This important work is a comprehensive survey of elite, southern white attitudes towards slavery in the early national period of American history. It analyzes white southern roles in and responses to nearly every major event, movement, and development concerning slavery in the early American republic from the drafting of the Constitution of 1787 through the challenges posed by the Abolitionist movement in the 1830s. The book’s main focus is on southern white efforts to address the “slavery question,” or more precisely, a series of contentious and divisive questions about the proper place, size, importance, and “configuration” of slavery in southern society. Ford’s main thesis is straight forward and familiar. Elite southern white attempts to address the “slavery question” revealed that upper and lower South whites possessed significantly different answers to the slavery question. In developing this thesis, Ford examines in considerable detail “the varied and sometimes contradictory ideas and attitudes held by groups of white southerners as they debated the slavery question among themselves.” Consequently, the book focuses on “the political, intellectual, economic, and social thought of leading white southerners.” (4) Though this is elite, intellectual and political history, it is nonetheless valuable to historians interested in the social and cultural history of slavery and slave societies.
Disagreements over the slavery question stemmed primarily from regional differences in the racial make-up of society and the overall economic importance of plantation agriculture and staple production. In the upper South discussions of the slavery question were animated by the declining importance of tobacco production, convictions that slavery served as an economic drag on the region, fears of slave rebellion, and lingering republican and religious convictions that slavery was wrong. The upper South’s answer was to seek a “demographic reconfiguration” of slavery that would reduce both the importance of slave labor in the region’s economy and the proportion of free and enslaved blacks. The internal slave trade would transfer a large portion of the enslaved population to the expanding cotton fields of the lower South. Emancipation would speed the process, while colonization would eliminate the region’s substantial free black population. Upper South whites, then, sought the slow but sure “whitening” of their region.
The upper South’s preference for gradually eliminating slavery created frequent conflicts with elite whites in the lower South. Beginning in the 1790s, the massive expansion of plantation agriculture across the lower South meant [End Page 285] that whites there had no pretensions about ever ending slavery. Accordingly, they sought an “ideological reconfiguration” of slavery. Ideologically reconfigured, slavery would be defensible to outside critics, palpable to the region’s non-slaveholding whites, more manageable for planters, and acceptable to slaves. An ideologically reconfigured institution would also negate the near-constant specter of slave rebellion. Though it was hardly pre-ordained, paternalism and the domestication of slavery emerged as the preferred means for reconfiguring the place of slavery in the lower South. In turn, the bulk of the chapters on the lower South are devoted to charting paternalism’s halting, often contested march from an “insurgent ideology” (153) at the turn of the century to a “traditional and often defensive cultural world view” (152) that was widely accepted by whites in the lower South by the 1830s.
This oversimplified summary does little justice to the Ford’s subtle, detailed analysis of internal southern debates about slavery. Though the book is grand in scope, Ford pays careful attention to contingencies and the specifics of time and place, emphasizing how “different moments and different constellations of interests” produced differing policies, responses, and ideologies. (301) White responses to the slavery question changed considerably in reaction to economic changes, white evangelicals’ challenges to slavery as an institution and planter treatment of slaves, real and imagined slave rebellions and conspiracies, and northern criticisms of slavery. His long analysis of paternalism and the domestication of slavery is a case in point. Ford engages the voluminous and often contentious literature on paternalism with skill. He then adds his own analysis of the...