My colleague and friend Ed Blum has asked me to write some entries for his course blog. For this one, he asked me to comment on excerpts from Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs (1996) and Philip Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint (1998) that are reproduced, along with some primary sources, in the new edition of Major Problems in American Colonial History.
2. Patriarchalism? Paternalism? The scholarly conversation about the relationship between enslaved people and their owners.
I’m editing Professor Blum’s question a little here. In this post, I’ll address the conversation between Kathleen Brown and Phil Morgan. In the next post, I’ll talk about sectional divisions in early American history—what they mean, and what they don’t mean.
Eugene Genovese published his seminal, and justly famous, history of antebellum slavery Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made in 1974. Genovese used the concept of paternalism to explore the relationship between masters and slaves. For masters, Genovese argued, paternalism was a benevolent ideology that justified enslavement; masters thought of themselves as protectors and caretakers of their enslaved property. By embracing a paternalistic ideology, southern planters also believed they could blunt the increasingly powerful critique of slavery emanating from abolitionists in the north. Paternalism was, though, a site of resistance for enslaved people, who manipulated their masters’ ideological commitment to slavery to gain slightly better conditions. Genovese embraced a Marxist interpretation of slavery, arguing that the south was a closed, precapitalist system. Genovese’s Marxism also led him to focus on slave resistance.
Genovese’s emphasis on paternalism has continued, though without the Marxist imprimatur, in more recent antebellum historiography (for example, Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Inside the Antebellum Slave Market). Historians of early American slavery also read paternalism back into the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and I think that’s the conversation between Brown and Morgan. What isn’t clear to me from this discussion is the difference between patriarchalism and paternalism. Brown skates around this definitional issue on page 51, and I think her project is less about describing a transition from patriarchalism to paternalism and more about exploring how her “anxious patriarchs” tried to define their relationship with their dependents, whether those dependents were enslaved people, members of their family, or poor white planters. In the end, she sees paternalism as “one face of patriarchy” (58). Morgan’s piece echoes Genovese, I think, in the way that it emphasizes planters’ belief in reciprocal obligations between masters and slaves. Morgan urges readers to see that the planters’ worldview was real, though deeply flawed, and that it changed over the course of the eighteenth century—the greatest contribution of paternalism/patriarchalism might have been that it encouraged white unity. (As an aside, I will say my favorite recent work on eighteenth-century slavery and slaveowning is Rhys Isaac’s Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom.)
If I had been putting this reader together, I don’t think I would have chosen to focus on the debate over patriarchalism/paternalism. I think that the relationship between master and enslaved is largely tapped out, regardless of however a scholar chooses to address it semantically. (I also don’t find it terribly interesting.) Fundamentally, the relationship between enslaver and enslaved was about power, and the power of white planters over black slaves was maintained by violence. Morgan doesn’t shy away from this; as he writes, “…their [planters’] authority ultimately rested on force” (58). And so it did. I think what gets lost in the conversation over how to describe planter authority and how planters themselves saw their authority is how deeply violent this society was. One need only reread the documents in the collection from William Byrd’s diary or Olaudah Equiano’s recollections to realize how force and the threat of force supported the exploitative system of slavery. In this way I think the debate about paternalism is a bit of a red herring; it draws attention away from the violence inherent in the system.
I also think this contributes to some of the flaws in the ways historians have studied colonial slavery. One of the critiques I’ve made elsewhere of Phil Morgan’s work is that it completely overlooks the experience of enslaved Indians. (This isn’t really Morgan’s fault: he was writing a synthetic history, and a magisterial one at that, and since few historians had at that point written about Indian enslavement, how could he include it?) Since the 1998 publication of Morgan’s book, historians have delved deeply into the enslavement of Indians in the early American south. Alan Gallay argues in his 2003 book The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717, that the Carolina colony was a net exporter of enslaved people (Indians) during that period. He estimates that the numbers of enslaved Indians sent to the Caribbean run in the tens of thousands (perhaps as many as 55,000). The Indian slave trade in the south ripped native communities apart and institutionalized terrible violence, as Robbie Ethridge’s 2010 book From Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World, 1540-1715 makes clear. I think the history of Indian enslavement is a lost history, and one that can’t be conveniently slotted into old modes of thinking about slavery (i.e., the paternalism/patriarchalism debate).
Indian enslavement has been edited out of history. As an example of what I mean, turn to page 36 and reread the excerpt from Edward Waterhouse’s 1622 pamphlet “A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia.” If you were to read the whole thing (which you may do on Early English Books Online as the spirit moves you) you would see that several paragraphs later, Waterhouse justifies the enslavement of Indians: “…Because the Indians, who before were used as friends, may now most justly be compelled to servitude and drudgery, and supply the roome of men that labour, whereby even the meanest of the Plantation may imploy themselves more entirely in their Arts and Occupations, which are more generous, whilest Savages performe their inferiour workes of digging in mynes, and the like, of whome also some may be sent for the service of the Summer Islands [Bermuda].” (Waterhouse, 25-26)