Historiography Rhymes: Slavery and Capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s

Joshua D. Rothman

I appreciate the invitation to engage in this exchange with Harvey Neptune’s post. I hope my comments prompt others to join in the ongoing conversation about the historiographical turns of the “new” history of slavery and capitalism appearing of late in scholarly and popular venues alike.

I must confess at the outset that it has been many years since I have read some of the work of the consensus school Neptune references, and I found his retrieval of the responses of historians such as Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Boorstin to the romantic racism of U. B. Phillips to be eye-opening. Neptune’s point is well taken that their critiques of Phillips’s bigotry, and the claims they made for the essentially capitalistic nature of slavery, seem to have disappeared down the historiographical memory hole. That does tend to happen with the passage of time, and it probably comes into play in nearly every historical subfield. As new work gets layered on top of the old, the former can bury the latter and sometimes render it invisible. It requires the kind of scholarly stratigraphy Neptune deploys to recover what was there all along.

Moreover, Neptune observes that Eugene Genovese, who did more to marginalize a reading of American slavery as capitalistic than any historian of the last several generations, excavated down to Phillips while mostly digging right past the intervening layers of commentary. Impressed by the supposed paternalism of American slaveholders, and seeing in that ideology a framework for understanding the maintenance of social order and hegemonic class domination of the enslaved by white elites who clung to a set of precapitalist values, Genovese fully articulated his argument in 1974 in Roll, Jordan, Roll. When he did, he barreled over his and Phillips’s critics alike. By all accounts, that was his way. Bombastic, withering, and brilliant in equal measure, Genovese made it impossible for historians to talk about slavery without accounting for his claim that the institution operated in a capitalist world without being entirely of it.

Neptune notes that there was always a certain fuzziness to Genovese’s take on Phillips’s white supremacy, as if Genovese knew he needed to reject it but could not bring himself to do so without qualification. With hindsight, it is not difficult to see in Roll, Jordan, Roll the roots of the intensely conservative cultural antimodernism, and the downplaying of racism’s historical significance, toward which Genovese gravitated over time and fully embraced by the 1990s. But I am not sure it is entirely fair to say that “Genovese’s guiding premises” survived without serious critical examination until then.

The footprint Genovese placed on the field is undeniable. Roll, Jordan, Roll marked a gigantic shove of the interpretive pendulum with regard to slavery. As it swung it away from the consensus school and away from capitalism, analyses of slavery emphasizing the absence of capitalist social relations produced by wage labor, and detailing the implications of that absence, were ascendant. But the pendulum always swings back, and arguably, it started to do so even as plaudits for Genovese’s work piled up.

Roll, Jordan, Rollwas everywhere in the mid-1970s, but so was Time on the Cross,Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s application of quantitative methods more commonly used in the field of economics to a historical analysis of slavery. The profound interpretive and methodological flaws of Time on the Crossare well documented, but the book did make a case that fundamentally capitalist imperatives underpinned slavery and the behavior of slaveholders. For whatever else might be said about Time on the Cross,it cannot be said that its underlying premises remotely match those of Roll, Jordan, Roll.

Given that Time on the Cross was actually published a few months prior to Roll, Jordan, Roll, it obviously was not a critical response, per se, to Genovese. But James Oakes’s The Ruling Race was. Published in 1982, Oakes’s work was researched and written substantively in reaction to Roll, Jordan, Roll, and it presented a deeply entrepreneurial slaveholding class whose individualistic, profit-seeking members found paternalism increasingly useless and anachronistic as the nineteenth century progressed. Oakes wrote explicitly in his introduction of his disagreements with Genovese, stated that he concurred “with those who stress the capitalist nature of the slave system in the Old South,” and even gave a nod to the work of Oscar Handlin.

To be sure, Oakes would eventually distance himself from his own argument in The Ruling Race, arguing in later work that the social orders of the North and the South in the decades before the Civil War were far more different than they were alike. But The Ruling Race, for better or worse, became the standard-bearer as counterargument to Roll, Jordan, Roll. Indeed, by the time I started graduate school in the early 1990s, not only was the pairing of Genovese and Oakes as introductory readings on antebellum American slavery already practically a cliché. In the field of southern history, it was just the latest round in a seemingly ancient, and endless, debate over whether slavery was best characterized as paternalistic or capitalistic.

This is, of course, more an anecdotal observation than a rigorous dive into the historiography, and nothing that I have written here gainsays Harvey Neptune’s basic point that historians today often fail to acknowledge the contributions of consensus history and consensus historians to an antiracist scholarly genealogy of slavery and capitalism. Rather, in a roundabout way, it partially reinforces that point. But if few historiographical insights are so new that no one has ever had them before, it is also the case that few go out of fashion for so long that they truly go dormant.

23 July 2019

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Alabama.

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