Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase

By Roger G. Kennedy | Go to book overview
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PART FOUR
Agents of the Master Organism:
Assistants to the Plantation System

A petri dish is a small, sterile container wherein a laboratory biologist can isolate a complex process. Without distractions or contaminants, unjostled and unconfused, the history of little organisms can unfold and be observed. As suggested at the outset of Part Three, the scene in which our story has been fulfilling its imperatives, ecological, economic, social, and psychological, is not a petri dish. It is considerably larger and, because the element of choice is so important, messier. History is not biology. Nonetheless, our understanding of complex historic sequences may be encouraged by biological analogies. Under our scrutiny have been two processes: the occupation of the most fertile portions of the South by the plantation system and the prevention, thereby, of the full development either of a continuing native culture or of a republic of free and independent yeomen—white, black, or Indian.

Engorgement by an overmastering organism is called in biology “phagocytosis.” The operative portion of that word comes from the Greek for “eating,” inviting us to imagine the plantocracy as a squid or octopus of continental size. Phagocytosis is not quite the same thing as biological “epiboly,” or the hegemony of one species. Many such superventions over an insufficiently robust or resistant group of competitors by a more vigorous set can be observed in the fossil record. I am told by Douglass Erwin, a paleobotanist and hiking companion, that a fossilized epiboly extends across four hundred miles of what is now the state of New York, representing the dominance of a single species some millions of years ago. Certain social customs in areas of the United States where plantation slavery prevailed may be taken to be more recently fossilized social epiboly.

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