The Slaveholders’ Dilemma

When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, one of my professors assigned Eugene Genovese’s The Slaveholders’ Dilemma as part of our reading seminar on American history.

This was Genovese’s first book in nearly a decade, and it marked a transition in his worldview. Genovese rose to prominence in the American historical profession in the late 1960s with the publication of The Political Economy of Slavery. He was a card carrying Marxist then, a young New Yorker wrapped in the Civil Rights Movement and the sixties laser focus on the “evil” South.

He followed up with Roll, Jordan, Roll in the mid-1970s, and even then, one could see a slight transition in Genovese’s view of the South.

He admired the Southern people and thought Southern intellectuals should be taken seriously. These were not backwoods hicks who spent their days whittling and beating slaves. Nor were they lazy dimwits who drank bourbon and dueled over minor insults. Those things happened, certainly, but Genovese began to see the South and her people in a different light.

He never argued Southerners did not hold racial views that would make modern Americans blush. Nor did he refuse to remind Americans of the horrors of domestic slavery when they could be found.

But he also began to understand just how important the South and the Southern tradition was to America. He dedicated The Slaveholders’ Dilemma to Clyde Wilson, M.E. Bradford, and John Shelton Reed, three of the most important Southern intellectuals of the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Genovese had also abandoned his love affair with Karl Marx and returned to his native Catholicism in 1996. 

His work over the next twenty years exposed the deep complexities of the Southern tradition. Rather than a pre-modern feudal society, the South, in Genovese’s estimation, was a progressive world that attempted to resist the worst elements of middle class “progress” while embracing the best of what America had to offer.

This is what made the South great and why Genovese argued that Americans could learn from men like St. George Tucker, John Taylor of Caroline and John C. Calhoun along with the agrarians of I’ll Take My Stand.

He said as much in The Slaveholders’ Dilemma. My only exposure to Genovese before being assigned this book was through his earlier Marxist infused writings. I was surprised to see Clyde Wilson’s name in the front of the book and expressed that to my professor.

He smiled and said, “Why do you think he dedicated that book to Clyde?” I had no answer because I didn’t know of Genovese’s conversion.

But the introduction to The Slaveholders’ Dilemma stuck, and as such because an important part of how I thought about the South.

That’s why I wanted to share it with you. I dedicate Episode 430 of The Brion McClanahan Show to this book.

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