a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Virtues of their own? Eugene Genovese and the slaveholding South

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 26th, 2003

2002, Oxford University PressEver since reading it, I’ve gone back to it time and again, partly baffled, partly intrigued, partly annoyed. It’s a recent article in The New Republic — God Without Thunder — a book review by Eugene Genovese of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, by Mark A. Noll.

Genovese gets to his point early on:

America’s God features a civil war between “proponents of alternate versions of the same ideology made up of evangelical religion, republican political principles, and commonsense moral reasoning.” Yet Noll acknowledges that the South remained closer than the North to “the deferential, class-stratified, and socially organic” republicanism of the eighteenth century. Southerners tended to view “commercial individualism as the enemy of republican liberty.” Noll’s acute recognition of “alternate versions” trips over his reservations. The problem arises from his acceptance of Lincoln’s grand but historically dubious assertion that Northerners and Southerners “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.” Southerners did not think so […] they charged liberals with espousing an essentially different religion. [link added]

The paragraph illustrates all that is interesting but ultimately misleading about Genovese’s argument. Lincoln’s assertion may have not taken the doctrinal differences of Northern and Southern churchgoers into account. But such differences presumably didn’t have the power to change heaven itself; Northerners and Southerners themselves had to believe that they prayed to the same God, regardless of differing understandings of what that belief required of them. Genovese’s own description of the theological dispute as a “civil war” doesn’t contradict Lincoln’s point — it underlines it.

Thou shalt not condemn slavery
The prevailing antebellum Southern view of Christianity was that the Bible was ambivalent on the subject of slavery, if not downright supportive of it. Again, Genovese:

The pro-slavery arguments were straightforward. Nothing in the Old Testament condemns slavery. The great patriarch Abraham and other of God’s worthies held slaves with God’s blessing. Solomon built the Temple with slave labor as well as a corvée. Jesus drove moneychangers, not slaveholders, from the Temple. Every church mentioned in connection with the Apostles included slaves and slaveholders. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles uttered a word against slavery, much less declared it sinful.

By contrast, as Genovese notes, some Northern clergymen were declaring that if the Bible could be shown to sanction slavery, it should be discarded as the devil’s own book. That sounds about right to me, but it’s a bridge too far for Genovese, who continues:

By the 1830s abolitionists were leading the war against Christian orthodoxy. They unfolded an interpretation of higher law that played the Spirit of the Bible against the Word and then transformed the Holy Spirit, as objectively manifested in the Word, into the subjective spirit or opinion of every man. Thus they transformed conscience from being the impress of the Holy Spirit on men’s minds into a higher standard than the Word. Noll, his verbal restraint notwithstanding, demonstrates that rejection of the letter for the spirit undermined belief in Christianity itself.

At first I was tempted to dismiss this as so much hocus pocus, but the theological issues are similar to familiar political ones. Awkwardly put: does the trajectory of political or theological growth matter as much as the holy or founding words we acknowledge as the basis of our beliefs, or the basis of our politics? Even if the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery at every possible turn, isn’t the growing emphasis on love and mercy to all mankind within its pages more persuasive than details about Abraham’s household? How do “Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbour, neither rob him,” “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” or “whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” rank in Genovese’s view of the Bible — just a handful more words to be weighed against those describing Solomon’s work crews?

1992, Simon & SchusterSimilarly, if the Constitution doesn’t directly address, say, homosexual rights, or even once enshrined slavery as a given, can’t founding principles like those in the Declaration of Independence or evolving standards of human dignity prompt reinterpretation of the nation’s purpose and direction? As Garry Wills writes in Lincoln at Gettysburg, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address accomplished — or at least midwifed — a revolution in Constitutional understanding, grafting the assertions of equality in the Declaration to the enlightened pessimism of the Constitution. Aren’t such re-evaluations at least as necessary as orthodoxy to an enduring nation?

Genovese’s long strange trip
1972, VintageObviously, I think so. Genovese, on the other hand, seems to favor a very “strict constructionist” approach to human affairs; he’s certainly scathing about what he sees as dishonest attempts to reinterpret Scripture.* His conservatism is surprising if you, like me, only know Genovese superficially as the author of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. The book was a groundbreaking look at the culture of American slaves, documenting in detail how vibrant, multifaceted, and pragmatically resistant to slavery that culture was. But because Genovese was a thorough historian of American slaves, he was necessarily also a historian of their ‘owners,’ and somewhere along the line, a self-avowed Marxist who abhorred slavery still found himself sympathizing with some of the arguments (some would say contortions) the slaveholding class used to justify and defend their way of life. As Genovese wrote somewhat defensively in the preface to “Roll, Jordan, Roll”:

And if I have tried to present the slaveholders not as monsters but as human beings with solid virtues of their own, my intention has hardly been to spare them condemnation for their crimes.

Elsewhere in the book, he elaborates:

The slaveholders’ pretensions accompanied their counterattack on free labor as wage slavery, their increasing rejection of egalitarian doctrines, and their defense of the subordination of class to class in all societies. […]

If [the slaveholder’s ideology] was … self-serving and radically false in its fundamental philosophical content, so is every other ruling-class ideology. [emphases added]

In the respectful but critical essay Right Church, Wrong Pew, Alex Lichtenstein considers Genovese’s career, and writes:

…Genovese insisted that his readers take the southern defense of slavery seriously as an authentic expression of class rule, rather than as a hypocritical pretense designed to paper over naked human exploitation and greed. Further, in the pro-slavery ideology he detected a marked hostility to the emergent market-based bourgeois society of the antebellum North: in short, a constellation of values that developed in self-conscious opposition to the world-view associated with the expansion of modern capitalist social relations. […]

Genovese recognized that slavery, even at its most patriarchal, always rested on physical compulsion. In its complexity, historicity, and sheer dialectical power Genovese’s account of how a ruling class did in fact rule in a markedly unjust system proved compelling. Nevertheless, even among his admirers, there was always a nagging doubt that he was somehow letting the slavocracy off the hook just a little too much. Even then he claimed that slaveholders “stood for a world different from our own that is worthy of our sympathetic attention” and that “the values they held still have something to offer.” […]

Much of this early work now can be reread in light of Genovese’s recent repudiation of Marxism, his turn to the right, and his excoriation of his comrades on the left. I suspect he might actually deny the first two charges, while gladly pleading guilty to the third. […]

As Genovese sees it, the personal liberation championed by sectors of the New Left and the tradition this has bequeathed to today’s social movements, is nothing but the other side of the false coin of radical individualism embedded in the market-oriented capitalist society radicals claim to abjure.

Genovese seemed to hold that slaveholders were admirable to the extent that they assailed that other evil, market capitalism — regardless of the essentially paternalistic, feudal, racist vision that was the true heart of their philosophy, and that enriched so many so handsomely.

Moreover, far from accusing such people or their apologists of cherrypicking Judeo-Christian lore, Genovese — although reportedly an atheist — sees this as a principled defense of orthodoxy. That may betray an ex-Marxist’s continued sympathy for infallible, detailed authority. It may also signal impatience with the possibility that not just the clash of economic forces, but ideologies — including interpretations of the Bible more legitimate than Genovese is willing to concede — might have accounted for much opposition to slavery.

Lichtenstein writes that

Genovese’s recent work [chokes off] southern conservative thought from its material base in the defense of racial inequality and the exploitation of black labor. … “If this is a Marxist,” crowed the reviewer of The Southern Front in The American Spectator, “then we really must have more of them.” [link added]

I would say if anticapitalism or theological orthodoxy could be employed in defense of slavery (and its Jim Crow followons), we should give such positions less respect, not more.

Adams and Calhoun: one ruling class debate
1996, KnopfWilliam Lee Miller, in his excellent book Arguing About Slavery, recounts an 1820 discussion John Quincy Adams recorded he had with John Calhoun** that provides a firsthand look at such contortions:

…I said that this confounding of the ideas of servitude and labor was one of the bad effects of slavery: but he thought it attended with many excellent consequences. It did not apply to all kinds of labor — not for example, to farming […] It was only manual labor — the proper work of slaves. No white person could descend to that. […]

And it was the best guarantee to equality among the whites. It produced an unvarying level among them. It did not excite, but did not even admit of inequalities, by which one white man could domineer over another. […]

I told Calhoun I could not see things in the same light. It is, in truth, all perverted sentiment — mistaking labor for slavery and dominion for freedom. […]

In the abstract, they admit that slavery is an evil, they disclaim all participation in the introduction of it, and cast it all upon the shoulders of our old Grandam Britain. But when probed to the quick on it, they show at the bottom of their souls pride and vainglory in their condition of masterdom. They fancy themselves more generous and noble-hearted than the plain freemen who labor for subsistence. […] It is among the evils of slavery that it taints the very sources of moral principle. It establishes false estimates of virtue and vice…

In one short passage, Adams’ common sense skewered what Genovese’s historical analysis relativizes and sifts for useable parts; Adams saw two hundred years ago that there was nothing there. Moreover, Adams belonged to an American political dynasty; clearly, not every ruling class ideology was equally “self serving and radically false.”

Final thoughts
Genovese doesn’t need any excuses for his break with communism. It’s odd, though, that he looks to Southern conservatism to oppose the excesses of American capitalism. Lichtenstein, I think, is on firmer ground in looking to Southern institutions like the Highlander Center, or, say, SOCM (Save Our Cumberland Mountains), for this kind of inspiration. Personally, I would add populist, nonracist — and admittedly fallible — people like LBJ, Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton and their supporters to the honor roll of decent Southern politics.

That is to say, there are honorable moderate and/or progressive Southern histories, too. But other than occasional flashes of insight, or exceptions that prove the rule like Mary Chesnut or the Grimke sisters, you’re not going to find such history leafing through the diaries of slave holding plantation owners. Genovese seems to confuse their self serving, 19th century spin on slavery with a principled stand worth taking seriously. It’s easy to forget that injustice is wont to say “it was ever thus,” present the status quo as the will of God, and urge us to prefer the ease of inaction to the challenge of reform.

* I haven’t read Noll’s book, but judging from Genovese’s review, Noll shares Genovese’s concerns about some abolitionist clergy arguments, although he ultimately agrees with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural summation.
** At the time, both were in President James Monroe’s cabinet, Adams as Secretary of State and Calhoun as Secretary of War. Adams would become the sixth President of the United States, while Calhoun would go on to become a Senator from South Carolina, and the chief antebellum spokesman of the slave states.
EDIT, 9/28: Added section titles.

One Response to “Virtues of their own? Eugene Genovese and the slaveholding South”

  1. » Blog Archive » Love them while you can: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson Says:

    […] who fights in both Kansas and later loses an eye in the war itself), and I join writers from Noll to Lincoln in locating an American theology derived from that.  The narrator explains his […]

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