Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South

By Emerson, W. Eric | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April-July 2005 | Go to article overview

Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South


Emerson, W. Eric, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South. By William Kaufman Scarborough. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. Pp. xx, 521; $39.95, cloth.)

Over thirty years in the making, Masters of the Big House is a wellwritten and well-researched analysis of the nation's largest slaveholders during the census years of 1850 and 1860. William Kaufman Scarborough has chosen as his subjects for this study the 340 men and women who owned 250 or more slaves and resided in the fifteen slaveholding states. While historians such as Chalmers Gaston Davidson and Jane Turner Censer have undertaken similar studies regarding planters in specific states and others such as James Oakes have written much about planters as a class, no study has endeavored to identify and collect information regarding every one of the nation's elite slaveholders. Scarborough's identification of these individuals was in itself a difficult task, especially with so many owning plantations in multiple counties and states, but his extensive use of census records and manuscript materials made this volume possible.

Scarborough sets out in Masters of the Big House to answer a series of questions regarding elite slaveholders, including: who were they; what was "the structure of their families and the status of women"; how did they accumulate their property; did they invest their capital in pursuits other than agriculture; what were their roles in the sectional crisis of the 1850s and the Civil War; how do we account for their contradictory attitudes regarding secession; and how did they adjust to the postwar South. In the final chapter, Scarborough enjoins a long-running historiographical debate concerning whether the South's largest planters "evince a unique, precapitalist, paternalistic world view ... or were there social relations essentially the same as those manifested by northern entrepreneurial capitalists of the period?" (pp. 2-3).

In many cases, Scarborough's findings reinforce common historical knowledge of the South's largest planters. Not surprisingly, Scarborough finds a good deal of intermarriage among the planter class. He notes that planters had large families, and women suffered a high mortality rate. He also argues that planters were cosmopolitan in their outlook, with close ties to the Northeast. Furthermore, elite slaveholders had a strong belief in the omnipotence of God, and they overwhelmingly were members of the Episcopal Church. Elite slaveholders pursued a quality education for their children, both male and female. More of the South's largest planters sent their children to northern schools than southern schools, with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton being heavily represented among the colleges attended. However, more of the South's elite planters attended South Carolina College than any other school.

Scarborough also takes to task recent scholarship regarding the planter class. For example, he sides with Elizabeth Fox-Genovese against Catherine Clinton in the debate over whether or not slaveholding women were victims of oppression. …

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