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Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South Cambridge University Press Eugene D. Genovese


9th October 2012 History Books 0 Comments

Slaveholders were preoccupied with presenting slavery as a benign, paternalistic institution in which the planter took care of his family, and slaves were content with their fate. In this book, Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese discuss how slaveholders perpetuated and rationalized this romanticized version of life on the plantation. Slaveholders’ paternalism had little to do with ostensible benevolence, kindness, and good cheer. It grew out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation. At the same time, this book also advocates the examination of masters’ relations with white plantation laborers and servants – a largely unstudied subject. Southerners drew on the work of British and European socialists to conclude that all labor, white and black, suffered de facto slavery, and they championed the South’s “Christian slavery” as the most humane and compassionate of social systems, ancient and modern.

In this remarkable culmination of four decades of intense study, Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese marshal their impressive knowledge of slaveholding Southerners. With no holds barred they examine the disparate emotions and self-justifications of slaveholders’ ideas, including a true picture of the complex and even contradictory ideas of paternalism. Their analysis deepens our understanding of the social relationships that shaped the history of the American South, relationships with vast implications even today. Steeped in comprehensive research, Fatal Deception is cultural, social, legal, and philosophical history at its best–simply brilliant.” -Orville Vernon Burton, Clemson University, author of Age of Lincoln and In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield County, South Carolina

“‘One day they learned that they had been deceiving themselves and living intimately with people they did not know at all.’ This Eugene D. Genovese wrote more than four decades ago. In Fatal Self-Deception, Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demonstrate with unflinching clarity just how fatal this self-deception proved. This judicious assessment of the ‘burning contradictions’ that riddled slaveholder ideology traces the immensity of that deception in the face of the embarrassments that betrayed the poverty of its moral and intellectual foundation. All along the way, slaveholders scrubbed away evidence that they were not loved by the enslaved, that black people were not inherently inferior, preferred slavery to freedom, and would be wiped from the face of the earth by emancipation, denying in the process (and against opposing voices, South and North) slavery’s ‘unremitting despotism.’ In the end, as the authors write, ‘Slaveholders had trouble getting their story straight.’ The conundrums-including the place of poor white people in a slaveholding society-were unanswerable. The measureable consequence was the destruction of slavery in the US. A work of prodigious research.” -Thavolia Glymph, Duke University

“An extraordinarily learned and persuasive exploration of the intellectual world of the southern slaveowners, Fatal Self-Deception delves with unprecedented depth into the slaveholding mind and helps us make sense of their understanding of paternalism and their always fraught defense of slavery. This is a masterful work of historical scholarship, wholly impressive in every respect.” -Mark Smith, Carolina Distinguished Professor of History, University of South Carolina and author of How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses

“In remarkable ways, this brief, lapidary volume, the last in the Mind of the Master Class series, at once hones and culminates the argument, about planter hegemony’s rise, funcitons, operations, fall, and consequences, that Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese developed over a half century. How, in the process of forming, living, and imposing their worldview, planters deceived themselves about their meaning to and relations with their bondpeople emerges powerfully. So does planters’ very different-and, in many respects, more distant and classist-regard of their white servitors, even when dining together. That thirty percent of the book is given to endnotes is a crude measure of the daunting research that underlies the work’s conclusions about the affective bonds and disconnects both in paternalist ideology and among the holders and those who resisted and bore the consequences of that hegemony’s emotional claims and sway.” -David Moltke-Hansen, Director, Simms Initiatives, University of South Carolina

“This thoughtful treatise lets slaveowners speak for themselves, showing how they struggled to square paternalism with the need for profit. Readers get a fresh look at the Southern master’s relationships with a host of household members. By drawing upon an immense number of original sources, the Genoveses persuasively argue that slaveowners practiced self-deception, not hypocrisy, by viewing their way of life as the best possible for all concerned.” -Jenny Wahl, Carleton College

Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese discuss how slaveholders perpetuated and rationalized a romanticized version of life on the plantation. Slaveholders’ paternalism grew out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation. But at the same time, this book also advocates the examination of masters’ relations with white plantation laborers and servants – a largely unstudied subject. Southerners drew on the work of British and European socialists to conclude that all labor, white and black, suffered de facto slavery.

In this remarkable culmination of four decades of intense study, Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese marshal their impressive knowledge of slaveholding Southerners. With no holds barred they examine the disparate emotions and self-justifications of slaveholders’ ideas, including a true picture of the complex and even contradictory ideas of paternalism. Their analysis deepens our understanding of the social relationships that shaped the history of the American South, relationships with vast implications even today. Steeped in comprehensive research, Fatal Deception is cultural, social, legal, and philosophical history at its best–simply brilliant.” -Orville Vernon Burton, Clemson University, author of Age of Lincoln and In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield County, South Carolina

“‘One day they learned that they had been deceiving themselves and living intimately with people they did not know at all.’ This Eugene D. Genovese wrote more than four decades ago. In Fatal Self-Deception, Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demonstrate with unflinching clarity just how fatal this self-deception proved. This judicious assessment of the ‘burning contradictions’ that riddled slaveholder ideology traces the immensity of that deception in the face of the embarrassments that betrayed the poverty of its moral and intellectual foundation. All along the way, slaveholders scrubbed away evidence that they were not loved by the enslaved, that black people were not inherently inferior, preferred slavery to freedom, and would be wiped from the face of the earth by emancipation, denying in the process slavery’s ‘unremitting despotism.’ In the end, as the authors write, ‘Slaveholders had trouble getting their story straight.’ The conundrums-including the place of poor white people in a slaveholding society-were unanswerable. The measureable consequence was the destruction of slavery in the US. A work of prodigious research.” -Thavolia Glymph, Duke University

“An extraordinarily learned and persuasive exploration of the intellectual world of the southern slaveowners, Fatal Self-Deception delves with unprecedented depth into the slaveholding mind and helps us make sense of their understanding of paternalism and their always fraught defense of slavery. This is a masterful work of historical scholarship, wholly impressive in every respect.” -Mark Smith, Carolina Distinguished Professor of History, University of South Carolina and author of How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses

“In remarkable ways, this brief, lapidary volume, the last in the Mind of the Master Class series, at once hones and culminates the argument, about planter hegemony’s rise, funcitons, operations, fall, and consequences, that Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese developed over a half century. How, in the process of forming, living, and imposing their worldview, planters deceived themselves about their meaning to and relations with their bondpeople emerges powerfully. So does planters’ very different-and, in many respects, more distant and classist-regard of their white servitors, even when dining together. That thirty percent of the book is given to endnotes is a crude measure of the daunting research that underlies the work’s conclusions about the affective bonds and disconnects both in paternalist ideology and among the holders and those who resisted and bore the consequences of that hegemony’s emotional claims and sway.” -David Moltke-Hansen, Director, Simms Initiatives, University of South Carolina

“This thoughtful treatise lets slaveowners speak for themselves, showing how they struggled to square paternalism with the need for profit. Readers get a fresh look at the Southern master’s relationships with a host of household members. By drawing upon an immense number of original sources, the Genoveses persuasively argue that slaveowners practiced self-deception, not hypocrisy, by viewing their way of life as the best possible for all concerned.” -Jenny Wahl, Carleton College

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