Book Discussion: The Ruling Race

The Ruling RaceJames Oakes

The Ruling Race
James Oakes

Slavery, particularly as practiced in America, has been intriguing to me as it is a moral question that’s been decided one way throughout the bulk of human history, then, especially in the West, been conclusively decided in the other direction.  So conclusively that if one were to argue for the reinstatement of chattel slavery as a system of labor, they wouldn’t be considered misguided so much as clinically insane.  ( Though I’m not sure if the goings on at the CPAC Panel on Race supports or undermines my point )

But I realized that I didn’t know a whole lot about slaveholders in America, beyond the popular conception of large, sleepy plantations, lorded over by paternalistic, foppish aristocrats.  Was that the way most slaveholders were?  Rich, aristocratic, paternalistic, chivalrous, harkening back to say the English landed gentry.  A book, The Ruling Race: A History of the American Slaveholders by James Oakes was recommended reading by the History of the United States Great Course, so I decided to give it a read.

The book makes a strong case to throw out that popular conception of slavery in the south as being the aristocratic, paternalistic pursuit of a tiny class of aristocrats, in favor of one where the majority of slaveholders owned relatively few slaves and had conceptions that were far more democratic, egalitarian (for whites of course), and free enterprise than the planter aristocracy.  In fact, if there is a single thread running through the many personal journal and letter excerpts it’s a grasping materialism, an intense desire to acquire, to expand, above all to succeed in the sense of material wealth.  If you take away the deeply racist assumptions that permeate everything, it can feel quite modern.

In fact the book argues that the primary, first line defense of slavery, while undergirded by racism, was one of property rights and the right to make a profit:

For his argument to hold, his assumptions had to be racist, but his defense of slavery was primarily one of economics and property rights: he had bought his slaves and paid for them.  A South Carolina master agreed.  The slave’s earnings “belong to me, because I bought him; and in return for this I give him maintenance, and make a handsome profit besides.”  That was the way most slaveholders preferred to look at it.

Thus, the slaveholder’ chief defense of bondage focused upon the profitability of slavery and the white man’s right to make money and accumulate property.  “As an owner of slaves (and one whose income is derived almost entirely from their labor),” one master wrote, “I assert an unquestionable right to my property, and protest against every attempt to deprive me of it without my consent.”

Again, taking the racism out of it, this has a modern ring to it.  There is no static class system here, there is an egalitarianism of opportunity (for white males) and a dynamism you don’t see with the large aristocratically owned plantation.  I’m not sure that it’s ironic that it’s this modern striving for advancement, for profit that may have made slavery all the more brutal:

These central features of slavery, punishment and profit, destroyed for most slaveholders whatever remained of the elemental principle of the paternalist ethos: that masters were obliged to look to the needs of the slaves in return for the diligence and fidelity of the bondsmen.

Strikingly, the very concept of freedom was deeply associated with the ownership of black slaves:

The racist subjugation of blacks helped open the way to universal while manhood suffrage by silencing a potentially rebellious underclass of black workers.  “In this country alone does perfect equality of civil and social privilege exist among the white population, and it exists solely because we have black slaves.” the Richmond Enquirer declared.  “Freedom is not possible without slavery.”

That last sentence is enough to set one’s teeth on edge.  Could they possibly have meant it?  Reading through the book one thing you notice is how much heavy lifting the underlying racist assumptions perform, philosophically, economically, and theologically.  Conveniently reconciling and synchronizing these with their immediate pecuniary interests.

Another thing I did come away with is that words, concepts, especially those that are nebulous and that carry a strong emotional charge, like “freedom”, shouldn’t be taken at face value.  When they are used you need to ask questions.  What are the underlying assumptions?  What is left unsaid?  Freedom for who to do what?



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