They’ll Take Their Stand

For nearly half a century two historians have dominated the field of slavery studies, broadly conceived. David Brion Davis has been the preeminent historian of ideas about slavery in the Western world since the early modern period and has completed two volumes of a projected trilogy: The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture and The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823.1 He has now taken time out from work on the third volume in this sequence to produce a general history of slavery and antislavery in the Americas, especially in the parts of it colonized by the English.

Eugene Genovese has been the foremost authority on the political economy of antebellum Southern slavery and on the emergent ideologies or worldviews of both masters and slaves. His greatest achievement in dealing with these subjects is his book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.2 Now he has written, with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (who has also made important contributions to slavery studies3 ), the first of a projected series of volumes on “the mind of the master class.” These books are meant to increase our respect for the intellectual abilities and acuity of the Old South’s slaveholding elite. This first volume concentrates on their ideas about history and religion and makes only passing references to what is generally considered to be the slaveholders’ major intellectual preoccupation—the development of a proslavery argument to counter the attack from Northern abolitionists. This subject, we are told in the preface, will be covered more fully in a subsequent volume.

In a way, these two books show the authors’ reversal of direction. Much of the previous work of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese has drawn on Marxist theory to illuminate class relationships and the cultural concerns and ideologies arising from them. In the current volume they produce the kind of intellectual history that some might consider old-fashioned because it concentrates almost exclusively on the ideas themselves rather than on the external circumstances that may have shaped their content and given them salience. On the other hand, Davis, a leading practitioner of intellectual and cultural history, has now gone far beyond the history of ideas and attempted to study New World slavery in all its ramifications, social, economic, and political, as well as intellectual and cultural. Whereas the Genoveses have narrowed the scope of their inquiry to the discourse and habits of mind of a relatively small number of planter intellectuals, Davis has widened his perspective to encompass the history of slavery and the opposition it engendered in Great Britain and its New World colonies, as well as in the United States.

Precisely because of its breadth, Inhuman Bondage defies summary; much of it draws heavily on the more specialized work of other scholars. From start to finish Davis stresses the racial aspect of New World slavery, both as its distinguishing feature and the source of its particularly brutal and dehumanizing character when compared to most other forms of bondage in human history. He points out that slaves in the ancient world were of all colors and ethnicities and not easily distinguishable from the free population, which was often similarly diverse (as was the case, for example, in ancient Rome). This lack of a racial justification for servitude facilitated the manumission and subsequent assimilation of many of those who had been enslaved, whether in Greece, Rome, or medieval Europe. Unlike former slaves in the New World, they did not carry the visible marks of their former degradation. Of course slavery always entails cruelty and brutalization. In his introductory discussion of the remote origins of slavery in human history, Davis sees it as an extension of the domestication of animals, an attempt to turn human beings into beasts of burden. As bad as slavery has always been, however, Davis finds it at its worst in the racial form that it took in the New World, where a difference in color and the meanings associated with it were a substantial barrier to humane treatment.

Davis convincingly demonstrates that slavery was central to the history of the New World. His chapter on the origins of the extensive enslavement of Africans and their transport across the Atlantic

is meant to underscore the central truth that black slavery was basic and integral to the entire phenomenon we call “America.” This often hidden or disguised truth ultimately involves the profound contradiction of a free society that was made possible by black slave labor.

When he narrows his focus to slavery in nineteenth-century America, Davis points out that the United States had “the largest number of slaves in the Western Hemisphere” and concludes that “far from being a marginal misfortune, African American slavery pulsated at the heart of the national economy and thus at the core of American political culture.”

When the future of slavery became an issue in national politics and Southerners set about defending their “peculiar institution” against abolitionist denunciation, a commitment to white supremacy was the basis of the Southern consensus that emerged. “Virulent racism,” Davis contends, “lay at the heart of the South’s extremely shaky unity.” This unity was precarious because a substantial majority of white Southerners did not own slaves. It was the “crucial function of racism and racial identity” to unify nonslaveholders behind an institution from which they derived no material benefit:

Racial doctrine—the supposed innate inferiority of blacks—became the primary instrument for justifying the persistence of slavery, for rallying the support of nonslaveholding whites, for underscoring the dangers of freeing a people allegedly “unprepared” for freedom, and for defining the limits of dissent.

For Davis, the only antidote to poisonous racism is a moral and ideological commitment to human equality. Dismissing the more cynical explanations of economic determinists as superficial, he finds that such a commitment lay behind Britain’s antislavery movement of the early nineteenth century and its decision in 1833 to emancipate all the slaves in its colonies. In the ideology of “free labor,” which was widespread in England, he finds a deeper meaning than a simple belief in the economic superiority of wage labor over slave labor. It reflected “the desire to dignify and honor labor,” the labor of those who earned wages as well as those who paid them, and “can be viewed as a way of genuinely recognizing elements of equality in people of subordinate status.”

Davis argues that “a fortunate convergence of economic, political, and ideological circumstances” made it possible for Britain to “achieve genuine reform—a reform that greatly improved and uplifted the lives of millions of blacks” and “curbed some of the worst effects of early global capitalism.” He concludes his paean of praise for Britain’s abolition of slavery by endorsing the historian W.E.H. Lecky’s opinion that it stands “as among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations.”

Historians are entitled to change their minds, and it may be worth noting that this evaluation of British abolitionism differs somewhat in tone and substance from Davis’s discussion of the same topic in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, published more than thirty years ago. There Davis found that the British antislavery ideology helped the dominant classes to deflect attention from the exploitation of the working classes at home by shifting concern to the plight of slaves in distant colonies. In this way they were able to maintain and strengthen their class-based “cultural hegemony” and undercut the radicalism inspired by the French Revolution. In his new book he puts much emphasis on the influence of Quaker and Anglican abolitionists and the remarkable size of the mass movements in which over a million people would sign petitions to end slavery.

In addition to analyzing abolitionism in Britain itself, Inhuman Bondage recounts the dramatic history of the slave rebellions that broke out in the British West Indies on the eve of emancipation. Davis finds that the slaves had some awareness, mainly from their contact with missionaries, of the progress of the abolition movement in Britain. Consequently they refrained from massacring whites when they had the chance for fear of alienating public opinion in the mother country. This restraint is in sharp contrast to the contemporaneous Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831, when no such considerations impeded the killing of whites.

Perhaps Davis’s most original argument is that British emancipation and its consequences help to account for the American South’s hysterical reaction to the small and unpopular abolitionist movement that emerged in the antebellum North during the 1830s and 1840s. According to the South’s conspiracy theorists, Great Britain was plotting to undermine the American economy by encouraging abolitionism and even slave rebellions in the United States. Also contributing to the fear of a widespread slave rebellion incited by abolitionists was the memory of the revolution in Haiti around the turn of the century. Moreover, the economic decline of the former British slave colonies in the 1840s and 1850s provided a frightening indication of what would happen in the South even if, as was the case in the West Indies, slavery were to be abolished gradually and the owners compensated. “The South’s increasing fixation on British abolitionism and the declining economy of Haiti and the British Caribbean,” Davis concludes, “helps to explain the Southerners’ paranoid, disproportionate response to critics in the North.”

While it is certainly plausible, the contention that an intense Anglophobia was a central element in the slaveholding South’s “crisis of fear” needs more documentation than Davis provides in this book. Beyond recognizing an endemic anxiety about the possibility of slave rebellion arising from the memories of Haiti and the Nat Turner revolt, previous historians of Southern extremism before the Civil War have given relatively little weight to concerns about Britain’s role in fomenting slave uprisings. It is well known that one inspiration for the annexation of Texas in 1845 was a false report that the British were offering to guarantee Texas’s independence from Mexico in return for its repudiation of slavery. But Davis sees a much broader and more pervasive concern. Perhaps his forthcoming Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation will provide the additional evidence needed to support his hypothesis.

One might have expected Britain’s emancipation policy to have been a topic of the slaveholder writings, letters, and conversations described and analyzed in The Mind of the Master Class by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese, but I found no mention of it in more than eight hundred pages of text. Perhaps it will be treated in a subsequent volume dealing with political attitudes and the controversy over slavery. This volume is devoted primarily to what “the master class” thought about history (especially ancient and European history) and religion.

The claim of the authors that the book examines the thought or “worldview” of the master class as a whole might be questioned. In fact, they mainly discuss the mentality of a handful of highly articulate planter intellectuals. The same names—Thomas R. Dew, Robert L. Dabney, J.D.B. DeBow, George Fitzhugh, George Frederick Holmes, Louisa McCord, Edmund Ruffin, and James Henly Thornwell—come up repeatedly. The Genoveses make no effort to demonstrate how, or to what extent, this intellectual elite actually spoke for the planter class as a whole, including its less articulate and erudite members. Some use of travelers’ accounts reporting conversations with ordinary slaveholders might have enlarged the range of evidence. Another source might have been the correspondence of more typical members of the planter class, some of which is to be found in Southern archives.

Despite this limitation of scope, however, the Genoveses’ book is extraordinarily erudite. What is most impressive is the authors’ ability to tell us what precisely was meant by the innumerable literary and cultural references found in the writings of the slaveholding intellectuals. They seem to have read all the books that their subjects read and talked about, and they are thus able to get inside their minds to a remarkable degree. Dante, Thomas à Kempis, John Bunyan, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Carlyle are only a few of the writers cited by the Genoveses who came in for discussion among the cultured Southern planters and clergymen they deal with. “Perhaps nothing so impressed Southerners,” they write, “as Scott’s loving attention to families and local communities.”

The Genoveses, as cultural conservatives, have in the past made no bones about their finding contemporary American society and culture repugnant; but, for the most part, they avoid polemics about modern culture in this book. Except to the extent that they subtly empathize with some of the ultraconservative views of those they are writing about, they have provided a reasonably objective account of the diversity of opinion among the planter elite on such subjects as historical revolutions, the cult of chivalry, classical European literature, and especially religion. They write, for example, that “well-educated Southerners…loved and regarded [Dante] as their own,” seeing him as a “premature Protestant,” particularly in view of his “opposition to papal intervention in secular affairs.”

At only one point did I find the Genoveses making an overt and exaggerated claim for the superiority of the slaveholders’ ethics and wisdom over those that have prevailed in the United States since the abolition of slavery. After a seemingly unbiased account of the debate among Southerners about American expansionism and imperialism, in which diverse and even antithetical opinions were expressed (about, for example, the justification of war with Mexico), they somehow come to the conclusion that views among Southern thinkers not only added up to anti-imperialism but can be contrasted with the ideology of America’s later interventions in world affairs. Here the argument sounds speculative and tendentious:

By minimizing the suffering of their own black slaves, they defended slavery at home all the more passionately while they struggled in the United States against an imperialist worldview that would subsequently impose unprecedented misery and mass slaughter on the world. The defeat of the slaveholders and their worldview opened the floodgates to the global catastrophe their leading spokesmen had long seen a-borning.

Another finding that seems calculated to improve the image of the slaveholders is more persuasively documented. Their toleration of religious diversity among whites, the authors show, exceeded that of the North (which was beset during this period by virulent anti-Catholic nativism). Although religious beliefs were strongly held and arguments on theological issues could be intense, the rights of Catholics, Jews, and even the ultraliberal Protestant denominations, such as Unitarians and Universalists, to practice their religion and promulgate their faith were respected in the Old South, provided that they endorsed slavery. The underlying agreement that held the white South together, politically and socially as well as religiously, was the belief in the rightness of slavery and white supremacy.

Such a commitment is, of course, highly objectionable to modern liberals and makes it difficult for them to see anything of value in the slaveholders’ worldview. Although the Genoveses do not condone or defend slavery and racial discrimination, they view the commitment to hierarchy that these institutions entailed as providing the foundation for some commendable qualities. In the prologue to the book they write:

The late I.F. Stone was once asked how he, a prominent spokesman for the radical Left,…could admire a slaveholder like Thomas Jefferson. If we recall correctly, he replied, “Because history is tragedy, not melodrama.”

The underlying argument of their book is that the Old South in its flawed and “tragic” way stood for some values that have been sadly neglected in our modern, individualistic society:

To modern sensibilities it is a preposterous idea that a slave system could engender admirable virtues…. In our own time it seems perverse, not to say impossible, to separate the horror of slavery from the positive features of an ordered and interdependent social system. To Southerners and not just slaveholders, slavery was a bulwark against the corrosive features of free labor and the loosening of the social bonds that nurtured humane social relations.

For Eugene Genovese the Old South has always been anticapitalist and antiliberal. But until the 1990s he linked this interpretation to Marxian radicalism. In such works as The World the Slaveholders Made, one can find an undertone of approbation of the slaveholders—whatever else they might have been, at least they were not liberal or capitalist.4 But it was clear that for Genovese, socialism and not some kind of traditional society was the right solution for the excesses of individualism that modern society engendered. In The Fruits of Merchant Capital, published in 1983, Fox-Genovese and Genovese, in their first collaboration, described the antebellum South as a “hybrid” society in which pre-capitalist and capitalist values coexisted in a state of apparently unresolveable tension.5 In The Mind of the Master Class, however, they argue that the inherently individualistic character of Protestantism prevented the slaveholders from developing a consistent and coherent worldview. “Protestantism’s inherent tendencies toward radical individualism and democratization posed a direct threat to the South’s slaveholding social order,” they write. This truth was clear to Catholics, who “while denying the inherent sinfulness of slavery, recognized the Protestant origins of an individualism that should logically have rejected slavery.” They go on to quote with apparent sympathy a South Carolina priest’s pronouncement that “it is only under Catholic governments, where the church can regulate the relative duties between the servant and the master, that slavery can exist as a Christian institution.”

By suggesting that for most slaveholders a problem of identity arose from the fact that they had the wrong kind of religion, the Genoveses echo Allen Tate’s “Remarks on the Southern Religion” in I’ll Take My Stand, the 1930 manifesto of the Southern Agrarians. (It is somewhat surprising that the Genoveses do not mention or cite this essay; for its argument is remarkably similar to theirs.) According to Tate, the Old South “was a feudal society without a feudal religion.” Its error was that “it tried to encompass its destiny within the terms of Protestantism, in origin, non-agrarian and trading religion….”6 In the essay Tate does not specifically invoke Catholicism as an alternative, and somewhat ruefully admits his own lack of religious belief. But it is no surprise that he later converted to Catholicism. According to both Tate and the Genoveses, Protestantism inevitably encourages industrialism, capitalism, and laissez-faire liberalism, all of which, in the words of the latter, threatened the South’s “simultaneous preference for the corporatism of the family as the fundamental institution of society.” (That an ethically or even religiously based democratic socialism might be a third option is a possibility they do not discuss.)

Despite its sympathetic treatment of the corporatism and the close-knit family life that Southern bondage helped to engender, The Mind of the Master Class does not condone slavery itself. The authors emphatically acknowledge the inherent cruelty and brutality of the master–slave relationship. Because of the virtually unchecked power that slavery gives to one man over another and the fact that “men are frail creatures bound to abuse power,” slavery, they write, “stands convicted as the least defensible of human relations.” If one were a believer in Christianity with its Golden Rule, it might seem that the abolitionists were right when they condemned slavery as a sin. Not so, say the Genoveses, provided that one takes the Bible literally, as most Americans in both the North and the South did in the period before the Civil War. They argue convincingly that Southerners had the best of the argument about whether slavery is sanctioned or condemned in Holy Scripture. Not only was slavery a pervasive institution throughout biblical times, but nowhere does either the Old or New Testament explicitly criticize it. Where the Southern interpreters of scripture went wrong, the Genoveses concede, was when they attempted to provide a biblical mandate for racial slavery, and not just slavery in general. The notion that blacks in particular were enslaved because God had cursed their alleged ancestor Canaan as punishment for an obscure offense by his father Ham against his grandfather Noah had no basis in scripture. Nowhere in the Book of Genesis is there any indication that Canaan and his descendants were black.

Fox-Genovese and Genovese acknowledge that the Old South, to the extent that its worldview was manifested in the thought of the intellectually active slaveholders they discuss, was a profoundly conflicted and ultimately a fatally flawed society. “Individualism,” they conclude, “even in its peculiarly conservative southern form, tends to place the state in hostile relation to society’s discrete units, individual and corporate. Herein lies a principal germ of the disintegration of community itself….” But the Genoveses do not simply describe this internal conflict; they seem to share it. Although they deplore slavery and racism, they clearly value the “corporate” and traditionalist aspects of antebellum Southern life and invite us to regard them as an alternative to the modern society that they deplore. But can one in fact detach the virtues from the vices in this case? Slavery and racism provided the essential underpinning for such hierarchy and community as existed in Southern society as a whole. Without racial slavery as the basis of its distinctiveness, the Old South would not have differed all that much from the North.

While the Genoveses write clearly about the racism that was endemic in the Old South, it does not seem to me that they give it the centrality it deserves. They attribute the loyalty of nonslaveholders to the master class “primarily” to the “rural independence” and relative immunity from government interference that characterized their lives, a form of autonomy that they shared with the owners of slaves. Most other historians have given greater weight to what they describe as a secondary factor—“the comfort of many of the less affluent whites derived from racial stratification.” I share Davis’s view that the “shaky unity” of the Old South was based primarily on a “virulent racism.” One might add that this fierce commitment to white supremacy in a biracial society survived the abolition of slavery itself and pointed ahead to Jim Crow. If, as Davis contends, racism was the heart of the matter, it becomes difficult to find much to admire in “the world the slaveholders made.”

Placed in juxtaposition, the two books under review reveal a profound clash of values and ideals. In his celebration of British emancipation and American abolitionism—his affirmation of human progress toward a more just and humane society—Davis puts forward a persuasive version of the modern liberalism that the Genoveses reject. Although both Davis and the Genoveses have strong ideological commitments, and readers are bound to feel drawn to one side or the other on the basis of their own beliefs, both books have great historical weight and strong moral implications, especially when read together.

  1. 1

    Cornell University Press, 1966 and 1975. I reviewed the latter in these pages, The New York Review, October 16, 1975.

  2. 2

    Pantheon, 1974.

  3. 3

    Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

  4. 4

    Eugene D. Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation (Pantheon, 1969).

  5. 5

    Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism(Oxford University Press, 1983), reviewed by me in these pages, The New York Review, January 19, 1984.

  6. 6

    Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930; Louisiana State University Press, 1977), pp. 166, 168.