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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 478-489

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In Retrospect:
Ransom and Sutch's One Kind of Freedom

Peter A. Coclanis

Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch. One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. xviii + 409 pages. Tables, figures, maps, appendixes, bibliography, and index.

Few works in southern economic history have achieved the level of respect and renown enjoyed by Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch's path-breaking 1977 book One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (or 1Kf as it came to be called). If any single work can be said to have transformed an entire field in history, this is it. Whether one points to the 1978 symposium on One Kind of Freedom held at Duke University, the special issue of Explorations in Economic History devoted to the book in 1979, the high-decibel graduate-student "buzz" surrounding the book, or the broad diffusion of terms and concepts associated with Ransom and Sutch--"lock-in" mechanisms and "territorial monopoly," most notably--1Kf is virtually unique. 1 That the book was the subject of another major conference in September 1999, twenty-two years after the fact, testifies further to this point. 2 What is it about One Kind of Freedom that makes the volume so important? Why did this difficult, technical study evoke the response it did? How do Ransom and Sutch's conclusions hold up today? These are some of the questions with which this essay will deal.

Let me attempt to answer the simplest of these questions first: the response to 1Kf. It seems clear in retrospect that the book's prominence, quality aside, was aided by timing considerations. Quantitative history was in its heyday in the mid-to-late '70s, and Ransom and Sutch's work was nothing, if not an exemplar of the approach. 3 African American history was also a hot field in the decade--one thinks immediately of the landmark syntheses of slavery that appeared during the '70s--and here again One Kind of Freedom had fortune on its side. Finally, the book and the authors' conclusions, ideology, and politics were interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as markedly different from those associated with Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, whose prize-winning cliometric study of slavery, Time on the Cross (1974), raised the hackles both of traditional scholars suspicious of quantitative methods and of [End Page 478] many scholars on the left, who decried Fogel and Engerman's conclusions and, indeed, assumptions. If some of the criticism of Fogel and Engerman's work was tendentious Mau-Mauing, to use Tom Wolfe's famous phrase, it is apparent that by 1977 many of the younger, more "progressive" elements in the historical profession were eager for quantitative studies of African American history informed by "better" politics: Quantitative studies such as One Kind of Freedom, in other words.

I employed the qualifier "quality aside" a few sentences back, and in this case that is a big qualifier to be sure, for One Kind of Freedom is clearly one monumental kind of book. Since 1Kf is largely about credit, let me at this point try to give the authors their due, to effect "the settle," as it were. First of all, whatever one's opinion of Ransom and Sutch's position on the South's institutional arrangements in the late nineteenth century, no one can deny the fact that One Kind of Freedom is clear, strongly argued, and packs a punch. Moreover, the authors' findings are based on an impressive, indeed, awe-inspiring research base, and their employment and promotion of relatively underutilized sources--most famously, the R.G. Dun reference books and credit ledgers--was at once innovative and transformative. Furthermore, their statistical and estimating procedures were careful and often ingenious, to wit: the procedure discussed in Appendix E for calculating food residuals on southern farms in 1880, which in my view at least represented an important refinement of procedures developed initially for the antebellum South (pp. 244-53, 306-15 esp...


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