Title: The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South
Author: Eugene Genovese
Categories: Slavery, Economy, Marxism, Production, Ideology, Slaveholding
Place: The American South
Time Period: 1800-1861
Eugene Genovese argues that slavery formed the basis for an entire society in the South, one that was premodern, antibourgeois, and fundamentally at odds with the modern capitalist society of the North. More than just an economic system, slavery was deeply wrapped up in ideology, morality, psychology, and the social fabric of the South. He takes on early-20th century revisionists who argued that slavery was tangential and that the Civil War was an avoidable mistake, instead arguing that slavery was so central to the class identity of Southern slaveholding elites that war was all but inevitable and that, from the perspective of Southerners, resistance to the North was entirely rational and in their own way courageous and honorable in the face of the alternative: their entire world collapsing around them.
Genovese makes several smaller claims through a series of essays. First, he argues that slavery kept the South from industrializing (keeping it premodern) and that slave labor itself was not particularly productive. Due in part to international demand, slave societies in the South turned away from possibilities for long-term growth (diversification, fostering a home market, entrepreneurialism). Industrialism in the South, rather than representing an alternative to plantation slavery, actually was subservient to the ruling planter class and served to prop up the system. Even something like instituting agricultural reform to combat soil depletion was hamstrung because it would necessarily mean a shift away from slave labor (ideologically impossible for the ruling master class to consider). Finally, Genovese argues that far from reaching its "natural limits" by the Civil War, slavery required western expansion to survive - economically to maintain the interregional slave trade that tied the system together, politically to maintain the balance of state power in Congress, and ideologically because agreeing to limitations would mean they also agreed that slavery itself was immoral.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Slavery as basis for a class identity that is premodern and antibourgeois
- Civil War as essentially "irrepressible"
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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