Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders' New World Order.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Author:||Woods, Michael E.|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders' New World Order (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth; Genovese, Eugene D.|
Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern
Slaveholders' New World Order. By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene
D. Genovese (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xv plus 314
This comparatively slender sequel to The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview (2005) offers an equally stimulating interpretation of antebellum southern thought. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese again blend intellectual with social history to reveal the interplay between social relations and the white southern mind, focusing here on proslavery ideology. With characteristic mastery of the primary literature, the authors carefully argue that a startling number of white southerners adhered to the tenets of Slavery in the Abstract, "the doctrine which declared slavery or a kindred system of personal servitude the best possible condition for all labor regardless of race." (1) Many southerners winced at a class-based defense of servitude, and no one openly advocated the enslavement of propertyless whites. Nevertheless, southern intellectuals who strived to defend racial slavery increasingly accepted that servitude most humanely reconciled the conflicting interests of labor and capital. Expanding on a thesis which veined much of their earlier work, Fox-Genovese and Genovese posit that "Proslavery Southerners drifted - some sprinted - toward an extraordinary doctrine that transcended race." (4)
The abstract defense of slavery rested upon three propositions which blended in an uncompromising critique of free labor. The first held that southern slaves enjoyed material conditions superior to those of northern and European free worker's. The second praised the southern social system as morally superior to those of liberal capitalist regimes. The final precept explained the second, maintaining that slavery, unlike bourgeois individualism, encouraged the fulfillment of Christian social duties. A broad range of white southerners accepted these principles, which fostered widespread belief in the inherent superiority of slave societies, particularly among southern travelers, whose sojourns abroad reinforced their disgust with free labor. Many southerners echoed the socialists' erroneous proclamations of capitalism's imminent downfall; unlike the socialists, they (often uneasily) predicted that white servitude would emerge from the wreckage of bourgeois individualism.
Fox-Genovese and Genovese focus on educated slaveowners, contextualizing them socially with a discussion of southern elites' intellectual hegemony. The authors demonstrate that southern intellectuals molded southern thought through their dominance of print culture, education, and the theology disseminated by local preachers. This leads to the provocative conclusion that nonslaveholders received surprisingly "large doses" of Slavery in the Abstract. (7) The voices of nonslaveholders themselves are largely silent here, but there is evidence of their exposure to carefully rendered versions of the abstract defense of slavery. Hill country politicians, including William G. Brownlow, Thomas L. Clingman, and even Andrew Johnson, maintained the allegiance of their yeomen constituents while tacitly endorsing Slavery in the Abstract. Deeming servitude a necessary feature of Christian society, they celebrated southern enslavement of an ostensibly inferior race because it rendered white slavery thankfully unnecessary. Because Slavery in the Abstract was fully compatible with racism - even Alexander H. Stephens, the "high priest of white supremacy," flirted with the doctrine (64) -southerners presumed that white servitude could be milder than black slavery. Still, white unfreedom haunted most southern thinkers. Slavery in the Abstract thus meshed with a commitment to white southern liberty while predicting the eventual enslavement of white workers in bourgeois societies not blessed with black chattels.
Fox-Genovese and Genovese treat the formidable champions of Slavery in the Abstract with deserved respect while frankly discussing their subjects' intellectual shortcomings. Southern political economists, for instance, could not reconcile their science with the proslavery argument, despite the skilled efforts of Louisa McCord and others. A dual commitment to free trade economics and organic slave society proved untenable, especially since pessimistic political economists predicted the eventual eclipse of slavery by the cheaper system of wage labor. To escape this dead end, proslavery thinkers abandoned political economy in favor of sociology, combining social theory with theology to attack bourgeois liberalism and to defend slavery "on higher ground than political economy allowed for." (196)
Sociology was the discipline of choice for Slavery in the Abstract's two most (in)famous promoters, the men who sprinted when others walked: Henry Hughes and George Fitzhugh. Unlike scholars who have emphasized Hughes and Fitzhugh's eccentricity and alienation, Fox-Genovese and Genovese stress their compatibility with, and even popularity among, mainstream southern thinkers. The two men shared many assumptions with other proslavery intellectuals and embraced the widely resonant tenets of Slavery in the Abstract. As in Genovese's The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation (1969), Hughes and Fitzhugh thus appear less sui generis and more representative of southern attitudes. They articulated what others could not quite grasp - or dared not utter.
As Fox-Genovese and Genovese show, however, the more coherent defense of slavery constructed during the 1850s still contained numerous blind spots. Slaveholders correctly claimed that some southern slaves enjoyed a higher material standard of living than many European peasants and wage laborers, a point conceded even by some critics of slavery. But proslavery writers ignored the incontrovertible evidence of southern poverty (especially among whites), prostitution, corruption, and other social ills outlined in the book's final chapter. Perhaps most troubling was the slaveholders' ignorance of the psychology of servitude, which led them to "underestimat[e] the desire for freedom among the downtrodden," (292) an oversight eventually laid bare during the Civil War.
This attention to the gulf between slaveholders' perception and southern reality illustrates the judiciousness of a book that remains sensitive to the achievements and failures of thinkers who grappled with perennially thorny questions. Certain themes will be familiar to readers acquainted with the authors' earlier work, but the argument remains lively, reflecting decades of research and refinement. Like all good history, Slavery in White and Black will inspire debate. Slavery in the Abstract was a slippery concept that meant different things to different writers, whose indictments of free society perhaps overlapped more than their visions of the southern future - contrast George Fitzhugh's reactionism with the modernist corporatism of Henry Hughes. Particularly outside of intellectual circles, the tenets of Slavery in the Abstract may have exerted more influence individually than when aggregated into a disturbingly coherent doctrine. Perhaps the harsh critique of Yankee institutions embedded in Slavery in the Abstract was its most appealing feature for a southern public confronted with increasing northern criticism. Still, Fox-Genovese and Genovese have used the concept to sharpen our understanding of a distinctly southern worldview that was, as they have shown, not merely a hypocritical reflex. Slavery in White and Black is a learned and compelling book that demands careful reading and thoughtful reflection.
Michael E. Woods
University of South Carolina
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