- Agrarian Elites: American Slaveholders and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815-1861
In 1861 Georgian Robert Toombs cited Italian precedent for southern secession. "Reasons no less grave and valid than those which actuated the people of Sicily and Naples," Toombs explained, spirited Confederate independence.1
In this sophisticated comparative history, Enrico Dal Lago examines the ideologies of planter slaveholders of the American South and large landowners of southern Italy (the Mezzogiorno). Dal Lago joins a growing number of historians who treat comparative regional agrarian elites in general, and comparative "Souths" in particular.2 Historian Peter Kolchin terms these regions "other souths."3 Dal Lago draws heavily upon theoretical and secondary sources, and [End Page 244] to a lesser extent primary sources, to detail the similarities and differences of the American and Italian experiences.
Both southern slaveholders and southern Italian landlords hired overseers or agents to supervise the production and distribution of agricultural commodities for market, principally southern cotton on plantations, and Italian grain on large estates (latifondi). To produce these crops the elites exploited landless workers, African American slaves and Italian peasants. Dal Lago considers "the existence and absence of slavery, the great distinguishing characteristic between mid-nineteenth-century politics in the American South and the Mezzogiorno." (236)
Slaveholders and landlords dominated the social and political cultures of their respective peripheral communities. This, according to Dal Lago, "ultimately led both of them to oppose the centralizing policies of the national governments which they were part." (xiii) Coincidentally, in 1861 nationalist ideologies in both "Souths" transformed the regions, respectively, into the Confederate States of America and the Kingdom of Italy. In doing so American slaveholders and southern Italian landowners "sought to achieve the two comparable aims of defending slavery and property rights by causing the collapse of the central governments whose policies threatened them." (184)
In order to unravel the complex sub regional cultures in both locales, Dal Lago investigates slaveholders in Virginia, Mississippi, and South Carolina, and Italian landowners in Naples, Terra di Bari (present-day Apulia), and Sicily. Virginia, with its proximity to the core city Washington, D.C., Dal Lago explains, resembled Naples in terms of possessing national political influence and economic power. Frontier Mississippi, with its expanding slave population and cotton economy, compares well with equally peripheral Terra di Bari. Dal Lago relegated South Carolina's and Sicily's "extreme regionalisms" to separate analysis, providing especially insightful comparative analysis of South Carolina's 1832–1833 nullification crisis and Sicily's Revolution of 1820. (270) These sub regions "hosted powerful regional elites with distinctively regional political cultures—elites that, through their secessionist and separatist policies, triggered the birth of the Confederate and Italian nations in 1861." (xiv–xv)
Despite their common traits, Dal Lago devotes much of his book identifying differences between American and Italian elite agrarian entrepreneurs. American planters held vastly more influence and power in the U.S. than Italian landowners wielded in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. And they operated in dramatically different economic, political, and social contexts. Southern planters lived in a democracy within a federal republic, while Italian landowners either descended from a former feudal aristocracy or belonged to the landed bourgeoisie. And whereas southern planters historically identified with a young nation rapidly moving westward, their Italian counterparts held a longstanding regional identity and lacked the prospect of available fresh land both to relieve overcrowding and to allow agricultural expansion.
Whereas southern slaveholders produced cotton and other staples for northern or foreign markets, Italian landowners harvested grain largely for internal markets, though some exported olive oil, citrus fruits, and wine internationally. African American slaves, racially identifiable legal "others," labored for southern planters. Peasant field hands (braccianti) worked the Italian latifondi. While [End Page 245] technically free, the braccianti nevertheless were bound to the land by historic feudal ties and by contemporary "usurious practices and exploitative contractual arrangements." (59) Because Italian laborers were legally free, violence directed at laborers played a significantly smaller role in labor relations in the Mezzogiorno than in the...