Debating slavery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Oct 18 15:57:18 MDT 2000


Published by H-South at (October, 2000)

Mark M. Smith. _Debating Slavery: Economy and Society in the Antebellum
American South_. New Studies in Economic and Social History. Cambridge,
England and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xii + 117 pp.
Illustrations, bibliographical references, and index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed for H-South by Eric Tscheschlok <tscheeg at>, Department
of History, Auburn University

Interpreting the Slave South

This slim volume -- spanning just ninety-four pages of text -- represents
the second book-length effort by Mark M. Smith, whose _Mastered by the
Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South_ (1997) is one of
the most original works on slavery and the Old South to have appeared in
recent years. By its nature _Debating Slavery_ lacks the same kind of
ingenuity and freshness, though Smith does present a well-written and
thoughtful narrative in the present work. _Debating Slavery_ is essentially
an extended historiographical synopsis of the major scholarly
interpretations of the economy and society of the slave South.

The book forms part the Economic History Society's series, "New Studies in
Economic and Social History." This series is designed to provide "a concise
and authoritative guide to the current interpretations of key themes in
economic and social history," and the books in the series "are intended for
students approaching a topic for the first time, and for their teachers"
(back cover). In _Debating Slavery_ Smith aims to "outline the contours of
the debates, summarize the contending viewpoints, and weigh up the relative
importance, merits, and shortcomings of [the] various and competing
interpretations" of the slave-plantation South (p. 1). In the main, he
succeeds in this mission. Simultaneously, Smith demonstrates an
awe-inspiring grasp of the literature on slavery and the antebellum South.

Smith divides the text into seven chapters, sandwiched between a thoughtful
preface and an outstanding, comprehensive bibliography. The first chapter
provides a basic introduction to the volume by sketching the predominant
themes in the history and historiography of slave South from colonial times
to emancipation. Here Smith advances, by implication at least, the
questionable assertion that all major works of this genre fall into two
dogmatic schools. One, headed by Eugene Genovese, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese,
and Raimondo Luraghi, sees southern society as anti-commercial,
precapitalist, and economically inefficient. The other, represented mainly
by Robert Fogel, Stanley Engerman, and James Oakes, contends that the
plantation South was (much like the industrializing North) profit-driven,
market-oriented, and economically efficient.

In truth, a great a deal of literature on the slave South cannot be
pigeonholed so neatly into this oversimplified dichotomy. Chapter Two on
"Slaveholders and Plantations" reprises the capitalism debate. According to
Genovese and his school, southern planters had a prebourgeois mentality.
They did not cherish wealth or profit for its own sake, but instead valued
their slaveholdings as social clout, as a badge of honor that certified
their cultural hegemony. What was most important to slaveowners was
membership in the ruling class, not merely the attainment of riches.
Accordingly, the planter worldview did not conceive of social order in
capitalistic terms such as gain, thrift, or exploitation of labor. Rather,
planters viewed their world through the premodern lens of the ethic of
paternalism. The South-as-capitalist school, contrarily, finds southern
slaveholders far more entrepreneurial than seigneurial. Historians in this
group portray planters as acquisitive, market-savvy businessmen who
employed factory-like management techniques in order to maximize the
profits of their commercial operations.

Chapter Three, concerning "Yeomen and Non-Slaveowners," treats the great
mass of white Southerners who owned fewer than six slaves and in most cases
held none. Here Smith surveys a wide array of literature, while laying
particular stress upon the writings of Genovese, Lacy K. Ford, and Steven
Hahn. The main questions examined in this segment involve the place of the
"plain folk" in the broad web of southern social relations and the extent
to which yeoman farmers embraced or rejected market activity. Did the
yeomanry constitute an independent rank of society that resented the
master-class hauteur of the planter patriciate, or did the common folk
admire the planters' political and economic power because they aspired to
move up the southern social ladder themselves? Did yeomen demonstrate a
"safety-first" mentality, which emphasized subsistence production for
household consumption and permitted only sporadic participation in the
market economy (p. 33)? Or, did they display an "accumulation-first"
attitude, which celebrated market activity as a fairway to socioeconomic
advancement (p. 38)? The answer to these questions appears to be "a little
of both." Recent works on these topics reveal both "precommercial and
market-oriented characteristics" among the yeomanry, while indicating that
geographic variations played a key role in determining whether yeomen
became heavily involved in the market economy or whether they retained a
"traditional, premarket mentality" (pp. 31, 41).

Chapter Four on "Slaves" is disappointing. Although the chapter looks at
scholarship on slave work and culture, it does so mainly to appraise the
impact of these forces upon the plantation economy. Revisiting the
capitalist-versus-precapitalist debate (yet again), Smith devotes fully
half this chapter to cataloging both the bourgeois and preindustrial
elements of slave culture. Unfortunately, he also ignores most cultural
elements with no direct relation to this dichotomy, skirting such issues as
slave religion, the black family, and the persistence of Africanism in
African-American culture. These omissions are indicative of the most
egregious one of the book: the absence of a substantive discussion of race
-- which U. B. Phillips once identified as the "central theme" of southern
history -- as a prime mover in the history of the slave South. For a work
purporting to address both the economy and society of the antebellum South,
this book is long on economics but far too short on social aspects, at
least when these aspects have no palpable economic connotations. As a
result, themes such as race (which do not fit squarely into the
capitalist/non-capitalist framework) are shunted aside or appear only as

Chapters Five and Six deal with the profitability of slavery, both as a
business and as a system. Though scholars still quibble over details, they
seem to agree that slaveholders usually profited from their bondsmen's
labor, and that the rate of return on investments in slaves was comparable
to that of most capital investments available to northern industrial
entrepreneurs. Yet, in gauging the economic impact of slavery as a system,
Smith notes, historians have reached no overarching consensus. Some
scholars claim slavery retarded urbanization, industrialization, and
overall economic development. Others contend factors besides slavery
accounted for these conditions. Still others reject altogether the idea
that the antebellum South was industrially starved or economically
underdeveloped. Smith himself seems inclined toward the position that "the
South's peculiar institution was deleterious to the region's economy
overall" (p. 86).

In Chapter Seven ("New Directions, Toward Consensus") Smith attempts to
synthesize the myriad and ostensibly incompatible interpretations of the
slave South. He finds considerable room for "historiographical convergence"
(p. 87). He insists, however, such convergence will not come from further
"historical exploration of new subjects and sub-themes" (p. 89). Rather, he
maintains, "the way to reconcile the apparently competing schools of
thought is probably best achieved not through more empirical research but
through greater theoretical consideration" (p. 89). Readers will have to
judge for themselves whether or not this is an appropriate note on which to
end a work that targets as its avowed audience students tackling a subject
for the first time.

The book's brevity is at once a source of strength and weakness.
Unquestionably, Smith's ability to digest, in so short a space, the massive
volume of literature on the economy and society of the slave South serves
as testimony to his laudable mastery of this topic. On the other hand, the
book sacrifices nuance and complexity for the sake of concision. Often this
results in a highly generalized presentation of the arguments of the major
works in this field. In the final analysis the utility of this book depends
upon its application. If used as intended by its author and publishers,
_Debating Slavery_ can provide a valuable overview of some of the most
salient historiographical questions about the nature of the
slave-plantation South and, hopefully, will stimulate further historical
inquiry into the important subjects it addresses. At the same time,
however, there is a danger that books of this type will become substitutes
for actually reading the important works they discuss. If used merely as a
form of "Cliff's Notes," this book can offer only a modicum of intellectual

Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied
for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and
the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net at H-Net.MSU.EDU.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list