The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860 by Eugene D. Genovese (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992), Pp. ix, 116.

Professor Emeritus Eugene D. Genovese argues in this short but convincing collection of essays that the southern failure to recognize, as did northern abolitionists, the essential contradiction slavery posed to American republicanism cannot be attributed to a deficiency of southern intellectualism or shallow political theory. Thomas Ruffin, James Henley Thornwell and John C. Calhoun constituted, as Genovese contends, some of the brightest American minds; in political jurisprudence, theology, and even political philosophy, southern intellectuals held their own against northern antagonists. And southerners saw no problem intrinsic to the idea of progress with regard to the slavery question. “The war,” Genovese writes, “in sealing the triumph of the North over the South, also sealed the triumph of the association of freedom and progress over an alternate reading” (10). In other terms, the South’s “peculiar institution”—the glaring contradiction of republican ideals forged during the American Founding—was not so problematic to southerners, and Genovese attributes this guilt-free national consciousness not to pure ignorance, but a legitimate intellectual, political, and philosophical system rooted in southerners’ fascination with order and conservatism unique to the Middle Ages. Southerners viewed themselves as purveyors of a more legitimate Western tradition, saw their understanding of modernity as healthy, and attempted to articulate their positions in a manner not reactionary, but foundational to the progress (writ large) of society (27). The idea that contradictions in southerners’ understandings of history and hope for social progress, easily legible in our age, were not so apparent in the years leading up to war guides the trajectory of this work.

In the narrative of histories produced by Genovese, this stands eminent in the sense that unlike previous works defined by Marxist themes, this one devotes great attention to the idea of moral progress, which Genovese identifies as a theme which occupied the thoughts of most southern intellectuals on the eve of the Civil War. Religious and ecclesiastical division stood centripetal to the issue of moral progress in the pre-war years, and Genovese, like other historians, pays particular attention to the rhetoric of southern and northern divines. Political theory does not emerge in this work as a serious theme until the second chapter, when Genovese treats Calhoun more seriously and explores more deeply how the idea of slavery emerged, politically, as a “positive good” in the southern consciousness as an attempt to confront the “widening gap between many of [southerners’] cherished ideas and the exigencies of governing and defending their slaveholding society” (46). But Genovese explores thoroughly the idea of religion, noting that issues of theology and ecclesiology “cannot be reduced to a projected ideological reflex of sociopolitical differences” (36). Genovese’s attempt to elucidate nuances of the debates between northern and southern divines—in religious historiography of the American Civil War—stands as the precursor to historian Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, which Noll dedicates to Genovese. The pursuit of moral progress and the search for an ideal social, religious, and political model took on a messianic character in the years leading up to the war; both the North and the South viewed their societies as most “in touch” with Christendom and as the purest heirs of a Christian social order. To southerners, northerners who exhibited such a distaste for the “heresies of liberal theology,” popular egalitarianism, the “mounting assault on authority,” a fear for the future of the West, and the “perverse doctrines of the Enlightenment,” simultaneously failed to identify the source of these problems: the system of free labor, responsible for “breed[ing] egotism and extol[ed] personal license at the expense of “God-ordained” authority (37).

Ultimately, the South found itself confronted by several realities diametrically opposed to its idea of progress and social preservation. Political reform in Europe, especially the British elimination of slavery, cast a dark shadow on the prospects of the South’s peculiar institution. William J. Grayson, a southern “man of letters,” was one of many who saw—perhaps most clearly—the South’s impending crisis, forecasting that secession and war could only result in the extinction of a uniquely southern way of life (71). Put another way, circumstances in the Western world simply did not align with southerners’ hopes. Political developments, the fragmentation of Protestant Christendom, and the rise of free labor in open markets culminated in a giant wave that rolled inexorably toward the South, illuminating the fallacy of a social progress rooted in freedom but bent on a system devised to downplay that very thing to an entire group of people.

Texas Christian University                                                                  Mitchell G. Klingenberg


The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860. By Eugene D. Genovese. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

     In The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860, distinguished historian Eugene D. Genovese analyzes the intellectual life of the Old South and reveals the proslavery worldview to be more complex than most contemporary scholars assume. Although their contributions are rarely regarded with esteem in the twenty-first century, Genovese proves that the academic minds of the Old South were as talented if not more so than their northern counterparts in many fields, including political theory, literature, philosophy, and theology. Indeed, Genovese asserts that “the stubborn refusal of most American historians to take seriously the intellectual life of the Old South has gravely weakened our ability to assess the strength of the proslavery cause and account for its depth throughout the South” (3). In contrast to the stereotyped image of a backwards culture raging against modern material progress and technological advancements, southern sages enthusiastically supported the transportation and communication revolutions. In newspapers and pamphlets across the region, radical fire-eaters argued for expanded southern industrialization as a defense against northern economic domination.

     Although the leading minds of the South recognized the inherent weaknesses of slavery, many believed it provided the social stability necessary for a propertied aristocratic class to maintain republican institutions. In their eyes, the chaotic and exploitative nature of unrestricted capitalism could only end in a violent revolt of the laboring classes and the extinction of Western civilization. The terror of the French Revolution and later socialist revolutions in Europe horrified many observers in the South. As Genovese observes, Southern theorists remained convinced that “The free market, once extended to labor-power, must end in perpetual civil war or the installation of despotism, but progress depended upon the expansion of that very free market (18).” Although many southern leaders assumed that slavery would gradually die as free labor become cheaper than bondage, others, including fire-eater Edmund Ruffin, contended that it should be maintained in perpetuity and refused to consider any thought of adopting the successful economic structure of the North. In response to the growing strength of the international abolitionist movement and radical democracy, southern slaveholders found justification for their peculiar institution in ancient and biblical history. As Genovese notes, “For good reason Abraham loomed as the principal Old Testament figure among the slaveholders, much as Moses did among the slaves. Abraham was, in their oft-expressed view, simultaneously a great slaveholder and God’s favored patriarch of a household that included his many slaves” (38).   

     The Slaveholders’ Dilemma is a brief and concise work based upon Genovese’s remarks delivered at the Averitt Lecture Series at Georgia Southern University. However, despite its limited size, the volume contains more scholarly impact than what otherwise might be expected.  The material presented relies largely on research conducted throughout Genovese’s long career, and aspects of the arguments included in The Slaveholders’ Dilemma are reexamined more fully in Genovese’s other publications. The book is an excellent addition to the intellectual history of the Old South, but it is far too complex for many undergraduate students to understand and therefore would be of more use to southern historians at the graduate level.

     The final chapter in the book chronicles the inability of the South to resolve its contradictions peacefully, symbolized in the rise and fall of South Carolina politician James Henry Hammond. Hammond, a political student of John C. Calhoun, began his career as a passionate supporter of states’ rights, yet eventually counseled against secession when sectional tensions reached a breaking point in the 1850s. Hammond’s slow decline in status and health ended in the midst of a civil war he had in many ways helped to create. Before his death, Hammond confessed that he had lived too long, and as Genovese concludes, “In his heart he felt the paralyzing truth: His beloved southern slave society had also lived too long” (107). Ultimately, the dilemma of maintaining material progress within a stagnant slaveholding economic structure proved unsolvable to Southerners.

Steven Nathaniel Dossman

The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860.  By Eugene D. Genovese. Columbia, SC.:  University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

        Eugene Genovese, professor emeritus of southern history at Emory University, in 1992, compiled a series of lectures he had given at Georgia Southern University into a book.  The book entitled The Slaveholders’ Dilemma is an exploration into the intellectual justifications formulated by southern intellectuals for the institution of slavery.  The author explores the thought of authors, writers, and statesmen that included individuals like Thomas Dew, John C. Calhoun, and James Henry Hammond.  The  common thread that ran through the thinking of these men was that a free society could not flourish without the existence of slavery.  Genovese spends the majority of his narrative describing how these individuals attempted to reconcile these two competing conceptions.

        Southern intellectuals celebrated the material progress that marked the first half of the nineteenth century.  Calhoun and others recognized that the Industrial Revolution had benefited both American and European societies by the wealth it had generated.  In addition, many southern thinkers extolled the technological advances that accompanied the expansion of industry.  The expansion of American capitalism, in the opinion of southern elites, signaled a process of historical progression as the country advanced into modernity.  However, these same southerners were concerned by societal forces that were unleashed as a result of an expanding capitalist system. 

       Southern leaders began to question the free labor systems that capitalist societies relied upon.  A free labor force, which the nascent capitalist economies of Western Europe and the northern section of the United States relied upon, provided opportunities for inherent class conflicts.  Workers, who were left to the unfettered forces of the market place, might find themselves dispossessed in the event of an economic recession.  The working masses, fueled by class envy and economic hardship, might attack the interests of the propertied upper and middle classes. Societal harmony and order would shatter as these conflicts escalated.  Southern intellectuals thought that the solution for these class conflicts could be found in the antebellum era slave system.

       Southern slavery, leaders like Calhoun and Dew maintained, eliminated the clashes between labor and capital.  Southerners, with the existence of the peculiar institution, did not confront the chronic labor shortages that plagued the industrializing North.  In addition, southern slaveholders concluded that their system of bonded labor actually mitigated the destructive byproducts of nineteenth century capitalism.  Slaveholders, endowed with paternalistic feelings towards their slaves, would never allow their charges to become victims of an unregulated marketplace.  Slavery solved the problems attendant to the rise of nineteenth century capitalism.  Slaveholders believed that freedom could only arise from a society that embraced order.

        Genovese produces an interesting piece of scholarship.  He highlights the inherent tension that existed in the minds of southern intellectuals.  These individuals attempted to reconcile conflicting ideologies of freedom and progress which were based upon slavery.  The author utilized numerous writings produced by southern intellectuals to construct his narrative.

        Nevertheless, the work is deeply flawed. Genovese’s analysis remains distinctly rooted in Marxism and was probably dated even when the work first appeared in 1992.  The author also fails to prove a contention that is central to the book.  In his introduction, Genovese says he wants provide an answer as to why slavery retained such a strong hold over the South.  His work shows the impact that southern intellectuals had on the planter class. However, the author never explains if these justifications ever found an audience among other defenders of slavery like the yeoman farmers. This oversight raises many questions which Genovese fails to answer.

Robert H. Butts


The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern  Conservative Thought, 1820-1860. By Eugene D. Genovese. Columbia:  University of South Carolina,  1992. IBSN 0872497836. E449 G3725.

 Eugene Genovese’s inaugural presentations at the Averitt Lecture Series at Georgia Southern University, focusing on the intellectual basis of Southern slavery, became The Slaveholder’s Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860. Genovese suggested that American intellectual historians had for too long accepted as fact the “bigoted nonsense” (first advanced by New Englanders) that held Southerners in low intellectual esteem when, in many instances, Southern intellectuals matched and, at times, exceeded the best that Northerners offered. (p.2)  Entering the study with an open mind led to the conclusion that the pro-slavery argument was not merely the shabby rationale of a corrupt system but a worldview buttressed by profound considerations of the great issues of the day.

Thesis: The slaveholders dilemma was that they wanted to preserve liberty and continue progress while promoting slavery as the foundation for freedom. Southerners saw a similarity of concerns with the North over the growing social and political abominations of egalitarianism and the perversions of the Enlightenment that led to the French Revolution. However, the North failed to recognize that the root cause of assaults on social order was a system of free labor that bred egotism and gave free license to challenge authority and that only the restoration of servitude could arrest the destabilizing process. Thomas Roderick Dew’s “A Digest of the Laws, Customs, Manners and Institutions of the Ancient and Modern Nations” (1852) encapsulated Southern fears of anarchy arising from the refusal of the masses to submit peacefully when economic freedom failed to expand sufficiently to match political freedom, suggesting that the intrusion of the lower classes into politics could not be sustained outside of a class-stratified system or its racial equivalent.
Genovese began with a general discussion of the intellectual pillars of American slavery. Southerners accepted the advances of the age, recognizing moral progress in a quantitative, not qualitative, sense; material progress achieved through the industrial revolution; and political progress in individual liberties achieved through republican institutions. Because they also saw risks inherent in those changes, particularly the threat of instability, they emphasized the importance of the rule of law and the stabilizing effects of feudalism in which lords provided for serf welfare. The triumphs of the bourgeoisie in economic and political liberty severed the lord-serf relationship, throwing the free working masses into an economic jungle to live an animal-like existence of privation, exploitation, starvation, and loneliness.
The South, because of its system of slavery, became the immediate heir to the healthy elements of medieval life, offering a bastion against the bourgeois perversion of society that had brought forth the horrors of the French Revolution. Southern social theory stressed a feudal-like duty of the aristocracy to assume responsibility for the laboring classes through involuntary servitude, postulating a ‘Christian Slavery’ (39). In that light slavery became a positive force that grounded the social order, allowing progress without disruption and providing the foundation of stability. In addition, slavery promoted real human progress by releasing superior people from the drudgery of labor, enabling them to cultivate their talents and spur the progress of Western civilization.
The core of Southern theory, beliefs in duty and the rule of law, rested on a repudiation of natural rights. Southern intellectuals asserted that freedom had no meaning apart from the social organization necessary to secure it, no context apart from societal restraints, including the Abramic household that included slavery. Albert Taylor Bledsoe, a significant Southern intellectual, pushed that position to its limit. He argued that Blackstone, and almost all theorists of the day, believed that law restrained man from mischief, thereby diminishing natural liberty in favor of rational life. Bledsoe argued that law did not restrain liberty, that it created it, that law was not a limitation but a recognition of a duty imposed by God, including the duty to protect blacks, who could not compete in the free market and who would suffer the same fate as Indians. In that perspective slaveholders become not oppressors but benefactors.
William H. Trescot and James Henry Hammond, two powerful South Carolinians, stressed that the North posed the greatest threat to the nation’s survival. Trescot identified Southern slavery, with its contented and controlled slaves, as the foundation of aristocratic republicanism that drove progress in the modern world while the North remained a threat to international law and comity due to the growth in political power of the laboring masses. James Henry Hammond, while praising the knowledge that produced new commerce and manufacturers, excoriated the bourgeois realignment of society and the Enlightenment, suggesting that the impending social crisis would compel Northern adoption of some form of slavery, ending hostility to the South.

Harold Rich

The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860. By Eugene D. Genovese.  (Jack N. and Addie D. Averitt Lecutre Series, 1990.) Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press. 1992. xvii + 116.

 In reading The Slaveholders’s Dilemma, one sees the former Marxist at work in his indictment of the inherent “contradictions” of conservative pro-slavery thought in the four decades preceding the Civil War. While Genovese presents no overt Marxist jargon or ideology, his methodology and search for the underlying economic and class dimensions of his subject reflect his past. Genovese’s discussion of “bourgeois and traditional conservatives,”  the political economy of the South, and his identification of race as “the functional equivalent of class” also demonstrate to some extent the intellectual origins of his thought (xvii).

 This much said, these origins provide a sound framework for his analysis and withering critique of the philosophical underpinnings of  the slaveholding system. Although this book’s thesis (and even title) promises an attack, its tone and substance is respectful. While many previous scholars and most historiography of the period have dismissed Southern intellectuals, Genovese rails against this view as “bigoted nonsense.” In identifying this trend, the author’s first critique is of the Emersons and Adamses, “who announced that Southerners had no minds, only temperments (2).”

 Genovese then describes the achievements of Southerners who “matched or overmatched” the New Englanders in diverse intellectual undertakings, from political theory to astronomy (2-3). Since most of these thinkers defended slavery and the South lost the war, Genovese finds it unsurprising that the achievements Southern intellectuals have been “expunged from our memory (4).” This marginalization of Southern intellectuals provides the reasoning behind the writing of The Slaveholders’Dilemma.  Because of this marginalization, we have never been able to understand the depth of the pro-slavery cause. Not merely “the shabby rational of an oppressive social order (although it is that as well),” it was also “the pillar of a worldview of the great social, political, religious economic and philosophical issues of the day.” For us today (minus the racism and defense of slavery), they form “a searing critique of some of the most dangerous tendencies in modern life (3).”

 Having rehabilitated to some extent the defenders of slavery, Genovese proceeds to dismantle them. Their basic “dilemma” regards the idea of progress and freedom and their  relationship to conservatism and to society in the South.  “Progress,” if expressed in terms of the great wealth generated in the North by the market revolution, and also expressed in a similar direction taken by England and Western Europe, seemed to relegate the agricultural and slave South to poverty and stagnation. The dilemma involves maintaining, or even having material progress, without paying the social costs of change. The notion of “freedom” also presents a similar dilemma. While acknowledging the “progress” of democracy and Capitalism over the feudal relations, they regretted the destruction of the old social ties that had ordered medieval society.

 Genovese focuses on a several key thinkers in his exposition of Southern conservative thought. Thomas R. Dew, George Fitzhue, John C. Calhoun, James Henry Hammond and William H. Trescot are examined and contrasted in some detail.  Their larger views are linked to thought throughout the South, at least in general terms. Slavery, or a stratified society, is seen as a natural and necessary part of progress. For Dew, “moral, intellectual and material progress depended on special talents of individuals (15),” who naturally rise above the others. That a race exists to provide an underclass is a fortunate circumstance (James Henry Hammond), enabling the superior class to pursue its productive leisure (85).

 Northern example also stimulated and provided much ammunition for the slave owners’ critique. “Free” labor was chaotic, the unpredictablilty of the marketplace inherently destablizing. Both affected society and drove the decay of traditional values in the North. Man (or money), not God, became the measure of all things.  The example of Northern Europe provided a different stimulation and sense of foreboding.  Revolutions in 1789, 1830 and especially 1848, seemed to many the fulfillment of ideological, if not Biblical prophecy (31). Some linked this idea with abolition, pitting slaveholding Christian society against a Northern and abolitionist Antichrist.

 Genovese also finds an interesting wrinkle in the proslavery argument accounting perhaps for a measure of  his sympathy for Southern conservative thinkers. In their critique of Northern free-market political economy, some Southern thinkers advocated a cradle-to-grave security for the lower classes, suggestive of  Marxist ideas. While whites might be expected to take their chances in the free market, the lower classes (and especially blacks) needed protection (56-57). The critique of Northern market system economics is similar in much of its substance to the Marxist critique soon developed in Europe. While capable of creating great wealth, the market system also evidenced great injustice and instability.

 In summation (abstracting  Trescott), Genovese relates the Southern conservative worldview: “The South had stratified and harmonious social relations, while the North, wallowing in an illusion of equality, had brutally antagonistic and oppressive social relations. (82).” Contented slaves contrasted favorably with a dangerous and chaotic free labor system in the North.  Slavery might pass away if the market made free-labor less expensive than slavery. The South is a moral bulwark against the decay of values due to changes wrought by Capitalism. The North should tolerate and value the South for the advantages of its system, much like the different states of Europe tolerated each others different social and political systems.

 The slaveowners never solved their dilemma. Genovese’s sympathetic and respectful treatment of his subject is still a scathing indictment, but we understand his subject and its depth in ways seldom expressed before. Conservative Southern thinkers, while defending a reprehensible system, did make substantive comment on the issues of the day. Understanding them does help us account for the depth of Southern commitment to their system and fear of change.

Paul Schmelzer