Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Agrarian Elites: American Slaveowners and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815-1861

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Agrarian Elites: American Slaveowners and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815-1861

Article excerpt

Agrarian Elites: American Slaveowners and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815-1861. By Enrico Dal Lago. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. Pp. xviii, 372; $62.95, cloth.)

Embracing the comparative approach employed earlier by Peter Kolchin and Shearer Davis Bowman in their respective comparisons of American slavery with Russian serf dorn and southern planters with Prussian Junkers, and more recently by Don H. Doyle with respect to America and Italy, Enrico Dal Lago, a native Italian now teaching at the National University of Ireland, seeks to compare the southern slaveholding elite with their counterparts in the Italian South (or Mezzogiorno). Within this larger context, the author focuses particularly on the apparent ideological similarities between South Carolina and Sicily.

Several themes are emphasized in this highly theoretical work. First, the author asserts that in both regions the elites, a term which he never defines, "combined precapitalist and capitalist features in different ways and degrees" (p. xiii). Although the economy of both regions was overwhelmingly agricultural, southern planters and Italian landlords clearly exhibited capitalistic practices in producing cash crops for sale on the world market. Yet their relations with their respective labor forces-slaves on the southern plantations and peasants on the Italian latifondi-were precapitalist in nature. Dal Lago also contends that the so-called world view of the two elites experienced a significant change in the nineteenth century from a patriarchal ethos, which emphasized deference and obedience on the part of both laborers and family members, to one of paternalism, with its emphasis on reciprocal obligations.

In subsequent chapters, the author utilizes the core-periphery model of Donald Meinig to explain the growth of nationalism in the American South and the Mezzogiorno and the consequent alienation of both from their respective core capitals-Washington, D.C., in the United States and Naples in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The deteriorating relationship between the peripheral elites and their core governments led first to nearly simultaneous crises in the two countries in the period 1848-1850 and finally in 1861 to the birth of the Confederate States of America and to Sicily's incorporation into the newly formed Kingdom of Italy. Ironically, both elites became disaffected from their new central governments during the 1860s as the presidential administration of Jefferson Davis was obliged to centralize power in order to prosecute the war more effectively, while at the same time the centralized Piedmontese administrative system was being applied to the Mezzogiorno. However, by 1876 both elites had recovered sufficient control over local affairs to end the estrangement from their respective national governments.

Although some may find the author's interpretations persuasive, there are serious problems with this book. To begin with, one might reasonably question the utility of such comparative studies as this one. As the author repeatedly observes, there were at least as many differences as similarities between the two regions highlighted in this book. It is true that both were predominantly agricultural with a hybrid economy that produced items for both internal and external markets and that both became estranged from their respective central governments, leading to similar political crises in mid century. …

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