Most serious works of scholars are respectfully evaluated by modest numbers of colleagues and occasionally play a small role in determining the prevailing interpretation of the phenomena observed. But perhaps once in a decade, a scholarly work almost immediately commands popular attention and helps refocus a broader assessment of a topic of national importance. Such is the case with Robert W. Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, published 50 years ago (1974).

The Civil Rights era arose from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, growing verbal and physical battles in the South over desegregation, voter rights, and other efforts to provide equal rights to the black population. That was, along with the Vietnam War, the defining political issue of the 1960s and early 1970s. The time was ripe for a new, provocative interpretation of American slavery. Fogel and Engerman delivered.

They argued that slavery was a highly efficient, profitable enterprise, that the South was generally flourishing economically on the eve of the Civil War, that the slaves were treated reasonably well, and that they had a standard of living compared favorably with many northern white industrial workers.

Much of what the authors asserted was hardly novel. For example, several scholars had demonstrated two decades before Time on the Cross that slavery was generally profitable. However, the claims that slaves were treated well and lived reasonably comfortably were startling and drew tremendous attack—but got great attention from the authors.

Fogel, for example, appeared on the popular Today show and the book was discussed in major news magazines like Time. Adding to the drama was the fact that Fogel was married to a black woman, that he was a former paid organizer for the U.S. Communist Party who ended his long academic life at the University of Chicago, regarded as the nation’s leading market-oriented economics department.

Prominent economic historians of the era went nuts.

Massive criticisms of the book were published by very prominent scholars from schools like MIT and Stanford. To cite one example, Fogel and Engerman extensively relied on the diary of a large slaveowner, Bennet Barrow, who recorded the whippings of his slaves. They concluded that, on average, each slave was whipped only 0.7 times annually—about once every 18 months—concluding brutal treatment of slaves was relatively rare. Several critics reexamined the data and concluded there were more whippings—1.1 times annually—so the authors were perhaps deliberately downplaying the undesirable working conditions of slaves. The bigger issue that was never resolved, of course, is whether Barrow was at all a typical slaveowner.

Similarly, the authors said slaves received the modern government-recommended minimum daily intake of important vitamins. While that may have been true, the desired nutritional needs of a worker toiling for perhaps 12 hours daily, six days a week in the hot sun, are likely quite different from those working eight-hour days in an office with air conditioning.

Most provocatively by far, the authors claim that slaves, on average, were exploited very little—making only about 10-12 percent less than what competitive wages in a free labor market would dictate—was fiercely refuted by others, including this author. It was inconsistent for slaveowners to pay high prices to buy slaves, claim slavery was highly profitable, but also say slaves were not much exploited. My estimate was that the exploitation rate was closer to 60 percent.

Fogel—much more than Engerman—was a masterful marketeer of ideas, something that cannot be said for most academics. He put forth bold ideas. He reminded me of successful trial lawyers, who selectively marshal the evidence that will most sway a jury while denigrating counterevidence inconsistent with the promoted narrative. At a time of rising sympathy for black Americans, Fogel and Engerman said, “blacks weren’t treated so badly,” a message guaranteed to ignite an explosion in the scholarly community. Moreover, much of the scholarly protests, I think, came from a more basic human emotion: jealousy.

Fogel claimed a prized Harvard chair that several other top economic historians wanted. His reputation in the scholarly community didn’t suffer much, as, along with Douglass North—also a bit of an academic provocateur—he received the first Nobel Prize in Economic Science awarded to an economic historian. Time on the Cross showed that reexamining our past is worthwhile and relevant in assessing the contemporary milieu.