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Reviewed by:
  • Agrarian Elites: American Slaveholders and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815–1861
  • Mark M. Smith
Agrarian Elites: American Slaveholders and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815–1861. By Enrico Dal Lago. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. Pp. 392. $62.95.)

At first blush, pre-unification southern Italian landowners and antebellum American slaveholders might seem unlikely candidates for fruitful comparison. "They did not," points out Enrico Dal Lago in his fascinating study, "have the same degree of influence and power and they lived in very different economic, social, and political contexts" (xiii). While he faithfully explores these differences, Dal Lago focuses unapologetically on the abiding similarities between the two societies, reminding us not only of the dividends of serious comparative history (and the difficulties inherent in the venture) but also refining and advancing with unparalleled clarity a thesis that has been brewing for several years among students of antebellum Southern slavery and historians of southern Italy's Mezzogiorno. Both societies were constituted by premodern and modern elements, and it was their interplay, not their putative incompatibility, that best captures their essence.

Specifically, Dal Lago's focus is on the slaveholding elites of Virginia, South Carolina, and Mississippi and the Italian landowners in Sicily and the estates around Naples. The comparison makes good sense: both elites were economically powerful, nationally prominent, and cultural and political arbiters of their regional worlds.

Important differences separated the two societies, of course. Southern slaveholders in the main produced cash crops for export to the North and Europe; they were aggressive expansionists, always pushing westward; they used race-based chattel slavery to run their plantations; and they were, on the whole, a fairly homogenous class. Not so with the southern Italian landowners. With a few exceptions, most latifondi produced for an internal market (mostly grain). Landowners were more heterogeneous than their American counterparts (an emerging landed bourgeoisie coexisted with an erstwhile hereditary feudal aristocracy). A technically free Italian peasantry constituted the workforce; there was more of an urban flavor to the region, courtesy of Naples; and the Italian elite did not have access to new land in which to expand. [End Page 62]

But it is the similarities between the two societies that are central to the study. Put simply, both sets of elites embraced separatist and secessionist policies—more properly described as nationalist ideologies—which triggered the formation of both the Confederacy and the Italian nation in the same year, 1861. South Carolina's planter class and Sicilian elites in particular "agreed on the need to defend the economic and social privileges of the propertied classes and promoted regional independence as the most effective means to defend these privileges" (272). Both societies also reveal the subtle interplay of modernizing and conservative tendencies, suggesting how peripheries generally were incorporated by capitalism even as they preserved their own distinctive, often organic sets of social relations. This, then, is a book about comparative economies and nationalist ideologies and, as such, invites comparison with some seminal comparative studies, most notably those by Peter Kolchin and Shearer Davis Bowman. Dal Lago's study certainly merits favorable mention in that company. It will also be compared to work by Raimondo Luraghi especially, which, in contrast to Dal Lago's more nuanced analysis, stressed the resolutely precapitalist nature of American Southern slaveholding society.

There is no doubt that Dal Lago has, as he claims, "relied on the close reading of primary sources," but I think the study and its main insights are more indebted to his impressive mastery of the secondary literature (xiii). Compared to his use of manuscript sources, which is a little finicky at times, his ability to tease analysis from an extremely wide array of secondary sources is most impressive. And if his four chapters are sometimes a bit unwieldy, that might well reflect the peculiar demands of sustained comparative analysis rather than wordiness on the part of the author.

Agrarian Elites is a dense, sophisticated, thoughtful book, brimming with insight. Historians of the antebellum American South especially are indebted to Dal Lago. More than anyone, Dal Lago helps us understand the heuristic poverty of continuing to frame the Old South in simple, binary terms. His accurate and sensitive recounting...


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