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Reviewed by:
  • Agrarian Elites: American Slaveholders and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815-1861
  • Peter A. Coclanis
Agrarian Elites: American Slaveholders and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815-1861. By Enrico Dal Lago (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2005372 pp. $62.95

No field of history has been enriched more over the years by the comparative method than slavery studies. Indeed, the roster of comparativists—beginning with pioneers such as Tannenbaum, Elkins, Klein, Genovese, Goveia, and Degler and running all the way to contemporaries such as Morgan and Miller—constitutes a veritable who's who in the field.1 Most of the comparisons made have been between different slave systems or regimes, though some scholars—Bowman and Kolchin, most notably—have compared slave societies to societies organized around other forms of labor control.2 In Agrarian Elites, Dal Lago builds on the work of Bowman and Kolchin, comparing social processes and patterns in the southern part of the United States and southern Italy (the Mezzogiorno) between 1815 and 1861. Despite (or because of) the fact that these areas were informed, if not dominated, by different systems of labor organization—slavery in one case and sharecropping and tenancy in the other—Dal Lago's study contributes significantly to our understanding of both these areas and of the expansion and elaboration of capitalism more generally during the period under study.

At first glance, the decision to compare the American South and southern Italy seems strained. To be sure, they are both "souths," both were agricultural areas, and both were integrated, albeit in different ways, into consolidating nation-states over the course of the nineteenth century. But the economy of the American South—organized around racial slavery, the plantation, and the commercial production of cash crops (cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco) for world markets—seems far different than the economy of southern Italy, organized, as it was, around latifondi, stockraising, more limited commercialization, and greater self-sufficiency. To his credit, however, Dal Lago makes a compelling case for comparing the two regions, arguing that the "agrarian elites" who dominated both regions shared much in terms of both their respective economic and political ideologies and their economic and political behaviors. [End Page 300]

According to Dal Lago, the economic ideologies and behaviors characteristic of such elites in both "souths" could best be described as partly traditional (patriarchal/paternalist) and partly modern (capitalist). Moreover, the author, who is sympathetic to world-systems analysis, argues that the regions dominated by these elites occupied roughly analogous "peripheral" positions in the capitalist world economy of the nineteenth century. In the political realm as well, Dal Lago emphasizes similarities. For example, he argues that the regnant agrarian elites in both areas embraced nationalist projects in the nineteenth century, projects made manifest in 1861 with the near simultaneous births of the Confederate States of America and the Kingdom of Italy. In each case, however, nationalism came with certain qualifications—most notably, vigorous opposition to intervention of distant national governments in local affairs, and nowhere more so than in South Carolina and in Sicily, which remained hotbeds of regionalism in the American South and the Mezzogiorno.

Dal Lago has done the profession a service by attempting this complicated comparison. If his attempt to reconcile ideologies, behaviors, interpretations, and "souths" is not altogether convincing (this reviewer remains more impressed by the differences between the two regions), Agrarian Elites is a wide-ranging study as spirited as it is provocative.

Peter A. Coclanis
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


1. Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas (New York, 1946); Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, 1959); Herbert S. Klein, Slavery in the Americas: A Comparative Study of Virginia and Cuba (Chicago, 1967); Eugene D. Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation (New York, 1969); Elsa V. Goveia, Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century (New Haven, 1965); Carl N. Degler, Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York, 1971); Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill, 1998...


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