William Kauffman Scarborough. Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. xviii + 521 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-2882-4.
Reviewed by Matthew E. Mason (Department of History, Brigham Young University)
Published on H-South (August, 2004)
The Planters'-Eye View
The fruit of decades of labor, Masters of the Big House is a valuable study of an important group in Southern and American history, the very wealthiest antebellum planters. Scarborough did heroic research just to identify who the elite planters (those who held more than 250 slaves) were, attending to what many historians have previously missed: many of these men and women owned plantations and slaves in more than one county or state (he describes his painstaking method of identification on pp. 3-5). And this was just the start of his research, for he then carried on an exhaustive study of these planters' papers at various archives throughout the South. The result is a richly detailed description of about every imaginable facet of the Southern elites' lives.
With such detail, this book yields several important and fascinating factual and interpretive nuggets. One example is a table on page 8, in which Scarborough lays out the state of residence as well as the state of nativity of 322 of his total sample of 339 elite planters. This table is telling on several levels, for example, in pointing to the Upper South's relative decline in affluence and importance within the South (only 11 of these 322 lived in Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky combined). To take just one more example, at various points Scarborough paints an intriguing picture of the cotton nabobs of Natchez, Mississippi, revealing them to be a significant exception to various assumptions about Southern planters. These planter capitalists displayed very little interest in state or national politics before the Civil War, and tended to oppose secession in 1860-1861 and maintain their Unionism throughout the Civil War. They serve a useful purpose for Scarborough, underlining his good and repeated point that this class was no political monolith (pp. 242, 276, 280).
Of course, it is to be expected that any book of this scope and magnitude will raise as well as answer many questions. Some of mine include, first: Scarborough calculates that only 27.5% of the elite planters held more than 250 slaves as calculated by both the 1850 and 1860 censuses. But he offers no explanation for why that number would have been so low.
Second, he demonstrates that the antebellum planter elite shared a belief that God was "the omnipotent regulator of human affairs," and emphasized the religious duty to submit to His will (p. 19; see also p. 60). This is a marked contrast to the beliefs of Virginia tobacco planters in the late eighteenth century, for whom, as T. H. Breen has written, "fatalism was foreign to their outlook." Indeed, in 1766 one frustrated clergyman grumbled that these planters believed that God's "affairs would be better managed if they might be entrusted with the direction of them"! What might explain this difference?
A third question relates to putting these planters in comparative perspective. Scarborough offers an accounting of the vast wealth some of the elite planters attained, as measured by the vast numbers of slaves they held (which for some exceeded 1,000), their yearly incomes, the valuation of their estates, and the size and grandeur of their plantation homes (pp. 13, 16, 136-37, 152). But aside from the first measure, all this fairly cries out for some sense of how their income, wealth, and mansions stacked up to those of, say, the wealthiest Northerners or Europeans. This would help establish the significance of Scarborough's detailed relation of various individuals' riches.
Some of the most interesting and valuable chapters in this book describe the elite planters' responses to events surrounding the Civil War. Chapters 9 and 10 are rich with forceful descriptions of the bitterness of the planters' demise as a class in the wake of military defeat and forcible emancipation. Chapters 7 and 8 depict the various stances these planters took during the sectional crisis of the 1850s and the secession crisis. But Scarborough makes some highly debatable assertions along the way, including characterizing the events of the 1850s as "the First Sectional Crisis" (p. 238), which is of a piece with his declaration that U.S. acquisitions in the Mexican War "rekindled the debate over the expansion of slavery that had been allayed for a generation by the Missouri Compromise" (p. 260). Such statements seem to me to overlook far too many sectional crises to hold much water. Furthermore, he asserts but does not prove that elite slaveholders played "a pivotal role" in the sectional debates between 1850 and 1861 (p. 274)--indeed, his own evidence suggests the relatively limited role they played in national politics in the U.S. and then in the secession conventions and Confederate governments (see e.g. pp. 299-300). In short, Scarborough's chapters on the elite planters as political men are valuable mainly for their illumination of how events impacted them, rather than shedding much light on those events themselves.
In an earlier passage, he highlights one of this class's characteristics which surely increased its members' pain during these sectional controversies. He shows that these cosmopolitan planters were "bound closely to the outside world--particularly the Northeast and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe" (pp. 28-29). These were the epicenters of antislavery sentiment in the antebellum years, of course, and the elite planter class therefore could not insulate themselves from slavery's proscription in the wider world. Not that caring about this larger world led many of them to question their commitment to slavery, Scarborough cautions, for the elite planters "had no doubt about the morality of the institution" (p. 417).
The latter point is one of several historiographical controversies on which Scarborough weighs-in. Usually he takes one side or the other rather than offering boldly original interpretations, but this does clarify much of the significance of this work. He throws his weight behind Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, for instance, in declaring that while elite planter women "lived in a patriarchal society," in truth "slaves in the antebellum South were oppressed; the wives and daughters of those who owned them were not" (p. 91). He enters more extensively into the long-standing debate over whether the planters of the Old South were capitalists or pre-capitalist paternalists. He rightly points out that an espousal of paternalist ideology by no means excludes the capitalist pursuit of profit, but on the whole presents the elite planters as inveterate profit-maximizers with diverse portfolios. After detailing their various modes of securing income and wealth, he asks, if such characters "were not capitalists, what mid-nineteenth-century American was" (p. 410; for his case in this regard, see ch. 4, 6, 11)? Scarborough treads more lightly through the scholarly dispute over the degree to which the Old South's planters maintained their status as planters into the New South. His evidence seems to suggest that many prospered not so much as planters as in other lines of work; while previously their other capital investments seem to have supplemented planting, after the Civil War it seems to been vice versa (see p. 394-399).
Perhaps this book's greatest contribution, however, is that Scarborough treats the elite planters as people. He paints the full range of their human experience, and repeatedly argues that in most essential ways they were like other people of their or any time (see pp. 20, 44-51, 64-65). While this may not seem terribly earth-shattering, it is valuable to see filthy-rich slaveholders presented neither as monsters nor as slaveholders only. The full tragedy of slavery is actually lost when the slaveholders appear as cardboard cut-outs, just as the complexity and significance of any history is lost when populated only by demons and heroes.
There are times, however, when Scarborough seems to be identifying a bit too much with his subjects. Perhaps this is a result of his immersion in their papers. But at various points, he uses the planters' terms as his own--so that one planter "began to stock [his plantation] with additional Negroes" (p. 141); another was "hardest hit" by a cholera epidemic, as he "lost more than 100 slaves" (p. 147); other planters dealt kindly with "their black charges" or "their black wards" (pp. 181, 184); and so on. Scarborough's use of the term "Negro" as his own (which he does throughout) is thus symptomatic of the larger issue of writing from the planter elite's own viewpoint. Chapter 5, entitled "Toiling for Old 'Massa': Slave Labor on the Great Plantations," is similarly written from a planter's-eye view. Of course he recognizes the brutality of slavery. But the balance of this chapter is telling: pages 175-206 describe the elite planters' sincere efforts to rule benevolently over their slaves, while pages 206-216 describe some of the harshness of slavery on the big plantations. And the latter passage focuses almost entirely on slave "offenses" which produced such harsh treatment. Scarborough shows glimmers of detachment from the planter point of view (see pp. 205-206), and recognizes "that the manuscript sources upon which this study is based are more likely to yield examples of benevolent concern" than planters' cruelty (p. 194). But he makes no effort to supplement those sources with the voices of the slaves themselves, content instead to speculate--or take the planters' word--on how they received their masters' paternalist gestures (see e.g., p. 200). Certainly no one can fault Scarborough on the amount of research he did on this book. But a one-sided view of any relationship is inevitably narrow and flawed, and that is essentially what we have here.
Along these same lines, his take on Reconstruction has a remarkably old-fashioned feel to it, and not in a good way. He chides "current historians" for putting too "benign" a face on Reconstruction, given that it created nothing but a "painful memory" for the planters he studied (p. 399). And in a passage that could have been written a hundred years ago, he describes how these planters' "wounds ... worsened when the Negro became a political pawn of the Radical Republicans" (p. 404).
In the final analysis, then, this is a monumental work which should provoke a great deal of discussion for its strengths and weaknesses, its contributions and its lacunae. Indeed, its greatest strength--seeing the planters on their own terms--is also its greatest weakness.
. T. H. Breen, Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 60.
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Matthew E. Mason. Review of Scarborough, William Kauffman, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South.
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