The World the Slaveholders Made. Two Essays in Interpretation.
by Eugene D. Genovese.
Pantheon Books. 274 pp. $5.95.
Like Eugene Genovese’s previous studies of the ante-bellum South, the two essays which comprise this book attempt to examine slave societies through the prism of social class rather than by focusing primarily, as most previous scholars have done, on patterns of race relations. Thus, in the first of the two essays, Genovese views the different New World slaveholding societies as a series of colonial cultures which he tries to locate “within the process of worldwide capitalist development itself.” To achieve this “world perspective,” he constructs a skillfully-triangulated comparative analysis: of the social and economic patterns among European powers involved in New World slavery; of the distinctive forms that slavery assumed in French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and English colonies; and of the social and economic tensions which eventually divided the emerging slave societies from their mother countries. The result is a sophisticated triumph of comparative historical analysis, although one that often jettisons the Marxist framework which Genovese professes to be both using and revising.
What emerges from Genovese’s analysis is a complex spectrum of slave societies, ranging from some that were thoroughly “capitalist” in orientation to more paternalistic ones like the American South, which Genovese views as the leading modern “counterrevolutionary” slaveholding culture. Genovese’s Southern slaveholders are rarely singleminded agrarian capitalists, ruthlessly engaged in frank pursuit of the plantation dollar. Rather, he finds the slaveholders evolving during the ante-bellum period into a decidedly anti-capitalist, class-conscious elite with a paternalistic life style. (Genovese prefers the term “seigneurial” to the designation “feudal” employed by certain of his critics.) Within this emerging “seigneurial” culture, he argues, the defense of slavery as a “positive” good—a defense undertaken by Southern intellectuals beginning in the 1830’s—represented not “mere apologetics or rationalization . . . [but] the formulation of a world view that authentically reflected the position, aspirations, and ethos of the slaveholders as a class.”
Most pro-slavery theorists of the times, Genovese acknowledges, avoided a total assault on the basic democratic, individualistic, and entrepreneurial foundations of American society. They chose to defend bondage as one positive good, proper for the South, rather than as the positive good, proper for the entire nation. This was not true of George Fitzhugh—the subject of the second of the two essays making up this book—whose unrestrained jeremiads against market capitalism, free society, and the “wage slavery” of Northern labor made him somewhat suspect even among fellow slaveholders. Genovese insists, however, that Fitzhugh’s ideas, far from being merely idiosyncratic, were the ideological terminus of Southern “seigneurialism” and the “logical outcome” of a system of thought appropriate to the enclosed plantation world.
In Genovese’s entire approach to the ante-bellum South, there resides a certain romanticist quality. The signs are unmistakable: his claim that the South fought no Civil War but rather a “War for Southern Independence”; his ferocious contempt for “phony” Cavaliers such as the absentee West Indian planters who affected (according to Genovese) a spurious paternalistic ideology; his curiously defensive rationale for studying the slaveholders (“No matter how guilty they may have been . . . they did nonetheless stand for a world different from our own that is worthy of our sympathetic attention”); and, finally, his treatment of George Fitzhugh as an ideological Don Quixote, tilting his lance against capitalism’s worldwide windmill. All these touches distinguish the author’s own “world view” from a more traditional liberal or radical approach to the Old South.
Indeed, some of Genovese’s goofier critics have mistakenly seen his work as an apologia for “the world the slaveholders made.” The charge is nonsense, and yet his essays do betray, both in language and mood, an ungrudging respect for the achievements of an adversary culture: not the high-strung reveries of a Margaret Mitchell, to be sure, nor even the mellower romanticism of an Ulrich B. Phillips, whose historical influence Genovese has tried to revive. Instead, Genovese’s work reflects an admiration for the Old South tempered by an unbridgeable ideological divergence; Genovese at Tara would be something like Khrushchev at Roswell Garth’s Iowa farm. Look what can still be achieved, reflects the visitor, by people so fundamentally wrong!
What was achieved in Fitzhugh’s writings, Genovese finds, was the expression of an ideological “world view” not only consistent and rigorous in itself, but so “ruthless and critical” that it proposed nothing less than the reversal of most of the dominant tendencies of 19th-century Western history. Fitzhugh’s more extreme proposals for the South, indeed, contradicted many basic assumptions of pro-slavery thought. Thus, for example, in a cotton culture that traditionally favored free trade, Fitzhugh opposed free trade as a species of “market capitalism.” Moreover, in a region of large plantations and small farms, he opposed agrarianism and favored the construction of small cities and industry. He ignored the states-rights argument, ridiculed Jeffersonian ideology, and urged strong government as a means of checking anti-slavery agitation.
In short, Fitzhugh favored the conscious molding of the slave South into a model regional autarchy, a goal to be achieved through withdrawal from the world market economy into a tightly governed, self-sufficient plantation society. The “logical outcome of the slaveholders’ philosophy”? Perhaps, although Genovese is least convincing when making a case for this proposition. He does provide a masterly exposition of Fitzhugh’s theories, guiding us through the entire fabric of that ideologue’s complex argument, from his harsh critique of unresolved economic and social problems in capitalist society to his equally strenuous defense of slavery as an abstract social system.
On occasion Genovese succumbs in the course of his exposition to that tendency exemplified by the preacher who scribbled alongside a sentence of his sermon text: “Weak point. Shout!” The author “shouts” at his scholarly opponents during a discussion of W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, ridiculing the idea, popularized not only by Cash but by historians Kenneth Stampp and Charles Sellers, that the pro-slavery defense did not reflect the master class’s increasing self-confidence but rather its queasy and uncertain reaction to Northern attacks on Negro slavery. Genovese dubs this argument “the currently fashionable disease, guiltomania,” and he flays roundly at its major advocates. His discomfort is understandable, because if large numbers of slaveholders did spread themselves out on a self-constructed moral rack, then Genovese is wrong in postulating an increasingly self-confident master class.
Similarly, as more than one critic has already noted, Genovese nowhere mentions a curious private letter in which Fitzhugh, devoted advocate of autarchy, conceded to his correspondent: “I assure you, Sir, I see great evils in Slavery, but in a controversial work I ought not to admit them.” Neither does Genovese admit the existence of any substantial group of slaveholders who felt guilty over owning bondsmen. His evidence for the absence of “guiltomania,” however, consists only of a few slaveholders who testified to considering their world “natural” and “permanent.”
Genovese sets out to demonstrate two major propositions in his essay on Fitzhugh. The first, on which he is persuasive, was that Fitzhugh alone, of the entire band of pro-slavery theorists, recognized “that slavery could not continue without the utter destruction of capitalism as a world economic system.” In other words, Fitzhugh displayed more clarity than most of the euphoric Southern firebrands when he recognized the mordant anomaly of trying to maintain “slavery in one country” against a global anti-slavery tide.
Genovese, however, fails to deliver on his second claim: that of defending his protagonist against the charge of ideological “inconsistency” pressed by previous historians. On more than one critical issue, Genovese himself portrays Fitzhugh equivocating, temporizing, back-tracking, and, when all else failed, retreating into “paradox.” Thus, on the important question of maintaining a market economy for the plantation South while at the same time withdrawing from the world market itself, Genovese finds remarkable “consistency” in Fitzhugh’s solution, which, we are told,
seems brilliantly to meet all reasonable objections: a limited industrialization based on a small-scale urbanization, tied firmly to a broadly based plantation regime on the countryside by the localization of economic life.
Several pages later, however, the author concedes that this scheme was the “wildest of dreams,” which, of course, it was—a scheme intended, no less, as a means of maintaining the inner purity of “seigneurial” slavery by transforming the entire South into a “limted,” “small-scale,” urban industrial society.
The truth is that the hallmark of “consistency” fails to describe adequately either Genovese’s provocative scholarship or the desperate schemes of George Fitzhugh. At times, in fact, one suspects that Genovese’s passion to defend Fitzhugh’s “consistency” as a theorist is more excessive than even his subject’s, as when the author tortuously justifies Fitzhugh’s proposal for an alliance of Northern capitalists and Southern planters against the challenges of abolitionism and socialism. Genovese denies that, in making this proposal, Fitzhugh can be justly charged with having cynically repudiated “his whole moral attack on bourgeois society and its ethics.” The reason? “His proposal was in fact a strategic retreat aimed at isolating and disarming the Northern bourgeoisie.” Historians will recall similar “strategic holding operations” (Genovese’s phrase) in which extreme ideological opponents made common cause against real or imagined enemies. But in advocating an alliance, Fitzhugh’s “inconsistency” seems clear, despite Genovese’s zealous apologia.
In the end, Genovese has stepped deliberately but unnecessarily into an ideological cul de sac by claiming for Fitzhugh too central a place within ante-bellum Southern thought. Perhaps Fitzhugh’s actual significance lay in a willingness to project a slaveholders’ paradise so outlandish that it discomfited even most of the master class. Certainly his controlling vision—the entire world re-enslaved!—found few enthusiasts even among pro-slavery apologists. Far from serving as basic guidelines for a master class and for a “society evolving along these lines,” many of Fitzhugh’s strictures and proposals actually undermined the defense of “slavery as it was.” Therefore, his importance as a theorist may stem partly from the tensions he helped expose among his own kind. The two literary figures whom Genovese evokes to suggest the distinctive character of Fitzhugh’s ideas—Don Quixote and Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor—reinforce this “paradox”: that by articulating what Stanley Elkins has called the “outer moral limits of the pro-slavery argument,” Fitzhugh may have unwittingly suggested the dilemma posed by that argument not merely for his Northern critics but for many of his Southern admirers as well.
The World the Slaveholders Made carries Genovese’s argument for Southern paternalism—an argument first spelled out in The Political Economy of Slavery—to its own “logical outcome” in George Fitzhugh’s writings. In the process, the author polishes his basic conception of American slavery into an even more systematic, if not more persuasive, treatment than can be found in his earlier work. The present book really breaks new ground, however, in its comparative analysis of New World slave systems; its first essay, a superb piece of scholarship, provides the structure for a major reassessment of the Western Hemisphere’s slaveholding classes. As he pursues his research in comparative history, Genovese may find his Marxist categories too constricting for the intricate burden of evidence he will have to handle, especially in the case of Brazilian and Cuban slavery. Should that happen, the result may be a historical synthesis of New World slave systems distinct from the author’s earlier treatments and, to use Genovese’s favorite word, “paradoxically” his own.