Without Acknowledgment: Capitalism, Slavery and the Silenced Return of Consensus History

Harvey R. Neptune

William L. Sheppard, “The First Cotton-Gin,” in Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 18, 1869, p. 813. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In a recent JER essay, I examined how the “new histories of capitalism and slavery” in the U.S. academy have misrepresented and even silenced Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery. I want to use the added opportunity here to establish that Williams’s foundational study is not the only casualty in the current scholarship. Also suffering mistreatment is the work of an Americanist cohort that was contemporary with Williams and whose arguments resonated deeply with Capitalism and Slavery. In the 1940s and 50s so-called “consensus historians” like Richard Hofstadter, Oscar Handlin, and Daniel Boorstin recoiled from the sentimental white supremacist “Gone with The Wind” rendition of U.S. slavery that prevailed in Progressive-era scholarship. They produced, instead, a critical portrait of the institution as a mode of racist capitalism at work. But even as this interpretation has become the leading trend in the field today, Hofstadter and the others go largely unacknowledged.  What follows—based on a book in progress—is a very brief consideration of the career of the “capitalism and slavery” theme in postwar U.S. history-writing. It is a tale not of “shade” (as with Williams) but of denial, including, unfortunately, the denial of racism.[1]

The silence around the issues of slavery and capitalism in consensus writing should be understood as symptomatic of a broader misunderstanding of the authors. Since the 1960s, Americanist students have been trained to identify Handlin and, even more, Hofstadter with a celebratory nationalist “cult” led by Boorstin, a “school” with little critical take on the U.S. past. Even historians who correctly have undermined this conservative image of “consensus”— James Oakes, for example—accept that these authors “failed to deal with the issues of slavery and racial discrimination.”[2] Serious un-racist study of U.S. slavery, most professionals assume, awaited the arrival of historians like Kenneth Stampp and, even more, Eugene Genovese. Yet like so much received wisdom about history-writing in the early Cold War years, this story is deeply and consequentially misguided. The notion that consensus scholars neglected racism and slavery is grossly overstated if not demonstrably false. It is a view that, for one, does a disservice to the critical precedent Hofstadter set for Stampp and others. More gravely, the denial of this school’s thinking about slavery helps to obscure the dubiously conservative role Genovese would come to play in the field from the very beginning—not just later in his career. To read the young Genovese in light of an older colleague like Hofstadter, I want to suggest, is to discover that this supposed revolutionary might have actually set Americanist scholarship back an entire generation.

It was in 1944, after all, that the Journal of Negro History published Hofstadter’s clinical take-down of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who had died a decade earlier but remained the most influential twentieth-century historian of U.S. slavery. Phillips was a proud white supremacist who cast plantations as “civilizing” agents for savage enslaved Africans. His writing, which would find later an enthusiastic champion in Genovese, came under heavy attack from Hofstadter. Joining a professional minority led by Carter G. Woodson, Hofstadter confronted Phillips, contending that the Georgia-born historian viewed the past of the South through “a haze of romance” and was best read “as a latter phase of the pro-slavery argument.” Phillips “did not originate the plantation legend, but he did his best to continue it,” observed Hofstadter. He then proceeded to undermine this legend, taking a measured, prudent approach by training most of its attention on the sampling technique in Phillips’s work (the inordinate focus on large plantations). Still, the Georgian’s racist planter-“friendly” perspective remained the essential problem in Hofstadter’s view; the essay concluding that the study of slavery awaited scholars who realized that “any history of slavery must be written largely from the standpoint of the slave.”[3]

While such a slave-centered perspective would not impress the field for decades, authors associated with “consensus” continued in the next few years to assail the racism of slavery scholarship as well as to expose critically the capitalistic character of the institution. In 1950, the team of Mary Handlin and Oscar Handlin (who, with Hofstadter, was the first historian charged with “consensus writing”) produced perhaps the era’s most pivotal piece in this regard.[4] In a spirit much like Williams, the Handlins essayed to show that there was there was nothing natural about the development of a racial slavery in North America. Neither biology nor climate explained the institution. Rather, they argued, it was the historical conditions of the material economy. The “mounting value of labor” in seventeenth-century North America led to more attractive conditions for indentured white labor while worsening the situation for involuntary African migrants, the Handlins explained. Race itself was invented in this context of expanding capitalist freedom and growing slavery, according to them, as “color emerged as a token of slave status.”[5] Over two decades before Edmund Morgan, the Handlins had named the American paradox.

Other consensus historians shared and built on their disenchanting historical interpretation. Boorstin, contrary to his notorious reputation as the racially conservative high priest of the cult, ridiculed the racism of Phillips’s “romanticized” writing on slavery and, further, critiqued even the best professionals for following the southerner’s lead and rendering black lives “negligible” if not “invisible.”[6] Boorstin’s own contributions, moreover, emphasized the capitalist character of New World slavery. “A Virginia plantation,” concluded the first volume of The Americans (1958), “was an 18th century version of a modern ‘company town’ rather than a romantic rural village.”[7] This interpretation of slavery as capitalist crested in the work of two Hofstadter students, Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick. Forcefully extending the Handlins’ arguments, they published a two-part essay in American Quarterly in 1957 titled “Institutions and Slavery: The Dynamics of Unopposed Capitalism.” The piece, loaded with critical comparative insights, demands notice here for its insistence that in English North America the relative institutional power of liberal capitalism conditioned the development of a uniquely brutal variant of modern slavery. In a society where “capitalism was the principal dynamic force” and where the plantation emerged as “the basic unit of capitalist agriculture,” enslaved people were left virtually with bare life, the authors argued. Without competing institutions like the church, they concluded, “there was nothing, so far as [the Negro] was concerned, to prevent unmitigated capitalism from becoming unmitigated slavery” in North America.[8] A devastating diagnosis, this argument would soon be overshadowed by the debate over Elkins’s errant and untimely account of the plantation as a totalitarian institution through its damaging effect on the personality of the slave.

Yet the marginalization of this capitalist interpretation of slavery during the 1960s had another crucial source besides Elkins’s analytic pessimism and his self-sabotaging promotion of “Sambo.” It was the arrival on the professional scene of the confoundingly charismatic figure of Eugene Genovese. His crater-like impact, as Gabriel Winant put it, fundamentally reshaped the field by persuading many of his conviction that slavery in the U.S. South was non-capitalist, or, at best, an anomaly within capitalism.[9] Yet, it is interesting—especially given Genovese’s famously pugnacious style—that he largely avoided direct confrontation with the consensus scholarship that his exotic analysis approach displaced. Genovese mostly skipped over the 1950s school and proceeded to recover the discredited work of Phillips, recasting the Georgian as a kind of “Gramsci of the Master Class.”

Accomplished in most detail in a 1967 essay (which, instructively, did not cite Hofstadter’s 1944 piece), Genovese’s recovery of Phillips was so shady, so contradictory, and so haunted by racism that it is perplexing—if not embarrassing—that he got away with it.  In the first place, he rejected entirely Phillips’s comprehension of plantations as “an essentially capitalistic industry.” At the same time, Genovese totally “follow[ed] Phillips into an appreciation of the patriarchal and paternalist side of the regime,” a move that allowed the young historian to embrace a cultural approach that emphasized the values of benevolence, community, and hegemony on the plantation. Of course, in following Phillips, Genovese knew that he was keeping company with an accused “racist” whose reputation had become a “decided negative.” Yet, remarkably, Genovese did not “reject Phillips’ blatant racism”—as the profession likes to remember; to the contrary, he denied the charge of racism against Phillips.[10] His denial, moreover, was bold nonsense. In the very opening paragraph of his 1967 essay Genovese defended Phillips by calling him “deeply committed to social and racial justice,” only to turn around on the next page and admit—with not a wink of concern for logic—that Phillips had “racist assumptions” and “white supremist sensibilities.” (At this point, a slogan comes to mind: “racists for racial justice.”)[11]

Amazingly, by the end of the 1960s, the field of history-writing about U.S.  slavery had come full racist circle. Its most compelling figure, Genovese, fondly found inspiration in the unapologetically white supremacist Progressive-era writing of Phillips that had been condemned in the 1940s and 50s. Plus ca change. To be sure, consensus authors voiced doubts about the nostalgic turn by the young New Left(ish) historian. David Potter (a southerner and student of Phillips) astutely wondered, after reading Genovese’s “arresting” essay, whether birth place (Brooklyn) and ideological “position on the left” had permitted the author to get away with racist “apologetics.”[12] But Genovese’s intellectual charm appears to have been irresistible, and over the 1970s his professional reputation grew into greatness. Awarded the Bancroft Prize in 1975, the proud Sicilian American became associated less with Phillips than with Gramsci, and his non-capitalist view of slavery assumed—what else—hegemony in the academy. Not until the 1990s did Genovese’s guiding premises come under serious attack as a younger generation moved to make capitalism central to studies of U.S. slavery.  By then, the stage was set for the return of the consensus analysis to the center of the field—without acknowledgement, of course.

I must acknowledge the critical help of Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly in thinking about these and other matters in 20th century US intellectual history.


[1]The affinity between Williams and consensus has gone unregistered so far. It is telling though that as far back as the 1960s David Brion Davis cited John Higham’s criticism of “consensus historians” in his own indirect criticism ofCapitalism and Slavery.  See Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (New York, 1966), 27.

[2]Though Oakes does note a Hofstadter essay on slavery, “The New Cult of Consensus” (2017), https://nonsite.org/feature/the-new-cult-of-consensus

[3]Richard Hofstadter, “U. B. Phillips and the Plantation Legend,” Journal of Negro History 29 (Apr. 1944), 109–124.

[4]When John Higham first invented the term “consensus” in the 1950s, Handlin and Hofstadter were the first two historians associated with the school.

[5]Oscar Handlin and Mary Handlin, “Origins of the Southern Labor System,” William and Mary Quarterly 7, no. 2 (1950), 199–122.

[6]Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience (New York), 1965, 462–63.

[7]Daniel Boorstin,The Americans: The Colonial Experience (New York, 1958), 108.

[8]Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, “Institutions and Slavery: The Dynamics of Unopposed Capitalism,” American Quarterly 9, no. 1 (1957), 3–24. These essays would reappear in Elkins’s Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional Life (Chicago, 1959).

[9]Gabriel Winant, “Slave Capitalism,” N+117 (Fall 2013), https://nplusonemag.com/issue-17/reviews/slave-capitalism/

[10]Earl Lewis, “To Turn as on A Pivot: Writing African-Americans into the History of Overlapping Diasporas,” American Historical Review 100, no. 3 (1995), 765–787, quote on 773.

[11]Eugene Genovese, “Race and Class in Southern History: An Appraisal of the Work of Ulrich Bonnell Phillips,” Agricultural History 41, no. 4 (1967), 345–47.

[12]David Potter, “The Work of Ulrich B. Phillips: A Comment,” Agricultural History 41, no. 4 (1967), 359–364, quote on 359.

17 July 2019

About the Author
Harvey R. Neptune is Associate Professor of History at Temple University.
Recent Contributions to the JER
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