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Plantation Power

Slavery in the New World: A Reader in Comparative History

edited by Laura Foner, edited by Eugene D. Genovese
Prentice Hall, 284 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Now that the Sixties have closed, it is fitting to salute Eugene Genovese and the salutary, disturbing, critical effect that he must have on the writing of American history—performing, indeed, for his own country the service which Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm did for Britain in the Fifties. The rise of very sophisticated, scholarly, and sensitive Marxist history has been a feature of the cultural life of both countries, making the historians of an older generation look curiously dusty and old-fashioned and bringing the English-speaking historians much closer to those of France and Italy. Not that I can accept in totality the analysis of Genovese any more than I can that of Hill and Hobsbawm: often there is a twist and slither in their arguments in order to achieve the hoped-for consistency with doctrine. But of that, later. Let us stress their virtues.

They are the heirs, the inheritors, of a vital change which began to take place in historical study at the turn of this century. For most of the nineteenth century historians were concerned either with annals or with biographies. They wrote multi-volume history of countries, reigns, wars, or people. They told stories splendidly, dramatically, and they pointed morals and taught lessons so that all who read them might be made wiser. History, narrative history, was, they thought, a high calling, none perhaps higher. About 1900, however, there was a shift. The development of what one might call “concept” history: the most obvious and best known example of this being Turner and his concept of the moving frontier as a factor in American history. The historian’s new aim was to discern the dynamic processes controlling social change. The proliferation of specialized fields of historical study, the growth of learned journals, the rapid expansion of graduate schools of history (again in some ways Turner was a pioneer) soon made “concept” history the dominant scholastic form of historical study. True, the old style annals and the old style biographies went on, but with less and less impact on the intellectual life of history and historians, particularly in the universities. The excitement lay in economic history, in the history of ideas, in the application of new ideas in anthropology and sociology to historical situations. Obviously this was an ideal seed-bed for Marxist historians.

Naturally, in this new analytical game, both slavery and the Civil War acted like powerful magnets, drawing shoals of historians into their orbits. The cautious pursued erudition, piling up the ammunition for the conceptualists. And new concepts flew thick and fast. Slavery was an archaic, unprofitable method of economic organization; slavery was patriarchal and less hideous than rampant capitalism; slavery bred a special mentality in the slaves which reduced social tension; slavery was a red herring disguising the real motives of the North. For fifty years or more some of the best historical minds in America have been concerned with what is, after all, its greatest social and historical problem.

True these historians have been a minority. Often those most widely read by the public and most earnestly listened to by the establishment have done their best to ignore slavery and write off the Civil War as an “unnecessary conflict.” For, as conservative historians know, analysis tends to lead, not to national self-approval and euphoric self-confidence, but to criticism and doubt. Since the radical element in American life strengthened in the later Fifties and throughout the Sixties, so too has the quality of work on slavery strengthened. If anyone doubts this, then he should buy Slavery in the New World, edited by Laura Foner and Eugene D. Genovese, which brings together a collection of brilliant papers in the comparative study of slavery in the New World. The new masters are all there, Stanley M. Elkins, David Brion Davis, Winthrop D. Jordan, Elsa V. Goveia, H. Orlando Patterson and M. I. Finley: only the Grand Master, C. Vann Woodward, is absent. The challenger for his title—Genovese—is naturally well-represented: I find his, Winthrop Jordan’s, and M. I. Finley’s contributions the most suggestive in a book which is alive with intelligence and perception. Indeed, here is another admirable illustration of what I have said before—the writing of history in America is, at last, acquiring that sophistication and analytical insight which has been the hallmark of the best European scholarship for fifty years.

The burden of the book, its lesson, is that slavery cannot be studied as a separate institution, divorced from time and place. Slavery, like poverty, changes with changing society. Poverty in Pennsylvania cannot be the same as poverty in Peshawar. And poverty in Pennsylvania in 1930 was not the same as poverty in Pennsylvania in 1690. Trite. Maybe, but like many other simple approaches to historical problems, it becomes complex and revealing when applied and the results are compared. If one studies slavery in Cuba before and after the development of the great sugar plantations, the difference is almost as startling as the difference between domestic industry and the factory. Again, such comparisons, as Genovese rightly points out, make one very wary of accepting some forms of slavery as mild and benevolent, others as harsh and exploitive. In a fascinating and perceptive essay Winthrop D. Jordan shows how in Jamaica, where blacks were worked more vigorously than almost anywhere else, at an almost death-haunting pace, the mulatto had far greater chance of freedom and social opportunities than in the somewhat milder slavery of the Southern States, where race and slavery were more closely related.

These comparative studies lead, as Genovese and Foner meant they should, to a realization that slavery can only be understood in relation to the class structure of the societies that practice it. And that class structure, of course, will be intimately related to the economic activity upon which the society is engaged. This is the theme of Genovese’s new book, The World the Slaveholders Made. Here he attempts to explain why slavery differed so markedly in the New World, and compares not only the ruthless and intense system in Jamaica with the milder forms in Martinique and Guadaloupe, but also the variations within Brazil and elsewhere. He makes short shrift of the old argument that Catholicism, because it encouraged the baptism of slaves and so elevated them to the rank of Christian, gave the blacks a passport to common humanity and, therefore, an easier social situation than they enjoyed in Protestant slave societies.

After all, few Catholic clergy in Brazil pressed for abolition. C.R. Boxer has produced in his recent book, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, plenty of evidence of harsh treatment, reluctance to permit baptism, and as rabid a racism in parts of the Portuguese empire as would have delighted the most fervent Southerner.

Again, as Genovese shows, the Puritans were themselves no more averse to slavery when it suited their economic needs than their Southern cousins. Slavery did not root itself throughout New England (it did in patches) simply because economic necessity did not require it. The commodities in which New England traded did not demand a huge labor force in their production: tobacco, sugar, cotton did. Short of people, New England had to acquire a working population and that could only be done forcibly. It is Genovese’s view that slavery will be the more economically exploitive the closer the economy is to the world markets, and this is the reason for the most fundamental differences in various forms of slavery.

At this point it is important to remember that all slave societies of the New World were colonies, attached closely not only to the economies of their mother countries, but also to their social and constitutional structures. Absolutist, paternalist mother governments will create absolutist and $$$ paternalist colonies. Bourgeois capitalist societies, such as Britain or the Netherlands, will produce colonies in which high production and high profit will override all other considerations. Hence the difference between the Jamaican slave code and the Colbertian Code Noire of the French West Indies: one the result of bourgeois, the other of absolutist government. Again this reconciles the conflicting views of Freyre and Boxer with regard to Brazilian slavery: Freyre was mainly using evidence derived from domestic slavery, which naturally reflected the patriarchal, absolutist social pattern of Portugal. Boxer, however, derives his evidence from the profit-conscious sugar plantations that, in some ways, were exceptional in Brazilian society as a whole.

Genovese argues his thesis with a subtlety and breadth of scholarship that we have now come to expect in his work. He dismisses mechanical Marxism, and his own dialectical skill possesses the flourish and deadly intent of an expert dualist. And how well he writes—no deadly jargon, no labored pages. So easily is one persuaded by so much of Genovese’s argument that it is difficult to stop oneself from swallowing it whole.

The trouble lies, of course, in what Genovese himself recognizes as his major conundrum. The society which gave birth to Jamaican slavery was also the one which fathered the Old South—namely seventeenth-century Britain, which Genovese, following dutifully in the footsteps of English Marxists, regards as a strongly bourgeois society dominated by the economy of the market place. This explains Jamaican slavery, but does create a difficulty for the Old South, which Genovese regards as a patriarchal slave society, perhaps indeed the most highly developed patriarchal slave society the modern world has known. After all, elsewhere in the New World it was seigneurial societies—Spain, France, above all Portugal—which spawned paternalistic slave systems. So how come this startling exception?

Genovese’s handling of his conundrum is very neat. Paternalism, he argues, is inherent in all slave-master relationships, and the special historic situations in the Old South, Particularly the system of large plantations, turned a potentiality into a reality. Hence Genovese can fit all that he believes about the Old South into his general theory of slave systems. Naturally the argument is more complex than is possible to sketch here. But this bridge safely crossed, Genovese is then able to discuss the highly developed slave society of the Old South, its philosophy and its prophet, George Fitzhugh, in order to underline once more his view that its quality of life, its ideals and aspirations, as well as its social structure, differed radically from the North.

To understand the Old South is also to appreciate it. There were human values in slavery as well as inhuman ones—a theme which Genovese has consistently developed. Not, of course, that he condones slavery. Nor, and this should be made clear, does he think, as many of his critics mistakenly believe, that the slave society is a feudal society or even a variant of it. The Old South was a slave society, no more, no less, with its own developed pattern of class relationships and with its own persona: distinct from the capitalist worlds of both New and Old England whose evils the slaveholders saw with clarity and which they regarded as far more monstrous than the benign if disciplined servitude they practiced. And no one else put his point of view with the urgency and conviction of Fitzhugh.

Nearly a half of The World the Slaveholders Made is devoted to George Fitzhugh. Fortunately Fitzhugh’s blistering attack on capitalism, Cannibals All: Or, Slaves Without Masters is available. And all should read it, giving particular attention to C. Vann Woodward’s excellent introduction.1 Of course, Fitzhugh seized on a central contradiction. How could abolitionists prate about liberty and human dignity when the conditions of their factory system were more horrible than plantation slavery? Fitzhugh quoted largely from the revelations of the parliamentary inquiries into factory conditions in England, with their appalling evidence of the exploitation of women, children, and men in terrible conditions for excessive hours at very low wages. Against these horrors, he opposed the picture of patriarchal plantations—stern masters certainly, discipline certainly, but there was always food, always a roof, even in old age. Slave workers could not, like factory workers, be turned out to starve in bad times, or left to die in destitution in old age. Both societies, the North and the South, were slave societies, but the South at least retained moral responsibility for its slaves.

Indeed Fitzhugh maintained that all societies, whether free or not, would be slave societies, for the nature of man demanded it. “Some were born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to ride them.” All talk of progress, of betterment, was illusion. There would always be master and men, and the master-slave relation was one of the best, far superior to a free labor market.

Genovese rightly sees that Fitzhugh was making a serious case. Exploitive industrial capitalism could be vile, some plantation slavery by comparison was almost benign. However, I believe that Genovese puts too high a value on Fitzhugh and does not allow enough both for the contradictions in Fitzhugh’s own thinking, often more apparent in private than in public, and for Fitzhugh’s desire to shock.

The World the Slaveholders Made enriches our understanding of the slave system of the New World; it sparkles with originality and it is a most important contribution to the swelling historiography of slavery. But there are weaknesses. The major one for me is the rigidity with which Genovese distinguishes between seigneurial society, or patriarchal society, and the competitive, bourgeois, market-dominated societies—principally New and Old England and the Netherlands. Moreover, Genovese has relied too heavily on Christopher Hill and Maurice Dobb for his analysis of English society. England did not secure a full bourgeois revolution in the seventeenth century. Patriarchalism remained a powerful feature in English social attitudes; aristocracy recovered much of the ground which it had lost before 1640 after the Restoration in 1660. A profound respect for rank, hierarchy, and status infused the very marrow of seventeenth-century England, as indeed one may see from the original constitution of South Carolina devised by no less a “bourgeois” apologist than John Locke. True, some feudal trappings had been abolished, and a world in which the bourgeois could develop and expand had come into being, but the structure, worm-eaten though it might be, was still monarchical, aristocratic, and patriarchal; and in some ways the divisions between the social structures of New England and the Old South only reflect in a more extreme way the divisions which existed in the mother country itself.2

The same sort of insistence on the two opposed societies—patriarchal and bourgeois—also inhibits Genovese’s appreciation of the exceptionally strong patriarchal streak in early industrial capitalism. Indeed, words that he applies to the best resident planters, the care for the housing, food, health, and old age of the slaves could be written with equal justice about Wedgwood and his workers or Jedediah Strutt and his. I do not know enough about early industrial capitalism in New England but, I suspect, one could find easily enough similar examples of benevolent patriarchalism. And it does make one wonder if Genovese has not somewhat overdone the differences between North and South and whether they had not more in common than he allows. Others have pointed out that many Southerners had feelings of guilt about slavery, indeed even some planters, and that Fitzhugh himself could write in praise of Northern industry and hope for a closer relationship between it and the South. I find it difficult to accept Fitzhugh as presented by Genovese.

Fitzhugh’s claims are, I think, some-what inflated although his importance needs to be stressed. In the end what worries me most is the distinction between patriarchal and bourgeois societies that is made too hard and fast for my liking. As in England during the seventeenth century, so in America during the nineteenth, they were inextricably mingled. However, if the lines of Genovese’s argument are drawn more vehemently than, perhaps, the evidence allows, they surely are drawn in the right places. Our understanding of the slaveholders’ world has been greatly enhanced by Genovese’s work, and he has established himself without question as one of the leading historians of the South. In Genovese, America has a Marxist historian in every way as gifted and as subtle as Hill, Hobsbawm, or Soboul, and at times just as opaque.

  1. 1

    Belknap Press (Harvard University), $4.25.

  2. 2

    A fact which Fitzhugh seized upon. He realized that these two aspects, symbolized by Filmer and Locke, existed together very uneasily in seventeenth-century English society. After all, he resuscitated Filmer to refute Locke.

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