The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview

By Miller, Randall M. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview


Miller, Randall M., The Catholic Historical Review


The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview. By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2005. Pp. xiii, 828. $70.00 clothbound; $29.00 paperback.)

One of the most persistent myths about the Old South is that it had no "mind"-that white southerners, as a "conscious minority" besieged by criticism over slavery and living amid their "troublesome property," acted out of passion, fear, anger, and even fury rather than studied philosophies. The myth gained currency because few people outside the South, then and now, took seriously the southerners' proslavery apologies as having any intellectual rigor or moral worth. Whatever "mind" the master class did have supposedly was incapable of thinking beyond defending slavery and one's "honor." In such a world, intellectual pursuits were suspect at best, dangerous at most. Forty years ago Clement Eaton presented the arguments of various southern planters, clergy, writers, and other intellectuals to suggest the Old South had a mind, limited though it was, and more recently scholars such as Drew Gilpin Faust, Jon Wakelyn, and Robert Brugger, among others, in a series of biographical studies and Michael O'Brien in two thick volumes on southern thought discovered an intellectual ferment in the Old South that challenged the myth of the Old South as an intellectual desert. Now, with the publication of their muchawaited magnum opus, Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth FoxGenovese have settled the matter. In The Mind of the Master Class, they bring together a lifetime of inquiry to discover the ways in which elite white southerners "reflected on the world they lived in and on the bearing of history and Christian faith on their lives as masters in a slaveholding society" (p. 1). In doing so, they reveal a vibrant and sophisticated southern intellectual life, albeit one that fixated on demonstrating and affirming that the South's slave society, rooted in a corporate patriarchal structure and rural independence, promised the most stable Christian social order known to humankind.

The Genoveses have read all manner of public and private musings of hundreds of southern planters, clergy, novelists, and others engaged in a century of investigation and debate on the nature of social order and obligation, faith, and political economy in and for a slave society. By the Genoveses' reckoning, these earnest southern intellectuals were well versed in Scripture, theology, moral philosophy, classical and medieval history, Enlightenment ideas, the transatlantic revolutionary movements of 1789-1848, cultures across the world, and much more.They read deeply and widely partly out of intellectual curiosity but mostly out of fear. Their intellectual stance was in the end defensive, for they recognized their ways were out of tune with the march of political democracy, theological liberalism, and market capitalism that threatened their world. …

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