- The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview
Near the end of their long-awaited, magisterial, and mammoth The Mind of the Master Class, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese summarize the ideals that antebellum Southern intellectuals valued yet feared lay vulnerable to radical change. "Culture and intelligence," the authors explain, "constitutions and laws, material prosperity, and pretension to moral and political enlightenment constitute no safeguard against revolutionary tumults and atrocities." To support their point, Fox-Genovese and Genovese quote one of their favorite Southern thinkers, the educator and proslavery theorist Thomas Roderick Dew. "We may with confidence assert," Dew wrote before he died in 1846, "that there can be no texture of society better calculated to ward [off radicalism] than that which exists under the much reviled, much slandered institutions of the South" (709).
For years Fox-Genovese and Genovese—extraordinarily articulate, broad, and thorough scholars—have been researching the Weltanschauung of antebellum slaveholders to understand their commitment to "the much reviled, much slandered institutions of the South." While their critics have branded them [End Page 59] "conservative," in fact Fox-Genovese and Genovese have spearheaded a radical reassessment of Southern intellectual history—one that treats the Old South's intelligentsia analytically, critically, seriously, and, occasionally, even with a dollop of dry humor.
In doing so, Fox-Genovese and Genovese build atop the pioneering but now unfortunately forgotten scholarship of liberal scholar Clement Eaton, whose Freedom of Thought in the Old South (1940) and The Mind of the Old South (1964) recognized that notwithstanding, or perhaps because of their commitment to slavery, antebellum Southern thinkers ranked among the nation's most insightful and rigorous. Much to the surprise of the region's critics, the Old South enjoyed a rich and diverse intellectual life. Like Eaton, Fox-Genovese and Genovese understand that Southerners grounded their arguments on slavery and secession on an integrated set of complex Western and transatlantic ideas—ideas defined, honed, and disseminated during decades of intra- and intersectional debate over such large questions as free versus unfree labor, religious orthodoxy, and national versus state sovereignty.
Fox-Genovese and Genovese divide their clearly written yet at times prolix 828-page work into five parts totaling twenty-two chapters. After examining how elite, largely slaveholding Southern intellectuals perceived notions of freedom during the Age of Revolution, the authors delve deeply into the roles of history, classics, "chivalry," and theology in shaping Southern intellectuals' understandings of moral and political philosophy and their application to political action. Fox-Genovese and Genovese promise other "volumes now in draft" that will treat how the ideas examined in this work influenced day-to-day Southern theological and political thought (x). Specialists will marvel at the breadth, depth, and volume of the authors' exhaustive research. Fox-Genovese and Genovese also provide readers with seventy-three pages of valuable "supplementary references"—mini essays on topics ranging from "Addison's Cato" to "Women and the Classics."
The Mind of the Master Class revolves around Fox-Genovese and Genovese's arguments that "the master-slave relation permeated the lives and thought of all who lived in the society it dominated," and that white Southerners "shared a broadly conservative worldview, however widely they diverged on political and religious specifics" (1, 5–6). Central to this viewpoint, according to the authors, was Southerners' distrust of universal democracy and free-labor capitalism whether in Europe or in the northern states ("an ascendant transatlantic bourgeois worldview" ), and their commitment to racial slavery. Looking to the past to guide and justify the present, Southerners found historical precedents [End Page 60] galore for slavery. For example, Georgia legal scholar Thomas Cobb considered slavery "more universal than marriage and more permanent than liberty" (201). Fox-Genovese and Genovese contend that Southerners' close study of the Middle Ages reassured them of "the ubiquity of slavery, dependency, and hierarchy, while simultaneously reminding them of their own allegiance to...