- "I Own My Slaves, but They Also Own Me":Property and Paternalism in the Slave South
Here's an argument familiar to every historian of the antebellum South: in the decades immediately following the American Revolution, white Southerners spoke of slavery as a "necessary evil"; but after about 1830 they developed a more aggressive defense of slavery and began to refer to it as a "positive good." This interpretation of Southern intellectual history still appeals to many scholars. But in the 1960s, historians began to reformulate the argument. To speak of a shift from slavery as a necessary evil to a positive good does not quite capture what actually happened to Southern thought. Instead, historians increasingly argued, the slaveholders responded to abolitionist attacks on their way of life by developing an "abstract" defense of slavery as a "paternalistic" system. Over the years this "paternalist thesis" has gone though several revisions.
As it was originally formulated in a series of books and essays by Eugene D. Genovese, the paternalist thesis assumed that slavery was a variant of patriarchy and that paternalism—given the right historical conditions—was its logical outcome. Those conditions developed in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, after the U.S. had withdrawn from the Atlantic slave trade in 1808 and in the face of a rising antislavery threat from the North. Hostile to the modern world of capitalism, paternalism was said to represent a rejection of liberalism and the commercial values of bourgeois society. Because it was based on the principle of universal hierarchy rather than fundamental human equality, paternalism allegedly had no need of racism, which Genovese originally discounted as a trademark of the bourgeois society to which the slaveholders were increasingly hostile. This version of the paternalist thesis made no sense at all. It was implausible to argue that the Southern slaveholders—devoted to the systematic mass-production of commercial crops and dependent on a global and, later, a national market in human beings—would logically generate an ethos hostile to commerce and markets. Still less [End Page 587] convincing was the claim that racial ideology was somehow alien to a system in which only blacks were enslaved.
If the paternalist thesis was to survive, it would have to be radically redefined. And so it was. Instead of arguing that it emerged in reaction to the rise of abolitionism in the 1830s, for example, some historians discerned the development of paternalism a century or more earlier. Far from representing the logical expression of slavery's intrinsically patriarchal structure, historians traced a shift from patriarchy to paternalism. Paternalistic masters were originally said to have absorbed their slaves into a larger conception of their family life—"my family black and white"—but it turned out that hardly any slaveholders actually talked that way. Instead the paternalist thesis shifted focus to the very different language of "Christian stewardship," which emerged from the notably modern precincts of dissenting Protestantism. Still others argued for paternalism as a characteristic of all repressive rural societies marked by "ties of obligation for landlords and rituals of subordination for their retainers." By this definition, paternalism was no longer the distinctive attribute of slavery and easily survived its abolition.
From the start, it was never very clear what paternalism actually was. Did it define the master-slave relationship, making it all but a synonym for slavery? Was paternalism a pattern of behavior? An ideology? With each new iteration, the paternalist thesis became ever more obscure. It was detached from its original moorings in the structure of slavery and the particular conditions of the nineteenth-century South and became, instead, a free-floating ideology that bore no necessary relationship to the actual workings of slavery itself. No less distinguished a historian than Ira Berlin recently declared that the slaveholders' paternalism was a "fiction." But what did this particular fiction consist of? Critics like myself, who at first complained that the evidence did not support the original paternalist thesis, began to wonder whether the concept of...