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Journal of the Early Republic 25.2 (2005) 335-338
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In his best-known works, Douglas R. Egerton has examined three important figures of the early national South: Congressman Charles Fenton Mercer, the slave rebel Gabriel, and Denmark Vesey. Now he brings together a dozen less-familiar essays that first appeared in international, national, and state history journals between 1985 and 1999. Together, the three monographs and this new collection form a significant, readable, and controversial body of scholarship on early nineteenth-century southern history.
The new volume does not merely reprint earlier material but thoughtfully reworks the essays. Egerton organizes the material into the three [End Page 335] categories announced in his title. He provides crisp, helpful introductions that clarify his assumptions and strategies as well as his reconsiderations. He has amended, updated, and expanded both the original essays and their citations. And he has made all of these changes "with an eye toward historiography" (xiv). "In history," he argues, "context is everything" (21). Egerton applies the maxim to his own work, carefully positioning his essays in a world of ongoing scholarly debate. In the process, he offers readers a useful summary of key interpretive discussions that have occupied historians of the early national South over the past four decades.
Individually, Egerton's book-length works have outlined particular themes tied to slave insurrections or southern reform. Collectively, by assembling such a variety of essays in one volume, he directs greater attention to the ground where his distinct research topics intersect. Egerton's depiction of the South begins and ends with the centrality of slavery as a system that defined both economic relations and a way of life. He recognizes the region's commitment to a core set of interests, its determined resistance to change, and its anxieties over threats from without. Yet Egerton skillfully draws attention to challenges that arose within the South from groups that critically reexamined both the principles of their revolutionary past and the prospects of their economic and social future. He studies enslaved rebels who sought to throw off their chains and work themselves into—or out of—the society that had kept them in bondage. He examines white reformers whose programs embraced market modernization while preserving class structures and privileges. And he explores revolutionary patricians compelled to reconsider the meaning and implications of their earlier ideals.
Thematically, Egerton's essays present a sustained argument for the pivotal roles of class and race in the formation of the early national South. He demonstrates how each of the three groups in the volume invoked these dominant, overlapping, and mutually reinforcing categories of analysis in their constructions of meaning and action; the author even chides himself for having neglected the conjunction of these forces in a 1985 piece on the roots of colonization. When he combines questions of race, class, and society, Egerton finds little evidence for a distinctly capitalist order in the South, emphasizing instead the seigneurial qualities of the region's market and relations. He also emphasizes the varied and complex (rather than generic) character of enslaved rebels, the cramped and constricted (rather than radical) memory of the Revolution carried by [End Page 336] most whites, and the essentially conservative and controlling (rather than progressive) purposes of reform efforts by southern politicians.
Methodologically, Egerton calls on political and social historians to recognize the common ground they share and the insights they may gather from each other's research. He offers a spirited defense of the techniques social historians employ to "tease information out of scant documents" (40), a practice for which Egerton's work has (and may continue to) come under scrutiny. And the author demonstrates a need for considerable care in arguments about the religious roots of resistance since evidence suggests that the "faith" of enslaved insurrectionaries may have rested far afield of conventional Christian assumptions.
For all of his attention to matters of class and race...