Slavery, Secession, and Southern History

By Harris, J. William | Journal of the Early Republic, December 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Slavery, Secession, and Southern History


Harris, J. William, Journal of the Early Republic


Slavery, Secession, and Southern History. Edited by Robert L. Paquette and Louis A. Ferleger. (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 2000. Pp. xvi, 229. Illustrations. $49.50.)

Slavery, Secession, and Southern History is a festschrift for Eugene D. Genovese. Through his several books and many articles (listed in an appendix), and especially the monumental Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), Genovese, now in his seventieth year, has been one of the most influential historians of his generation.

Despite his powerful influence on contemporary scholarship, Genovese has not had a large number of doctoral students, a fact reflected in the lineup of contributors. Only three of the twelve-Robert L. Paquette, Douglas Ambrose, and Mark G. Malvasi-are Genovese's former students. Their topics reflect Genovese's own scholarly interests. In a comparative overview of the literature on slave drivers, Paquette concludes that the picture in both historians' and novelists' accounts, which usually show drivers as allies of masters, needs considerable revision, given that "the driver played a vital role in many, perhaps the majority, of the most significant conspiracies and revolts in the history of the Americas, including those in the United States" (44). Ambrose examines the arguments of proslavery writers Henry Hughes and James Henry Thornwell, emphasizing that, from differing perspectives, both wrote in favor of a strong state with power to regulate master-slave relationships. He calls for a reconsideration of the common view that antebellum white southerners favored a weak state with little authority. Malvasi analyzes Allen Tate's 1938 novel, The Fathers. In Malvasi's interpretation, Tate believed "the South was doomed without secession and Civil War," because its culture was too rigid, too lacking in true historical consciousness and "the religious imagination," to resist the atomizing tendencies of modern life. (178, 187) This is a convincing analysis of a complex novel that deserves more attention from historians.

The list of contributors includes some of the leading scholars of southern history. The introduction by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman provides a brief commentary on Genovese's work and its impact on southern historiography. David Brion Davis, in the only previously-- published contribution, provides an overview of his interpretation of slavery and abolitionism in world history. This brief essay, as might be expected, shows a masterful command of the subject and whets the reader's appetite for the final volume of Davis's trilogy on the problem of slavery. Peter Coclanis's gracefully-written essay makes use of principal-agent theory in microeconomics to propose an explanation of the predominance of the task system on the rice coast that reconciles interpretations "emphasizing climate and disease, staple-crop requirements, African knowledge, and European managerial expertise" (66-67).

Three essays join Ambrose's in a section titled "Secession." Clyde Wilson focuses on John C. Calhoun's economic thought and politics to provide a spirited defense of Calhoun as consistent throughout his political career and as representative of "the worldview of the planter class that has been developed by Eugene Genovese" with "its interest in material progress, but a progress morally centered and preservative" (83). Readers may wonder, as I did, how a discussion of the morality of economic ideas and policies can ignore slavery, as Wilson virtually does. …

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