Jeffrey Robert Young. Domesticating Slavery: The Master Class in Georgia and South Carolina, 1670-1837. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. xii + 336 pp. $49.95 (cloth) ISBN 0-8078-2490-9; $18.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-4776-3; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2490-0.
Reviewed by Robert H. Gudmestad (Department of History, Southwest Baptist University)
Published on H-South (August, 2000)
A Complex of Opposites
A Complex of Opposites
The theologian John Calvin tried to explain the inherent difficulties in Christianity with the idea of the "complex of opposites." He used this idea to reconcile contradictory concepts such as free will and predestination. Jeffrey Young tries to do much the same thing with slavery--a subject that has spawned almost as much fiery debate over dogma as did the Reformation. The two camps in slavery's case revolve around the positions of Eugene Genovese and James Oakes. The former has argued for a paternalistic, organic, and pre-capitalistic interpretation of slavery while the latter has stressed the exploitative, capitalistic, and acquisitive nature of the institution. It has been left to legions of puzzled graduate students in seminars to reconcile the two poles.
Jeffrey Young has stepped into the fray and proposes to settle the dispute by providing some middle ground in the debate. His book, Domesticating Slavery: The Master Class in Georgia and South Carolina, 1670-1837, is an engaging and well-presented synthesis of scholarship and thinking in this most contentious of debates. Eschewing the two older paradigms as outmoded, Young proposes that historians start thinking of southern white conceptions of slavery in terms of "corporate individualism." (p. 9) This idea includes an organic conception of slavery that stressed the relational aspects of slavery while simultaneously subordinating the slaves' individuality. In other words, the new thinking about slavery was flexible enough to stress slavery's benign nature while not denying its evident brutality.
Young argues that colonial masters had no time and little use for the paternalistic side of the equation. A deeply racist conception of African slaves as subhuman blunted the development of any benevolent feelings towards their workforce. Masters strengthened their grip on their labor source by resisting any meddling by Christian missionaries or British authorities.
The American Revolution, however, changed things. With the spread of democracy, individualism, and republicanism, masters could no longer dismiss their slaves as beasts. They developed a hierarchical and patriarchal view of their bondservants. Masters now viewed their slaves as child-like dependents who needed protection and moral instruction. The growth of this organic side of the master-slave relationship enabled owners to justify the peculiar institution to the rest of the world. Young convincingly demonstrates that if masters wanted to continue their thriving trade with Europe, they felt compelled to develop some type of apologia for slavery. Thus, by the early nineteenth century the idea of corporate individualism developed as a means to reconcile the apparent contradictions of bondage.
Corporate individualism gained strength over time as southerners became more conscious of slavery's rejection by the rest of the world. As slave owners realized the implications of their minority status within the United States, they promoted corporate individualism. It became a means to present the South as a society that cared for its residents--especially slaves--in contrast to the North's exploitation of free labor. Young stresses this fact when he calls the emergent ideology a commodity. The result is that corporate individualism was a self-conscious way to bring unity to the master class while simultaneously questioning the free labor ideology of the North.
Young's book deserves high praise; it is well-written, tightly argued, and admirably researched. The book is a revision of the author's dissertation from Emory University, so a substantial amount of research is to be expected. Young, however, visited fifteen different archives or libraries and sampled innumerable manuscript collections. The heavy research and copious notes are thankfully combined with a jargon free writing style to produce what is, in many ways, model scholarship. This is history that is relevant for historians and deserves readership from the general public. It would be a fine book to assign in upper division courses on Colonial America, the New Nation, or Southern history.
Like all good scholarship, Domesticating Slavery raises a number of questions and leaves some issues turning in the reader's mind. The following discussion is not intended to imply Young should have written a different book; it is meant simply to stimulate discussion and raise issues for further examination. The primary issue deals with the nature of representativeness. A question that naturally comes to mind is whether or not the lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia can be assumed to be representative of the South. Young certainly implies that it is and writes in terms of "southern" attitudes (see pp. 158, 173 for examples). It is unclear whether he is still writing in terms of South Carolina and Georgia or whether he is broadening his argument. It is debatable, however, whether planters in other states adopted the idea of corporate individualism at the same time as their counterparts in the most heavily enslaved part of the country.
White reactions to slave rebellions/conspiracies is particularly relevant here. The citizens of South Carolina responded with particular vengeance against Denmark Vesey and his followers. As Young notes, they tightened control over the slaves in the hopes of preventing any future problems. The reaction in Virginia to Nat Turner, where planning moved to actual rebellion, was different. Whites were certainly vengeful in executing innocent African Americans, but the state legislature openly debated a gradual emancipation scheme. These two very different reactions imply that Virginia and South Carolina, at least, had different conceptions of slavery. Whites in South Carolina could be particularly harsh, while masters in Virginia seemed more willing to stress the organic side of slavery--at least in 1831. Thus an avenue for future research is how much Young's idea of corporate individualism spread to rest of the South and when it did so.
Another idea that bears more scrutiny is the matter of racism. Young correctly presents racism as being the prism through which masters interpreted the actions of their slaves. It limited the full development of an organic relationship because it conditioned masters to think of their slaves in terms of inferiority. Thus racism was a convenient way to reconcile the extremes of slavery and could be brought to bear when necessary. In the second half of the book, however, there is less mention of racism. It is unclear whether Young assumes masters held on to the same racial attitudes (at a time when some of their other attitudes were changing) or whether he sees those ideas as waning in importance. At any rate, the impact of racial attitudes on corporate individualism could be another issue that deserves more attention, especially in light of the "scientific" racism that became more prevalent in the South.
A final observation about the book: it is not slavery from the perspective of the enslaved. Readers who hope to read about slaves' attitudes or efforts to rise above their situation will be disappointed. That the slaves exerted a significant amount of influence on the master-slave relationship cannot be disputed and Young is certainly aware of this fact. He, however, chose not to approach his topic from this perspective. This decision does not weaken the book but raises another interesting question--to what extent did slaves influence the notion of corporate individualism? As slaves converted to Christianity they may have made it easier for their masters to believe in the organic nature of the relationship.
Young's book has promise in providing a new way of synthesizing the various interpretations of slavery. Domesticating Slavery is a pleasure to read, presents significant ideas, and is well grounded in historiography. It remains to be seen whether it can help usher in a reformation in the way we think about slavery.
. Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South. New York: Vintage, 1976; James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders. New York: Vintage, 1983.
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Robert H. Gudmestad. Review of Young, Jeffrey Robert, Domesticating Slavery: The Master Class in Georgia and South Carolina, 1670-1837.
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