Stanley Engerman, economic historian at the University of Rochester deceased Thursday, May 11. When I came to Rochester as an assistant professor in 1975, I had already heard of him because of his 1974 book on slavery with Robert Fogel, time on the cross. I had first heard of the book in academic circles – I had a doctorate. student at UCLA at the time – but from a column on the book in the the wall street journal. I’d bet it was by my favorite WSJ editor at the time, Lindley H. Clark Jr.. But later, in various UCLA seminars, his book was discussed. Although I don’t remember the full context, I distinctly remember the late Axel Leijonhufvud disagreeing with someone’s assertion of Fogel/Engerman’s conclusions. Axel said, “The data in this book is filled with prompting.” Axel’s point, which he took from F/E, was that even with slavery, slave owners often had to give incentives such as extra food in order to get slaves to produce more production. It’s important for the story I’m going to tell.
Mark Skousen has a nice memory to be a research assistant for F/E while they were working on the book in 1971. HT2 Tyler Cowen.
I have my own recollection of an interaction with Stan. In the spring of 1977 (I believe), I was teaching a short course called “Labour Market Institutions” at the Graduate School of Management at U. de R. There were about 18 to 20 students in the class, 4 of whom were black. The two main books in the class were Thomas Sowell Race and economy and Gary Becker The economics of discrimination. I used them because the teacher who had taught it before me, Ron Schmidt, told me they had done well for the course. He was a master teacher and so I followed his example. (I have also added a good number of articles and a segment on black codes from WEB Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America.) During the break before class started, I read the books cover to cover. I studied Becker’s mathematics and really liked his book, but I loved Sowell’s. I was so excited that I wrote a long letter over break to a friend in which I quoted some of Sowell’s highlights.
As I read through both books, I realized that one of the themes that emerged was that government at all levels – local, state and federal – had cheated black people and that “stalking” had in no way ended with the end of slavery.
So in my introduction on the first day of class I told the students that was one of the subtopics and in light of that I wondered why more black people weren’t libertarians . I quickly had 4 students attentive to everything I said.
The second week of class, as we were going through some of the early chapters of Sowell’s book, I challenged something Sowell had written about slavery. I don’t remember Sowell’s exact point, but the F/E findings on marginal incentives contradicted it. I was pushed away by a lot of students, but especially by the 4 black students. I felt like some of them even thought I was downplaying the horror of slavery even though I wasn’t.
I could feel the goodwill of the class slipping away and wanted it back.
So I walked across campus to visit Stan in the economics department. We had seen each other occasionally in seminars and he had always been friendly. I told him about my predicament and asked him if he would come and give a 30-minute presentation on the findings of time on the cross which related to the issue that the students and I had been discussing. Stanley was a very nice guy so I thought I should let him know. I said there was a chance that the students would transfer some of their hostility from me to him and that in fact I hoped they would. He laughed and said he would come to give the lecture.
So he did and it went well. There was some hostility but it gradually dissipated during his speech as he showed his expertise and dealt with all the issues.
I still remember one of his answers. One of the students had asked, “You said you studied the records of plantations that had slaves. How many plantations have you studied?
Stanley answered “80” and, seeing the disdainful look on the interrogator’s face, he added, “Which is 79 more than the number of plantations that most other researchers have studied.”
I left the U. de R. in 1979 and I never kept in touch with Stanley. I would have liked now to have written to him to thank him again.