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FW: Tscheschlok on Smith, _Debating Slavery_

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  • A.J. Wright
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      Subject: Tscheschlok on Smith, _Debating Slavery_


      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-South@... (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 0-521-57158-8.

      Reviewed for H-South by Eric Tscheschlok <tscheeg@...>,
      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 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.

      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@....
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