Thomas Fleming on the Evolution of Slavery

This should make for interesting reading and comments. Fleming is the author of a new book that he argues offers a new understanding of the Civil War.

Two words: Avery Craven.


12 thoughts on “Thomas Fleming on the Evolution of Slavery

  1. Brad June 7, 2013 / 11:41 am

    Wow is all I can say. I would enjoy seeing Walter Johnson and Fleming debate each other. When you are going to write silly things, you should have the evidence to back it up.

  2. Ned June 7, 2013 / 1:02 pm

    An observation about a statistical issue I have seen before — the statement that per capita wealth was higher in the slave states. It helps inflate the numbers when a high proportion of the population within a state have been essentially commoditized. Thus in the slave states, the dollar value of a lot of people is included in the wealth number whereas in the free states the value of the people is not a factor.

    • HankC June 9, 2013 / 4:56 pm

      Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera and I averaged 28 homers last year.

      when I asked my employer for a raise to our average $9M salary, I received no response…

      • John Foskett June 14, 2013 / 10:22 am

        That’s because there’s a 1/3 chance you were on PED’s.

  3. neukomment June 7, 2013 / 7:32 pm

    The issue ignored in the review is that of the pro-slavery movement’s imperialism in regard to expanding slavery into the territories and their feeding the free states’ fears they would wake up one day to find slavery imposed on them by a Federal Supreme Court decision… Lincoln was willing to leave slavery alone where it already was, but the pro-slavery movement was not willing to leave the free states alone… The Civil War can be rightly called “the War of Southern Pro-slavery Aggression”..

  4. Matt Gallman June 8, 2013 / 2:57 pm

    Interesting essay and interesting beginning discussion of HNN and here.
    Haven’t read the book or seen any reviews.

    I am struck that one of the first comments on HNN recalls Fogel and Engerman (in a negative light).
    I think that in fact all the major conclusions (if not all the specific calculations) in Time on the Cross are pretty much accepted as truth at this point. Yet, it seems to me that Time on the Cross has a bad reputation based on what folks think Fogel and Engerman said, rather than what they actually said.

    The comments on this essay strike me as similar. As far as I can tell, all the empirical / factual statements in this essay are pretty generally understood to be true. They lead him to a provocative and interesting interpretation. But it strikes me that many of the responses are suggesting that he has said things that he doesn’t actually say (at least in this excerpt)

    Interesting stuff.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 8, 2013 / 4:16 pm

      My take is that the criticisms of F+E at the time was on what people thought their findings implied about slavery as a moral institution. For example, coerced labor may well be more productive than free labor; the “wealth” cited by Fleming does not make clear whether part of that “wealth” was in fact the economic value of enslaved people; and people have explained why issues of slave diet and slave discipline explored by F+E might not lead to the conclusion that slaves were well treated.

      At least one commenter’s reflections reflect a reading of the entire book. The publisher has volunteered to send me a copy (that offer was made before this post). From what I’ve seen, the comparison to Craven is not a bad one.

  5. Matt Gallman June 8, 2013 / 7:53 pm

    I think that you are entirely correct that the response to F and E (and perhaps Fleming) has to do with beliefs that the argument suggested something about the morality of the institution. But I feel pretty comfortable in saying that neither F and E (individually or together) ever actually said any such thing about the morality of slavery.

    What they said (and what Fleming seems to be building upon) is that
    (1) Slavery was an economically productive system
    (2) Gang labor (and coerced labor) was in many contexts more efficient than free labor
    (3) The Southern economy was prospering (ie slavery was “good” for both slave owners and overall growth)
    (4) In addition to violence and coercion, many slave owners used some form of market incentives in influencing slave behavior
    (5) the slave institution was efficient in non agricultural settings (like tobacco factories)
    (6) the institution of slavery was evolving. [see Virginia especially]
    (7) Slaves rec’d sufficient calories and housing and medical attention to support hard labor. That does not mean they were “well treated” but it does mean that slave owners understood that their investments required these things in order to be productive

    There is more, but these are some of the high points

    The core point is that profit-maximizing racists will make decisions to maximize profits. And the fact that they are immoral in their essence does not mean that they are boneheads when it comes to seeking profits. [And the profit motive does not really differ with larger cultural arguments about hegemony]

    It does seem as if Fleming’s major quarrel is with Moynihan 🙂 That is a sound quarrel, but not really very up to date

  6. rcocean June 13, 2013 / 8:32 pm

    A good corrective to the hysterical the south was ‘just like Nazi Germany’ and slavery was the ‘black holocaust’.
    As the 19th century Southerners asserted, the average Slave was MATERIALLY better off than most peasants in serfs in Europe. And the 250,000 free blacks in the South were probably better off – in almost every respect – than a Irish Peasant or the average English workingman.

    But that simply ignores the awfulness of slavery. Families split apart. No education. No freedom. No ability to advance. Take the most simple of human pleasures, food. We eat what we want and what we like. We don’t even think about it. Yet, as a slave, you ate what the master gave you. Don’t like Sweet potatoes? Tough luck. Want more than 2 lbs. of salt port a week? Sorry. Want some liquor or a smoke? Sorry, reserved for masters only.

    And the vast majority of masters were more less or humane and Christian. But what if you belonged to the small minority who weren’t? So sorry.

    Your master didn’t want to break up your family A good Christian master, he was. But then he died, so what then? So sorry, the estate must be liquidated and your son and husband sent 100 miles away. So sorry. Maybe they can visit you at Christmas.

  7. Jeff Fiddler June 14, 2013 / 7:34 am

    I am not too sure what F&E/ToC is left after that excellent 7 point summary. I have done a lot of work on the ToC and so much of F&E’s statistics are garbage – and withdrawn by themselves in later work – that while I agree with those 7 points I am very wary about the statistics that try to make slavery acceptable.
    Two examples: Slave babies/children had no value. Fogel was forced to admit the death rate for slave children under five was fifty percent. As a comparison, the death rate for children under five in Sweden was 30 percent. (Sweden had/has some of the best 19th cent. statistics). Fogel tried to make this palatable by saying that sometimes planters good intentions backfired. (see Without consent or contract).
    Second example: first edition of ToC and Fleming’s stats in A disease in the Public Mind say as high as 25 percent of slaves were skilled. Hogwash. Less than ten percent had any skill. F&E depended on a few plantation records/sales. The other view depended on USCT records for more than 50,000 enlistees at last count.
    I could go on. The worst case is F&E’s chapter on sexual exploitation of female slaves. They say it didn’t exist because: it would be better if an owner kept a white mistress in town rather than a slave mistress – even though I can’t find one historical example. Second, in the census of prostitutes in Nashville there were no slave prostitutes. But no occupation is listed for any slave in that census. You might as well say there were no slave bakers or blacksmiths.Third,F&E quote Southern slave owners saying that if a white overseer is intimate with a female slave he should be fired. There is not one instance of such. Famously, on Butler’s plantation in SC the overseer had black children, as did his (white) son who was second in command. Fourth, all their work on “mulattoes” is again, garbage. F&E desperately try to show a “low” mulatto rate. Modern DNA sampling shows that more than fifty percent of American black people have some European DNA.
    James Baldwin is said to have said in some sort of round table on TV: “Don’t tell me you don’t want me to sleep with your daughter. I’ve already slept with YOUR daughter. You don’t want me to sleep with your WIFE’S DAUGHTER.

    I could go on. F&E try to make two points in ToC; first that slavery was profitable and had no chance to die out. Agreed. Second, slave owners did this by treating slaves well. Garbage. Slaves were treated like slaves.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 14, 2013 / 8:12 am

      Let me ask this … if the second point you mention was rephrased as “masters treated their slaves so as to maximize their productivity,” would you disagree?

  8. rcocean June 14, 2013 / 10:40 pm

    “Slave babies/children had no value. Fogel was forced to admit the death rate for slave children under five was fifty percent. As a comparison, the death rate for children under five in Sweden was 30 percent. (Sweden had/has some of the best 19th cent. statistics). Fogel tried to make this palatable by saying that sometimes planters good intentions backfired. (see Without consent or contract).”

    Lame. In fact, I have a hard time understanding this point. Slaveholders cared about Slave children because (1) most them were good Christians, and (2) Slave children in 15 years could be soled for lots of $$. Its as if someone had written, Slaveholders thought Faols wee worthless and didn’t care about baby horses.

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