Seeing Slavery Whole

We have had many books on southern slavery, some good, some bad, but never one quite like this. Good, bad, or indifferent, the others have usually been shaped by hereditary predispositions toward guilt or indignation, defensiveness, or reproachfulness. Anglo-American or Afro-American, northern or southern, radical or conservative, historians of slavery have been predominantly Protestant and middle class. Those who were not have heretofore felt impelled to mount some psychological, sociological, or economic thesis and foster some revisionary reinterpretation.

The result is that we have had slavery history from many points of view and numerous interpretations, often ably done, but no rounded, holistic treatment free of traditional coercions. The nearest approach to that kind of history (for all the reservations it provokes) is Gilberto Freyre’s colorful picture of Brazilian slave society in The Masters and the Slaves and its sequel, The Mansions and the Shanties. And the closest approximation to Freyre’s work, for all its differences, is Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll. Unencumbered by Anglo-Saxon reserve, Protestant inhibitions, middle-class commitments, or hereditary guilts and rancors, Genovese has done more than any other American historian to lift this tortured subject out of its culture-bound parochialism. As a Marxist, of course, he has his own point of view, but more of that later.

The rounded view Genovese presents is not that of a peculiar institution, but of an entire society—the largest, richest, and most powerful slave society of its time—as it shaped and was shaped by slavery. Far more than an economic relationship, slavery was indeed a way of life and a way of looking at life and the world. And the slavery of the South was not merely one of a score of slave systems of the New World, but a historically unique slave system. The South was part of the world the slaves made, and their world was molded by the South.

The slave South shared the paternalism of other societies, but it was a “unique kind of paternalist society,” and this paternalism is of central importance in Genovese’s reading of southern slavery and southern history. Paternalism, of course, can be selfishly motivated, and both cruel and tyrannical as well as kind and gentle. It was both a necessity of discipline and a justification of oppression. “It did encourage kindness and affection” on both sides, “but it simultaneously encouraged cruelty and hatred.” It was accepted by both masters and slaves, and by slaves far more readily than was slavery. “A fragile bridge across intolerable contradictions,” paternalism justified involuntary labor as a legitimate return for protection and care. It exacted reciprocal demands and expectations, mutual obligations, duties, responsibilities, and—of vital importance to the slaves—rights and an implicit recognition of the slaves’ humanity.

Paternalism was for the slaves, therefore, a weapon for defense and a potential weapon for liberation. It undermined the solidarity of its oppressed by linking individuals to oppressors, but “it protected both masters and slaves from the worst tendencies inherent in their respective conditions.” By accepting the ethos of…

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