The Fatal Flaw

The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South.
by Eugene D. Genovese.
Random House. 304 pp. $6.95.

There was a time when Charles Beard's “Second American Revolution” chapter in The Rise of American Civilization passed for a “Marxist” interpretation of the Civil War, even with Marxists who ought to have known better. Beard argued that the “so-called Civil War” was no mere clash over constitutional principles or the morality of holding slaves. It was a revolutionary upheaval

ending in the unquestioned establishment of a new power in the government, making vast changes in the arrangement of classes, in the accumulation and distribution of wealth, in the course of industrial development, and in the Constitution inherited from the Fathers. . . . Viewed under the light of universal history, the fighting was a fleeting incident; the social revolution was the essential portentous outcome.

But such language, which seemed to imply a line of interpretation suggested a half-century earlier by Marx and Engels themselves—that the American Civil War might best be understood as a struggle between an expanding, bourgeois North and a static, semi-feudal South—was misleading. For all his talk about underlying economic forces and social revolution, Beard found the classic Benthamite pleasure-pain calculus far more congenial to his own habits of mind than any Marxian dialectic. He could never grasp the subtle relationship between class interest, ideological conviction, and political action which Marx and Engels insisted upon. That a man living in a society wherein wealth, status, and self-esteem all rested on the possession of slaves might come to believe that slavery was a just and humane institution, and that such a man could be prepared on moral grounds to fight for its preservation, was a view of human psychology which Beard found incomprehensible. For Beard to see the connection between economic interest and political action, something more had to be at stake than “mere” ideological conviction, or even conviction rooted in the primary economic interests of a ruling class. He would finally conclude that the real key was not slavery at all (for all the bitter polemics, men never say what they really mean), but rather the tariffs, ship subsidies, bounties, and banking legislation (all “hard” things) that an industrializing North demanded and that an agrarian South, still in control of the federal government, could not afford to grant.


Eugene Genovese's The Political Economy of Slavery is an effort, by one far better versed in Marxist theory than Beard ever was, to put the argument back on the track and to reconsider the problem of meaningful connections between fundamental economic forces and the coming of the Civil War. Genovese is much too intelligent to pose the matter in terms of specific clashes of interest between North and South. Such clashes, in the light of the broader context, certainly created irritation but they were hardly central. What was central was the position of slave labor in the Southern economy. Bound up with this was, on the one hand, the slaveholder's power to impose himself and his values on Southern society, and, on the other, the inherent weakness of slavery as a labor system. “Slavery,” according to Genovese, “gave the South a social system and a civilization with a distinct class structure, political community, economy, ideology, and set of psychological patterns [that set the South increasingly apart] from the rest of the nation and from the rapidly developing sections of the world.” This happened because slavery was more than a system of labor. It was

the foundation on which rose a powerful and remarkable social class: a class constituting only a tiny portion of the white population and yet so powerful and remarkable as to try, with more success than our neo-abolitionists care to see, to build a new, or rather to rebuild an old, civilization.

And yet that system upon which their economy, indeed their entire civilization, rested was woefully inefficient.

This fatal weakness, the full implication of which was the last thing the Southern elite was prepared to face, occupies most of the essays in Genovese's sharply and often brilliantly argued book. The slave was a careless and slovenly worker who needed constant supervision and could be trusted with only the most primitive of tools. He was especially hopeless at such work as animal husbandry, which required close attention and some sense of personal initiative. Southern agriculture had already completely adjusted to its labor force. It discouraged innovation, since the slave could barely cope with existing technology; it largely ignored crop rotation, which made economic sense only in conjunction with a thriving livestock industry; and it concentrated its energies on a few staples, mainly cotton, finding it cheaper to import food from the West. The result was a steady decline, which the planters were helpless to remedy, in the fertility of Southern soils.


Serious agricultural reform would have required skilled labor and commercial fertilizer, neither of which the South could afford; and a shift from cotton to truck would have required urban markets and proper transportation, neither of which the South had developed nor, with its existing economy, could hope to develop. The South's economic impasse, in short, was fundamental. It could only be remedied by measures which would have undermined the power and influence of the slaveholding elite. Such measures—emancipation, urban development, the systematic use of slaves in industry—would destroy the very thing the dominant class in the South had committed itself to building, an aristocratic, semi-feudal plantation society.

The one alternative that did not directly challenge the existing social arrangements was territorial expansion. If slave labor could be used on fresh lands in Cuba or Central America, or possibly in Western mines where it could be rigidly supervised and guarded, the South's most pressing problems might at least be postponed, if not solved. But when the Republican party moved to block even this distant hope, the stage was set for insurrection. The planters “could never agree to renounce the foundations of their power and moral sensibility and to undergo a metamorphosis into a class the nature and values of which were the inversion of their own.” Given the choice of slipping into the bourgeoisie or fighting, they fought.

I am thoroughly persuaded by Genovese's analysis of the South's agricultural economy. He spells out the weakness of Southern farming in such specific terms as hogs that weighed from forty- to fifty per cent less than those in the Midwest, a pitifully low production of butter and milk throughout the lower South, and a livestock industry so poorly managed that the South had to import substantial amounts of meat even though more than half of the country's cattle were located within its borders. He shows at every point the direct connection between such problems and slavery, and how the entire region was trapped by its commitment to a labor system both inefficient and economically stultifying—a dilemma doubly painful in view of the dynamic, expanding economies of the North and Midwest. Moreover, Genovese's discussion of the importance of territorial expansion in Southern thinking makes sense out of the South's seemingly irrational response to the free-soil movement and the Republican party.

Though his tone is frequently polemical, Genovese is always open-minded and flexible, and quite above squabbling with his many predecessors and contemporaries who have written on this same subject. His scholarship, indeed, is so thoroughly scrupulous that I believe it can be depended upon to reinforce conclusions quite different from his. He argues, in effect, that the plantation society of the ante-bellum South reflected a flawed form of latterday feudalism, and that the flaw was slavery. A very slight change of definition would not in the least disturb the edifice of Genovese's scholarship, though I suppose it would threaten all his most basic theoretical convictions. Still, it seems to me just as plausible—indeed, more so—to say instead that the South reflected a flawed form of capitalism, and that the flaw was race.

Genovese's thesis that a dominant class can by an act of will “rebuild an old civilization” strikes me as gravely unhistorical. He argues that once a class becomes dominant in an economic order it is then in a position not only to impose its recently acquired values, standards, and beliefs on the entire society but also to shed its own past values with relatively little strain. The Southern planters had inherited a republican, bourgeois, contractual society many of whose intellectuals, such as Jefferson and Madison, continued to receive the deference of the antebellum South. To believe that these planters could in a single generation impose a set of quasi-feudal values and social arrangements on themselves and on the rest of society—that they could reverse the tide of history—is in. itself almost an act of faith.

There were certainly Southerners who did think in such terms. George Fitzhugh was one, though I suspect Fitzhugh's relationship to the planter class was not unlike that between Barry Goldwater and today's business corporations—of a man who may be acceptable as a ceremonial spokesman but whose intellectual prescriptions are almost worthless as a basis for predicting actual behavior and policies. I am reluctant to take the Fitzhughs with a fully straight face, and in any case I question the depth of the South's commitment to an organic, semi-feudal society in which both status and social responsibility would be fixed by law and custom.

Genovese is of the opinion that the South's basic values were “pre-capitalistic,” and that even the aggressive “cotton snobs” of Alabama and Mississippi only needed a little time to wear down their rough edges before slipping naturally into the ranks of the aristocracy. But planting was a speculative business, and few planters were ever free from the shadow of crop failure and bankruptcy. What sort of aristocratic ethos is it possible to construct in a community where one or two bad crops can change a man from a rural magnate into just another farmer? How much mobility, in either direction or both, can a society absorb and still be described as semi-feudal?


Genovese explains the planters' desperate fear of emancipation by their determination to maintain the particular labor system on which depended their class position and their dreams of an organic feudal order. But the special quality of their desperation strikes me as very unfeudal. Their values were not those of a human organic community at all; they were far too bourgeois. Nobody could really see the Negro as an organic member, because every systematic effort had been made to define him as outside that community—as property. The underlying egalitarianism in Southern values was such, and the South's faith in barriers between classes was so limited, that once the Negro's bonds of chattel slavery were removed and once he was redefined as human, the first thing he was likely to do, for all anyone knew, was to marry somebody's daughter.

A true sense of stratified social hierarchy—as in Latin America, where the historical background was genuinely “feudal”—would have protected the Southerners from any such nightmare. They had no real faith in the justice or stability of their community, or any willingness to offer adequate human compensations for all of its members; no one could imagine the Negroes as a “loyal peasantry.” An axiom of slave law was that if the master's power were relaxed in any way whatever, the whole system would collapse.

The Southern slaveholders, Genovese says, were a vital and dynamic class determined to create—or recreate-a society, and when it appeared that they were not to succeed, they fought rather than give up a cherished way of life. I should say they were a pathetic class, trapped by history, their minds frozen by the dilemma of race in a bourgeois culture. Their status, power, and pride, says Genovese, depended on their ownership of slaves, whose labor, as he shows so well, was under existing conditions very inefficient and less and less profitable. I should say that the irrational role of race in a contractual society, which defined the black slave as property, created such a narrow view of the Negro that the slaveholder could no longer be inventive. He could only develop a rigid and unimaginative system of labor and then try to justify it as a “way of life,” even though it may be doubted whether in his heart he ever really believed it.

Otherwise, why the unwillingness to manipulate, to experiment? Why not some alternative arrangement short of full emancipation? A program of placing slaves and their families on individual plots of land? With some independence and adequate incentives, could they not have proven as efficient at growing cotton or caring for animals as they were in raising chickens or tending their gardens? Since this would in fact be done after emancipation, we know there was no inherent reason why it should not have worked. Indeed, all the precedents of feudalism pointed straight in that direction.

Instead, the South created for the slave the role of a helpless, pathetic dependent, insisted that he live up to it, and then justified the system to itself and to the world by claiming that the helpless Negro could survive under no other. But with slavery under attack from literally everywhere—destructive to retain, destructive to get rid of—it became an intolerable burden, and many a planter said so. This was the kind of tension that produced the Fitzhughs and the paranoia of the 1850's.


I agree with Genovese that the South's decision to fight represented the planters' final, superhuman effort in defense of slavery. I have followed his argument with admiration, and hold his skill and learning in the very highest respect. But I should think the test of the argument would be what happened after they lost their cherished institution. The reaction, if I read my postwar history right, was one of universal relief. For all the exasperating lost-cause sentimentalism of the New South, there was hardly a trace of an ancien régime mentality regarding slavery. “I am rejoiced,” declared Robert E. Lee (along with many another aristocrat), “that slavery is abolished.” George Fitzhugh was quickly forgotten. Slavery was gone; the South did not want to get it back; and no Southern leader, not the most passionate of the ante-bellum defenders, seriously proposed trying.

But they did set to work all over again, being just as implacably determined as they ever were, to avert what they had been convinced all along would be the real disaster, a mingling of two racial communities under a single set of standards. In this, as we know, they succeeded. Race was always the flaw in Southern capitalism, as it is still.

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