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., $70)
DWELLING PLACE: A PLANTATION EPIC
By Erskine Clarke
(Yale University Press, 601 pp., $35)
FOR ALL THE INK THAT HAS been spilled, for all the quarrels and the debates that have erupted over the past century and a half, popular and scholarly understandings of the Civil War almost universally share one view in common: that the war was a great tragedy in American history and American life. Not a lecture is delivered, not a review penned, not a book published—however much they may differ as to the causes, the objectives, or the outcome of the war—in which this view is not embedded or made explicit.
There is, of course, good reason for this. For all the grisly wars in which Americans have engaged, the Civil War remains by far the bloodiest and the most destructive. More people were killed or wounded in the Civil War than in all other American wars combined, and few families living in the country at the time did not suffer some sort of casualty. Ours was, in fact, the bloodiest war of the nineteenth-century world. Equally important, Americans killed and wounded each other on a scale of organization and effectiveness unmatched in our history, dividing citizens and, in some cases, families, and leaving a bitter legacy that has never fully healed. And for those who cherish our political institutions, and regard them as a basis for national pride and distinctiveness, the war demonstrated how fragile and prone to failure those institutions could be.
Yet the idea of tragedy also presumes that some alternative to warfare would have been preferable as a means of settling the great social and political issue of the day, which was slavery. It presumes that negotiation or compromise on the matter of slavery, rather than the resort to arms, not only would have spared the nation thousands of lives, but would have left us stronger and more united; that some other course, perhaps any other course, would have been better for everyone. But these two large, powerful, and very different books suggest otherwise—that a reconsideration of the theme of tragedy may be long overdue.
THE MIND OF THE MASTER Class has been in the works for well over two decades, and its publication affords us an opportunity to reflect upon the intellectual trajectories of two historians who have left important marks on the fields of Southern, American, and Civil War history, one of whom—Eugene Genovese—has been among the most influential American historians of the past half-century.
When Genovese appeared on the scene in the early 1960s, scholarly interest in the Civil War—even amid its centennial—seemed at low ebb, the interpretive literature was still dominated by the “consensus perspective” that had emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, and our understanding of African American slavery was only beginning to detach itself from the hold of Southern apologists. With The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), and then with The World the Slaveholders Made (1969) and Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), Genovese challenged this entire intellectual edifice and was partly responsible for a historiographical revolution.
Genovese argued that antebellum America had developed into two fundamentally different and antagonistic societies, one based on slavery and one on free labor; that the South had given rise to a powerful and self-conscious ruling class of slave-owning planters, who advanced a worldview and a set of politics critical of the capitalist North and intended to defend to the death the social system over which they presided; that the planters commanded the culture, as well as the politics and economy, of the South, achieving leadership over the free majority of non-slaveholders; and that although the slaves found ways of resisting the worst of their enslavement and laying the groundwork of a discrete African American culture, they never fashioned the politics or the sensibility to attack the slaveholders or slavery directly. Indeed, the slaves’ embrace of Christianity—the centerpiece of Roll, Jordan, Roll—came to exemplify the contradictory dynamics of their experience and their struggle.
What held these interpretive interventions together, and made them so remarkable and consequential, was Genovese’s sophisticated Marxism. Unlike Western Europe and Latin America, where it flourished and enjoyed a considerable following—notably in the work of Albert Soboul, E.P. Thompson, and Andre Gunder Frank—academic Marxism in the United States, especially in the field of history, was, as late as the mid-1960s, a marginal and besieged current, given over mainly to economic determinism and hounded into obscurity by the culture of the Cold War. Genovese was hardly alone in breathing life into it, and the rise of the New Left created a receptive context. But Genovese helped to provide Marxism with an intellectual credibility that it had never before achieved by employing a sophisticated approach to political economy and, especially, by drawing upon the writings of Antonio Gramsci, who focused on questions of cultural and political authority, civil society, and how ruling classes became hegemonic.
Before long, Genovese’s work framed many of the debates in Southern history, captured the attention of those well outside the field of Southern history, and compelled historians to take a serious look at Marxism itself. The political irony was that conservative historians often appreciated the seriousness of Genovese’s scholarship and the respect that he showed to his scholarly predecessors (even reactionary and racist ones), while budding Marxist and leftist historians grew increasingly critical of Genovese’s apparent admiration for the planter class of the South. Many bridled at his almost celebratory treatment of Virginia’s pro-slavery ideologue George Fitzhugh, who believed that slavery was the proper status for all poor people regardless of race; and more than a few felt that Roll, Jordan, Roll, his book on “the world the slaves made,” was too much about the world the slaveholders made for them.
Neither Genovese’s subsequent book on slave rebellions, From Rebellion to Revolution (1978), nor a collection of essays that he published with Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (a French historian turned Southern historian), Fruits of Merchant Capital (1983), nor Fox-Genovese’s own book on the women of the plantation South, Within the Plantation Household (1988), did much to allay the suspicions. And in fact, by the late 1980s Genovese and Fox-Genovese seemed well on their journey down a rightward road, criticizing the main professional organizations for submitting to feminism and multiculturalism, drawing close to the Catholic Church, winning honors and patronage from Republican officeholders, and commemorating Southern conservatism and evangelicalism. Genovese even turned up in the pages of Southern Partisan, a neo-Confederate rag, and several of his recent books—The Slaveholders’ Dilemma (1994), A Consuming Fire (1998), and The Southern Tradition (1996)—read like apologetics for the old regime and its vestiges. Fox-Genovese’s polemical Feminism Without Illusions (1991) read more as a defense of cultural conservatism than as a brief for feminism.
WHAT HAPPENED? HAD Genovese and Fox-Genovese switched sides? Or was this the logical outcome of their thought, even in its explicitly Marxist phase? The Mind of the Master Class suggests strong, if not dominant, threads of continuity. Indeed, in a variety of ways, the book seems very much a throwback. It is intellectual history of the most traditional sort, embracing as its subjects a largely male, educated elite, and it takes relatively little notice of recent scholarly trends or of scholarship that has been published during the past fifteen to twenty years. It is learned in an almost relentless way, overflowing with footnotes and commentary (perhaps one-third to one-half of its eight hundred-odd pages are taken up with footnotes), and beset with seemingly endless examples on most every point, somewhat in the manner of a French grand these. And most interestingly, it feels as if framed by the old Marxist problematic. The Mind of the Master Class is a study in the intellectual and cultural hegemony of slaveholding planters. It reads like a book that Genovese and Fox-Genovese might have written in the 1970s or early 1980s, and, given the time span of its preparation and their refusal to engage with a rapidly changing literature, much of it may well have been written then.
To a considerable extent, this is good news. The Mind of the Master Class is neither tendentious nor dismissive. It does not conjure up alleged villains in the academy so as to swipe at or to demean them. At its best, the book is a fascinating and painstakingly detailed account of how Southern intellectuals took on the world of political and religious ideas between 1820 and 1860. The first three parts treat their encounter with the age of revolution, the meaning of history, and the legacies of antiquity and the Middle Ages; the fourth and by far the largest part (more than one-third of the book) treats their experience with Christianity and Christian theology; the fifth and briefest part treats the tensions in their thought between individualism and corporatism.Throughout, Fox-Genovese and Genovese insist that their subjects be regarded as serious and cosmopolitan thinkers in Western culture, who struggled amid contradictory currents to fashion a “unique, modern slave society.”
The struggle was chiefly over how to balance the emerging forces of modernity with those of tradition. It was not over whether to defend slavery and slave society. That struggle had already been won by the early nineteenth century, if not before. The “mind” of the master class and its intellectual representatives, including the ministry, was fully committed to the “peculiar” institution of the South. But what of the great convulsions of the Atlantic world, of which their own independence was a product? What of the revolutions in politics and theology, literature, and ideology? Here the “mind” could be pulled, stretched, and even fractured: at once embracing change and fearful of the results. Thus, according to the authors, Southerners picked and chose, delighting in those developments and tendencies that did not threaten—or, better, actually reinforced—the relations and values of their slave society; reeling from those that promised to re-adjust the balances of social and political power.
Southerners (by which is meant white Southerners) loved Sir Walter Scott, imagined a close connection with the chivalric traditions of the Middle Ages, and relished the classics together with historical accounts (such as Gibbon’s) of the ancient world. They were more ambivalent about the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848, exulting in the advance of republicanism and the destruction of monarchy, but at the same time fretting about the challenges to hierarchy, deference, and authority. The revolutions, after all, not only attacked church and king (in this case the generally reviled Catholic Church); they eventually attacked slavery and serfdom as well.
Fox-Genovese and Genovese are at their best in the book’s first three parts. They place the antebellum South in a broad trans-Atlantic context, provide readers with a wealth of information as to what elite white Southerners read and thought, and are careful to present the range of opinions that were provoked among them. They rely heavily on contemporary journals such as Southern Literary Messenger, Southern Quarterly Review, and DeBow’s Review, together with the published and unpublished papers of many of the South’s intellectual and political leaders. And although they tend toward scholarly overkill, Fox-Genovese and Genovese offer a rich and for the most part lively accounting. Its massive size notwithstanding, The Mind of the Master Class can be profitably read and appreciated in much smaller portions.
BUT ITS FOURTH PART, “A CHRISTIAN People Defend the Faith,” is more disconcerting. Fox-Genovese and Genovese clearly regard this as the soul of their book, and they seem to throw themselves into it with a special intensity; but their enthusiasm for theological arguments, and for settling theological scores, will wear down all but the most committed specialists. Even worse, despite claiming that “we do our best to distinguish our attitudes from those of the people we are writing about,” they appear intent on advancing the slaveholders’ case: that the Bible is the word of God and that God’s words sanction slavery.
It is well known that slavery is in the Bible, and it is well known that the Protestant churches in the United States increasingly divided over the slavery question. Fox-Genovese and Genovese have, in much of their work, insisted that the division was theological as well as political and institutional, as evangelicals and other Protestants in the South moved toward religious orthodoxy—quite the opposite of their counterparts in the North. The authors, along with many others, have demonstrated, too, that white ministers were important intellectuals who played a central role in lending pro-slavery theory its popular appeal.
But rather than treating the Bible as a profound cultural text, in which the integrity of the interpretation is, in good measure, socially and politically contingent, in which biblical narratives provoke a variety of readings and engender great disputations, they construct something of a formal debate in which they are both participants and judges, relishing the opportunity to proclaim the winner. “To speak bluntly,” they declare, “the abolitionists did not make their case for slavery as a sin—that is, condemned in the Scripture. The proslavery protagonists proved so strong in their appeal to Scripture as to make comprehensible the readiness with which southern whites satisfied themselves that God sanctioned slavery.”
Southern whites—or at least that still-disputed number who regarded themselves as good Christians and went to church—probably did believe that God sanctioned slavery. But readers who want more than assertions about this, and about related points having to do with the development and nature of the “mind” of the master class, will be disappointed. Is there, finally, a mind of the master class? And is the idea of a “mind” of a class (or of any social or political group) any longer a useful category of description or analysis? The truth is that for all the scholarly apparatus, for all the evidence of prodigious research, Fox-Genovese and Genovese examine a prominent but still relatively small cut of the master class of the South. And if there is anything we have learned over the past three decades, it is that antebellum slave society was marked by great variations as to social and political organization and cultural forms, and not only between the Upper and Lower South (which the authors acknowledge and then ignore). These variations included an immensely diverse slaveholding, or master, class, most of whom owned only a few slaves and could be found anywhere between the eastern shore of Maryland and east-central Texas.
Now it may well be—and this has always been Fox-Genovese and Genovese’s deeper point—that the social ideals to which many of these slaveholders aspired were those of the great planters and their intellectual acolytes, and that they were moving toward a particular understanding of the social relations of slave society—toward a particular mentality or mind frame—akin to what was being articulated in the sources the authors study. But in more than eight hundred pages we never see this happening. Nor do we ever see whether or how the majority of white non-slaveholders came within the cultural and intellectual orbit of the large slaveholders. It is just posited, with added reference to the political disposition of independent rural households.We are effectively asked to take these associations on faith, much as we were thirty-five years ago in what was then a provocative essay on George Fitzhugh and “the logical outcome of the slaveholders’ philosophy.”
PERHAPS MORE STRIKING, IN view of the scholarship of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, is how little women or gender figures in The Mind of the Master Class. Louisa McCord, Mary Chesnut, and some lesser lights do make occasional brief appearances, and there is a short unsatisfying chapter titled “Chivalric Politics: Southern Ladies Take Their Stand.” But after the authors argue that “women bore, largely in silence, their assignment to an inferior place in society and even within the household,” it is not entirely clear why, “by the time of secession, southern women had established a reputation as more ultra than their men,” emerging as leading defenders of a society that demanded their submission. Even if Fox-Genovese and Genovese are pretty much rightabout this, it is an interesting historical problem that deserves more attention than it is given here. The “mind” of the master class is, in this volume, gendered male. Aside from invoking some of the language of paternalism, the authors do not really confront this directly or suggest what the gendered construction of the master class and its worldview should mean for our sense of the society as a whole. At best, the gender dynamics are identified and described rather than analyzed.
Most troubling is the utter absence of the slaves as participants in and contributors to the mind of the master class. “Cruel, unjust, exploitative, oppressive, slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism while creating an organic relationship so complex and ambivalent that neither could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other.” In this way Eugene Genovese began Roll, Jordan, Roll. But he appears to have forgotten, or abandoned, his powerful insight. Slaves and slavery are, to be sure, all over The Mind of the Master Class, and although Fox-Genovese and Genovese do not dwell here on the pro-slavery argument (this is promised for a subsequent volume), they insist that slavery was the foundation on which the antebellum South and its ruling class rose. In their rendering, however, slaves and slavery are abstractions, reference points, objects, rather than human beings who, even from positions of extreme subordination, gave shape to the experiences and sensibilities of those who sought to dominate them.
This makes little sense. Could we imagine an American Revolution or a Declaration of Independence without the artisans of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia? Could we imagine Progressivism without the radical Populists or the Socialists? Could we imagine the New Deal without the CIO or the Great Society without the movement for civil rights? So how can we possibly imagine the developing self-consciousness of the Southern master class, particularly in its theological and spiritual aspects, without the slaves, who themselves imbibed and re-interpreted many of the political and cultural currents of the Atlantic world and, in some cases, inspired the conversion of white and black communities of the South to Christianity?
THE REVEREND CHARLES COLCOCK Jones and his wife Mary Jones make only fleeting appearances in The Mind of the Master Class, but they were two of the more formidable and interesting minds that the master class had to offer. Members of large extended families from coastal Liberty County, Georgia (and first cousins), they presided over several plantations and, led by Charles, established Christian missions to the slaves there. Yet, as Erskine Clarke reveals in his beautifully conceived and penetrating book, they not only struggled over the morality of slavery to important political effect; their struggle was shaped by long and complex relations with generations of slaves.
A scholar of Southern religious history—his books include Wrestlin’ Jacob (1979) and Our Southern Zion (1996)— Clarke has now produced one of the finest studies of American slavery ever written. His achievement is owed to many years of research, to serious reflection about the social dynamics of slave societies, and to a determination that his narrative really be a history of “two peoples living together.”
Clarke had lots of material to work with. The story of the Jones plantations first came to public light more than thirty years ago with the publication of The Children of Pride, a huge (more than 1,800 pages) and extraordinary collection of family letters covering the Civil War era, edited and introduced with great skill by the literary critic Robert Manson Myers. But this was only a portion of the Jones family papers and plantation books—now kept at Tulane, Duke, and the University of Georgia—which stretch back into the eighteenth century and provide the opportunity for meticulous hands to reconstruct the lived experiences of multiple generations, black and white.
Although Charles Colcock Jones is the book’s central character, we come to know a great many people, slaves and masters. And unlike most historical studies, where the limits and the intractabilities of the archival evidence rarely permit us more than a momentary acquaintance with the enslaved, in Dwelling Place the slaves come forth in many settings and guises over many years. We are introduced to their families and friends, their children and grandchildren, their labors in the fields and their lives in the “settlements,” their spiritual and intellectual sensibilities. We watch them grow up, marry and raise children, struggle through their many hardships, build communities and produce leaders, suffer dislocations of many varieties, and then rebuild their networks of kin and faith. The slave genealogical charts that Clarke includes are exceptional contributions in their own right. Ultimately, we see the slaves gain their freedom and put the searing lessons of slavery to good use.
THE JONES PLANTATIONS WERE hardly typical of the antebellum South, and Charles Colcock Jones was hardly typical of the master class. Yet in the very distinctiveness of this world and its inhabitants, the horrors of slavery, the fortitude of the slaves, and the profound dangers posed by the slaveholders and their regime become all the more apparent. On average across the South, whites outnumbered blacks by about three to two, plantations might hold somewhere between twenty and fifty slaves, and masters and slaves seemed almost constantly on the move, either from the Upper to the Lower South or, more generally, from the southeast to the southwest, something in the manner of William Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen.
In Liberty County, by contrast, blacks outnumbered whites by about three to one, plantations usually held well over fifty slaves, and masters and slaves alike had commonly been there for decades. It was a world of relative demographic stability and cultural density. When Charles Colcock Jones was born in 1804, his father and grandfather had already established plantations and made a place for themselves among the local elite; African Americans such as Prince Stewart, born at the same time, could be part of a second or third generation of Jones family slaves.
Charles seemed destined for the life of planter and merchant, activities that had created the foundation of the family fortune, when, at the age of seventeen, he made a profession of faith and determined to enter the Presbyterian ministry. His education took him first to Phillips Academy and Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts and then to Princeton, and it would include acquaintances with prominent Northern social reformers and abolitionists such as Catharine Beecher and Benjamin Lundy. Before long, Charles fell into a deep moral and spiritual crisis over the institution of slavery and his relation to it. He shared his doubts with his new wife, Mary, flirted briefly with the American Colonization Society (which looked to combine gradual emancipation with the expulsion of freed blacks to Liberia), and eventually decided to return to Liberty County and offer religious instruction to the slaves.
As Clarke perceptively points out, the slaves did not need Charles’s instruction in religion and spirituality. They had cultivated their own experiences in settlements, worship houses, and brush arbors, usually well beyond their masters’ gaze. But the slaves, and especially their leaders, also knew that there were advantages in building bridges over the great social and cultural divide that separated them from their owners, all the more so in places such as Liberty County, where slaveholders might have several plantations and perhaps spend the oppressive, fever-prone summers elsewhere. So they came in large numbers to hear Charles explain the Bible story. It was part of a process of community education and self-protection that enabled the black folks to understand the white folks far better than the white folks would ever understand them.
For his part, Charles took the duties very seriously and recognized that he had to learn more about his prospective students before he would be able to teach them. He studied their ideas, beliefs, and practices. In so doing, he developed a close relationship with Sharper, a black preacher and the undisputed leader of Liberty County’s slaves, who lived on a neighboring plantation and decided to mentor Charles. There were more than a few bumps along the way as Charles, interested in converting lost souls, discovered what worked and what did not. It would not be the only time he depended directly on a slave to serve as an intermediary, interpreting worlds to each another. Which is to say that the minds of the masters and those of the slaves were interconnected—in some ways mutually constituted—despite the distances, the fictions, and the gross imbalances of power.
Eventually, Charles Colcock Jones managed to convince once-hostile fellow slaveholders of the wisdom of his program of religious instruction. But this was no sign of his—or their—rejection of slavery. Mary Jones may have anticipated the intellectual course that Charles would take when, in 1829, she answered his distressed questions about the “vast charnelhouse” in which they lived. Yes, she thought slavery “one of the greatest curses any nation or people should have to contend with.” Yet emancipation was in the interest of neither the slaveholder nor the slave, because the slaves were in “a degraded state,” incapable of “self-government,” “devoid of every principle of moral rectitude.” Better to “raise them first in the scale of moral excellence by a different mode of treatment,” to “teach them the duty of obedience from higher motives than earthly displeasure.” Thomas Jefferson had responded in a similar way to antislavery advocates who beseeched him to join them in a public stand.
AS CHARLES AND MARY assumed charge of the extended Jones clan, they seemed to settle into the roles of “enlightened” slaveholders, with all the self-deception that this involved. When the family patriarch Joseph Jones (Charles’s uncle) died, Charles became directly involved in selling off more than two hundred slaves, though he made sure to keep parents and children together. It was one of many examples (Charles later punished a troublesome slave, selling not only her but also her entire family) of how this relatively stable world of enslavement could be disrupted at a moment’s notice by the economic needs of the master class, of how the power of even “benevolent” owners could, on a whim, destroy a community that had taken decades to construct. “My dear wife,” the slave Abram movingly wrote to Dinah, I take the pleasure of writing you these few [lines] with much regret to inform you that I am Sold to a man by the name of Peterson…. Give my love to my father and mother and tell them good Bye for me. and if we Shall not meet in this world I hope to meet in heaven. My Dear wife for you and my Children my pen cannot Express the griffe I feel to be parted from you all.”
By the late 1850s, after brief stints as a professor of theology in Columbia, South Carolina and as the director of the Presbyterian Board of Domestic Missions in Philadelphia, and burdened by failing health, Charles Colcock Jones returned to Liberty County and began to write a history of the Christian church. All the while, his heart seemed to be hardening in regard to slavery. Perhaps it was the growing unrest in the settlements that may have been provoked by local sales and removals of Jones family members to new lands in southwest Georgia. Perhaps it was the intensifying sectional conflict, exemplified by John Brown’s unsuccessful effort to raise a slave rebellion. It was likely all of these things and more. Thus, despite his long admiration for the North and his long-standing unionism, Charles—along with Mary and their sons Charlie and Joe—came to embrace secession and the Confederate cause.
For Jones and his family, the Civil War would be the end of their plantation epic. And nothing proved more galling than the direct participation of their slaves—including some of the most trusted and apparently loyal ones—in the downfall of their slaveholding society. It was the sort of jolt that exposed, as little else could, the fictions of power and domination, of ignorance and subordination, that so many slaveholders entertained, and that would be experienced by them as betrayal. Charles angrily regarded those slaves who fled to the Yankees as traitors deserving summary punishment, and he looked to resettle most of the others on an estate that had been found far off in middle Georgia. But in 1863, soon after more than seventy of the slaves had been loaded into boxcars for the journey inland, signaling the impending collapse of the plantation world he had always known, Charles’s body gave out, too.
THERE WOULD BE NO RECUPERATION for the Jones family in Liberty County. One by one, they left: for New Orleans, Nashville, New York. Yet a visitor to the area in the 1870s would find legatees of the Jones plantations rebuilding. They were, as Erskine Clarke tells it, the now-freed-people of the settlements, some of whom had returned many miles from forced exile owing to sales or relocations. Drawing upon the relations, values, and aspirations they had nurtured as slaves, they were busily constructing a social landscape of small, independently owned truck farms tied to one another by kinship, religious faith, and mutual assistance.
Social landscapes such as this were rarities in the post-Civil War South, at least outside the low country of Georgia and South Carolina. Most slaveowning families had better luck than the Joneses in holding on to their land, and most former slaves ended up working for them as tenants, sharecroppers, and wage laborers. But if it then appeared that, in general, little had changed after the war, appearances could be deceiving. Slavery had been abolished in the Southern states without compensation to the owners. The old master class had been driven from national power. And freedpeople everywhere had become citizens of the United States, and in principle had won equality before the law. Black men had gained the elective franchise. It was a very far cry from the status quo antebellum, and possible only because of the Civil War and the unconditional defeat of the Confederacy.
Indeed, for all the talk about the tragedy brought on by our nation’s Civil War, it is easy to forget how different the country might have been had the issue of slavery been resolved in a more peaceful fashion. Were it not for the Civil War, slavery would at best have been abolished in the Southern states as it was in the Northern states and in most every other slave society in the Americas (with the exception of Haiti): gradually, over a period of many years, extending slavery’s life well into the twentieth century. (Lincoln’s early plan was for a thirty-five-year emancipation.) The slaveholders—who thought that slavery was the proper condition for inferior people of African descent, if not for poor people of any race or ethnicity; who celebrated the cultures of other societies based on slavery and servitude; and who believed that slavery embodied God’s divine order—would have retained great power and authority in the United States, and used federal resources for their special purposes. There would have been no Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, no Fourteenth, no Fifteenth. There would have been no Reconstruction acts, no Civil Rights acts, no legal bases for claims to equality. The infamous Dred Scott decision would have remained the law of the land, prescribing that black people, whether enslaved or free, had no rights that whites were “bound to respect.”
Fox-Genovese and Genovese seem a bit more sanguine about a future in which the slaveholders might have taken part, pointing to the racist world of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism, which was a ghastly achievement of their conquerors and which many white Southern politicians (on racist grounds) opposed. But that, of course, was after the slaveholders’ military defeat. Prior to that defeat, a good many of them eagerly imagined a massive slaveholding empire stretching from the trans-Mississippi West through Mexico and Central America and into the Caribbean. And they made, in the Confederate Constitution, ample provision for the addition of new slaveholding states and territories.
It is surely true, as Fox-Genovese and Genovese remind us in their conclusion, that “it would fall to the side that won the War to write the history of the old regime and its struggle unto death.” That history has clearly preferred the Northeast, represented the South and the West as subordinate “regions,” and created elaborate fictions to obscure the Northeast’s own complicity in slavery and racial oppression—fictions that the fine exhibition on slavery in New York currently at the New York Historical Society is finally helping to explode, much to the shock of many local viewers. But for all this, the reader of The Mind of the Master Class and Dwelling Place cannot but come away with the conviction that the real tragedy in American history was not the eruption of the Civil War, however awful it was. The real tragedy would have been the one the war avoided: a political deal to settle the slavery question short of war, struck with the likes of the Reverend Charles Colcock Jones and the master class of the American South.
Steven Hahn is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of A NATION UNDER OUR FEET: BLACK POLITICAL STRUGGLES IN THE RURAL SOUTH FROM SLAVERY TO THE GREAT MIGRATION (Harvard University Press).
This article appeared in the February 6, 2006 issue of the magazine.