Yesterday, I looked into Thomas Fleming’s theory that white Americans embraced slavery not out of white supremacy or greed, but rather fear of slave revolts and to spite abolitionists. He argues that therefore the nation might have avoided a civil war and the ensuing decades of racial hatred by a plan of compensated emancipation or by spreading slavery across the continent. If only those wicked abolitionists had not forced white southerners to keep pillaging the lives of black Americans to fill their own pockets, we might have avoided racism. To add to the already lengthy catalog of absurdities we must believe in order to take Fleming seriously, he asks us to believe white supremacy developed not in the 1600s, but rather circa 1865. The reasons to reject Fleming’s theory only constitute the entire history and historiography of American slavery, which one cannot ask him to sully his eyes with before opining on the subject. What reasonable person would expect him to behave like a historian?
But Fleming does present two pieces of evidence for his proposition:
Two thirds of the plantations in the South had black overseers – talented black men to whom the plantation owners gave the responsibility of raising and selling their crops. Numerous other plantation jobs that required skilled labor were also performed by black men.
Fleming still asks us to ignore how black skin made one a presumed slave who must prove otherwise, while white skin made one inherently free. This alone would make the system clearly one of white supremacy even if the rest holds true. One the point of slaves performing skilled labor, Fleming found a stopped clock moment. Enslavers did have many slaves trained in skilled trades, which reduced their slave labor camps’ reliance on the cash-driven commercial market in the perpetually cash-poor South. By doing so, they made their plantations more efficient and profitable than they would be if the enslavers had to instead pay for the skill and labor of white craftsmen. Furthermore, a slave so trained could fetch a significantly higher price in resale than an ordinary field hand. Thus we cannot understand the presence of skilled enslaved people, always a minority of enslaved labor regardless, as a challenge to slavery or a departure from racist norms. Rather the enslavers reinforced and improved their pillage of black lives by seeing some of their human property trained. Even in Nazi Germany, where the regime literally planned the extermination of people deemed subhuman, the typical concentration camp had attached factories where the state would enslave laborers for its own purposes before murdering them. Yet nobody argues that the Nazis had no particular animus against their victims except cranks and the regime’s admirers. I don’t think even Fleming would do that.
If skilled slaves gave Fleming a point of fact, albeit one he can only have misunderstood by never cracking a book on the subject, then his count of black overseers raises further questions. Fleming seems almost perfectly innocent of any Civil War or slavery historiography produced later than the 1920s. He doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or chooses to mislead his readers. Yet suddenly we have a number: two-thirds. He doesn’t cite his source on it, but the comments over at HNN suggest that he got his count from Time on the Cross. That seems very likely. Here, at last, Fleming clearly read something written after he turned four. That he chose a book full of questionable methodology and generally discredited a mere forty-six years ago constitutes remarkable progress. I don’t have Time on the Cross on hand to check directly, but I acquired its book-length refutation, Herbert G. Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game, last year for its own merits. A quick trip to the index brought me to Gutman’s section on the number of black overseers.
There I learned that Fogel and Engerman, ToC’s authors, did find a healthy majority of plantations where “the top nonownership management was black.” In slave labor camps where sixteen to fifty slaves labored, they found only one in six used a white overseer. In large camps, only a quarter of plantations used a white overseer. Very large camps, with over a hundred enslaved, white overseers came to just thirty percent. If they didn’t use white overseers, then they must have used black overseers and it certainly looks like a majority did so.
However, Gutman looked at the methodology and found a few problems:
this statistic is just an inference. No empirical data exist to support it. David and Temin properly point out: “[Q]uite obviously, there are two unstated premises underlying the inference that the authors draw form these census observations: (1) they assume a large plantation could not be properly run without an overseer in addition to the resident owner, and (2) they suppose the large plantations must have been well run – because they were so efficient. Once the latter presumption is withdrawn, however, this piece of inference unravels along with the rest of the fabric of Fogel and Engerman’s argument.”
In other words ToC sees the absence of a white overseer as proof of a black overseer. By this same method, my ignorance of the winner of the lottery last week proves I won it. Can I have my billion dollars now? I promise to do ridiculous amounts of history with it.
It gets worse. ToC complains that scholars have overestimated the number of white overseers because they treat everyone who put that job down on the census as an overseer of slaves when the term also applied to supervisors in other sectors of the economy. That might make linguistic sense, and it pays to stay mindful of the shifting meaning of words in historical sources, but the very census figures that ToC relies upon prove them wrong:
How many white overseers were listed in the 1860 federal census? No fewer than 37,883. If their residence patterns had not changed greatly since 1850, about 10 percent lived outside the South. That leaves about 34,000 free white southern overseers in 1860. If we assume (and this surely is greatly exaggerated) that one in three managed free southern farms, free southern factories, and slave southern factories, that still leaves about 22,000 white overseers available to supervise southern plantations. Is that a large or small number? Once more, it depends. Scarborough’s study helps answer this question. In the sugar, rice, and cotton regions, “most planters employed an overseer when the total number of working field hands approached thirty.”
Scarborough’s study goes on to distinguish between field hands, who the overseer would directly manage, and various household slaves who he probably did not. About fifty slaves would work out to thirty field hands, who would likely have an overseer.
How many slave-owners in 1860 owned fifty or more slaves? About ten thousand. After making the above generous allowances, about twenty-two thousand free white plantation overseers lived in the South in 1860, more than twice the number needed to manage these large plantations. So far, no allowance has been made for slave overseers. It is now assumed that F+E are correct, but that two thousand […] slaves labored as overseers. That would mean that eight thousand white overseers labored for the owners of fifty or more slaves. And what of the other fourteen thousand? Did they labor for owners of fewer than fifty slaves, and, therefore, fewer than thirty field hands? Were many unemployed in 1860? Or had large numbers of whites misrepresented their occupations to the census enumerators. The inference that 0.5 percent of adult male slaves labored as overseers rests on F+E’s assumption that “most” planters did not employ white overseers and, therefore, had to employ slave overseers. If that was so, what did most white overseers in the South do for a living in 1860? Rather than answer that question, we also need to put the 0.5 percent aside. The antebellum South had slave overseers, but their number was insignificant. They deserve study, but their place in the southern slave occupational structure and plantation managerial system needs to be measured more carefully first. It is not possible that “within the agricultural sector, about 7.0 percent of the [slave] men held managerial posts.” That percentage is much closer to 3.0 percent, and nearly all were drivers.
A slave driver did occupy a sort of managerial position, but had a different job from overseers. Rather they reported to the overseer or the enslaver himself and could hope for better treatment, but remained enslaved. They tried to appease the overseer by enforcing some discipline in the fields and so moderate his treatment of the enslaved. This makes them neither angels nor demons. A good driver could serve for years, in large part due to his own ability rather than the color of his skin. He might manage the labor camp better than a white overseer. But driver and overseer remained separate roles, the first by definition black and enslaved, the second almost always white and free.
By Fleming’s standards, I have no doubt that Time on the Cross constitutes cutting-edge scholarship. He doesn’t seem to have availed himself of much else written in the past century, if he bothered at all.
He has the training to know better. (Please see the correction below.) His readers have every right to expect better of someone who presents himself as a historian. Yet he still wrote what he did. I can’t explain errors of this magnitude and consistency as a simple matter of differing interpretation or inattention to detail. Fleming did not make mistakes, but rather knew full well what he wrote. He either set out to deceive or doesn’t care. I don’t know which reflects worse upon him.
Fleming closes with a homily that tells rather more than he probably thinks:
If enough Americans – white and black – understand how we created this perfect storm of opposing good intentions, perhaps we can begin the struggle to achieve mutual forgiveness.
Everybody knows why white Americans should want forgiveness, even though few of us consider how we might earn it. Rather we usually seem most concerned with not earning it as studiously as possible. But what have black Americans done to white Americans that requires our forgiveness? What similar sin adheres to black skin, prosecuted with violence and cruelty down four centuries? Does Fleming mean that they dared darken the white man’s continent with their presence and so disturbed the peace of white minds? That they produced the true villain of his piece, the abolitionists? That those miscreants through their ceaseless, fanatical agitation turned the reaping of lives from a thing done by white Americans to black Americans into a thing done by white Americans to one another? Is that where the tragedy begins, not at Jamestown but Sumter? Nineteenth century white Americans might agree with all that. I don’t know why we should.
Update: I previously wrote here that Fleming had a historian’s training, but down in the comments Jimmy Dick told me otherwise. I rechecked Fleming’s biography and found that I misread his Fordham degree as a doctorate. Sorry that I messed up, Gentle Readers. While one doesn’t necessarily need a terminal degree, or even graduate work, to do good history it does provide training in the task. By presenting himself as a historian, as Fleming has done for decades, he asks his audience to assume that he either has the training or has worked out something equivalent on his own. With regard to slavery and the Civil War, Fleming has instead demonstrated what one can accomplish without the benefit of such training.