Best of All Worlds

James Oakes

  • Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese
    Cambridge, 314 pp, £14.99, December 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 72181 3

In 1965 Eugene Genovese published his first book, The Political Economy of Slavery, a stunning reinterpretation of the antebellum South. Although he wrote as a Marxist, he revived the bourgeois critique of slavery most closely associated with Adam Smith. The class conflict that might have driven the history of the South was stifled, he argued, by the slave owners’ paternalism towards their slaves and by their hegemony over farmers who did not own slaves. Yet there was no mistaking his Marxism: at a time when most American historians rejected political economy as a form of economic determinism, Genovese placed class analysis at the centre of his work. He argued that slavery lacked the rational efficiency that characterised a genuinely capitalist economy, that it inhibited Southern economic development and, most important, that it gave rise to a ruling class that was intrinsically and increasingly hostile to the emerging bourgeoisie of the North. He thereby situated the American Civil War as one of the revolutionary struggles over capitalist development that he saw as the distinguishing feature of modern global history.

Four years later, in 1969, Genovese published The World the Slaveholders Made, less successful than its predecessor but no less unorthodox. By taking the ideological defence of slavery seriously, Genovese discovered what he took to be the most substantial critique of capitalism in American history. Once the opponents of slavery had begun to intensify their assault, he argued, the slaveholders had no choice but to defend their ‘way of life’, and this involved a stinging counter-attack against capitalism itself. Persuasive or not, the argument was a tour de force.

Impressive though those books were, most of the weaknesses that would bedevil Genovese’s subsequent work were already evident in them. He was clearer about the flaws of the capitalist system the slaveholders were attacking than the flaws of the slave system they were defending. On the basis of the relative economic backwardness of Southern society he made an unwarranted leap to the conclusion that slaveholders disdained material ambition. He posited an artificial distinction between slavery as a class system and its racial component, arguing implausibly that racism was an alien element that had infected slavery. He made inflated claims for slavery’s apologists. He was unwilling to pay more than lip service to the horrors of slavery itself.

In the 1970s Genovese started to write with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. A prolific scholar in her own right, she is best known for Within the Plantation Household, a study of women in the antebellum South, published in 1988. Though she died in 2007, she and her husband are listed as co-authors of Slavery in White and Black. Based on a great deal of new research, the book will nevertheless seem familiar to anyone who has managed to keep up with even a fraction of the couple’s prodigious output.

They have ‘long insisted’, Genovese explains at the outset, that in the decades before the Civil War Southern slaveholders produced a sophisticated defence of slavery and, with it, a powerful critique of capitalist ‘market relations’. Slavery in White and Black gives this body of thought a label, ‘Slavery in the Abstract’, a term the authors repeat hundreds of times in relentless capital letters, by which they mean the view that slavery was the best form of social organisation for all labourers, regardless of race. The burden of Slavery in White and Black is to prove that over time more and more white Southerners subscribed to the ‘essentials’ of Slavery in the Abstract, and thus dissented from the general American celebration of free labour.

Yet despite the Genoveses’ more expansive claims for the reach of pro-slavery ideology, Slavery in White and Black rests on the same premises that shaped their earlier publications. Above all, they continue to rely on a highly specific definition of capitalism and a correspondingly vague definition of slavery. ‘Free labour’ is too fuzzy a term, they argue, to be used to define capitalism: ‘Here, we equate it with “wage labour”.’ Other historians use other definitions. I’m inclined to believe that ‘free labour’, understood as self-ownership, is more useful. Wage labour is a reasonable definition, however, and it helps clarify much of what was at stake in the Civil War. This precise definition of capitalism, however, coexists uneasily with their use of ‘slavery’ as a catch-all category that encompasses just about every social relationship other than wage labour.

In his first book Eugene Genovese wrote that the Southern planters ‘grew into the closest thing to feudal lords imaginable in a 19th-century bourgeois republic’. In The World the Slaveholders Made he claimed that slavery was merely a particular form of patriarchal family relation. In her book on Southern women, Fox-Genovese folded the slaves into the nebulous category of ‘the plantation household’. And in Slavery in White and Black the Genoveses describe how Southern masters came to believe that ‘enslavement, broadly defined’, was the natural condition of humanity. Pro-slavery logic ‘encouraged assimilation of all dependent (unfree) labour to slavery’. Good Christians were enjoined to ‘accept some form of slavery’. Slavery was just ‘one form of the organic social relations’ that capitalism undermined. Other than the fact that it was not wage labour, slavery, they argue, had no particular attributes: it was merely the latest manifestation of ‘a pattern of social subordination’ that had taken many forms over the course of human history. Virtually every social system before capitalism is thus collapsed into an amalgam for which a succession of ill-defined terms are used: seigneurialism, traditionalism, Christian stewardship, organicism and above all, paternalism.

Sidestepping any precise definition of slavery, the Genoveses deal not with what the slaveholders were defending but with how they defended it. One finishes Slavery in White and Black not knowing what slavery was but fairly certain that, whatever it was, the slaveholders defended it ‘in the abstract’. Yet even this is misleading, for it is now clear that there have always been two distinct elements in the defence of slavery. The first justifies slavery in general; the second specifies who should be enslaved. Aristotle’s argument may be taken as paradigmatic: slavery is a natural condition of human society, but only some people are born slaves. The first proposition – that slavery is justified in the abstract – comes in several familiar forms: slavery, it’s said, was ordained by the laws of nature, sanctioned by scripture, decreed by God, or affirmed by human history. Southern slaveholders embraced all of them, before moving on to the second element: who should be enslaved. As the historian of Ancient Greece Moses Finley pointed out, slaves were usually defined as ‘outsiders’ – i.e. non-Greeks. Similarly, the New World slaveholders’ definition, from the 16th century onwards, was ‘non-whites’. Initially, this included American Indians, but eventually slavery in the New World would be reserved for sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants. For blacks, slavery was a normal condition of human life, the slaveholders argued. No pro-slavery argument was complete without both propositions being in place.

Slavery in White and Black wrenches the two propositions apart, highlighting the evidence that white Southerners defended Slavery in the Abstract while trying to dismiss, discount, ignore or explain away the impressive mountain of evidence that Southerners reserved slavery exclusively for blacks. There is nothing new here: the Genoveses have downplayed the racial element in Southern slavery for decades. But here they are compulsive about it. Slavery in the Abstract, they repeat again and again in different ways, was ‘a social system abstracted from race and best for whites as well as blacks’. Pro-slavery Southerners ‘drifted – some sprinted – toward an extraordinary doctrine that transcended race’.

The Genoveses’ argument is repeatedly undermined by their own evidence. Leave aside the fact that, whatever may be said of pro-slavery ideology, slavery in the South was a blacks-only system. Even when the argument is confined to ideology, it fails. They cite numerous slaveholders such as Francis Terry Leak, who ‘usually discussed slavery as a racial matter’. Or the Reverend William A. Smith, who defended slavery on ‘racial grounds’. Or the Reverend James Warley Miles, who also ‘preferred racial to class grounds’. In a chapter on the political economy of the Old South the authors note that everyone who discussed the issue conceded that slave labour was less efficient than free labour. But those same writers almost always went on to declare that the rules of political economy did not apply to blacks who, because of their race, would not respond to the incentives of free labour, would work only under compulsion, and were biologically suited to work in hot climates.

The Genoveses quote the line from James Henry Hammond’s notorious ‘mud-sill’ speech on the floor of the Senate, in which he declared that ‘in all social systems there must be a class to do the mean duties, to perform the drudgery of life.’ Hammond, they go on, accepted ‘the essentials’ of Slavery in the Abstract. If that means his defence of slavery ‘transcended race’, his very next sentence belies the claim: ‘Fortunately for the South,’ Hammond continued, ‘she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to herself, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigour, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate to answer to all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.’

On the face of it, there is no reason for the Genoveses’ determination to expel racial ideology from the intellectual history of the Old South. Their central concern has always been to demonstrate the extent to which the slaveholders withdrew from the so-called liberal consensus, and it could be argued that racism facilitated this withdrawal. They point to the slaveholders’ curious tendency to disdain ‘abstractions’ even as they invoked them. Racism was central to this paradox. The slaveholders were forever positing general propositions only to invoke race as the critical qualifier. All men were created equal, they would say, but that doctrine applied strictly to whites alone. Slavery was less efficient than free labour, except when the slaves were black. Slavery was a normal condition for the inferior races. The evidence for this is so unequivocal that it makes one wonder why the Genoveses are so resistant to it.

The reason, I suspect, has to do with their increasing tendency to conflate the history of pro-slavery thought with the history of slavery itself. This is particularly clear at the end of a very long chapter detailing the accounts of travellers to and from the South. At its core is a lengthy recitation of slaveholders’ reactions to conditions outside their own region. They scoured the globe in search of the most wretched peoples of the earth so that they might boast that their own slaves were better off than, among others, Chinese coolies, Mexican peons, Italian lazzaroni, Russian serfs and starving Irish peasants. In the 1850s, slaveholders were particularly keen to contrast the lives of Southern slaves with those of the inhabitants of America’s most notorious slum, Five Points in Lower Manhattan. Rather than underline the self-serving nature of such comparisons, the Genoveses endorse them by ending the chapter with their own account of the horrors of New York’s immigrant slums.

The Genoveses are properly shocked by the inequalities of capitalism, but not by the squalor and poverty to which the slave economy consigned ordinary Southern farmers. The misery of Five Points dismays them, but not the grim rates of death and disease among slaves in the rice swamps of Carolina and the sugar plantations of Louisiana. In the history of slavery as written by the Genoveses there are no slave auctions, no elevated mortality rates, hardly any families split up and destroyed, and few lacerated backs. Surely the catalogue of slavery’s crimes is not exhausted by the observation that paternalism could at times be overbearing. No wonder Five Points looks hellish by comparison.

Meanwhile, the achievements of the slave economy have risen in the authors’ estimation. Eugene Genovese’s first book was an indictment of the backwardness and inefficiency of the slave labour system. In his next book, he was clear that slavery could never compete with capitalism’s formidable capacity to raise the standard of living even of exploited wage earners. While economic inequality would increase under capitalism, workers’ living standards would also improve. Slavery in White and Black, however, throws that interpretation into doubt by asserting, as slavery’s defenders once did, that the slave economy provided a better life for its workers than capitalism.

These aren’t the only points at which Slavery in White and Black transcribes pro-slavery ideology as history. In collapsing the distinction between slavery and everything else the Genoveses echo an argument made by pro-slavery writers. Henry Bidleman Bascom, they tell us, was forever ‘equating serfs with slaves’; William Smith ‘assimilated serfdom, peonage and other forms of personal servitude to slavery’; George Fitzhugh claimed that the patriarchal family amounted to slavery for white women and children. These writers ‘transcended race’ by transcending slavery. If the term ‘slavery’ could be used to denote every form of inequality, then everybody who wasn’t a master was effectively a slave – ‘regardless of race’.

The trouble is that once you start collapsing distinctions, it’s hard to stop. When Hammond said that every society had its ‘mud-sills’ he included the North. When he pointed his finger at Northerners and declared ‘Your slaves are white,’ he was reaffirming the racial criterion for enslavement while simultaneously collapsing the distinction between ‘chattel slavery’ and ‘wage slavery’. He wasn’t alone. The Genoveses cite numerous slaveholders who defined slavery as nothing more than the subordination of labour to capital. This succeeds in making slavery historically universal but at the cost of making it a meaningless concept. Nor does it do much to clarify the definition of capitalism. ‘Your slaves are white’ scarcely amounts to a devastating critique of wage labour. Instead it makes the conflict between Southern slavery and Northern capitalism inexplicable, and the Civil War incomprehensible.

If the Genoveses are unperturbed by this problem it is because, in one important sense, they have never really been interested in slavery. The driving force of Eugene Genovese’s work has always been a contempt for capitalism and bourgeois society. The Old South fascinates him because – in the absence of a strong socialist movement – it was the only actually existing alternative to capitalism in US history, and especially because the slaveholders generated America’s only serious attack on capitalism. Genovese embraced, in turn, Adam Smith’s critique of the slave economy, Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, Southern agrarianism, the Communist Party and the Catholic Church. But every apparent shift has been driven by the same motive: the search for a base on which to found his hatred for the ‘degenerate’ society spawned by capitalism.

This focus has some advantages. By forcing us to confront the historical ubiquity of slavery and the revolutionary novelty of wage labour, the Genoveses invite us to see the Civil War as a struggle over capitalism at least as much as a struggle over slavery. But by avoiding the problem of slavery they can tell only half the story. Marx clarified the issue with a pithy formula for distinguishing slavery from capitalism. In capitalism the wage earner sells his labour power for a limited period of time, ‘for if he were to sell it rump and stump, once for all, he would be selling himself, converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a commodity into a commodity.’ Marx also argued that New World slave societies married the ‘ancient barbarism’ of treating humans as property to a modern, rationalised system of commodity production for an expanding global market. Implicit in this critique is the possibility that Southern slave society was more, rather than less, commercialised than Northern capitalism.

That, at least, is the way anti-slavery Northerners saw things. Every Southern denunciation of Northern capitalism was matched by a Northern denunciation of the slaveholders’ seemingly insatiable greed: in the end, ‘property in man’ was the cause of irreconcilable conflict between North and South. For a growing number of Yankees the natural right of self-ownership decreed that it was immoral to treat human beings as though they were commodities, to be bought and sold like any other article of merchandise. The slaveholders disagreed. They went to war in defence of the abstract proposition that one human being could legitimately own another, so long as the person you owned was black.