A Special Supplement: American Slaves and Their History

The history of the American lower classes has yet to be written. The ideological impact of the New Left, the intellectual exigencies of the black liberation movement, and the developing academic concern for the cultural aspects of politics and history have all converged to produce the expectation that this history will be written. If even a small percentage of the praise heaped upon E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class could be translated into an effort to extend its achievement, the future would be bright. Good work is finally being done, although little by those who periodically issue manifestoes on the need to rewrite history “from the bottom up.”

History written from the bottom up is neither more nor less than history written from the top down: It is not and cannot be good history. Writing the history of a nation without considering the vicissitudes of a majority of its people is not a serious undertaking. Yet it is preposterous to suggest that there could conceivably be anything wrong with writing a book about the ruling class alone, or about one or another elite, or about any segment of society, however small. No subject is too limited to treat.

But a good historian writes well on a limited subject while taking account (if only implicitly and without a single direct reference) of the whole, whereas an inferior one confuses the need to isolate a small portion of the whole with the license to assume that that portion acted in isolation. One may, for example, write Southern history by focusing on either blacks or whites, slaves or masters, tenant farmers or landlords; but the one cannot be discussed without an understanding of the other.

The fate of master and slave was historically intertwined, and formed part of a single social process; each in his own way struggled for autonomy—struggled to end his dependence upon the other—but neither could ever wholly succeed. The first problem in the writing of social history lies in this organic antagonism: We tend to see the masters in their own terms, without acknowledging their dependence upon the slaves; but we also tend to see the slaves in the masters’ terms, without acknowledging the extent to which the slaves freed themselves from domination.

There cannot be, therefore, any such thing as “history from the bottom up,” but there can and should be good histories of “the bottom.” A good study of plantation architecture, apart from its contribution to aesthetics, would be one that grasped the social link between the culture of the Big House and that of both the slave quarters and small non-slaveholding farm houses, for the Big House, whatever else it did, served to impress men in humble circumstances. Such a study need never mention the slave quarters or the farm houses, but if the essential insight fails or remains undeveloped and abstract, then the entire effort must remain limited. Should it succeed, then the book would be a valuable contribution to the…

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