- Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South by Eugene D. Genovese, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
This short volume is the last in a series of studies resulting from “decades of professional collaboration” between Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a collaboration cut short by Fox-Genovese’s untimely death in 2007 (ix). Together and as individuals, the authors have been at the center of two generations of reinterpreting antebellum slavery.
Genovese and Fox-Genovese use the concept of “self-deception” to address two interrelated topics that have aroused considerable historical controversy: the slave-owners’ sincerity and their paternalism. Disputing the notion that slave-owners couldn’t have really believed that the exploitative labor system they directed and profited from was best for everyone—masters, slaves, and society at large—they insist that “in most respects, southern slaveholders said what they meant and meant what they said” (1). They “saw themselves as the best, the sincerest, indeed, the only friends that American blacks had,” and insisted that on the whole their slaves were happy—certainly happier than the miserable “wage slaves” who suffered cruel exploitation under the so-called free-labor system (3). Masters also insisted that their slaves loved them and couldn’t manage without them and that, indeed, “the slave recognized his master as his ‘best and most faithful friend’” (89). The paternalism slaveholders expressed reflected not a benign or gentle slavery, however, but rather the “self-deception” that lay at the root of the image they put forth as benevolent patriarchs—kind but firm, as one must be with children—a self-image that belied the brutality of a system that “depended on the constant threat and actuality of violence” (2). Slaveholders were not hypocrites, in short, but believed their own self-serving rhetoric.
Drawing on their unmatched familiarity with the documentary record of slavery, Genovese and Fox-Genovese marshal an extraordinary quantity of evidence to support their thesis. Indeed, in a book that must have one of the highest ratios of quotations to pages, they inundate the reader with slaveholders’ rationalizations and self-promotion. In doing so, they make an overpowering case that these men (and occasionally women) were taken in by their own propaganda, continuing to insist on and believe in their own benevolence even as they demonstrated the callous cruelty evident to their critics and subsequent historians. While speaking of “our family, white and black,” they sold and separated slaves in what constituted a “burning contradiction in the ideology of the southern household” (25, 37). Indeed, contradiction was at the heart of their thought, or, as the authors put it, “the slaveholders had trouble getting their story straight” (92). But such contradiction reflected self-deception rather than [End Page 242] deliberate falsification; as they note, slaveholders put forth their self-serving views “privately as well as publicly” (89).
Although Genovese and Fox-Genovese make a compelling case for slaveholder self-deception, they do not always provide as much context as they might for considering its implications. They miss an opportunity, for example, to clarify whether this self-deception should be regarded as a distinctive feature of the antebellum South or a specific manifestation of the general tendency of people in power to see themselves as virtuous and to confuse their own interest with the common good. Because they do not always distinguish among planters, slaveholders, and southern whites in general, they imply more unity of thought than may be warranted. (They do explain that for sake of economy they use the term “southerners” to mean “white southerners.”) More surprising to those familiar with their scholarship will be Genovese and Fox-Genovese’s conflation of “blacks” and “slaves” (and thereby of race and class). In their previous book, Slavery in Black and White: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (2008), they made a powerful case that antebellum slaveholders developed a general or “abstract” defense of slavery as the best social system regardless of...