American Enslavement and the Recovery of Black Economic History (Paper Summary)
This paper analyses the evidence needed to address questions of economic history and racial inequality, the Third Phase of research on American Enslavement and its Aftermath. A central component of understanding enslavement requires us to understand race. As Roberts (2011) has argued, race is not a social or biological category. It is a political one. Therefore, economists have sought to understand slavery as an institution.
Modern research on the economics of American enslavement was more than 20 years old when Fogel (1975) provided a timeline of the research as occurring in three phases. The First Phase, starting in the late 1950s, focused on three interrelated topics: “the profitability of an investment in slaves to slaveholders; the economic viability of the slave economy; and the effect of slavery on southern economic growth” (p. 37). The Second Phase of economic research on the institution of slavery, Fogel (1975) argued, was “the massive effort to uncover primary data bearing on the operation of the slave economy” (p. 38).
Addressing new questions from the narrative record will go a long way in reinvigorating the Third Phase of the agenda. While economic historians have been active in recent debates on the “history of capitalism” perspective on American enslavement (Hilt 2017), they have confined themselves largely to the topics involved in the first two phases. For example, debates have centred on the growth of cotton yields being more due to increased terror or crop innovation, or the degree to which Southern planters had outsized political influence in international trade. While these are worthwhile, considering the economic implications of innovative scholarship could help move us in more generative directions, and place an emphasis on the people most directly impacted by the peculiar institution.
In conclusion, moving towards a complete Black economic history will require new methods and new perspectives on the race itself that fall outside of traditional economics and even social science more generally. A qualitative approach is likely to be useful.
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