May 30, 2020

Historical Data

Spring 2020

Time on the Cross: What Went Wrong

In our reading for this week, we looked at An Overview of Time on the Cross, by Herbert Gutman, which is a review of Time on the Cross, (T/C) by Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, an example used by historians to show how digital history can be used incorrectly, and how interpretation of only pure facts, and therefore the ignorance of human interactions, can lead to incorrect historical interpretations. As Gutman states, “On all of these important matters, the findings in T/C are either disappointingly slight and unconvincing, based upon flawed assumptions about slave culture and slave society, based upon misuse of important quantitative data, or derived from inferences and estimates that are the result of a misreading of conventional scholarship.” (Gutman 60) Fogel and Engermans findings in T/C indicate that slavery in the US acted more along the lines of a free market economy, with slave owners giving positive incentives to their slaves in order to have them work harder, the existence of a fluid social hierarchy among slaves, which they refer to as a form of the American dream, and the adoption of a protestant work ethic amongst slaves. They therefore refute the commonly held idea that slaves resisted their masters, instead proposing that it was mutually beneficial for slaves to work hard. This is refuted by not only first hand accounts, but also quantitative data about slave whippings and escape attempts which T/C seems to simply ignore. As digital historians, T/C serves as a perfect example of what not to do. The problem which Fogel and Engerman have in this study is that they became too interested in pure facts and quantitative data, excluding numerous examples of non-quantitative data such as first hand accounts, as well as excluding quantitative data that refuted the other findings they were presenting. While Fogel and Engerman are both respected economic historians today, this work serves as a shining example of the opposite of good digital historical analysis. When looking at historical data, it is important to look at points of non-quantitative data and to include all data, including things which may refute the other findings, such as scientists do in scientific experiments and studies. Overall, though T/C is panned by many historians worldwide, it is as important, if not more important than, accurate studies and findings, because it can show historians what not to do.