Progressive Slaveholders?

During one of my first job talks in the late 1990s, I made the point that Virginia college students championed slavery as an agent of progress, believing that society would move forward in tandem with Christianity, economic liberalism, and republicanism. These young men followed the lead of pro-slavery philosophers across the South–nothing earth shattering about the observation. I was simply trying to break the caricature of the hotheaded Southern youth: quick to drink, gamble, and gun down any man on the field of honor. They were not all deep thinkers to be sure, but they also were not frivolous and shallow. No one seemed to care for the talk. I was young, nervous as hell, and probably gave a rambling lecture. The most uncomfortable moment came during the question-and-answer period. One professor insisted that I was tarnishing the beauty of progress by linking it to human bondage. I was stunned by the emptiness of the question. I swallowed hard and tried to explain that I was offering the perspective of slaveholding youth, not resurrecting a defense of human bondage.  He didn’t buy it, and I left the campus interview empty handed and without a job. I was shocked that a professional historian refused to engage “progress” as an historical term, and that he was incapable of understanding how a monstrous institution was once deemed morally just and divinely sanctioned. I am not so surprised, however, when students in my classroom brim with outrage over the defense of slavery. Undergraduates typically reel back in horror when they encounter proslavery thought. Slavery’s defenders are often reduced to racist thugs whose intellectual heights never exceeded crude expressions of white power. The challenge for me as a teacher is how to channel student indignation into a historical inquiry without surrendering to moral relativism.

Eugene Genovese

 Eugene Genovese

Having the students read Eugene Genovese’s Slaveholders’ Dilemma: The Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservatives Thought, 1820-1860 pushes students to take historical actors on their terms, even if their acts are incomprehensibly vile to us today. I can remember how hard it was to put my moral outrage to the side and ask: How did slaveholders sleep soundly at night and not choke on their own bile from the contradictions over owning other humans? Unpacking what Genovese calls the slaveholders’ dilemma cracks open the ethical world of slavery’s defenders.   So what was the dilemma? Slaveholders wanted all the material rewards of progress delivered by economic liberalism, the freedoms of Republican governments, and the stability of Christianity, but they also knew that the driving engine of progress had been unleashed by wage labor. Yet these very same workers were at the mercy of a capitalistic system in which labor was utterly helpless. It would only be a matter of time, slaveholders argued, before the workers would be come so desperate that they would take to the streets and rebel. Only brute force and authoritarian regimes could blunt such radicalism. One French Revolution was enough for many Southerners, who feared an inevitable death for republican governments. The bulwark against this crisis, slaveholders countered, was some form of dependent labor for all workers regardless of race. In throwing down the gauntlet against wage or free labor, Slaveholders’ Dilemma boldly repudiated the doctrine of natural rights as part of a broader claim that the South was a conservative bastion of Christendom while the rest of the world was turning to ungodly -isms. I have streamlined Genovese’s nuanced argument and how he moved beyond the tired debate as to whether the South was capitalist or anti-capitalist. It is my hope that my students and other readers of the blog will bring their insights and thoughts about the intellectual defense of slavery. Here are some of the questions that my students are puzzling through. Feel free to offer your own thoughts.

  • Did slaveholders find a way out of the dilemma of owning people while also advancing the cause of material and moral progress?
  • How could slaveholders defend inequality in the abstract when surrounded by nonslaveholders who fiercely guarded their liberties?
  • Does the slaveholding critique of capitalism offer us any insight into understanding global capitalism today?
  • How did the defense of slavery lead to a sense of Southern separateness from the North?

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