[Marxism] George Frederickson reviews David Brion Davis and the Genoveses (long!)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 2 09:29:10 MST 2006

They'll Take Their Stand
By George M. Fredrickson

Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World
by David Brion Davis

Oxford University Press, 440 pp., $30.00
The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern 
Slaveholders' Worldview
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese

Cambridge University Press, 828 pp., $75.00; $31.99 (paper)

For nearly half a century two historians have dominated the field of 
slavery studies, broadly conceived. David Brion Davis has been the 
preeminent historian of ideas about slavery in the Western world since the 
early modern period and has completed two volumes of a projected trilogy: 
The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture and The Problem of Slavery in the 
Age of Revolution, 1770–1823.[1] He has now taken time out from work on the 
third volume in this sequence to produce a general history of slavery and 
antislavery in the Americas, especially in the parts of it colonized by the 

Eugene Genovese has been the foremost authority on the political economy of 
antebellum Southern slavery and on the emergent ideologies or worldviews of 
both masters and slaves. His greatest achievement in dealing with these 
subjects is his book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.[2] Now 
he has written, with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (who has also made 
important contributions to slavery studies[3] ), the first of a projected 
series of volumes on "the mind of the master class." These books are meant 
to increase our respect for the intellectual abilities and acuity of the 
Old South's slaveholding elite. This first volume concentrates on their 
ideas about history and religion and makes only passing references to what 
is generally considered to be the slaveholders' major intellectual 
preoccupation—the development of a proslavery argument to counter the 
attack from Northern abolitionists. This subject, we are told in the 
preface, will be covered more fully in a subsequent volume.

In a way, these two books show the authors' reversal of direction. Much of 
the previous work of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese has drawn 
on Marxist theory to illuminate class relationships and the cultural 
concerns and ideologies arising from them. In the current volume they 
produce the kind of intellectual history that some might consider 
old-fashioned because it concentrates almost exclusively on the ideas 
themselves rather than on the external circumstances that may have shaped 
their content and given them salience. On the other hand, Davis, a leading 
practitioner of intellectual and cultural history, has now gone far beyond 
the history of ideas and attempted to study New World slavery in all its 
ramifications, social, economic, and political, as well as intellectual and 
cultural. Whereas the Genoveses have narrowed the scope of their inquiry to 
the discourse and habits of mind of a relatively small number of planter 
intellectuals, Davis has widened his perspective to encompass the history 
of slavery and the opposition it engendered in Great Britain and its New 
World colonies, as well as in the United States.

Precisely because of its breadth, Inhuman Bondage defies summary; much of 
it draws heavily on the more specialized work of other scholars. From start 
to finish Davis stresses the racial aspect of New World slavery, both as 
its distinguishing feature and the source of its particularly brutal and 
dehumanizing character when compared to most other forms of bondage in 
human history. He points out that slaves in the ancient world were of all 
colors and ethnicities and not easily distinguishable from the free 
population, which was often similarly diverse (as was the case, for 
example, in ancient Rome). This lack of a racial justification for 
servitude facilitated the manumission and subsequent assimilation of many 
of those who had been enslaved, whether in Greece, Rome, or medieval 
Europe. Unlike former slaves in the New World, they did not carry the 
visible marks of their former degradation. Of course slavery always entails 
cruelty and brutalization. In his introductory discussion of the remote 
origins of slavery in human history, Davis sees it as an extension of the 
domestication of animals, an attempt to turn human beings into beasts of 
burden. As bad as slavery has always been, however, Davis finds it at its 
worst in the racial form that it took in the New World, where a difference 
in color and the meanings associated with it were a substantial barrier to 
humane treatment.

Davis convincingly demonstrates that slavery was central to the history of 
the New World. His chapter on the origins of the extensive enslavement of 
Africans and their transport across the Atlantic

     is meant to underscore the central truth that black slavery was basic 
and integral to the entire phenomenon we call "America." This often hidden 
or disguised truth ultimately involves the profound contradiction of a free 
society that was made possible by black slave labor.

When he narrows his focus to slavery in nineteenth-century America, Davis 
points out that the United States had "the largest number of slaves in the 
Western Hemisphere" and concludes that "far from being a marginal 
misfortune, African American slavery pulsated at the heart of the national 
economy and thus at the core of American political culture."

When the future of slavery became an issue in national politics and 
Southerners set about defending their "peculiar institution" against 
abolitionist denunciation, a commitment to white supremacy was the basis of 
the Southern consensus that emerged. "Virulent racism," Davis contends, 
"lay at the heart of the South's extremely shaky unity." This unity was 
precarious because a substantial majority of white Southerners did not own 
slaves. It was the "crucial function of racism and racial identity" to 
unify nonslaveholders behind an institution from which they derived no 
material benefit:

     Racial doctrine—the supposed innate inferiority of blacks—became the 
primary instrument for justifying the persistence of slavery, for rallying 
the support of nonslaveholding whites, for underscoring the dangers of 
freeing a people allegedly "unprepared" for freedom, and for defining the 
limits of dissent.

For Davis, the only antidote to poisonous racism is a moral and ideological 
commitment to human equality. Dismissing the more cynical explanations of 
economic determinists as superficial, he finds that such a commitment lay 
behind Britain's antislavery movement of the early nineteenth century and 
its decision in 1833 to emancipate all the slaves in its colonies. In the 
ideology of "free labor," which was widespread in England, he finds a 
deeper meaning than a simple belief in the economic superiority of wage 
labor over slave labor. It reflected "the desire to dignify and honor 
labor," the labor of those who earned wages as well as those who paid them, 
and "can be viewed as a way of genuinely recognizing elements of equality 
in people of subordinate status."

Davis argues that "a fortunate convergence of economic, political, and 
ideological circumstances" made it possible for Britain to "achieve genuine 
reform—a reform that greatly improved and uplifted the lives of millions of 
blacks" and "curbed some of the worst effects of early global capitalism." 
He concludes his paean of praise for Britain's abolition of slavery by 
endorsing the historian W.E.H. Lecky's opinion that it stands "as among the 
three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations."

Historians are entitled to change their minds, and it may be worth noting 
that this evaluation of British abolitionism differs somewhat in tone and 
substance from Davis's discussion of the same topic in The Problem of 
Slavery in the Age of Revolution, published more than thirty years ago. 
There Davis found that the British antislavery ideology helped the dominant 
classes to deflect attention from the exploitation of the working classes 
at home by shifting concern to the plight of slaves in distant colonies. In 
this way they were able to maintain and strengthen their class-based 
"cultural hegemony" and undercut the radicalism inspired by the French 
Revolution. In his new book he puts much emphasis on the influence of 
Quaker and Anglican abolitionists and the remarkable size of the mass 
movements in which over a million people would sign petitions to end slavery.

In addition to analyzing abolitionism in Britain itself, Inhuman Bondage 
recounts the dramatic history of the slave rebellions that broke out in the 
British West Indies on the eve of emancipation. Davis finds that the slaves 
had some awareness, mainly from their contact with missionaries, of the 
progress of the abolition movement in Britain. Consequently they refrained 
from massacring whites when they had the chance for fear of alienating 
public opinion in the mother country. This restraint is in sharp contrast 
to the contemporaneous Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831, when no 
such considerations impeded the killing of whites.

Perhaps Davis's most original argument is that British emancipation and its 
consequences help to account for the American South's hysterical reaction 
to the small and unpopular abolitionist movement that emerged in the 
antebellum North during the 1830s and 1840s. According to the South's 
conspiracy theorists, Great Britain was plotting to undermine the American 
economy by encouraging abolitionism and even slave rebellions in the United 
States. Also contributing to the fear of a widespread slave rebellion 
incited by abolitionists was the memory of the revolution in Haiti around 
the turn of the century. Moreover, the economic decline of the former 
British slave colonies in the 1840s and 1850s provided a frightening 
indication of what would happen in the South even if, as was the case in 
the West Indies, slavery were to be abolished gradually and the owners 
compensated. "The South's increasing fixation on British abolitionism and 
the declining economy of Haiti and the British Caribbean," Davis concludes, 
"helps to explain the Southerners' paranoid, disproportionate response to 
critics in the North."

While it is certainly plausible, the contention that an intense Anglophobia 
was a central element in the slaveholding South's "crisis of fear" needs 
more documentation than Davis provides in this book. Beyond recognizing an 
endemic anxiety about the possibility of slave rebellion arising from the 
memories of Haiti and the Nat Turner revolt, previous historians of 
Southern extremism before the Civil War have given relatively little weight 
to concerns about Britain's role in fomenting slave uprisings. It is well 
known that one inspiration for the annexation of Texas in 1845 was a false 
report that the British were offering to guarantee Texas's independence 
from Mexico in return for its repudiation of slavery. But Davis sees a much 
broader and more pervasive concern. Perhaps his forthcoming Problem of 
Slavery in the Age of Emancipation will provide the additional evidence 
needed to support his hypothesis.

One might have expected Britain's emancipation policy to have been a topic 
of the slaveholder writings, letters, and conversations described and 
analyzed in The Mind of the Master Class by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and 
Eugene Genovese, but I found no mention of it in more than eight hundred 
pages of text. Perhaps it will be treated in a subsequent volume dealing 
with political attitudes and the controversy over slavery. This volume is 
devoted primarily to what "the master class" thought about history 
(especially ancient and European history) and religion.

The claim of the authors that the book examines the thought or "worldview" 
of the master class as a whole might be questioned. In fact, they mainly 
discuss the mentality of a handful of highly articulate planter 
intellectuals. The same names—Thomas R. Dew, Robert L. Dabney, J.D.B. 
DeBow, George Fitzhugh, George Frederick Holmes, Louisa McCord, Edmund 
Ruffin, and James Henly Thornwell—come up repeatedly. The Genoveses make no 
effort to demonstrate how, or to what extent, this intellectual elite 
actually spoke for the planter class as a whole, including its less 
articulate and erudite members. Some use of travelers' accounts reporting 
conversations with ordinary slaveholders might have enlarged the range of 
evidence. Another source might have been the correspondence of more typical 
members of the planter class, some of which is to be found in Southern 

Despite this limitation of scope, however, the Genoveses' book is 
extraordinarily erudite. What is most impressive is the authors' ability to 
tell us what precisely was meant by the innumerable literary and cultural 
references found in the writings of the slaveholding intellectuals. They 
seem to have read all the books that their subjects read and talked about, 
and they are thus able to get inside their minds to a remarkable degree. 
Dante, Thomas à Kempis, John Bunyan, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Carlyle 
are only a few of the writers cited by the Genoveses who came in for 
discussion among the cultured Southern planters and clergymen they deal 
with. "Perhaps nothing so impressed Southerners," they write, "as Scott's 
loving attention to families and local communities."

The Genoveses, as cultural conservatives, have in the past made no bones 
about their finding contemporary American society and culture repugnant; 
but, for the most part, they avoid polemics about modern culture in this 
book. Except to the extent that they subtly empathize with some of the 
ultraconservative views of those they are writing about, they have provided 
a reasonably objective account of the diversity of opinion among the 
planter elite on such subjects as historical revolutions, the cult of 
chivalry, classical European literature, and especially religion. They 
write, for example, that "well-educated Southerners...loved and regarded 
[Dante] as their own," seeing him as a "premature Protestant," particularly 
in view of his "opposition to papal intervention in secular affairs."

At only one point did I find the Genoveses making an overt and exaggerated 
claim for the superiority of the slaveholders' ethics and wisdom over those 
that have prevailed in the United States since the abolition of slavery. 
After a seemingly unbiased account of the debate among Southerners about 
American expansionism and imperialism, in which diverse and even 
antithetical opinions were expressed (about, for example, the justification 
of war with Mexico), they somehow come to the conclusion that views among 
Southern thinkers not only added up to anti-imperialism but can be 
contrasted with the ideology of America's later interventions in world 
affairs. Here the argument sounds speculative and tendentious:

     By minimizing the suffering of their own black slaves, they defended 
slavery at home all the more passionately while they struggled in the 
United States against an imperialist worldview that would subsequently 
impose unprecedented misery and mass slaughter on the world. The defeat of 
the slaveholders and their worldview opened the floodgates to the global 
catastrophe their leading spokesmen had long seen a-borning.

Another finding that seems calculated to improve the image of the 
slaveholders is more persuasively documented. Their toleration of religious 
diversity among whites, the authors show, exceeded that of the North (which 
was beset during this period by virulent anti-Catholic nativism). Although 
religious beliefs were strongly held and arguments on theological issues 
could be intense, the rights of Catholics, Jews, and even the ultraliberal 
Protestant denominations, such as Unitarians and Universalists, to practice 
their religion and promulgate their faith were respected in the Old South, 
provided that they endorsed slavery. The underlying agreement that held the 
white South together, politically and socially as well as religiously, was 
the belief in the rightness of slavery and white supremacy.

Such a commitment is, of course, highly objectionable to modern liberals 
and makes it difficult for them to see anything of value in the 
slaveholders' worldview. Although the Genoveses do not condone or defend 
slavery and racial discrimination, they view the commitment to hierarchy 
that these institutions entailed as providing the foundation for some 
commendable qualities. In the prologue to the book they write:

     The late I.F. Stone was once asked how he, a prominent spokesman for 
the radical Left,...could admire a slaveholder like Thomas Jefferson. If we 
recall correctly, he replied, "Because history is tragedy, not melodrama."

The underlying argument of their book is that the Old South in its flawed 
and "tragic" way stood for some values that have been sadly neglected in 
our modern, individualistic society:

     To modern sensibilities it is a preposterous idea that a slave system 
could engender admirable virtues.... In our own time it seems perverse, not 
to say impossible, to separate the horror of slavery from the positive 
features of an ordered and interdependent social system. To Southerners and 
not just slaveholders, slavery was a bulwark against the corrosive features 
of free labor and the loosening of the social bonds that nurtured humane 
social relations.

For Eugene Genovese the Old South has always been anticapitalist and 
antiliberal. But until the 1990s he linked this interpretation to Marxian 
radicalism. In such works as The World the Slaveholders Made, one can find 
an undertone of approbation of the slaveholders—whatever else they might 
have been, at least they were not liberal or capitalist.[4] But it was 
clear that for Genovese, socialism and not some kind of tradi-tional 
society was the right solution for the excesses of individualism that 
modern society engendered. In The Fruits of Merchant Capital, published in 
1983, Fox-Genovese and Genovese, in their first collaboration, described 
the antebellum South as a "hybrid" society in which pre-capitalist and 
capitalist values coexisted in a state of apparently unresolveable 
tension.[5] In The Mind of the Master Class, however, they argue that the 
inherently individualistic character of Protestantism prevented the 
slaveholders from developing a consistent and coherent worldview. 
"Protestantism's inherent tendencies toward radical individualism and 
democratization posed a direct threat to the South's slaveholding social 
order," they write. This truth was clear to Catholics, who "while denying 
the inherent sinful-ness of slavery, recognized the Protestant origins of 
an individualism that should logically have rejected slavery." They go on 
to quote with apparent sympathy a South Carolina priest's pronouncement 
that "it is only under Catholic governments, where the church can regulate 
the relative duties between the servant and the master, that slavery can 
exist as a Christian institution."

By suggesting that for most slaveholders a problem of identity arose from 
the fact that they had the wrong kind of religion, the Genoveses echo Allen 
Tate's "Remarks on the Southern Religion" in I'll Take My Stand, the 1930 
manifesto of the Southern Agrarians. (It is somewhat surprising that the 
Genoveses do not mention or cite this essay; for its argument is remarkably 
similar to theirs.) According to Tate, the Old South "was a feudal society 
without a feudal religion." Its error was that "it tried to encompass its 
destiny within the terms of Protestantism, in origin, non-agrarian and 
trading religion...."[6] In the essay Tate does not specifically invoke 
Catholicism as an alternative, and somewhat ruefully admits his own lack of 
religious belief. But it is no surprise that he later converted to 
Catholicism. According to both Tate and the Genoveses, Protestantism 
inevitably encourages industrialism, capitalism, and laissez-faire 
liberalism, all of which, in the words of the latter, threatened the 
South's "simul-taneous preference for the corporatism of the family as the 
fundamental institution of society." (That an ethically or even religiously 
based democratic socialism might be a third option is a possibility they do 
not discuss.)

Despite its sympathetic treatment of the corporatism and the close-knit 
family life that Southern bondage helped to engender, The Mind of the 
Master Class does not condone slavery itself. The authors emphatically 
acknowledge the inherent cruelty and brutality of the master–slave 
relationship. Because of the virtually unchecked power that slavery gives 
to one man over another and the fact that "men are frail creatures bound to 
abuse power," slavery, they write, "stands convicted as the least 
defensible of human relations." If one were a believer in Christianity with 
its Golden Rule, it might seem that the abolitionists were right when they 
condemned slavery as a sin. Not so, say the Genoveses, provided that one 
takes the Bible literally, as most Americans in both the North and the 
South did in the period before the Civil War. They argue convincingly that 
Southerners had the best of the argument about whether slavery is 
sanctioned or condemned in Holy Scripture. Not only was slavery a pervasive 
institution throughout biblical times, but nowhere does either the Old or 
New Testament explicitly criticize it. Where the Southern interpreters of 
scripture went wrong, the Genoveses concede, was when they attempted to 
provide a biblical mandate for racial slavery, and not just slavery in 
general. The notion that blacks in particular were enslaved because God had 
cursed their alleged ancestor Canaan as punishment for an obscure offense 
by his father Ham against his grandfather Noah had no basis in scripture. 
Nowhere in the Book of Genesis is there any indication that Canaan and his 
descendants were black.

Fox-Genovese and Genovese acknowledge that the Old South, to the extent 
that its worldview was manifested in the thought of the intellectually 
active slaveholders they discuss, was a profoundly conflicted and 
ultimately a fatally flawed society. "Individualism," they conclude, "even 
in its peculiarly conservative southern form, tends to place the state in 
hostile relation to society's discrete units, individual and corporate. 
Herein lies a principal germ of the disintegration of community itself...." 
But the Genoveses do not simply describe this internal conflict; they seem 
to share it. Although they deplore slavery and racism, they clearly value 
the "corporate" and traditionalist aspects of antebellum Southern life and 
invite us to regard them as an alternative to the modern society that they 
deplore. But can one in fact detach the virtues from the vices in this 
case? Slavery and racism provided the essential underpinning for such 
hierarchy and community as existed in Southern society as a whole. Without 
racial slavery as the basis of its distinctiveness, the Old South would not 
have differed all that much from the North.

While the Genoveses write clearly about the racism that was endemic in the 
Old South, it does not seem to me that they give it the centrality it 
deserves. They attribute the loyalty of nonslaveholders to the master class 
"primarily" to the "rural independence" and relative immunity from 
government interference that characterized their lives, a form of autonomy 
that they shared with the owners of slaves. Most other historians have 
given greater weight to what they describe as a secondary factor—"the 
comfort of many of the less affluent whites derived from racial 
stratification." I share Davis's view that the "shaky unity" of the Old 
South was based primarily on a "virulent racism." One might add that this 
fierce commitment to white supremacy in a biracial society survived the 
abolition of slavery itself and pointed ahead to Jim Crow. If, as Davis 
contends, racism was the heart of the matter, it becomes difficult to find 
much to admire in "the world the slaveholders made."

Placed in juxtaposition, the two books under review reveal a profound clash 
of values and ideals. In his celebration of British emancipation and 
American abolitionism—his affirmation of human progress toward a more just 
and humane society—Davis puts forward a persuasive version of the modern 
liberalism that the Genoveses reject. Although both Davis and the Genoveses 
have strong ideological commitments, and readers are bound to feel drawn to 
one side or the other on the basis of their own beliefs, both books have 
great historical weight and strong moral implications, especially when read 

[1] Cornell University Press, 1966 and 1975. I reviewed the latter in these 
pages, The New York Review, October 16, 1975.

[2] Pantheon, 1974.

[3] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and 
White Women of the Old South (University of North Carolina Press, 1988).

[4] Eugene D. Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in 
Interpretation (Pantheon, 1969).

[5] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Fruits of Merchant 
Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of 
Capitalism(Oxford University Press, 1983), reviewed by me in these pages, 
The New York Review, January 19, 1984.

[6] Twelve Southerners, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian 
Tradition (1930; Louisiana State University Press, 1977), pp. 166, 168.



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