Capital Ideas Blog

Robert W. Fogel's once-controversial work has become mainstream

By Hal Weitzman

From: Blog

The life and work of Robert W. Fogel—the Nobel laureate who, until his death in June 2013, was Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of American Institutions at Chicago Booth—was recalled in reflections both personal and professional at several events in October.

They culminated in a one-day conference marking the 40th anniversary of Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, the controversial data-driven book co-written by Fogel and Stanley Engerman that challenged the conventional wisdom that slavery was inefficient, unprofitable and on the wane at the time of the US Civil War.

At the conference, Jonathan B. Pritchett of Tulane University noted that although today’s researchers have access to better datasets than some of those used in the original book, Fogel and Engerman’s framework continues to shape the study of economic history.

That was demonstrated in a series of papers presented at the conference, on subjects such as the history of distinctively African-American names, lynching and economic activity, antebellum slave prices, and the data on runaway slaves.

Discussing the reaction to the book’s publication, Engerman, John Munro Professor of Economics at the University of Rochester, said he was booed for two minutes by 1,000 people at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was accused by one questioner of being “soft on slavery.”  

“We assumed everyone knew that slavery was evil,” Engerman said. “What were we supposed to do—put ‘We hate slavery’ at the bottom of every page?” However, he said he was pleased that textbooks now generally follow the book’s conclusions in discussing slavery.

Engerman demurred on the origins of the book’s provocative title. Finally, asked point-blank if he came up with it, he smiled playfully. “I wrote the subtitle,” he said.

The day before, at a memorial service held at the University of Chicago’s Rockerfeller Chapel, Steven Fogel delivered a more personal remembrance of his father, who, he said “was a typical absent-minded professor.” Once, he recalled, the Nobel laureate became frustrated with having mislaid his glasses. When it was pointed out to him that he was, in fact, wearing them, the economist responded: “Ah—I was wondering how I could see so well without them.”


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