Stanley Engerman, one of the authors of a deeply researched book that, wading into the fraught history of American slavery, argued that it was a rational, viable economic system and that enslaved Black people were more efficient workers than free white people in the North, died on May 11 in Watertown, Mass. He was 87.
His son David said the cause was myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare form of blood and bone marrow cancer.
In their two-volume “Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery” (1974), Professor Engerman and Prof. Robert W. Fogel used data analysis to challenge what they called common characterizations of slavery, including that it was unprofitable, inefficient and pervasively abusive.
They said they were not defending slavery. “If any aspect of the American past evokes a sense of shame,” they wrote, it’s the system of slavery.” But much of the accepted wisdom about it, they said, was distorted, or just plain wrong.
“Slave agriculture was not inefficient compared with free agriculture,” they wrote. “Economies of large-scale operation, effective management and intensive utilization of labor made Southern slave agriculture 35 percent more efficient than the Northern system of family farming.”
They insisted that the typical slave “was not lazy, inept and unproductive” but rather “was harder working and more efficient than his white counterpart.” They contended that the destruction of the Black family through slave breeding and sexual exploitation was a myth, and that it was in the economic interest of plantation owners to encourage the stability of enslaved families.
They also wrote that some slaves received positive incentives, such as being elevated to overseers of work gangs, to increase their productivity.
The book attracted a lot of attention, including a rave review by the economist Peter Passell in The New York Times. “If a more important book about American history has been published in the last decade, I don’t know about it,” he wrote. He described the work as a corrective, “a jarring attack on the methods and conclusions of traditional scholarship” on slavery.
Not every review was as kind. Thomas L. Haskell, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1975 about three books that challenged the findings of “Time on the Cross,” called it “severely flawed.” Some historians criticized its relatively benign portrayal of slave life.
“We thought there’d be a lot of discussion within the history profession for a while, but the public reaction is something else,” Professor Engerman told The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester in May 1974.
When he and Professor Fogel — who would share the Nobel in economic sciences with Douglass C. North in 1993 — appeared on the “Today” show, Kenneth B. Clark, the prominent Black social psychologist, accused them of portraying slavery “as a benign form of oppression.”
And in an article in The New York Times Magazine, the novelist Toni Morrison seized on their finding that slaves were not lazy, writing: “No Black person who ever looked at the economic growth of the 19th-century American South ever doubted that slaves were efficient. What is interesting is that such a conclusion is now necessary to convince white people.”
Several months after “Time on the Cross” was published, about 100 historians, economists and sociologists gathered for a three-day conference to discuss the book at the University of Rochester, where Professor Engerman and Professor Fogel taught.
The debate was so contentious that The Democrat and Chronicle described it as “scholarly warfare.” Some of the criticism focused on the two men’s emphasis on statistics over the brutal realities of slavery.
“They deny the slave his voice, his initiative and his humanity,” the historian Kenneth M. Stampp said at the conference. “They reject the untidy world in which masters and slaves, with their rational and irrational perceptions, survived as best they could, and replace it with a model of a tidy, rational world that never was.”
But the Marxist historian Eugene D. Genovese, whose own book about slavery, “Roll, Jordan Roll: The World the Slave Made,” was also published in 1974, called “Time on the Cross” an “important work” that had “broken open a lot of questions about issues that were swept under the rug before.”
“Time on the Cross” was a winner of the Bancroft Prize for history from Columbia University in 1975, but not without controversy: Some of the school’s trustees disagreed with the choice because, a university spokesman said, the authors’ conclusions were “based on new methods of data analysis.”
In a 1989 edition of their book, the authors acknowledged that they had been remiss in not being clearer about the evils of enslavement; they should have provided a “new moral indictment of slavery,” they wrote.
Stanley Lewis Engerman was born on March 14, 1936, in Brooklyn to Irving and Edith (Kaplan) Engerman. His father was a wholesale furniture salesman, his mother a homemaker.
He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting from New York University in 1956 and 1958 before earning a Ph.D. in political economy from Johns Hopkins University in 1962. After teaching economics for a year at Yale, he joined the University of Rochester in 1963. He was a professor of economics there, and later also of history, until he retired in 2017.
In 1980, he received a Guggenheim fellowship to study free and unfree labor in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In addition to his son David, Professor Engerman is survived by two other sons, Mark and Jeff; a sister, Natalie Mayrsohn; and six grandchildren. His wife Judith (Rader) Engerman, died in 2019.
Professor Engerman’s interest in the economics of slavery was stoked by an article he read in a 1958 issue of The Journal of Political Economy when he was in graduate school. The article, by Alfred Conrad and John Meyer, concluded that the slave economy had been profitable, and it cast doubt on the notion that the South had been forced into an unnecessary war to protect an unsound economic system.
After completing “Time on the Cross,” Professor Engerman continued to write about slavery practiced both in the United States and around the world, as well as colonialism and economic growth in the New World. His book “Slavery, Emancipation & Freedom” (2007) examined the rise of slavery, its global history and emancipation in the United States and in other countries.
John Joseph Wallis, who teaches American economic history at the University of Maryland, said that “Time on the Cross” was essential to a full understanding of slavery.
“It’s a different perspective on how we think of slavery,” he said in a phone interview. “Not that it was good, but if you want to think about the Black experience under slavery, you have to think about it in a different way.”