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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.

  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).

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