pickers accustomed to upland varieties, notwithstanding the fact that they receive more for picking sea-island cotton than upland cotton.”

    The critical question for this debate, however, is why did the picking rates not show the productivity improvements experienced on upland plantations that lie at the heart of the debate whether the experience of Sea Island planters invalidates Baptist’s arguments about the role of labor coercion. My answer is no, because you really cannot compare the two given the very different nature of the products involved. While Sea Island cotton was graded and traded like a commodity, great variability in pricing existed, particularly within the finer grades. Not merely seed selection, but also the care expended in production determined prices received. Similarly, while not skilled labor, the picking of Sea Island cotton required more care and technique than did that for upland varieties, and the subsequent processing was more labor intensive and prone to gating factors that would have rendered faster picking rates counter-productive even had they not resulted in fiber damage. Consequently, Sea Island required something more akin to batch production, as opposed to the mass production of upland that yielded significant productivity gains by forcing a higher work pace. Perhaps, Rolls-Royces-to-Toyotas is a better analogy than apples-to-oranges.

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  18. Pingback: The half that will never be told. . . | Real-World Economics Review Blog


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