Excerpt- On Antebellum Patriarchalism

The following is from Raimondo Luraghi’s The Rise and Fall of the Plantation South, pages 72-75. Here we see Luraghi, an Italian Marxist, conceding the basic benevolent nature of the Southern aristocracy, which was underpinned by the patriarchal view of society. I apologize for the choppiness (Luraghi is a terrible writer), and the occasional Marxist language. I don’t endorse everything said here, but the spirit is correct. Highlighted passages bolded by me:

In the early nineteenth century, this patriarchal, paternalistic civilization civilization was reaching its height. Pari passu, the sense of guilt was increasing inside the slaveholders’ souls. Certainly, slavery was an evil (as is any exploitation); however, the justifications that the slaveholding class brought forth were not completely destitute of any foundation. It is true that, just before the Civil War era, southern slavery had reached possibly the most mild and humane (or at least inhumane) level compatible with such a cruel institution. One is surprised to see planters (who should have been “shrewd businessmen”) going directly against their economic interest, which they are supposed to have pursued like “able moneymakers,” in order to respect the personality of their slaves. In 1835, John Basil Lamar, an important planter of Georgia, selling the slaves belonging to his father’s unwilled property, purchased four of the old blacks and a deformed boy himself, because he thought they were unwilling to leave their old homes. Although they were no longer capable of any valuable work, he decided to disburse money in order to keep them with their relatives. There were many cases like this on nineteenth-century plantations; and this certainly did not contribute, from a purely economic viewpoint, to making the plantations “very efficient” enterprises, as Fogel, Engerman, and their school allege them to have been.

There was no better witness of this situation than Charles Francis Adams, Jr. Answering a letter from his father, who, as was true of many northerners, mainly abolitionists, had a kind of contempt toward black slaves, the younger Adams wrote: “I’m getting to have very decided opinions on the negro question… I note what you say of the African race and ‘the absence of all appearance of self-reliance in their own power’ during this struggle. From this, greatly as it has disappointed me, I very unwillingly draw different conclusions from your own. The conviction is forcing itself upon me that African slavery, as it existed in our slave states, was indeed a patriarchal institution under which the slaves were not, as a whole, unhappy, cruelly treated or overworked. I am forced to this conclusion. Mind, I do not because of it like slavery any better….”

Very recently, a distinguished historian, Ludwell H. Johnson, reviewing the collection of the Jones family letters, and quoting an older one, the Fleet family letters collection, the first from Georgia, the second from Virginia, observed that those letters are “a compelling evidence” that the Old South, as depicted by writers like Thomas Nelson Page or Margaret Mitchell “did exist, and it is not the product of weak-minded romanticizing.” The same impression, I must add, is received by anybody going carefully and at length through the letters of many southern planter families.

All the vital elements coming from Africa blended, as already noted, with Elizabethan, Spanish, French, and even Italian aspects into southern culture. This rich background gave the planter class a consciousness of possessing a mentality of its own, which had almost nothing to do with the northern mentality. Perhaps it should be stressed once more, it was more akin to other American cultures….

Pondering the distinctive shape of mind of the seigneurial [planter] class of the South, one is irresistibly drawn into thinking of the agrarian “senatorial” class of the Roman Republic. The Romans were frequently good administrators, even shrewd “businessmen,” as far as the development of their properties was concerned; however, to them, business was always vile negotium. What gave human life its taste and its meaning were the so-called otia, or cultural, literary, even scientific pursuits, entertaining lavishly, cultivating friendships. Here perhaps is to be found the key to understanding why and how southern gentlemen, however concerned about their business (and in many cases managing it very adroitly), never had a capitalist Weltanschauung. And this, incidentally, in the economic war to come, would represent their chief “inferiority” in comparison to businessmen from the North. So one obtains the impression that money was to them only a means: the true aim of their lives was leisure, culture, and status. Increasing production was just a method to reach the true end: consumption.

Among the most important pursuits of the southern seigneurial class were military and political careers. A close scrutiny of the most prominent generals and officers in the Confederate army during the Civil War shows clearly that a military career was usually the choice of cadets from impoverished seigneurial families, very much as it was in the feudal noble class of Europe. Robert E. Lee is the most remarkable instance. As far as politics is concerned, to understand the aristocrat-politicians of the Old South, it is necessary to dismiss any idea we may have of politicians from our own bourgeois world. The “professional” politician was scarcely, if ever, to be found in the Old South. In our bourgeois societies, politics may represent a career in itself, frequently a business. After all, in capitalist society everything has been transformed into a commodity, to be bought and sold, whose value is to be reckoned in terms of money. So, politics, too, has become a business…

In the Old South, as in any aristocratic society, this was not usually the case. There were, of course, exceptions, but what matters here is the rule. Politicians were usually important planters with large estates. Studying their biographies closely, one gets the impression that they were not politicians at all, but planters who participated in politics. The South was no democratic society; it was an oligarchy, governed by a very intelligent, mild, shrewd, benevolent, and tolerant paternalistic class.

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One thought on “Excerpt- On Antebellum Patriarchalism

  1. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/03/06) | The Reactivity Place

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