|Essay by Celine Clark
The debate over slave culture began in antebellum times with attempts to characterize the work patterns and work attitudes of slaves. Historians who subsequently took up these questions sought to understand the way that the slave system of labor operated, the relationship of slaves to each other in the work process, and the relationship of slaves to their masters. Characterizations of the work patterns and the work ethic of slaves have been among the most critical points in the interpretation of slave culture. It deeply influenced views of other aspects of slave life including family mores, religion, music, folk tales, art, and the nature and extent of slave resistance to oppression.
Historians argued whether or not slavery was a benefactor or detriment to the United States. Some of the major American historians of the second half of the twentieth century--Stanley M. Elkins, Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, for example--have contributed powerfully to the modern debate about Southern slavery. Curiously, however, much of the modern historiographical argument has been shaped by two greatly influential historians, Kenneth Stampp and Ulrich B. Phillips. Be aware that covering the interpretations of these historians on the many aspects of slavery is close to impossible without writing a book.
Ulrich B. Phillips came close to greatness as a historian, perhaps as close as any historian this country has produced. We may leave to those who live in the world of absolute good and evil the task of explaining how a man with such primitive views of fundamental social questions could write such splendid history...He asked more and better questions that many of us still are willing to admit, and he carried on his investigations with consistent freshness and critical intelligence...American Negro Slavery is not the last word on its subject; merely the indispensable first. (Eugene D. Genovese)
Since World War II increasing numbers of American historians have been reading Ulrich B. Phillips with hostility, suspicion, and even contempt; worse, they have not been encouraging their students to read him at all. This negative reaction is not difficult to account for, although it stands in the starkest contrast to PhillipsÕ enviable reputation in his own day. However, as criticized by Eugene Genovese, Phillips has Ògone out of styleÓ along with racism and a patronizing attitude toward the Negro which have embarrassed United States foreign policy.
Let there be no mistakes about it: Phillips was a racist, however benign and paternalistic. Some historians have argued that he was gradually moving away from racist doctrines as he began to catch up with the new anthropological and biological researches making their appearances in the last decade or two of his life. Between American Negro Slavery (1918) and Life and Labor in the Old South (1929), two of his most renowned works, he is supposed to have shifted away from a view holding the Negro to be biologically inferior to one holding him to be culturally backward. This was a shift from a less to a more sophisticated racism that could not have stood critical examination even in his day. His racism cost him dearly and alone accounts for his lapse from greatness as a historian. It blinded him; it inhibited him from developing fully his own extraordinary insights; it prevented him from knowing many things he in fact knew very well.
Phillips based American Negro Slavery on extensive research in plantation records but also on a deep attachment to the old South and a belief in black racial inferiority. In this work, published in 1918, he treated the slave as the beneficiary of a patriarchal but unprofitable institution designed to maintain the South's cardinal principle of white supremacy. The framework established by Phillips and his followers cast the slaves themselves primarily in the role of objects, whether as victims or beneficiaries. The focus was on slave "treatment", as well as on the performance of the slave economy and the efficiency or inefficiency of slave labor. One of the remarkable features of the Phillips interpretation was its longevity. It survived for thirty years, at least, as the conventional wisdom on the subject.
The fundamental priorities of slavery and Southern slave society are involved in many discussions. If slavery was above all a rational economic system devoted to the pursuit of profit, those who controlled it would have retained their investment in it only as long as it continued to show greater profits than alternative forms of enterprise or labor organization. However, if slavery was even more important for other reasons--as an instrument of social adjustment or racial control, or as a status symbol--owners may have been content to maintain it for those reasons alone, as long as it did not prove cripplingly unprofitable.
Phillips and his followers thought that slavery often laid a burden of unprofitability upon the planters, which they shouldered because they supported and maintained the institution for other reasons. However, it does not follow that because slavery yielded a good return, profit was the only motive and ambition of slave holders. Phillips tended to grasp the complexity of his subject and indicate the need to probe many fronts.
In general, Ulrich B. Phillips provided numerous examples intended to demonstrate the inherent laziness, docility, and incompetence of blacks, whether enslaved or free. He did not value their worth in any way and held a mainly racist view in his interpretations of slavery.
Kenneth Stampp accepted the framework Phillips had constructed, but, more than matching his predecessor's research in the plantation record, he completely overturned Phillips's conclusions. Stampp saw the slave as the maltreated victim of a profitable economic system; in a nutshell, where Phillips had viewed slavery as mild but inefficient, Stampp saw it as harsh but profitable. Kenneth Stampp went further than any other post-Phillips scholar in rejecting the traditional interpretation of slavery. In The Peculiar Institution, Stampp argued that investments in slaves were quite generally profitable, indeed, highly profitable for most planters. He also rejected the contention that economic forces would by themselves have led to the demise of slavery, even in the upper South. Nor did Stampp find any evidence to support the claim that slavery prevented industrialization and economic growth. He pointed to "innumerable experiments" which "demonstrated that slaves could be employed profitably in factories," arguing that slave holders preferred to operate in agriculture because, for the South, agriculture "seemed to be the surest avenue to financial success."
Stampp even expressed doubts about the fourth proposition in the traditional interpretation--that slavery was less efficient than an economic system based on free labor. "Slavery"s economic critics overlooked the fact," he said,"that physical coercion, or the threat of it, proved to be a rather effective incentive, and that the system did not prevent masters from offering tempting rewards for the satisfactory performance of assigned tasks."
Stampp hesitated to go on to the conclusion that slaves were equal to free men in the efficiency of their labor. He conceded that slave productivity was sharply reduced by "the slave's customary attitude of indifference toward his work, together with the numerous methods he devised to resist his enslavement." Stampp was able to hold on to his contention that slavery was profitable only by arguing that there were other advantages which more than compensated for whatever superiority free labor had in efficiency. These advantages included longer hours of work, more complete exploitation of women and children, and lower real wages for slaves than free men.
Why did Stampp, who broke with so much of the traditional interpretation and who came so close to rejecting the myth of the incompetence of slave labor, fail to do so? Why did he, as it were, pull back just as he seemed about to do so? The answer lies in Stampp's preoccupation with the refutation of Phillips on point about the treatment of slaves. Stampp provided testimony that cruelty was indeed an ingrained feature of the treatment of slaves. The cases of cruelty which Phillips regarded as unusual, as outside the unwritten rules of the master class, emerged as a common pattern of white behavior in The Peculiar Institution. Cruelty, Stampp said, "was endemic in all slave holding communities"; even those "who were concerned about the welfare of slaves found it difficult to draw a sharp line between acts of cruelty and such measure of physical force as were an inextricable part of slavery."
Stampp decided to move in a direction that appears quite different from the one chosen by other historians. He argued that slaves did not succumb; they resisted. Resistance did not generally take the form of revolution or strikes. Such open forms of resistance were sheer suicide. Stampp believed that the characteristic of slave behavior was common: slaves lie, steal, feign illness, behave childishly, and shirk their duties. To Stampp, the theme of the inferiority of slave labor was due to "day to day resistance."
The view which prevailed for many years was that slaves worked long and hard simply because they were forced to under the threat of the lash, but they have achieved no higher level of efficiency. Kenneth Stampp"s interpretation belongs broadly to this school of thought. He sees incentives as but one weapon in as armory of slave control which included firm discipline, demonstration of the master's power (symbolized by the whip), and the inculcation of a sense of slave inferiority.
Essay by Melissa Negrin
Eugene Genovese is right to denounce the "celebrations of self-indulgence" and "the irrational embrace by the left of a liberal program of personal liberation"; these have, in some circles, taken the place of any serious effort to build a righteous society. He is right, moreover, to condemn the incoherence and hypocrisy of pretending "to respect community autonomy while denying each community its own exclusiveness."
"Racism," says Genovese, "should be put beyond the pale everywhere." He rightly observes that "black communities have good reason to demand considerable political autonomy." Such autonomy is necessary, he explains, "for the re-establishment of [the] moral order" that alone can ward off the horrifying future he projects for black America. Genovese, while busily advising black people how to combat "social decay" in their ranks, fails to note that the main reason black communities demand political autonomy the only reason a racially-defined, "black" community exists is that another community, the white community, exercises political authority over black people.
What is this "white" community? It is not biological; all reputable scientists agree that, biologically, "race" is a fiction. It is not cultural; if, as Genovese points out, "there is nothing that can seriously be called an Italian-American or Irish-American culture," what, then, is "white" culture except, possibly, Wonderbread and television game shows?
The white community is defined only by its unblackness. It is held together by the knowledge that its most degraded members share a status higher, in certain respects, than the status of the most exalted persons excluded from it; in return, those members give their support to the system that degrades the others. Until the white community is abolished, there will be no "reassertion of community life . . . for the American nation as a whole," because, as C.L.R. James pointed out, "the protection of the white neighborhood is exposed as the dissolution of neighborhood ties and the destruction of the community as a political force."
I agree with Genovese that we face a crisis today which makes the old left-right spectrum irrelevant. Racism is both the original sin and the fatal flaw of the republic. I believe it must be our number one priority. I am gladdened that the most vigorous voices in the black community insist that their people must also work harder to strengthen their families (still the cornerstone of civil society), and pull their communities together. But, to do their part, blacks will need the kind of internal spiritual renewal that both Rivers and Cornel West call for, and it is the responsibility of whites to make sure they get all the resources, material and spiritual, they need to do it. This will take lots of money and imagination. But it will take something else as well: "If you don't pray, don't come.
Yet all the chapters are window-dressing in light of the central essay and theme of the book. Chapter 1, "The Slave South: An Interpretation," stands alone in both depth of argument and importance. Genovese's interpretation of the slave South provides a holistic approach to the history of Southern slave society. The crucial aspects of slave society are bared, in both their best and worst light, and the nature of Southern society illuminated. Genovese accomplishes two tasks in this chapter, which still, whether one agrees with the conclusions or not, influence the way historians have seen Southern history in the last 30 years. On one hand, Genovese takes the South seriously, as a thoughtful society filled with thoughtful men and women, concerned about the direction their social and political development is taking. Slavery, to them, is not something they can easily throw away, any more than modern Americans can discard industrial capitalism at the drop of a hat. It was the society they were born into, the institution that shaped their lives, and, even when critical of it, unconsciously adapted their ideas and visions to its structure and rhythms. Slavery engendered certain cultural and social outlooks that worked to preserve the institution and sustain Southern class structure. Hence, as historians, we would do equally as well to take them seriously.
On the other hand, Genovese presents us with an argument that links social, cultural, political and economic elements in a seamless web. The different parts of Southern culture worked together, both to preserve slavery, and lead the South to its ultimate doom in 1861. The "uniqueness of the antebellum South" (p. 1) was manifested in its social beliefs, political ideology and public policy. The demands of slave society, or more precisely the slaveowners, limited the development of industry, retarded the growth of a home market, and undermined the drive for technological progress. Slavery made it impossible for the plantation to reform itself, or introduce new methods of restoring soil fertility, eroding the possibilities for economic advancement. The planters developed an "aristocratic, antibourgeois spirit with values and mores emphasizing family and status, a strong code of honor, and aspirations to luxury, ease, and accomplishment" that weakened the Northern work ethic and capitalist values of thrift and self-denial. At its core, Southern society rested on the master-slave relationship, with all of its inconsistancies, fears, and hidden meanings, a relationship that permeated Southern life. In the long run, the southern system, with its peculiar set of values and ideals, and unique social relations and political ideology, could not stand the strain of co-existence in a state dominated by industrial capitalists, employing free labor ideology and the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence. The seamless web of Southern society, in the end, turned into the hangman's noose.
The various chapters that follow "The Slave South: An Interpretation" illustrate certain facets of Genovese's general argument, demonstrating in more detail the linkage of society, economy and ideology. For example, the discussion of soil exhaustion, reform, and plantation agriculture is closely related to the overall discussion of Southern society. Genovese places soil exhaustion into a larger, comparative framework, drawing on work dealing with ancient Rome and medieval Britain, as well as the American South. For Genovese, "The main problem" with soil exhaustion "lies in the reaction of social institutions," and the reaction of Southerners to soil exhaustion was, inevitably, shaped by the existence of slavery (p. 88). He was not the first to argue this, as Genovese himself notes. But Genovese places the responsibility for soil exhaustion at the feet of the master-slave relationship. A sound agricultural system would have recognized the dangers to prosperity and social structure, and adjusted accordingly. Indeed, many in the South sounded the warning. John Taylor of Caroline, Edmund Ruffin, J.D.B. DeBow and others promoted agricultural reform as a means of restoring fertility to the soil and renewing the advance of prosperity for the future. But, all their efforts at rousing the South proved fruitless.
With the spotlight provided in "The Slave South: An Interpretation," Genovese proceeds to illuminate a number of other aspects of Southern society and economy. The lack of a home market, the dependence of industry on the planters, the low productivity of labor led to economic stagnation. The slaveowners' pretensions and pride blinded them to the real problem, that of slavery and slave society. They willingly adopted political panaceas for economic and social problems, because it was the last bastion of their power and authority. If their social structure was slowly, if irreversibly, crumbling under the weight of soil exhaustion, low productivity and lack of economic diversification, they could always use their political power to reverse the trends. Hence the weight placed on access to the territories and further expansion in Mexico and the Caribbean. Finally, in 1860, it was clear that the planters were going to be unable to pursue their plans within the structure of the Union. Independence, as slave-holding republic, seemed to be the only route to safety. Even this step, Genovese implies, would have disappointed the planter elite. The problems of their society were structural. Political intervention might have slowed the pace of decline and decay, but only for a time.
Since the publication of the book, critics of Genovese's argument have often appeared. Criticism tends to fall into two main categories. Economic historians, using econometrics and theory, have worked on the structure of slavery as an economic system. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, in Time on the Cross, argue that slavery was an adaptable system, with high enough levels of labor productivity and adequate profit rates, to preserve the institution, even within the structure of the Union. From an economic viewpoint there was no inevitability to slavery's collapse. Other historians have criticized Genovese's argument from the perspective of social history. James Oakes, in The Ruling Race, takes exception with Genovese's focus on the planter elite as a hegemonic elite (although Oakes, in his latest book Slavery and Freedom, seems to modify his earlier stance). In reality, the great planters tended to be a small, isolated group, particularly concentrated in the Southeast, who were unrepresentative of the mass of slaveowners. Laurence Shore and Frederick Siegel argue that Genovese underestimates the independence and effect of industrial capitalism on Southern society. Both economic and social historians stress the 'bourgeois' nature of Southern slaveowners. The planters, particularly the nouveau riche of the old Southwest, were motivated by the emerging norms of antebellum American society: individualism, pursuit of self-interest, and pursuit of wealth. Slavery was merely the means of realizing their ambitions. The Civil War was an in-house conflict between different interests, not a struggle between worldviews and incompatible social structures. David Potter contended that the argument based on essential cultural differences "exaggerates the points of diversity between the North and South, minimizes the similarities, and leaves out of the account all the commonalties and shared values of the two sections" (Potter, Impending Crisis, p. 32). Thus the South represents one regional variant of a general American commitment to capitalism and capitalist values. What the critics fail to take into account is the unusual nature of capitalism in a slave economy. The crucial question is this: Can a slave be treated in the same manner as a wage-worker? Can they be fired or laid off in an economic downturn? Does a capitalism based on the ownership of labor, rather than the hiring of labor power, present a challenge to the values of self-interest, individualism and wealth? Genovese, focusing on the master-slave relationship, feels that the values inherent in a slave system are fundamentally different from, and incompatible with, the values of an industrial capitalist society. Only when the critics can answer the above questions can their case be proven.
This brings me to a second, more personal, criticism of The Political Economy of Slavery. An interest in agricultural reform in the South originally led me to the book. It is possible that slave society was more flexible than Genovese argues. John Taylor felt that expansion, not slavery, was the barrier to the adoption of better, more efficient farming methods. While recognizing that free land was an essential resource for an agrarian society, Taylor also noted that free land, by encouraging emigration and dispersed settlement, dissolved the fundamental tie which bound farmers to the land and community. With the easy availability of land, "the best informed agriculturalists are driven... or seduced by the temptations of wealth...to sell their lands, which require labour, for the purchase of a better profit" (Arator, p. 29). The effect was to short-circuit the necessity of adopting better modes of agriculture. Only where planters were forced by necessity to improve their farming would agricultural reform and proper agricultural practices take root. There was no doubt that the frontier mentality was the evil Taylor and other reformers fought. But it was rooted in habits of behavior that could be changed, given proper information and constraints on migration and expansionism.
Taylor's program of agricultural reform was, in his view, compatible with slavery. Genovese makes a distinction between the "Virginia" and the "Southwest" solution to the problem of inefficient slave agriculture. In Virginia, a process of diffusion was underway by the early 1800s. Slaveholding was becoming both widespread among the farming population, and evolving into smaller units. Taylor, far from advocating the end of slavery, in reality violently opposed to overseers and other managers on a plantation who came between the master and slave, and introduced inefficiencies into the plantations' organization. The owner, in order to make the plantation run properly and to further agricultural reform, had to take a hand in the day-to-day operations of the estate. Closer supervision by the master could make the entire plantation run more efficiently, raise labor productivity, promote diversification and raise the quality of livestock, all problems that Genovese ascribes to the slave system. In the old Southwest, the solution to the problem of soil exhaustion and decline was consolidation of estates in to larger units, capable of effectively overcoming the burdens of soil infertility and low productivity. I am not entirely sure whether the Virginia solution depended on a market for surplus slaves in the Southwest. Inheritance, for example, helped distribute slaves among the farming population. Certain counties in eastern Virginia approached slave ownership rates of 90 per cent or more in the antebellum period. Increasingly, for antebellum Virginians, the real competition was between slavery and machines, and it is possible that slaves were a more flexible instrument for agricultural reform and increased production, on smaller units, than a machine or capital input would be. In any case, I would argue that these are two distinct solutions to the problem of soil exhaustion and reform. The question is: which would have been more advantageous for the long-term preservation of slavery?
Even my criticism cannot really "refute" Genovese's conception of Southern society. Taylor, as a member of Southern society, had to assume that there were real possibilities for reform inherent in the slave society of early national Virginia. The real achievement of The Political Economy of Slavery is in the realm of paradigms. Eugene Genovese has given us a fully-functioning, logically-constructed model of Southern slavery and society that historians are still arguing with, attempting to refute or explain in greater detail. Like Bentham's system of utilitarian morality, when an historian tries to refute Genovese's model, "it is with reasons drawn, without his being aware of it, from that very principle itself... Is it possible for a man to move the earth? Yes: but he must first find out another earth to stand on." The Political Economy of Slavery has done what all great history books do: asked the questions and raised the issues that alter and shape our understanding of the past and the research we undertake in the future.
A Nettlesome Classic Turns Twenty-Five
Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll.
New York: Random House, 1976, 823 pp. $19.00.
Re-reading by Walter Johnson
Would I still recommend reading Roll, Jordan, Roll twenty-five years after it was published?
What? You thought I was going to say no? Of course, there's a lot to get through: the usage of stories about black people who gave the author bad directions on Southern roads in the 1950s to illustrate a point about dissimulating slaves in the nineteenth century (116-17); the full-throated celebration of the devotion of the enslaving class to its "mammies" (343); the kooky exoticism of the supposed distinction in black culture between "bad" and "baaaad" Negroes (635); the strange, unforgettable declarative sentences like, "The slaveholders were heroes," (97) that punctuate almost its every page. All of this makes Roll, Jordan, Roll seem a bit dated today, as does its (inevitable) failure to engage issues that have emerged as central themes in scholarship in the years since 1976: the role of African culture in American slave culture; the complex interrelation of racial domination and economic exploitation in New World slave societies; the salience of gender and sexuality to any real understanding of slavery and the South.
And yet there's no getting around the categories. Roll, Jordan, Roll is the locus classicus for some of the most powerful and important ideas that have shaped the discussion of slavery for the last quarter century. Paternalism, hegemony, the distinction between individual and collective acts of resistance, the master-slave dialectic, the triangular stress and negotiation between overseers, planters, and slaves: all of these remain key terms in the historiography of slavery, terms that it is impossible to discuss without thinking of the world Eugene D. Genovese made. In thinking aloud about why I still read, teach, and argue with this book I want to concentrate on the two concepts--paternalism and hegemony--with which I think the book is most often identified, and to both clarify Genovese's usage of the terms, and specify what I think that usage misunderstands, elides, and sometimes simply ignores.
Paternalism first. For Genovese, paternalism was an ideology rooted in the political economy of antebellum slavery, particularly in the efforts between 1831 and 1861 of a group of slaveholding "reformers" to stave off the growing antislavery movement in parts of the upper South and the nation at large. Through a set of managerial reforms and emotional transformations, Genovese argues, slaveholders attempted to "humanize" slavery while at the same time consolidating the institution's political position. Genovese gives a number of examples of what he means by slaveholding paternalism. Slaveholders, he tells us, "almost with one voice . . . denounced cruelty" (71). They "boasted of the physical or intellectual prowess of one or more of [their] blacks, much as the strictest father might boast of the prowess of a favored child" (73). They thought of their obligation to feed, clothe, and take care of their slaves as "a duty and a burden" upon themselves even as they tried to make their slaves' work "as festive as possible" (75, 60). They described their own children and their slaves as being part of a single "family black and white" (without any apparent ironic recognition of the degree to which this was often literally the case) (73). And they were genuinely shocked, dismayed, and devastated--"betrayed" is the word Genovese uses--when their erstwhile slaves took off in search of freedom at the end of the Civil War (97). At that historic moment (as well as at a host of local moments throughout the period of slavery), Genovese argues, it became clear that the slaveholders' actually believed what they were saying, that they "desperately needed the gratitude of their slaves in order to define themselves as moral human beings" (146). Slaveholders were themselves living lives defined and limited by slavery.
The notion of slaveholders fabricating themselves for an audience of their own slaves in a kind of Hegelian dialectic is an extraordinarily powerful one, and it illuminates countless aspects of American slavery. It does not, however, quite capture the quicksilver slipperiness with which slaveholders could reformulate the nominally beneficent promises of paternalism into self-serving regrets, reactionary nostalgia, and flat-out threats. Can it be mere coincidence that so many examples of planters expressing ostensibly "paternalist" sentiments refer to slaves who have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing? Apart from the literature in slaveholder periodocals like DeBow's Review and Southern Agriculturalist on hygiene, medicine, housing, and nutrition, which does indeed seem to emerge according to Genovese's reformist timeline (although to be much more characterized by the evocation of "my workforce black and white" than by any genuinely paternalist language), the most common sources of evidence for slaveholders' paternalism seem to me to be three: statements that slaves are not governed by the lash but by the threat of sale; effusions of heartfelt feelings of loss for slaves who have just died (usually recorded in letters to other slaveholders); and the forenoted statements of "betrayal" at the hands of former slaves who took off at the end of the war (also recorded in letters between whites and other whites).
Paternalism, it turns out, as often expressed a sort of nostalgia for dead slaves and the lost cause as it did the actively governing ideology of a ruling class. In many cases it seems more properly read as a sort of a pose that slaveholders put on for one another than as a praxis through which they governed their slaves. Except, of course, in relation to the slave trade. For it was the slave trade--the threat of sale--that allowed slaveholders to formulate a system of labor discipline that relied not on torture but on terror as its axis of power. "I govern them the same way your late brother did, without the whip by stating to them that I should sell them if they do not conduct themselves as I wish," proudly stated one Southern "paternalist" in an 1838 letter to another. To judge by this statement at least, the historical predicate for the effusion of paternalist language between 1831 and 1861 might well be seen as the expansion of the interstate slave trade into a central feature of the political economy of slavery. The paternalist ideology of "my family black and white" depended, at least in part, upon the ability of the white part of that "family" to extract labor from the black part by threatening to destroy it through separation and sale. Another way of describing the relationship of slaveholders' effusive paternalism to the threats of family separation through which they increasingly governed their slaves is this: the slaveholders were liars.
If Genovese's concept of paternalism continues to provoke debate and demand refinement, his discussion of slaveholders' hegemony is the most often misunderstood element of the argument of Roll, Jordan, Roll. It is commonly seen as a denial of slaves' "agency" which, in the common counter argument to the book, is to be rectified by "giving" it back. The transitive verb "to give" encapsulates most of the problems with this reading. First, the slaves in question are dead; it might be possible to give them a better history, but giving them agency at this point seems out of the question. Second, this sense of the giving of human agency (even in a historical narrative) to a human subject conveys some of the absurdity (and residual racism) of a historical practice in which jobs can be gained, books published, and major prizes received by historians who frame their project around the argument that a group of human beings were (mirabile dictu!) human beings, or in the canonical formulation, that they "preserved their humanity," as if it would have occurred to them to do that, or even to do otherwise. Third, in so doing, the critique that replaces Genovese's hegemony with the agency granted by the latter-day historian formulates the role of the revisionist historian (the grantor of agency to the slaves) in the very paternalist terms that it ostensibly repudiates. So, enough of that.
In fact, the important question and the question that Genovese is seeking to answer with the concept of hegemony is predicated upon recognition of the agency of enslaved people. What, he asks, was the field of possibility in which they acted and what were the effects of their actions? In answering those questions, Genovese has something very powerful (though, I believe, ultimately very wrong) to say.
Properly understood, the Gramscian notion of cultural hegemony is a theory of the transformation of rule into consent. At certain moments in time, the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci argued, rule by a single class can be enforced not through violence, but through general, if unwitting, assent to a set of limiting definitions of the field of the politically possible. Gramsci's own analysis and much of the like-minded thinking that has followed it, has been particularly concerned with the ability of capitalist ruling classes to make their own dominance seem as if it is predicated upon universal participation and directed toward the common good. Following this line of argument, in Roll, Jordan, Roll, Genovese claims that slaveholders were able, through their paternalist ideology, to refigure what was fundamentally a system of class exploitation as a set of more local relationships between slaves and slaveholders--personal, familial, communal. Genovese does not argue that slaveholders always lived up to the rosiest promises of their paternalism, though he certainly thinks they tried. Rather he argues that paternalism provided the ideological mechanism through which they could disguise their exploitation of their slaves. By reformulating the class relationships of slavery as a system of reciprocal duties and obligations--you hew the wood and draw the water and I'll (have you) whitewash the slave quarter and clean out the latrine--slaveholders exerted hegemony over slaves, claiming that they ruled not in their own interested but in the interest of those they owned.
According to Roll, Jordan, Roll this hegemonic sleight of hand was generally successful. For even when their slaves rejected this claim and resisted their masters (as Genovese freely admits they often did), their resistance generally took the form of localized challenges to their owners' authority rather than large-scale, fully theorized collective revolts designed to overthrow slavery itself. In Genovese's formulation, and this is the heart of the argument, slowing down, playing sick, mouthing off, burning down buildings, and, even, assaulting and murdering masters and overseers did not weaken the authority of the slaveholders, but actually strengthened it. This because, first, these types of resistance formulated the problem of slavery as a problem that occurred upon an individual plantation or farm and between a master or overseer and a slave--they localized, personalized, and naturalized what Genovese believes could only be properly understood as a hemispheric system of class exploitation. And, second, because they bled away resistance energy that might have otherwise gathered into the collective fury of revolution. Day-to-day resistance to slavery was, by this argument, at best a "prepolitical" or even "apolitical" form of "accommodation," and at worst "pathetic nihilism."(598, 659).
Whatever else this is, it is not an argument that denies enslaved people's agency or the frequency of their daily resistance. It is, however, an argument that seems to me to be predicated upon (at least) three faulty premises: first, the idea that there was not a revolutionary aspiration among North American slaves; second, the notion that this alleged failure to revolt must somehow be explained in reference to the slaves' own culture rather than the balance of force in the society--by reference, that is, to "hegemony" rather than simple "rule"; and, third, that there is a contradiction rather than a continuum between individual and collective acts of resistance.
The basic question out of which Roll, Jordan, Roll unfolds its discussion of hegemony is this: why didn't North American slaves revolt more? And the analysis that follows is developed comparatively. The revolts associated with Gabriel (1800 in Richmond, Virginia), Denmark Vesey (1822 in Charleston, South Carolina), and Nat Turner (1831 in Southampton County, Virginia) do not, in Genovese's view, compare favorably in their "size, frequency, intensity, or general historical significance" to revolts in the Caribbean and South America (588). And perhaps that is right.
But if we think a bit more broadly about what constitutes a slave revolt and what indexes historical importance, I think we're led to a different conclusion about the "revolutionary tradition" among North American slaves. Part of the problem is that many of the North American revolts have been defined out of the mainstream narrative of American history. And I don't just mean the 1811 revolt in Louisiana, which Genovese mentions, or the countless smaller uprisings like that aboard the slave ship Creole in 1841, which he ignores. I mean big, history-making military conflagrations: like the Seminole Wars, like the American Revolution, like the Civil War. These events have entered the nation's historical record under different headings, but they were all profoundly (and at various turns decisively) shaped by the self-willed actions, both military and otherwise, of black slaves fighting for freedom, of slave rebels. It doesn't seem a stretch to say that if we apply to the history of American slavery the terms that are conventionally applied to political and military history--that it is good politics and good strategy to take advantage of schisms in the structure of rule in order to advance a cause--then we've got to begin to think very differently about both the standard historical narrative of the United States and about the revolutionary tradition of American slaves.
I'd further argue that thinking about the military history of American slavery can clarify our thinking about hegemony. If the question driving the discussion is about the comparative absence of slave revolts in North America, accepting for a moment the terms in which Genovese defines a slave "revolt," then doesn't it make sense to look at the balance of forces on the ground before asserting a tradition of "nonrevolutionary self-assertion" among Southern slaves? Speaking strictly from a tactical standpoint, the balance of power between slaves and slaveholders in the United States was strikingly different from that which characterized the Caribbean and South America--the ratio of white to black was higher, holdings were smaller and more spread out, and the territorial sovereignty of the United States (a nation committed by a Constitutional clause drafted in the shadow of the Seminole Wars to the suppression of "domestic insurrections") was almost unimaginably vast. Indeed, this balance of power was continually made clear to enslaved people through the periodic outbursts of vigilante and state terror that historians have labeled "slave revolt scares," events that make the history of the antebellum slaveholding look like a counterinsurgency effort against a widespread, mobile, and, yes, vast enslaved conspiracy. Add to this episodic but continual military campaigning the daily violence through which slaveholders enforced their dominance over reluctant slaves, and it seems hard to argue that Southern slaveholders ever transformed rule into consent--that they ever, in the final instance, succeeded in ruling by anything other than force. It seems, indeed, hard to argue that they ever tried.
There is finally the question of the relationship of individual to collective acts of resistance--a question which has a much clearer formulation in Roll, Jordan, Roll than it has had in much subsequent discussion. It does seem to me to be desperately important to maintain this distinction and to think as hard about it as Genovese did. Breaking a hoe and being Nat Turner are not equivalent manifestations of human agency in either their causes or their consequences. Genovese formulates the relationship between these two types of resistance as being one of contradiction, thus missing the historical effect of day-to-day resistance in enabling collective resistance among American slaves. For it was through day-to-day resistance that enslaved people could come to know and trust one another--that they could figure out who to depend on and who to avoid as they talked about ideas and plans which could cost them their lives. Perhaps more importantly, it was through day-to-day resistance that they flushed the character of the slaveholders' rule out into the open. All of the whips and chains and bits, all of the jails and smokehouses and slave pens, all of the threats and laws and passes: all of these were made necessary by the fact that slaveholders knew that they weren't exercising hegemony but fighting something that sometimes looked a lot more like a war. By resisting slavery everyday, slaves, especially those who carried their own scars and stories to the North with them when they ran away, made visible the historical character of the institution, and made possible the formulation of the alliance that eventually brought about its (revolutionary) demise.