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Our Own Herrenvolk

In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History

by Eugene D. Genovese
Pantheon, 435 pp., $10.00

The peculiar creed of American racism did not arrive full blown with national independence. It did not even reach full growth under slavery. In fact it was not until half a century after the abolition of slavery that formalized racism—the doctrine of innate and permanent inferiority of non-whites—reached its peak of power and influence and commanded an almost universal consensus among whites of the United States. In recent years two brilliant studies, one by David B. Davis1 and another by Winthrop D. Jordan,2 have illuminated the origins of the creed, but the former has not so far carried the story to the end of the eighteenth century and the latter extends his only to the early years of the nineteenth century.

By that time American whites had already come to regard Negroes as permanently alien and unassimilable, but they still clung—and continued to cling until the fourth decade of the century—to the environmentalism characteristic of Enlightenment thinking. Mental, moral, psychological, even physical traits considered peculiar to blacks could be attributed to environment. “The universal freckle” was a phrase characteristic of the environmentalist credo, used by Samuel Stanhope Smith in 1787. Racial characteristics so explained were regarded as neither innate nor unchangeable.

George M. Fredrickson, to whom we are already indebted for a valuable book on the intellectual impact of the Civil War,3 picks up the history of the debate over the character and destiny of Afro-Americans where his predecessors left off and builds on their findings. His starting date, 1817, marks the founding of the American Colonization Society. Concerned over the degraded condition of free blacks in the North, the colonizationists sought to encourage migration to Africa. But they could at the same time eulogize “the African genius,” admire a proud African past, and contend that return to Africa was the only escape from ineradicable Negrophobia in America. The abolitionists began their crusade against slavery with an attack on the colonizationists, but their crusade paradoxically coincided with the triumph of a newly systematized doctrine of black inferiority, permanent inferiority.

The new doctrine was useful to the defenders of slavery, but it was only partly generated by them. Contributions came from Europeans, who were seeking justification of imperial expansion over people of color in Africa and Asia at the same time as Americans were justifying black slavery. Northern scientists and journalists of the Jacksonian persuasion came forward with prolific elaborations of the theory of “polygenesis,” the notion that whites and blacks were separate species. In that era racism and democracy formed a strange marriage, a union destined to be of fateful durability. “Herrenvolk democracy,” Fredrickson calls it, borrowing the term from Pierre van den Berghe.4

Dr. John H. Van Evrie, a proslavery writer of New York, was “living proof,” according to Fredrickson, “that it was possible, in a certain sense, to be an ultrademocrat and a virulent racist at the same time.” Van Evrie called the presence of the Negro in America “the happiest conjunction that ever occurred in human affairs,” since it made inescapably obvious the superiority and relative equality of whites compared with the inferior blacks. It made possible “a new civilization based on foundations of everlasting truth“—on the “natural” distinctions of race instead of the “artificial” distinctions of class.

Latin Americans, blind to this truth, chose class instead of race and were damned for it. Even the aristocrats and elitist planters of the South had seen the truth and plumped for Herrenvolk democracy, only they called it (ahistorically) “Greek democracy.” North and South, Herrenvolk egalitarianism held sway, persuading deprived and frustrated whites of both sections, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that they were as equal as anybody, if not more so. Egalitarians of this persuasion were second to none in their fierce denunciation of class distinctions among whites, in their militant Jacksonian rhetoric, and in their abhorrence of status and privilege. Mr. Fredrickson comes near saying that this racist concept lies at the root of American democracy in both ideal and practice. It is of conspicuous importance throughout his reading of the century-long debate over Afro-American character and destiny.

Another concept of contemporaneous origin and first importance, which Fredrickson is the first to discern and clearly define, was what he calls “romantic racialism,” Borrowing from European romanticism the notions of “stock” and “Volk,” Americans built an ethnic self-image variously described as Anglo-Saxon or simply Caucasian. The Negro served as a foil, a kind of anti-Caucasian, but the black stereotype was often benign. Among proslavery novelists the image was a sentimental one of childlike innocence and good nature, affectionate, loyal, patient, and docile. Antislavery writers were even more susceptible to romantic racialism. Nearly all of them succumbed in some degree. The most famous expression was in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Negroes, she tells us, were “confessedly more simple, docile, child-like and affectionate than other races.” They were “natural Christians” more open to the “divine graces of love and faith” than sophisticated and intellectual Caucasians. To Theodore Tilton they were “the feminine race of the world.”

This mixture of cant and condescension was, in fact, much like the contemporary stereotype of womanly virtue. The most complete and authentic expression of romantic racism came in the report of 1864 by the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission appointed by President Lincoln. The words are those of Robert Dale Owen: “Genial, lively, docile, emotional, the affections rule…cheerfulness and love of mirth overflow with the exuberance of childhood.” As Fredrickson remarks, this set the black freedman up for the kill that was to follow. If his emancipators denied him the qualities essential to survival, what could be expected of his former masters?

The surge of nationalism that swept the North in the 1850s was charged with strong racial overtones. It was white nationalism. It was expressed in the Negro exclusion laws of the mid-western states and in disfranchisement laws of Pennsylvania and New York. It was shared by the Free Soilers, adopted by many antislavery people, and expressed by Republicans who called their “the white man’s party.” The dream of a white man’s North and West was menaced by the South’s demand for expansion of slavery into the western territories and later by emancipation, which threatened to release a flood of black immigrants.

Charles Eliot Norton conceded that the South was lost to white civilization, but wondered whether the rest of the country “shall be occupied a century hence by a civilized or a barbarous race.” Like many others, Norton favored containment of the Negro in the South. “Hem him in,” urged James Shepherd Pike. “Coop him up. Slough him off. Preserve just so much of North America as is possible to the white man.” In a lower key, Horace Bushnell and abolitionists Theodore Parker and Samuel Gridley Howe sadly agreed that the race’s “womanly qualities” doomed the Negro to extinction anyway as soon as he became a free man competing with whites. The whitening of America, apart from the South, seemed destined to take place one way or another.

The North entered the task of Reconstruction with all these concepts—black inferiority, Herrenvolk egalitarianism, romantic racialism, containment in the South, and a fatalistic expectation of black extinction. New Englanders often reconciled these ideas with what the author calls their “sahib complex,” defined as “pseudocolonial paternalism” and illustrated by Charles Eliot Norton’s description of Negro troops as “American Sepoys without any disposition to treachery.” The North’s Reconstruction policy of introducing the Negro into the body politic worked less well than either its own strategy of containing him in the South or the white South’s strategy for racial hegemony.

In the period of racial pessimism following Reconstruction, Darwinian doctrine provided support for old theories of polygenesis and new prognostications of racial extinction. Scientific evidence now indicated that species did expire in the struggle for survival with stronger species. More dubious evidence was advanced to indicate that the freedmen had degenerated physically and morally since they were removed from the paternalistic custody of the planters. They were reverting to “savagery” and heading for extinction as a race. Racial Darwinism served to justify a policy of repression and neglect and suggested the futility of radical measures of reform as well as the uses of philanthropy and paternalism.

The persistence of the tradition of Herrenvolk egalitarianism is an important key to Fredrickson’s reading of race policy and doctrine in the New South. He uses it to explain the rejection and defeat of both the conservative ruling class paternalism and the incipient liberalism of George W. Cable and Lewis H. Blair. Both conservatives and liberals neglected to do homage to the old proto-Dorian myth of white equality. Both the new bourgeois paternalists and the new liberals sought to substitute the order of class for the traditional order of racial caste. One meaning of the New South was the direct exploitation and new dependent status of the class of whites that had been poor but independent farmers in the old regime. The new order accorded them a status commensurate with their objective condition—a class status. Bereft of their independence, they were simultaneously denied their compensatory racial status—equality of the Herrenvolk. Faced with being bracketed with the degraded blacks, they rebelled.

The rulers of the New South were assiduous imitators. Their paternalism was an imitation of the planters’ way of life, a bourgeoisie oblige in place of noblesse oblige. Confronted with rebellion in the lower order of whites, they abandoned their spurious paternalism and switched to an imitation of the Herrenvolk democracy of the old regime. The latter imitation was as spurious as the former, for it did not stop at white equality and racial proscription by status. It pushed a race beyond the human pale, offered a picture of degeneracy, the “black peril,” the stereotype of “Negro as beast.” “In order to deserve the kind of treatment he was receiving in the United States in 1900,” writes Fredrickson, “the black man presumably had to be as vicious as the racists claimed; otherwise many whites would have had to accept an intolerable burden of guilt for perpetuating or tolerating the most horrendous cruelties and injustices.”

Any study of such scope would be obliged to rely in part on the work of other scholars. Mr. Fredrickson has done that, with generous acknowledgment of indebtedness. But this is more than a work of synthesis, for in addition to bringing order and rationality to chaotic developments, it makes original contributions of importance. Among these, Fredrickson’s treatment of three types of neglected race thinking stand out: the recurrent theme of racial prognostication, the durable concept of romantic racialism, and, most significant of all, the persistence and varied uses of Herrenvolk democracy.

It is the latter theme that makes the comparison of this book with the Marxian analysis of Eugene D. Genovese so fascinating. Before turning to that comparison and the other book, however, a word is due about the phenomenon of Marxist Genovese in American academic life.

The academic and scholarly communities of other Western countries, those that permit a legitimate opposition at least, have long had Marxist members in good academic standing. Often they are conspicuous, sometimes distinguished scholars. One thinks of Christopher Hill, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, or of Eric J. Hobsbawm or E. P. Thompson. Continental universities in France, Belgium, Holland, and Italy have had Marxist professors of comparable stature. Typically they are no more active politically or less devoted to the life of the mind than their non-Marxist colleagues.

This has not been true of American universities. Not that there have been no professed Marxist academics. But apart from a few exceptions of low Marxist profile, such as Barrington Moore, Jr., of Harvard or William A. Williams of Oregon, they have been of a particular type. They have been rather like the old Irish-American Catholic hierarchy. The good old-time priest was too preoccupied with problems of the Church and ritual to have much time for intellectual matters. His concerns were with an institution and an orthodoxy. Similarly, the old American Marxist was preoccupied with Party and Party-line orthodoxy. His contributions to intellectual life, like those of the old priesthood, were not very noteworthy. He was too often frozen in a posture of suspicion and bellicosity. The comparative scarcity of Marxists of this type in American academic ranks was partly, but only partly, due to political discrimination. Those with suitable intellectual credentials were simply not easy to come by.

The arrival of Eugene Genovese on the American academic scene marks a significant change. There is no question about intellectual credentials. More important, he is a Marxist who deplores “the wilderness of dogmatism, romanticism, and humbug” among the orthodox of the old school, who calls for “a break with naïve determinism, economic interpretation, and the insipid glorification of the lower classes,” and who is not very tolerant of “cowardice, laziness, and simplemindedness” and “resorting to political formulas instead of proceeding with honest research.” Condemning those “who would defend Marxian socialism by protecting its founder from just criticism,” he finds Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels guilty of outrageous faults of Marxian interpretation. Their discussion of the Civil War is “marred by contradictory judgments and ignorance,” takes off in an “excursion into fantasy,” and stoops to “self-serving cant.” Quoting absurdities of established American Marxist historians, he remarks: “Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

It is Professor Genovese’s opinion that “the ‘role’ of the socialist historian is to be a good historian,” that “being a good historian is full-time work,” that “the question of ‘relevance’ is irrelevant to anything of importance beyond the egos of those who prate about it,” and that “ideologically motivated history is bad history and ultimately reactionary history.” His own field is Southern history and slavery, subjects on which he has previously published two books. 5 The first of these won from the foremost historian in the field, the late Professor David M. Potter, a conservative Southerner, an expression of delight that the enigma of the South, a subject that “has evoked some of the most subtle writing in American history…can still engage the utmost talents of a first-class intellect.”

The present book, though mainly on the South and black history, includes essays on many related and some tangential subjects. Two of the author’s concerns are “the unbridgeable gulf [that] separates socialist intellectuals from the ‘revolutionaries’ who proclaim the arrival of the Day of Judgment” and “those naïve Establishment historians who lump them together as ‘radical historians.’ ” His impatience with “this cult of perpetual adolescence” of the New Left, its “fantasies of a revolutionary apocalypse,” and its rebellion against society “for the comfort of one’s own soul” knows no bounds. Its anti-intellectualism is “part of the sickness of our time, not part of the cure.” Its attempts to politicize universities and professional associations and capture them “by moral terror, administrative measures, packed meetings, and meaningless statements of policy” he condemns as barbarous totalitarianism. He finds no excuse for Americans “who have witnessed the degeneration of the Russian revolution into Stalinism” and yet would repudiate “everything in the Western tradition necessary to distinguish socialism from some new collectivist totalitarian nightmare.”

Emancipated from the dogmas and taboos of the old Marxists and their burden of defending an indefensible past, Genovese moves freely among the camps of the Philistines, happy to learn more from the unrighteous than from the righteous, leaving to “those who live in a world of absolute good and evil” the task of resolving paradox. One critical essay on “Marxian Interpretations of the Slave South” leaves the scholarly efforts of most Marxist historians a shambles, while two essays on the work of Ulrich B. Phillips, though admitting the racism and other shortcomings of that conservative Southern scholar, declare that he “came close to greatness as a historian, perhaps as close as any historian this country has yet produced.”

Genovese can break a lance for William Styron’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, in defense against the attacks of infuriated black nationalists. Yet in another essay he can bring to their chaotic movement a sympathy and understanding equaled by few if any other white scholars. He acknowledges the “decidedly healthy impact that the black political revolt is having on American historical scholarship,” yet insists that “the more irrational and politically dangerous black demands be resolutely opposed.” Among these are the demand for all-black faculties and the notion that only blacks can understand the black experience, “the battle cry of every reactionary nationalism.”

To the Southern experience as well as to the black experience Genovese has brought much understanding, insight, and generous appreciation. He rightly claims that “many white Southerners have graciously decided that perhaps someone raised entirely outside their experience might have something worthwhile to say to them” and doubts that “black Southerners will prove less gracious. In some respects, after all, Southerners are Southerners.” It may be a Sicilian heritage that endows him with congenital membership in the Southerners’ International. But it is surely his Marxism that enables him to escape the liberal’s moralistic approach to Southern history. It is also a subtle and astute Marxian criticism that enables him to cut through the parochial dogma of regional polemics, to uncover class motives and conflicts, and to place the problems of the South in the comparative context of other slave societies of the New World. These contributions deserve full acknowledgment and praise.

Even the most sophisticated and subtle Marxist, however, runs into difficulties with the intractable complexities of Southern history and American racism. This brings us back to Mr. Fredrickson’s “Herrenvolk democracy” and his critique of the Marxian approach of Genovese and Barrington Moore, Jr.6 Essential to the analysis of the former (and apparently of the latter) is the view that “the small ruling class of slaveholders…dominated the economy, politics, and social life of the South; it imposed its vision and values on the humble men in society; it in fact ruled more completely than many other ruling classes in modern times.” It was inspired by “an aristocratic, anti-bourgeois spirit with values and mores emphasizing family and status, a strong code of honor, and aspirations to luxury, ease, and accomplishment.”

George Fitzhugh, whom Genovese sees as the authentic spokesman of this class, envisioned a seigneurial society based on the image of a patriarchal plantation. In pure form the patriarchal ambiance did not stop at ethnic limits, but extended to lower whites as well. This aristocratic, anti-democratic, and genuinely reactionary view found expression in other Virginians and South Carolinians such as Edmund Ruffin, George Frederick Holmes, James L. Hammond, and William J. Grayson.

There is no doubt about the authenticity of these views and values. The question is whether they dominated the South. Fredrickson dissents “from Genovese’s thesis that the reactionary, consistently anti-democratic slaveholders’ philosophy was the dominant world view that emerged from the ante-bellum South.” What prevailed instead, according to Fredrickson, among the overwhelming majority of Southern (and Northern) whites was the doctrine of Herrenvolk democracy based not on class but on race, an egalitarian racism. The preponderance of evidence would seem to support the latter view.

There was, for example, William L. Yancey, the Alabama fire-eater speaking to a Northern audience in 1860: “Your fathers and my fathers built this government on two ideas: the first is that the white race is the citizen, and the master race, and the white man is the equal of every other white man. The second idea is that the Negro is the inferior race.” Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, is often quoted as saying that the “cornerstone” of his government rested on slavery, but in the same speech he denounced governments “founded on the principles of subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race…. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eyes of the law.”

Whatever reservations the tidewater aristocrats had, none ventured to stand for election professing them. Even Fitzhugh capitulated in the end to the extreme racism he had previously deplored. Mary Boykin Chesnut, the aristocratic South Carolina diarist, after “one of Uncle Hamilton’s splendid dinners, plate, glass, china, and everything,” describes a scene on the piazza where the gentlemen had retired for their cigars. In their midst sat Squire Macdonald, the local well-digger: “clay pipe in his mouth…his chair tilted on its two hind legs, with his naked feet up on the bannister.” And worst of all, “See how solemnly polite and attentive Mr. Chesnut is to him!”

This may be less than fair to Professor Genovese. He has seldom been dogmatic, and in his previous book he seemed more tentative. Slavery, he concedes, “must be understood, not simply as a class question, but as a class question with a profound racial dimension.” In fact, a class analysis can “only serve as the basis for a much more complex analysis. But then, no one has ever seriously suggested that it could do more.” On second thought, he would have to admit that some have. Since he links extreme racism to “slaveholding classes with bourgeois origins rather than seigneurial origins,” and since he contends that the Southern planter was seigneurial and antibourgeois, he does indeed have a problem which requires more complex analysis. The outcome, I have no doubt, will be another contribution of great value on the enigma of the South.

  1. 1

    David B. Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Cornell University, 1965).

  2. 2

    Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812 (University of North Carolina, 1968).

  3. 3

    George M. Fredrickson, The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union (Harper & Row, 1965).

  4. 4

    Pierre L. van den Berghe, Race and Racism: A Comparative Perspective (Wiley, 1967).

  5. 5

    Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery (Pantheon, 1965), and The World the Slaveholders Made (Pantheon, 1969).

  6. 6

    Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Beacon, 1966).

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