A generation ago, in the old “New South,” it was said that the War Between the States was not about slavery so much as about honor and, of course, about a proper understanding of the Constitution. Recalled were the military virtues of Jackson, the moral virtues of Lee, and the intellectual virtues of Calhoun. These, when decoupled from slavery, could be safely celebrated as American values. Whatever truth there was in this position that there were issues at stake other than slavery, it certainly is not the whole truth, or even the most interesting part of the truth of the antebellum South. Because as everyone knows, there existed a slaveholding society from the Potomac to the Rio Grande that sacrificed more than a quarter of a million of its own men on battlefields rather than abandon that institution.
In The Slaveholders’ Dilemma (1992), and again in this most recent book, A Consuming Fire, Eugene Genovese shows that in the contemporary self–understanding of Southerners, their views of states rights, religion, and society were all mixed with slavery. The slave system provided the social context for how they thought about local political authority, economics, and their social and religious duties. Before the war the best of Southern thinkers and clergy of all denominations defended slavery on its moral, religious, and social merits. During the war white Christian Southerners regarded slavery, not states rights or military valor, as the fulcrum of divine judgment; and slavery became for them the key to explaining the failure of Southern arms.
In A Consuming Fire, Genovese revisits the issue of Southern guilt about slavery. Relying upon writings, speeches, and sermons of the era, he establishes convincingly that Southerners indeed felt guilty—felt that the institution of slavery was tried by divine providence in the court of history and found wanting. As many Southerners understood it, their failure was not due merely to the inevitable supremacy of Northern industrial power, to being on the wrong side of history, as it were; more pointedly, it was understood as a moral and religious failure of the slaveholders themselves. Prior to the defiance so characteristic of Southern opinion during Reconstruction, there was a significant reckoning with this guilt. But of course we want to know what, precisely, they felt guilty about; like a confessor, we want the details. According to Genovese, they certainly did not understand themselves to be guilty simply for having held slaves.
The slaveholding class preferred not to treat slavery “in the abstract.” One reason is that biblical and historical evidence convinced them that slavery was not an evil in itself. The great civilizations of record—Egypt, Israel, Greece, Rome—had slavery. And although the seigneurial order of the feudal period could not be counted a slave system, it was marked by personal servitude. Slaveholders were aware that while philosophic opinion denied that slavery is necessitated by natural justice, neither was it, as a creature of custom and positive law, always condemned.
Knowing that tradition provided little ground for resolving the problem of slavery in the abstract, and knowing that such a debate tended to favor their abolitionist critics, slaveholders tried to avoid it. As Genovese shows, however, it was impossible for American slaveholders to view the problem as an altogether peculiar institution, a mere contingency of place and time. Indeed, during the nineteenth century, particularly in the two decades prior to the war, Southern thinkers—clergy, journalists, educators, lawyers, and statesmen—defended slavery in the abstract anyway.
Their defense was essentially twofold. First, slavery was considered in light of the political and economic revolutions threatening Europe at mid–century. Thomas Roderick Dew, President of William and Mary, for instance, proposed that class warfare would be the almost certain outcome of the upheavals, leading to a chronic exploitation and immiseration of free labor forced to make its way in an open market. Eventually, exigencies of public order would require resort to military despots who would quell the masses by offering minimal cradle–to–grave security while protecting the propertied class. According to this scenario, variations on which were held by many thoughtful Southerners, especially after the European revolutions of 1848, the revolutionary societies would prove unable to protect either liberty or society. In other words, the destiny of free labor was something much worse than what prevailed in the South, where, in the institution of slavery, cradle–to–grave security already existed unburdened by the violent ideologies of modernity.
Second, and more important for the purposes of A Consuming Fire, the slaveholders considered slavery within the theological context of the Abrahamic household, where unequals—master and servant, man and woman, parent and child—constituted a common good not reducible to the abstract equality of a contract. Southern theologians, we could say, took the side of Filmer against Locke by emphasizing the paternalistic and hierarchical family as the anchor of social justice and political order. God made men for society; therefore social predicates took precedence over property rights. On this view, slaves differed little in status from women and children. Labor was not a commodity, but a trust fund overseen by the master. As these thinkers saw it, scriptural standards required the master to be a husband, both in the proper and the extended meaning of the term. Thus could be overcome, they reckoned, the violence of class warfare, the poverty of the masses, and the godless ideologies that drove socially untethered free labor.
Even before the war, it had become apparent that such abstract arguments could not easily be reconciled with the actual practice of slavery. Catholic and Protestant clergy took to their pulpits to denounce the failure of slaveholders to protect slave families. How could the separation of man and woman, mother and child on the auction block comport with the scriptural standard? The authentic husband does not sell his family. Nor does he dissolve the families bound to him by personal servitude. In 1844, Roman Catholic Bishop Benedict Flaget of Missouri threatened excommunication to masters who refused to have slaves receive the sacrament of marriage. While not professing the same sacramental theology as Catholics, Protestant clergy of virtually every denomination fulminated against violations of the laws of God concerning marriage and chastity.
What especially provoked the ire of Protestant clergy was the wave of anti–literacy laws enacted by Southern states. These laws forbade teaching slaves to read and write, or even to have paper or writing implements. It was pointed out that such laws only confirmed the Romish despotism of not entrusting the Bible to the ignorant masses. In 1863 a select committee of the Presbyterian Church issued a report calling for reform of the slave codes, repeal of anti–literacy laws, protection of slave marriages, and prohibition of fornication, bigamy, incest, and rape. The report noted that the slave codes make sense only on the supposition “that the slave is not a man, but a brute, with a brute’s propensities, a brute’s nature, and a brute’s destiny.”
In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Genovese points out that Southern churches resisted the theories of polygenesis and “scientific” racism that swept the North in the 1830s. Such theories found a home not only among Northern liberal theologians who rejected orthodoxy and scriptural authority, but also among northern Democrats, such as Stephen Douglas, who seized upon these theories as a convenient way to excuse Southern slavery. Southern colleges and seminaries, however, refused to teach polygenesis and scientific racism, since they denied both the account of creation in Genesis and the principles of the Abrahamic household.
“Not until after the fall of the Confederacy,” Genovese writes, “did a racial–imperialist ideology emerge in full force, as the South adapted to the values and policies of a triumphant Yankeedom. Indeed, in essential respects, the Southern embrace of imperialism represented a substitute for—and a betrayal of—the ideals and visions of the proslavery worldview, although it was tailor–made for a New South bent on continuing the racial subordination of blacks.”
On the Northern view of absolute property in oneself, there was no way to justify suppression of blacks except on the most radical terms: namely, the biological inferiority, or what’s worse, the inhumanity, of the race. No doubt, some slaveholders adopted the “scientific” argument, but scriptural doctrine would not permit the consciences of Christian slaveholders to do so. After the war, many Southerners supported segregation on terms that would have seemed profoundly unscriptural to their ancestors. The terms were a Northern import, but they had an especially nasty career in the postbellum South.
Genovese does not claim that the majority of antebellum Southerners held to a pious theory of the Abrahamic household. Slaves were bought and sold for work, not for Christianization or for building an alternative civilization to the godless, industrial North. With respect to Southerners who remained immune to the public theology and the authority of Scripture, Genovese tells us little. In whatever numbers, they must have been a formidable part of the population, and to the extent that they became receptive to the admonitions of the clergy it was rather late in the story. (There was a large revival of religion in the Confederate armies during the War, with perhaps as many as 140,000 conversions in 1863.) Genovese’s main point is that a considerable number of Southerners had a theologically informed opinion about the point at issue. They understood that slavery in the abstract and slavery in practice were not reconciled, and that white Christians would face moral judgment for their failure to meet their divinely appointed duties. The war, as the Catholic Bishop of Richmond, John McGill, asserted, was the “scourge of God.”
One question Genovese asks is, “Could the slaveholders, as a class, ever have countenanced the kind of reforms that were being urged upon them by their pastors and their own Christian consciences?” His answer is nuanced, but in effect he thinks not. The public theology, such as it was, envisaged reforms that would have proved revolutionary. Marriage, for example, would have implied the right of contract for slaves. The Alabama legislature in 1853 considered a bill to exempt slaves from sale under execution for the master’s debt. Surely, civilization would dictate that debts are to be discharged by forfeiting property, not one’s family and dependents. But this would have bound slaves to their masters as something more than property. Antislavery pastor Rufus Clark of New Hampshire made the all too obvious point: “Were the Mosaic system to be applied to American slavery, it would be, by the operation of those laws, very soon abolished.” Every sincere and clear–sighted proposal for reform pointed in the direction of what the slaveholders were unwilling, or unable, to do: to abandon the practice of property that contradicted their own theology.
A Consuming Fire leaves the reader somewhat unsettled but intrigued about the role of theologically informed arguments in public life, especially in the South. Readers today will probably conclude that the slaveholding class’ understanding of scriptural teaching obscured the problem at hand. Genovese remarks in passing that on the problem of labor they had no Rerum Novarum to help them imagine how nonslave labor is rooted in something more than a materialistic ideology of absolute property.
In any event, despite the teaching and admonition of the clergy, the society of slaveholders was not reformed. Yet the theology focused guilt, and without it there would not have been the same moral reckoning, a reckoning that depended on interpreting defeat in the light of theodicy. It was a quite different theodicy than the one that prevailed among Northerners, for whom “trampling out the vintage” meant destruction of the institutions of servitude, not judgment on the masters’ failure of stewardship over the vineyard.
Russell Hittinger is the Warren Professor of Catholic Studies and Research Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa.