Debating Slavery (H-Net Book Review)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Thu Oct 19 12:23:29 PDT 2000

>Published by H-South at (October, 2000)
>Mark M. Smith. _Debating Slavery: Economy and Society in the Antebellum
>American South_. New Studies in Economic and Social History. Cambridge,
>England and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xii + 117 pp.
>Illustrations, bibliographical references, and index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN
>Reviewed for H-South by Eric Tscheschlok <tscheeg at>, Department
>of History, Auburn University
>Interpreting the Slave South
>This slim volume -- spanning just ninety-four pages of text -- represents
>the second book-length effort by Mark M. Smith, whose _Mastered by the
>Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South_ (1997) is one of
>the most original works on slavery and the Old South to have appeared in
>recent years. By its nature _Debating Slavery_ lacks the same kind of
>ingenuity and freshness, though Smith does present a well-written and
>thoughtful narrative in the present work. _Debating Slavery_ is essentially
>an extended historiographical synopsis of the major scholarly
>interpretations of the economy and society of the slave South.
>The book forms part the Economic History Society's series, "New Studies in
>Economic and Social History." This series is designed to provide "a concise
>and authoritative guide to the current interpretations of key themes in
>economic and social history," and the books in the series "are intended for
>students approaching a topic for the first time, and for their teachers"
>(back cover). In _Debating Slavery_ Smith aims to "outline the contours of
>the debates, summarize the contending viewpoints, and weigh up the relative
>importance, merits, and shortcomings of [the] various and competing
>interpretations" of the slave-plantation South (p. 1). In the main, he
>succeeds in this mission. Simultaneously, Smith demonstrates an
>awe-inspiring grasp of the literature on slavery and the antebellum South.
>Smith divides the text into seven chapters, sandwiched between a thoughtful
>preface and an outstanding, comprehensive bibliography. The first chapter
>provides a basic introduction to the volume by sketching the predominant
>themes in the history and historiography of slave South from colonial times
>to emancipation. Here Smith advances, by implication at least, the
>questionable assertion that all major works of this genre fall into two
>dogmatic schools. One, headed by Eugene Genovese, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese,
>and Raimondo Luraghi, sees southern society as anti-commercial,
>precapitalist, and economically inefficient. The other, represented mainly
>by Robert Fogel, Stanley Engerman, and James Oakes, contends that the
>plantation South was (much like the industrializing North) profit-driven,
>market-oriented, and economically efficient.
>In truth, a great a deal of literature on the slave South cannot be
>pigeonholed so neatly into this oversimplified dichotomy. Chapter Two on
>"Slaveholders and Plantations" reprises the capitalism debate. According to
>Genovese and his school, southern planters had a prebourgeois mentality.
>They did not cherish wealth or profit for its own sake, but instead valued
>their slaveholdings as social clout, as a badge of honor that certified
>their cultural hegemony. What was most important to slaveowners was
>membership in the ruling class, not merely the attainment of riches.
>Accordingly, the planter worldview did not conceive of social order in
>capitalistic terms such as gain, thrift, or exploitation of labor. Rather,
>planters viewed their world through the premodern lens of the ethic of
>paternalism. The South-as-capitalist school, contrarily, finds southern
>slaveholders far more entrepreneurial than seigneurial. Historians in this
>group portray planters as acquisitive, market-savvy businessmen who
>employed factory-like management techniques in order to maximize the
>profits of their commercial operations.
>Chapter Three, concerning "Yeomen and Non-Slaveowners," treats the great
>mass of white Southerners who owned fewer than six slaves and in most cases
>held none. Here Smith surveys a wide array of literature, while laying
>particular stress upon the writings of Genovese, Lacy K. Ford, and Steven
>Hahn. The main questions examined in this segment involve the place of the
>"plain folk" in the broad web of southern social relations and the extent
>to which yeoman farmers embraced or rejected market activity. Did the
>yeomanry constitute an independent rank of society that resented the
>master-class hauteur of the planter patriciate, or did the common folk
>admire the planters' political and economic power because they aspired to
>move up the southern social ladder themselves? Did yeomen demonstrate a
>"safety-first" mentality, which emphasized subsistence production for
>household consumption and permitted only sporadic participation in the
>market economy (p. 33)? Or, did they display an "accumulation-first"
>attitude, which celebrated market activity as a fairway to socioeconomic
>advancement (p. 38)? The answer to these questions appears to be "a little
>of both." Recent works on these topics reveal both "precommercial and
>market-oriented characteristics" among the yeomanry, while indicating that
>geographic variations played a key role in determining whether yeomen
>became heavily involved in the market economy or whether they retained a
>"traditional, premarket mentality" (pp. 31, 41).
>Chapter Four on "Slaves" is disappointing. Although the chapter looks at
>scholarship on slave work and culture, it does so mainly to appraise the
>impact of these forces upon the plantation economy. Revisiting the
>capitalist-versus-precapitalist debate (yet again), Smith devotes fully
>half this chapter to cataloging both the bourgeois and preindustrial
>elements of slave culture. Unfortunately, he also ignores most cultural
>elements with no direct relation to this dichotomy, skirting such issues as
>slave religion, the black family, and the persistence of Africanism in
>African-American culture. These omissions are indicative of the most
>egregious one of the book: the absence of a substantive discussion of race
>-- which U. B. Phillips once identified as the "central theme" of southern
>history -- as a prime mover in the history of the slave South. For a work
>purporting to address both the economy and society of the antebellum South,
>this book is long on economics but far too short on social aspects, at
>least when these aspects have no palpable economic connotations. As a
>result, themes such as race (which do not fit squarely into the
>capitalist/non-capitalist framework) are shunted aside or appear only as
>Chapters Five and Six deal with the profitability of slavery, both as a
>business and as a system. Though scholars still quibble over details, they
>seem to agree that slaveholders usually profited from their bondsmen's
>labor, and that the rate of return on investments in slaves was comparable
>to that of most capital investments available to northern industrial
>entrepreneurs. Yet, in gauging the economic impact of slavery as a system,
>Smith notes, historians have reached no overarching consensus. Some
>scholars claim slavery retarded urbanization, industrialization, and
>overall economic development. Others contend factors besides slavery
>accounted for these conditions. Still others reject altogether the idea
>that the antebellum South was industrially starved or economically
>underdeveloped. Smith himself seems inclined toward the position that "the
>South's peculiar institution was deleterious to the region's economy
>overall" (p. 86).
>In Chapter Seven ("New Directions, Toward Consensus") Smith attempts to
>synthesize the myriad and ostensibly incompatible interpretations of the
>slave South. He finds considerable room for "historiographical convergence"
>(p. 87). He insists, however, such convergence will not come from further
>"historical exploration of new subjects and sub-themes" (p. 89). Rather, he
>maintains, "the way to reconcile the apparently competing schools of
>thought is probably best achieved not through more empirical research but
>through greater theoretical consideration" (p. 89). Readers will have to
>judge for themselves whether or not this is an appropriate note on which to
>end a work that targets as its avowed audience students tackling a subject
>for the first time.
>The book's brevity is at once a source of strength and weakness.
>Unquestionably, Smith's ability to digest, in so short a space, the massive
>volume of literature on the economy and society of the slave South serves
>as testimony to his laudable mastery of this topic. On the other hand, the
>book sacrifices nuance and complexity for the sake of concision. Often this
>results in a highly generalized presentation of the arguments of the major
>works in this field. In the final analysis the utility of this book depends
>upon its application. If used as intended by its author and publishers,
>_Debating Slavery_ can provide a valuable overview of some of the most
>salient historiographical questions about the nature of the
>slave-plantation South and, hopefully, will stimulate further historical
>inquiry into the important subjects it addresses. At the same time,
>however, there is a danger that books of this type will become substitutes
>for actually reading the important works they discuss. If used merely as a
>form of "Cliff's Notes," this book can offer only a modicum of intellectual
>Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied
>for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and
>the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net at H-Net.MSU.EDU.

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list