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Legitimating Slavery in the Old South: The Effect of Political Institutions on Ideology

  • Richard J. Ellis


“Hegemony” has become a fashionable catchword in a number of intellectual circles. One encounters it among historians, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, even (or, perhaps, especially) literary critics. Many a frustrated radical finds it a useful explanation for the quiescence of the masses. Marxist scholars frequently see it as a liberating departure from Marx's economic reductionism. More mainstream social scientists often detect little harm in it, since the notion that people are not ruled by force alone, but also by ideas, seems highly congruent with what they have learned from Max Weber and Talcott Parsons.



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1. Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Hoare, Quintin and Smith, Geoffrey Nowell (New York: International Publishers, 1972).

2. Genovese, Eugene D., The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation (New York: Random House, 1969; Vintage Books, 1971), p. 96.

3. Genovese, Eugene D., ”Ulrich Bonnell Phillips & His Critics,” in In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History (New York: Vintage, 1972), p. 267, emphasis added. The argument, as well as use of the word “impose,” is repeated in “Race and Class in Southern History,” In Red and Black, p. 295; Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974), p. 27; and The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South (New York: Random House, 1965; Vintage Books, 1967), p. 8.

4. Bendix, Reinhard, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960), p. 292.

5. Fredrickson, George M., The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), esp. p. 61. Fredrickson derives the term from van den Berghe's, Pierre L.Race and Racism: A Comparative Perspective (New York: Wiley, 1967).

6. Sellers, Charles Grier Jr, “The Travail of Slavery,” in Sellers, , ed., The Southerner as American (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960), p. 64.

7. Oakes, James, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York: Knopf, 1982), p. 143.

8. Thornton Stringfellow, quoted in Faust, Drew G., “Evangelism and the Meaning of the Pro-Slavery Argument: The Reverend Thornton Stringfellow of Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 85 (01 1977): 12.

9. Faust, Drew Gilpin, A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840–1860 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 120. Also see Freehling, William W., Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836 (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 329.

10. Nye, Russel B., Fettered Freedom: Civil Liberties and the Slavery Controversy, 1830–1860, rev. ed. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1963), p. 303.

11. Brugger, Robert J., Beverly Tucker: Heart Over Head in the Old South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 199.

12. James F. Dowdell, cited in Thornton, J. Mills III, Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800–1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978), p. 320.

13. DeBow, J. D. B., The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder (Charleston: Evans and Cogswell, 1860), p. 9.

14. Jenkins, William Sumner, Pro-Slavery Thought in the Old South (1935; rept. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1960), p. 193.

15. Greenberg, Kenneth, “Revolutionary Ideology and the Proslavery Argument: The Abolition of Slavery in Antebellum South Carolina,” Journal of Southern History 42 (08 1976): 365–86 (quotation on p. 379).

16. Ibid. Also see Jenkins, Pro-Slavery Thought, pp. 110, 296.

17. Montgomery Advertiser, cited in Thornton, Politics and Power, p. 210.

18. DeBow, Interest in Slavery, p. 9.

19. Ibid., p. 10.

20. James H. Hammond of South Carolina, for instance, argued that because “free labor is cheaper than slave labor…we must, therefore, content ourselves with…the consoling reflection, that what is lost to us is gained to humanity” (Stampp, Kenneth M., The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South [New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1956], p. 383).

21. Genovese, Roll Jordan, Roll, p. 75.

22. Oakes, Ruling Race, p. 135.

23. Calhoun, quoted in Freehling, Prelude to Civil War, p. 330.

24. Schultz, Harold S., Nationalism and Sectionalism in South Carolina, 1852–1860 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1950), pp. 67; Brugger, Beverly Tucker, pp. 109, 201; and Faust, Drew G., James Henry Hammond and the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), p. 281. Also see Greenberg, Kenneth S., “Representation and the Isolation of South Carolina, 1776–1860,” Journal of American History 64 (12 1977): 723–43.

25. Oakes, Ruling Race, pp. 138–47; and Thornton, Politics and Power, pp. 207, 320, and passim.

26. Oakes, Ruling Race, p. 132; and Brugger, Beverly Tucker, p. 147.

27. Oakes, Ruling Race, p. 226; and Bruce, Dickson D. Jr,The Rhetoric of Conservatism: The Virginia Convention of 1829–30 and the Conservative Tradition in the South (San Marino, Ca.: Huntington Library, 1982), p. xv.

28. Fredrickson, Black Image, p. 66.

29. Nott, Alabama's most prominent proslavery ideologue, was the leading exponent of the ethnological justification of slavery. “Niggerology,” as Nott liked to describe his field of study, attempted to establish scientifically that blacks were a separate and inferior species. At the same time, Nott celebrated the Declaration of Independence as “the chart by which the Anglo-Saxon race sails” (Fredrickson, Black Image, pp. 78–82). The logic was compelling: if all people are created equal, science must be set the unsavory task of proving that those who are enslaved are not people.

30. Thornton, Politics and Power, pp. 204–27.

31. Fredrickson, Black Image, p. 61.

32. In addition to the paternal ideologists already listed above, one could add the names of Abel Upshur, James H. Thornwell, Thomas Cooper, Christopher G. Memminger, Duff Green, David Gavin, George McDuffie, and Alfred Huger.

33. Roark, James L., Masters Without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 16. Also see Freehling, Prelude to Civil War, p. 330.

34. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War, esp. part 3.

35. Thornton, Politics and Power, pp. 11–12. The county judge, who served ex officio as the fifth member and chairman, was made popularly elected in 1850. At the same time, the election of circuit judges was also given to the people (ibid., pp. 12, 59).

36. Chandler, Julian A. C., The History of Suffrage in Virginia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1901), p. 22. Also see Pole, J. R., “Representation and Authority in Virginia from the Revolution to Reform,” in Paths to the American Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 3637, 40.

37. Sydnor, Charles S., The Development of Southern Sectionalism, 1819–1848 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1948), pp. 4849.

38. Ibid., pp. 39–40.

39. See, e.g., Swindler, William F., Government by the People: Theory and Reality in Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1969), p. 34; Bruce, Rhetoric of Conservatism, p. xv; Sydnor, Southern Sectionalism, pp. 286–87; and Jordan, Daniel P., Political Leadership in Jefferson's Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), p. 214.

40. Sydnor, Southern Sectionalism, pp. 288–89.

41. Green, Fletcher M., Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776–1860 (1933; rept. New York: Norton, 1966), p. 262.

42. Bowman, Shearer Davis, “Antebellum Planters and Vormarz Junkers in Comparative Perspective,” American Historical Review 85 (10 1980): 779808, at 793; and Banner, James, “The Problem of South Carolina,” in The Hofstadter Aegis: A Memorial, ed. Elkins, Stanley and McKitrick, Eric (New York: Knopf, 1974), pp. 6093.

43. Thornton, Politics and Power, pp. 62, 66.

44. Ibid., pp. 15, 17, 33, 43.

45. Ibid., p. 223.

46. Bruce, Rhetoric of Conservatism, p. xiv. Also see Upton, Anthony F., “The Road to Power in Virginia in the Early Nineteenth Century,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 62 (07 1954): esp. pp. 278–79.

47. J. R. Pole suggests that it is only with Virginia's constitution of 1850 that “it at last became possible to recognize the ingredients of modern democracy” (”Representation and Authority,” p. 38).

48. Eaton, Clement, “A Progressive in an Old State,” in The Mind of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967), p. 95.

49. Ibid., pp. 95–97.

50. Ibid., p. 98.

51. Jenkins, Pro-Slavery Thought, p. 191.

52. Fitzhugh, George, Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters, ed. Woodward, C. Vann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960; originally published 1857). Ironically, Fitzhugh dedicated Cannibals All to Governor Wise, a gesture that dramatically symbolized the increasingly shrill voice of paternalism trying desperately to win the ear of the Herrenvolk ideologist in power.

53. Greenberg, “Representation and Isolation,” p. 740.

54. See Faust, Hammond, pp. 349, 353.

55. See, e.g., Schultz, Nationalism and Sectionalism, pp. 3–25; Greenberg, “Revolutionary Ideology”; and Taylor, Rosser Howard, “The Gentry of Ante-Bellum South Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review 17 (04 1940): 114–31.

56. Faust, Sacred Circle, p. 108.

57. Green, Constitutional Development, p. 262.

58. Channing, Stephen A., Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970).

59. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War, esp. ch. 9.

60. See Roark, Masters Without Slaves, esp. pp. 21–23.

61. Hartz, Louis, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt, 1955), part 4.

62. Roark, Masters Without Slaves, p. 24.


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