Two volumes

Ben Schmidt


Disciplinary lessons

“Statistics on their own, enticing in their seeming neutrality, failed to address or unpack black life hidden behind the archetypes, caricatures, and nameless numbered registers of human property slave owners had left behind. And cliometricians failed to remove emotion from the discussion. Data without an accompanying humanistic analysis—an exploration of the world of the enslaved from their own perspective—served to further obscure the social and political realities of black diasporic life under slavery.”

  • Johnson, Jessica Marie. “Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads.” Social Text 36, no. 4.

‘Data is the evidence of terror, and the idea of data as fundamental and objective information, as Fogel and Engerman found, obscures rather than reveals the scene of the crime.’

  • Johnson, Jessica Marie. “Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads.” Social Text 36, no. 4.

More importantly, the lack of engagement with economic historians limited the analytical perspectives of each of these books. Most of them seem aware of Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross (1974), and some repeat its arguments about the profitability of slavery or the efficiency of slave plantations. But they do not seem to have taken seriously the debates among economic historians that followed the publication of that book. Some […] challenged Fogel and Engerman[; but] analyzed slavery in new ways.

Hilt, Eric. “Economic History, Historical Analysis, and the ‘New History of Capitalism.’” The Journal of Economic History 77, no. 2 (June 2017).

In the past, historians and economists (sometimes working as a team) collectively advanced the understanding of slavery, southern development, and capitalism. There was a stimulating dialog. That intellectual exchange deteriorated in part because some economists produced increasingly technical work that was sometimes beyond the comprehension of many historians. Some historians were offended by some economists who overly flaunted their findings and methodologies.

Olmstead, Alan L., and Paul W. Rhode. “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism.” Explorations in Economic History 67 (January 1, 2018).


  • I begin the second week by talking about where we are at. TOTC is bad. It’s being attacked and the integrity of the authors is being questioned. So F&E regroup, and they cut their losses, and they go back to the beginning. They go back to the productivity calculation.
  • F&E win on prices, output, production constraints, insurance, crop mix, etc. It’s a battle of the force and in the end their original calculation is established and likely accepted by the majority of the field. (Whether it’s the right calculation is another question.)

  • Trevon Logan, Twitter
  • But this vindication of efficiency came with a great cost. The audience for economic history shrank dramatically. The knowledge we have is for 1860- far too static. The new history of capitalism ignores it. Economic historians agree on efficiency, but there’s more to know
  • There is little attempt among Economic historians now to make contributions that historians will pay attention to. We’re much more comfortable talking about data and methodology than history. This is bad for the field.

  • Trevon Logan, Twitter
  • To read the efficiency debate as opposed to the TOTC debate is to see two parts of economic history. One is concerned with historiography and changing the methods and topics in history, and the other is about data and measurement. The latter is modern day economic history
  • There is also a racial dimension that continues to have an influence. F&E the racial aspects wrong. Very wrong. But they attempted to divorce the racial aspects from the economics, and we cannot.

  • Trevon Logan, Twitter

Computational history is dead for good.

Ash, Chen, and Naidu 2018

Ash, Chen and Naidu 2018

We supplemented this list with exact years of attendance from Annual Reports obtained by filing FOIA requests and correspondence from the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University. Figure 1 plots the share of Circuit Court cases with a Manne Judge on the panel over time. As can be seen, by the late nineties, about half of cases were directly impacted by a Manne panelist.

Ash, Chen and Naidu 2018

This paper utilizes a dataset on all 380,000 cases (over a million judge votes) in Circuit Courts for 1891-2013, and a data set on one million criminal sentencing decisions in U.S. District Courts linked to judge identity (via FOIA request) for 1992-2011. We have detailed information on the judges and the metadata associated with the cases. In addition, we process the text of the written opinions to represent judge writing as a vector of phrase frequencies.

Digital history is reproducibility

Humanistic reproducibility