Stanley Engerman, Revisionist Scholar of Slavery, Dies at 87

The study found that slavery was in fact profitable and efficient.

Stanley Engerman, Revisionist Scholar of Slavery, Dies at 87

Stanley Engerman died in Watertown, Mass., on May 11, after a long and thorough research. He was one of the authors who delved into the complicated history of American slavery to argue that it is a rational economic system, with Blacks being more productive workers than white people free in the North. He was 87.

David, his son, said that the cause of the death was myelodysplastic Syndrome. This is a rare type of cancer in both bone marrow and blood.

Professor Engerman, Professor Robert W. Fogel, and their colleagues used data analysis in the two-volume book 'Time on the Cross, The Economics of American Negro Slavery,' published in 1974, to dispel what they considered common descriptions of slavery. These included that it was unprofitable and inefficient, and pervasively abusive.

They claimed they weren't defending slavery. They wrote that if any aspect of American history evokes shame, it is the system of slave-holding. They said that much of what was accepted as wisdom about slavery, however, was either distorted or simply wrong.

They wrote that 'Slave Agriculture was not inefficient when compared to free agriculture'. The authors wrote that'slave agriculture was 35 percent more efficient in the South than Northern family farming due to economies of scale, effective management, and intensive use of labor.

They claimed that the average slave was not lazy, inept or unproductive but 'harder working and more efficient' than his white counterpart. They claimed that slave breeding and sexual abuse was not the cause of the destruction of Black families. Instead, it was the plantation owners' economic interest to keep enslaved family stable.

The authors also claimed that slaves were given positive incentives to improve their productivity, including being promoted to work gang supervisors.

The book received a lot attention, including an ecstatic review from the economist Peter Passell published in The New York Times. He wrote that he didn't know of a book more important about American history published in the past decade.

Not all reviews were as positive. Thomas L. Haskell called it "severely flawed" in The New York Review of Books, 1975, when he wrote about three books which challenged its findings. Some historians criticised its relatively benign depiction of slave life.

Professor Engerman, in The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, May 1974, said: 'We expected there to be a lot of debate within the history profession, but the reaction of the public is quite different.

Kenneth Clark, a prominent Black sociologist who was a guest on 'Today,' accused him and Professor Fogel of presenting slavery as a 'benevolent form of oppression'.

In an article published in The New York Times Magazine by Toni Morrison, she seized upon their conclusion that slaves weren't lazy. She wrote that 'no Black person ever doubted the efficiency of slaves' when they looked at the 19th century economic growth in the American South. It is fascinating that this conclusion is needed to convince whites.

About 100 historians, sociologists, and economists gathered at the University of Rochester where Professor Engerman, and Professor Fogel, taught, for a 3-day conference to discuss the publication.

The debate was so heated that The Democrat and Chronicle referred to it as'scholarly war'. The two men were criticized for focusing on statistics rather than the brutal reality of slavery.

The historian Kenneth M. Stampp stated at the conference that 'They deny slaves their voice, initiative, and humanity'. They reject the messy world where masters and their slaves with their rationale and irrational perspectives survived to the best of their abilities, and replace it by a model for a tidy and rational world that has never existed.

Eugene D. Genovese, the Marxist historian who published his own book on slavery, "Roll, Jordan Roll, The World the Slave Made" in 1974, called the work titled "Time on the Cross" an important one that had "broken open many questions about issues which were previously swept under the carpet."

Time on the Cross was awarded the Bancroft Prize in History by Columbia University, but it wasn't without controversy. A university spokesperson said that the conclusions of the authors were "based on new data analysis methods".

The authors of the 1989 edition of the book admitted that they were remiss for not being more clear about the evils associated with slavery. They should have provided a "new moral indictment" of slavery, they wrote.


Stanley Lewis Engerman, born in Brooklyn on March 14, 36. His father Irving was a wholesaler furniture salesman and his mother Edith (Kaplan Engerman) was a housewife.

In 1956 and 1958, he earned bachelor's and a master's degree in accounting at New York University. He then received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University's political economy department in 1962. He taught economics at Yale for a year before joining the University of Rochester. He taught economics and history at the University of Rochester until his retirement in 2017.

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980 to study the free and non-free labor of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Professor Engerman's son David is not the only one who has survived him. He also leaves behind two other sons: Mark and Jeff, a sister named Natalie Mayrsohn, and six grandchildren. His wife Judith (Rader), Engerman died in 2019.

When Professor Engerman was in graduate studies, he became interested in the economics of slave trade after reading an article in The Journal of Political Economy from 1958. Alfred Conrad's and John Meyer's article concluded that, among other things: the slave economy is profitable. It also cast doubt on the idea that the South was forced into a war because of an unsound economic structure.

After finishing 'Time on the Cross', Professor Engerman wrote about slavery in the United States, colonialism, and economic growth in the New World. In his book 'Slavery, Emancipation & Freedom,' (2007), Professor Engerman examined slavery's global history, emancipation, and the United States.

John Joseph Wallis teaches American economics history at the University of Maryland. He said that "Time on the Cross" was crucial to fully understanding slavery.

In a telephone interview, he stated that it was a new perspective on slavery. It's not that slavery was bad, but you need to look at it differently if you're going to understand the Black experience.