- Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South
Slavery, Paternalism, Plantations
In the first paragraph of their Introduction, the authors say they have been led to a conclusion “that some readers will find unpalatable.” What [End Page 731] is that conclusion? It is that the paternalism of slaveholders before the Civil War was a belief system entertained in good faith. Employers of slave labor, it is contended, sincerely considered “Christian slavery” to be “the most humane, compassionate, and generous of social systems” (1).
But if by “unpalatable” is meant “untrue,” why would any reader doubt this central conclusion? Most perpetrators of evil throughout history sincerely have believed that they were doing good. Surely the more interesting question is whether southern slavery was in fact a humane social system. Indeed the title of this volume makes plain that the authors themselves concede that the paternalism slaveholding employers ascribed to themselves amounted, at least in part, to “self-deception.”
I do not make these comments as a condescending outsider to the phenomena described by Genovese and Fox-Genovese. My mother-in-law was a Howard of Virginia who passed on family traditions about white women who went to the slave cabins when a child was ill. She also told of a relative, Edward Coles, secretary to James Madison and later governor of Illinois, who traveled with his slaves across the Ohio River, and how, when he told the slaves that they were free, they asked if they might stay nearby. Fatal Self-Deception presents a number of similar instances.1
Also, my father grew up in Louisville and, despite all his life singing songs and telling jokes that I came to consider racist, was unfailingly kind to African Americans he encountered. In both respects he closely resembled another white man from the Upper South, Abraham Lincoln.
Moreover, Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese are not the only distinguished American historians to have questioned the mainstream narrative about the slave South and the Civil War. William Apple-man Williams denounced Lincoln’s refusal to let the South depart in peace, claimed that an independent southern nation might have abolished slavery on its own initiative, and implausibly presented the Earl of Shaftesbury as an exemplar of communal values.
However, there is a problem. Although assuming the posture of describing an ideology rather than facts on the ground, the authors of [End Page 732] this book say in the second paragraph of their Introduction that “The westward movement of planter households . . . strengthened relations between masters and slaves” (1). Really? This is not a description of an ideology but an allegation of fact. Economic historian Gene Dattel writes of the “internal migration into the new cotton states—Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas” that for slaves “the hardship was manifest and the separation of slave families devastating.” Dattel offers examples of more and less paternalistic behavior by settlers in “the western reaches of cotton country.” John Steele, a Virginia planter, at first urged his brother to provide warm clothing for his slaves back home. “Eventually Steele’s paternalism succumbed to ‘cotton fever’ as he frantically pressed his brother to sell property in Richmond in exchange for ‘two Negroes. . . . They would sell here for 1000 or 1,200 . . . [per slave] this year.’” Steele’s personal obligations extended only to his personal slave, George, whose family he felt bound to hold together. At the other extreme was the Wade Hampton family of South Carolina, among the largest slaveholders in the antebellum South. Genovese and Fox-Genovese say of Wade Hampton II that he “managed his nine hundred slaves competently” (36) and of Wade Hampton III that he “appealed for white-black friendship” (122). They say nothing about the patriarch, Wade Hampton I, who helped to put down the German Coast slave uprising of 1811. Charles Deslondes, the supposed leader of the rebellion, had his hands chopped off and before he died was put in a bundle of straw and roasted. Another eighteen slaves...