Debating Slavery

Review: Eric Tscheschlok on Mark Smith

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, index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-521-57158-8.

Reviewed for H-SOUTH by Eric Tscheschlok, Department of History, Auburn University.
Published by H-SOUTH, October 2000.

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 sidelights.

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 benefit.

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Posted: 1 November 2000