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The Gutman Report

I

Whatever else the civil rights movement of the 1960s may have accomplished or failed to accomplish, it at least liberated Afro-Americans from historical invisibility. As recently as 1965, the dean of American historians produced a best-selling history of the United States in which black leaders and cultural achievements received scarcely more attention than horses and horse-raising.1 It is hard to imagine such a thing happening again. Not only has black history gained academic respectability, but it has even become a preoccupation of the press and television.

Most of this burgeoning interest has focused on the slave experience. Everyone now seems to agree that the struggle of Afro-Americans to survive under servitude was not only an important episode in American history but somehow even a glorious one. But the exact nature of this struggle and the question of how the white masters influenced its outcome remain matters of great controversy among historians. Every year or so the discussion seems to take a new turn. In 1974, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman offered a radical reinterpretation of these issues by using elaborate quantitative methods.2 Later that year Eugene Genovese published his sophisticated Marxian analysis with its emphasis on “paternalism” as the setting within which slaves made a world for themselves.3 In 1976 the work of Herbert Gutman, ostensibly more modest and specialized than that of his immediate predecessors, promises to force still another rethinking of the meaning of the Afro-American slave experience.

To understand the significance of what Gutman has done, it may be useful to review the modern debate on the impact of enslavement on black culture and personality. The debate really began in earnest in the early to mid Sixties when there was a delayed reaction to a book published without fanfare in 1959—Stanley Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life.4 Since Elkins stressed the harshness of servitude and its allegedly devastating effect on the black personality, he had little reason to anticipate the ideological storm that his work would eventually provoke. For in the late Fifties there was general agreement among liberal historians and sociologists—both white and black—that an emphasis on victimization was the best reply to the racist argument of innate inferiority and might also serve to counter the view, still enshrined in most textbooks, that slavery was a beneficent institution—a kind of school for the civilization of primitive Africans, where kindly masters presided over the Americanization of contented slaves. But Elkins planted the seeds of controversy by likening the slave plantation to a Nazi concentration camp and arguing that such a totalitarian institution tended to reduce its victims to childlike dependency. He thus gave a new environmentalist sanction to an old and unflattering black stereotype—the grinning, shuffling “Sambo” of pro-slavery lore.

Initial criticisms of Elkins’s work came mainly from orthodox historians who objected to his freewheeling use of hypotheses derived from the behavioral sciences more than to his conclusions. But the book was welcomed by sociologists and “interdisciplinary” historians who admired it precisely because of this bold use of social science “models.” The book had a powerful influence for a time not only within academic circles but outside as well. In his famous report on the Negro family, prepared for the Johnson administration in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan quoted a summary of the Elkins thesis which asserted that slavery “stripped [blacks] of their African heritage,” placed them in “a completely dependent role,” and “most important of all…vitiated family life.”5 Such a background, Moynihan argued, helped to account for “pathological” weaknesses in the contemporary black family. William Styron’s prize-winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, published in 1967, was also influenced by Elkins’s work, both in some of its characterizations of slaves and in its general portrayal of the cultural chaos out of which Nat Turner emerged. But the hostile reaction, particularly from blacks, which greeted both the Moynihan Report and Styron’s novel was symptomatic of a growing attack on the Elkins thesis itself.6

Elkins’s view of what slavery had done to its black victims became increasingly unacceptable in the Sixties, not simply, or even mainly, because of its inherent flaws. Flaws there were, but much of the bitter antagonism generated by the book was due to its direct collision with emerging ideologies. Its argument, first of all, was anathema to proponents of black nationalism, whose search for historical sources of pride and community led them to reject the idea that their grandfathers were dehumanized “Sambos.” Furthermore Elkins’s thesis seemed to provide support for a new “racism,” based on the concept of “cultural deprivation,” which was replacing crude notions of biological inferiority as a rationale for denying equal justice to Afro-Americans. Elkins’s premise of black docility and passivity was also incompatible with a New Left historiography that took it for granted that oppressed classes always resist their oppressors.

There were, however, some historians (this reviewer among them) who acknowledged that Elkins had given a fruitful new direction to the study of slavery by attempting to use analogies or models drawn from contemporary experience in coercive or “total” institutions. Instead of rejecting his approach in toto, they sought to build upon it and refine it, by using analogies that seemed to do greater justice to the variety of plantation experience and the wide range of personal adjustments that slaves could make to their predicament. They sought illumination from apparently comparable situations, such as prisons, mental hospitals, and boot camps, in which the great differences in power between those in charge of such institutions and those incarcerated in them did not inevitably result in the successful “internalization” of the authority of the superintending class but left the subordinates or inmates with enough leeway or “breathing space” to erect a variety of defenses against “dehumanization.”7 If some slaves were reduced to passivity, others “played it cool” by opportunistically masking their true feelings, and a few resisted the regime every step of the way. When their own standards of justice were flagrantly affronted, slaves who had hitherto seemed perfectly docile could suddenly turn into rebels or runaways.

Later scholarship, culminating in Gutman’s study, showed that the view of the plantation as a total institution had one significant shortcoming: it failed to take into account the fact that slaves, unlike inmates, lived in family groups. Hence it tended to overlook the more collective aspects of slave response in favor of an overemphasis on individualistic “strategies for survival.”

John Blassingame’s The Slave Community, published in 1972, was the first substantial effort to do justice to this collective or communal side of the slave experience.8 Furthermore it seemed to bury Elkins’s thesis once and for all because of the effective way it summed up and synthesized almost all the lines of attack that had developed over a decade. Blassingame described a plantation community in which slaves, far from being utterly dependent on their masters, used substantial cultural resources of their own to resist oppression and maintain a sense of their dignity and worthiness as human beings.

Among these resources were surviving African traditions in the form of folklore, music, and beliefs about the supernatural; “significant others” like black preachers and conjurors who could blunt the psychological impact of the masters; and strong family ties that persisted despite the frequent break-ups resulting from the slave trade. Almost point by point, therefore, Elkins’s thesis was refuted, and on the whole convincingly. Yet major questions remained about how precisely this slave community developed, maintained itself over time, and adjusted to the realities of white power and dominance. Not conclusively resolved was the crucial issue of whether it was slave initiative or planter patronage that was mainly responsible for family life and other sources of communal health and vitality.

The next major work on slavery, Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross, was mostly concerned with somewhat different issues from those we have been considering. Yet it did have important implications for the question of how and to what extent slaveholders were able to shape the personalities and belief systems of their slaves. Arguing from a conviction that the plantation was not merely a profitable enterprise but a model of capitalistic efficiency, Fogel and Engerman made their controversial claim that the slave was a willing collaborator in this economic miracle, as well as a beneficiary of it. He was thus neither a degraded and infantilized instrument of his master’s will, as Elkins contended, nor a deliberately non-cooperative and inefficient worker, asserting his manhood by sabotaging his master’s interests, as many of Elkins’s critics argued. According to Fogel and Engerman, slaves were induced to work efficiently because of real incentives—which included material rewards equivalent to wages, opportunities for upward mobility within a plantation hierarchy, and positive protection for a stable pattern of family life.

The slaves thus accepted the capitalistic work ethic of their masters because it was in their own interest to do so. It would seem to follow, therefore, that many of the signs of health, or at least absence of “pathology,” that Blassingame had discovered in the quarters, were due to the deliberate policies of enlightened capitalistic owners who understood that the encouragement of worker morale and esprit de corps was the essence of good management.

In Roll, Jordan, Roll, Eugene Genovese vigorously rejected any notion that the master-slave nexus was influenced by a capitalistic ethos. In his view, the opportunity for blacks to develop a community and culture of their own resulted from a “paternalistic” compromise or bargain between masters and slaves. Using as his model the kind of reciprocity between lords and dependents characteristic of precapitalist “seigneurial” societies, he portrayed the slave as fulfilling his obligations to his master in return for a recognition of certain “customary rights” and privileges. Although there was constant tension within the system, as slaves struggled for greater autonomy and masters sought to perfect their mechanisms of control, the result was a kind of dynamic equilibrium in which both sides made the necessary concessions. Despite his relish for dialectical paradox and his basic disagreement with Fogel and Engerman on the processes involved, Genovese also concluded in effect that the master-slave relationship was a collaborative or accommodationist arrangement. To put it simply, blacks avoided being degraded and dehumanized by accepting what their masters offered and making it their own.

Hence, according to both of the most recent major interpretations of slavery, blacks could indeed assert their manhood and enjoy a limited sense of autonomy under slavery, but only within a larger scheme of beliefs and values imposed by the master class. Although they differed from Elkins by stressing consensus rather than coercion, these historians of the Seventies agreed with him in seeing planter power and ideology as decisive influences on slave consciousness. Unlike Fogel and Engerman, Genovese paid considerable attention to the growth of a distinctive black culture and even an incipient black nationalism. But these developments occurred as the result of the paternalistic compromise, not in spite of it; for it was within the “breathing space” conceded by paternalistic masters that slaves forged an Afro-American world view that was culturally sustaining and psychologically satisfying, but incapable of providing revolutionary consciousness because it incorporated the slaves’ own acceptance of a paternalistic order.

  1. 1

    Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People (Oxford University Press).

  2. 2

    Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Little, Brown & Co.).

  3. 3

    Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Pantheon).

  4. 4

    University of Chicago Press. A new edition (the third) is being published this year and contains Elkins’s latest response to his critics.

  5. 5

    See Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey, The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (MIT Press, 1967), p. 62.

  6. 6

    Published by Random House. See also John Henrik Clarke, ed., William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (Beacon Press, 1968).

  7. 7

    See George M. Fredrickson and Christopher Lasch, “Resistance to Slavery,” and Roy Bryce-Laporte, “Slaves as Inmates, Slaves as Men: A Sociological Discussion of the Elkins Thesis,” in Ann J. Lane, ed., The Debate over Slavery: Stanley Elkins and His Critics (University of Illinois Press, 1971), pp. 223-244, 269-292.

  8. 8

    Oxford University Press.

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