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  • The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview
  • Adam L. Tate
The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview. By Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xiii plus 828 pp. $31.99).

The Genoveses' long-anticipated The Mind of the Master Class precisely details selected aspects of antebellum southern intellectual life, particularly theological controversies and southern understandings of the Western historical experience. They survey dozens of southern intellectuals on many topics using both manuscript collections and nineteenth century secular and religious journals. The Genoveses treat individual thinkers as parts of perceived regional patterns of thinking, or, in their words, as aspects of the mind of the "master class" of the South. Southerners, they show, displayed diverse views in interpreting both the Western tradition and Christianity, but generally unified in defenses of slaveholding and southern slave society. Desiring an ordered progress, southerners wanted to reap the material benefits and enjoy the individual freedoms provided by modernity while preserving a stable social order. Slavery became the vehicle for achieving this goal.

The Genoveses' arguments in the book rest on several presuppositions undoubtedly familiar to readers of their previous works. The South, they claim, was a slave society, "a society based upon slave labor." (1) This did not mean that whites thought exclusively about slavery, but it did mean that slavery had a "pervasive influence" on southerners' interests. (1) The master-slave relation "permeated the lives and thought of all who lived in the society it dominated." (11) In addition, southerners, "with large exceptions," shared "a broadly conservative worldview." (5) Southerners, the Genoveses conclude, "were more likely than not to agree on general principles that emphasized family, tradition, and inherited concepts of authority, honor, courage, and duty." (5)

In the first section of the book, the Genoveses examine southern views of modern revolutions. Although southern intellectuals appreciated the destruction of European monarchies, they tended to deplore the radical aspects of the French Revolution and later nineteenth century European revolutions. In attempting to remake traditional societies by promoting ideas of universal natural rights, modern revolutionaries produced social chaos and misunderstood, southerners thought, the "proper relation of the individual to society." (12) "Slaveholders," note the Genoveses, "remained committed to social order at all costs." (53) After the Missouri Crisis of 1819-1821, southerners fully embraced proslavery militancy and indicated that slavery could serve as the bulwark of southern social order. This choice differentiated "the South from the North." (88) Southerners shared a commitment to independent property holding, including property in slaves, as the social basis of republicanism. (118) [End Page 788]

In parts two and three, the Genoveses discuss the southern appreciation of history as a source of "moral guidance for nations and for individuals." (125) Southerners perceived a tension between a cyclical view of history derived from their reading of the classics and a linear view of history inherent in Christianity. The cyclical view, by predicting the rise and fall of civilizations, implied a fatalism that southerners resisted in hopes that a stable social order and perhaps divine intervention would allow the South to progress and escape inevitable decline. (156-157) The Genoveses detail the wide range of authors read by southerners and recount debates over important historical events and figures. Southerners developed an "integrated history of society" so that they could better apply the lessons of history to the social question of modernity. (171) This entailed writing social history to explore the influence of common people, women, Native Americans, and other groups. Even though the Genoveses claim that "Southerners immersed themselves in Greek and Roman literature for insight into the human condition, and by no means principally to find support for slavery," they precisely detail in several chapters the ways in which southerners used their study of history to justify white supremacy, racial slavery, and a slave society. (282) In discussing the variety of southern views of medieval Europe, the Genoveses explain southern understandings of chivalry and chivalry's influence on gender roles, honor, and slaveholding. While acknowledging chivalry's inability to protect slaves from abuse, the Genoveses believe that a slaveholding class...


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