THE RULING CLASS: A History of American Slaveholders by James Oakes

THE RULING CLASS: A History of American Slaveholders

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We now know more about the slaves' inner world than that of the slaveholders, Purdue historian Oakes begins--as if the two were equivalent states of existence. And there are times when his account of slaveholder nurturance, and such, does almost seem a parody of slave-studies. But Oakes has two big, if quite different, points to make. Both derive from the recognized fact ""that while the majority of slaves lived on units with more than twenty bondsmen, the majority of slaveholders owned five slaves or less."" Thus the traditional emphasis on plantation culture--and Oakes' opportunity to call it atypical. That, in essence, is his first point--elaborated in terms of the diversity among slaveholders (ethnically, occupationally, geographically) and the predominance, not of the plantation elite, but of a restless, crudely materialistic, westward-migrating middle class. Hence, Oakes writes, the slatternly ways ""that struck so many observers."" Hence also the attraction of evangelical Protestantism--whose attacks on materialism ""served as a psychological medium through which masters expressed their misgivings about bondage."" (Of Oakes' many slaveholder biographies, and excerpts from journals and letters, the most telling material concerns slaveholder guilt.) That such middle-class predominance was not only numerical constitutes, in effect, his second point--a challenge to the popular notion of Southern gentility, to the historical idea of a planter ""ruling class,"" and (of primary importance here) to Eugene Genovese's ""paternalist"" interpretation of 19th-century slaveholding. In the first two instances, one can readily say that the point is well taken--but not original with Oakes. (Cyrus Eaton's standard histories of the Old South and W. J. Cash's classic The Mind of the South both controvert the Cavalier/ruling class image.) Of Oakes' challenge to Genovese's concept of slaveholder paternalism (as a system of class power based on mutual identification and reciprocal obligation), one can only say, briefly, that he makes a good case for the weakening of the paternalist ethos with the rise of Jacksonian democracy and a competitive flee-market economy. But he is far from the first, also, to differ with Genovese--on economic, political, and racial grounds (see Kenneth Stampp, George Fredrickson). Probably the book's greatest problem indeed (apart from a want of subtlety) is Oakes' eagerness to stake out an independent position, to present an ostensibly ""revisionist"" thesis--without indicating the shades of thinking among other historians. As a documentation of slaveholder diversity, it does much better.

Pub Date: April 22nd, 1982
Publisher: Knopf