May 30, 2020

Historical Data

Spring 2020

Time on the cross

Time on the Cross has many flaws and chief among them is the way Fogel and Engerman sought to give an excuse, or in their eyes alternative reason, for why slavery persisted so long as an institution in the United States. Fogel and Engerman completely jumped over why slavery started and skipped straight to why southern plantation owners sought to continue the institution. Due to this fault in their process they completely miss that slavery started because there was a notion of superiority based on skin color. This feeling of superiority and racism is ultimately what would allow southern plantation owners to continue to commit atrocities and justify the use of enslaved labor. By only using graphs and statistics Fogel and Engerman miss all of the effects that cultural and social institutions would have in perpetuating the use of slave labor.

Time on the Cross makes another major mistake in over utilizing data and statistical methods. Over using data presents two problems, the first being that it becomes very difficult for laymen or even historians in this case to critique and understand the writing. If historians can’t even understand what is being written then it becomes very difficult for it to receive feedback. The second issue that arises is that over using data makes it very easy to miss a lot of hidden information behind the data. Fogel and Engerman seem to miss that slavery was only profitable for one group, the slave owners. Trying to utilize data about social institutions without questioning why they started is very problematic and leads to very inaccurate use and interpretation of historical data. 

Time on the cross provides a few valuable lessons of what not to do when using historical data. When using historical data we always need to ask a number of questions to better understand what information we’re missing. In the case of Time on the Cross questions such as why slavery began and what social factors helped perpetuate it are very necessary questions. Other important questions should be asked of data too such as who collected it and are there corroborating accounts or data sets from the opposing side of history. Data should always be used with some context and to help better understand a historical situation, not the way Time on the Cross utilizes it as the sole explaining factor. Overusing data can also lead to the historical interpretation being inaccessible in a way, when using data it should always be as an aid or additional piece of evidence. Time on the Cross teaches a valuable lesson of how not to use data.