Slavery, Secession, and Southern History
Herman, Dan, South Carolina Historical Magazine
Slavery, Secession, and Southern History. Edited by Robert Louis Paquette and Louis A. Ferleger. (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2000. Pp. 256. $49.95, cloth, $18.50, paper.)
If Robert Paquette and Louis Ferleger had their druthers, Slavery, Secession, and Southern History might well have been titled Roll [on], Genovese, Roll [on]. The ideas of Genovese, Marxist historian turned Catholic conservative, inspire several of the essays in this collection. Among the many plaudits to "Gene," indeed, lies some interesting and varied history, not all of which is Genovesean.
The first section of the book-"Slavery"-begins with an erudite essay (as always) by David Brion Davis, who discusses both masters' attempts to define slaves as bestial and slaves' attempts to define themselves as human. After tracking antislavery sentiment across several centuries, Davis concludes that all the moral currents of European history combined could not have freed American slaves had those slaves not perpetually contradicted the myth of their bestiality.
Nor, contends Robert Paquette, would slaves have resisted their masters so well without the help of slave drivers. Paquette shows that the driver-the black man chosen to supervise other slaves-often became the leader of resistance throughout the Americas. Whereas nineteenth and twentieth-century novelists and historians (whether Caribbean, South American, or North American) have portrayed drivers as sadists, slaves often held drivers in high esteem and looked to them for leadership in times of crisis.
Paquette's thesis is fascinating and well documented but leaves one wondering whether there was a measure of truth in the stereotype. How many drivers, after all, sided in times of crisis not with slaves but with masters? If the answer is "seldom," why have writers and historians so consistently condemned drivers? Should we trace the stereotype to empirical error, or to the contempt that intellectuals (whether abolitionists, apologists, or academics) have felt toward men in the anomolous position of being both leader of slaves and flunky of masters?
Rounding out the "Slavery" section is an essay by Peter Coclanis that employs the economic theory of "information asymmetry" to resolve the question of how the task system of South Carolina and Georgia rice plantations came into existence. In part, the task system-as Ira Berlin and Judith Carney argue-allowed masters to take advantage of their slaves' knowledge of risiculture. The task system also allowed masters-as Ulrich Phillips argued-to live in Charleston and Savannah during the unhealthy season. Coclanis concludes that each of these historians is correct; planters maintained the task system over generations not only because it allowed them to be absentee landlords but also because it motivated slaves, utilized their skills, and maximized profits. One might wonder whether we need economic theory to arrive at this "everybody is partly right" theory; but one might wonder, too, whether Coclanis could have formed his interesting synthesis without the stimulus of theory.
The second section of the book-"Secession"-includes essays by Clyde Wilson, Douglas Ambrose, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Thavolia Glymph. To sum up four profoundly different essays, Wilson concludes that John Calhoun was one of the most disinterested and republican economic thinkers of his day (rather like the disinterested gentry whom the Real Whigs of England had celebrated). …