To the Editor:
Academic Questions approaches issues and controversies in academe doubtless better than any other publication. The Summer 2014 issue (vol. 27, no. 2) lived up to expectations. But the review by Robert L. Paquette of Eugene Genovese’s scholarly work (“The Unemancipated Country: Eugene Genovese’s Discovery of the Old South”) did not escape the apparent limitations of that work. I say “apparent” because I am not familiar with it and depended upon this article for whatever insights it had, and they were numerous.
But I was troubled by the gross misunderstanding of what Paquette rightly called the “the most resonant passage in the Declaration of Independence,” and his citing of John C. Calhoun, as well as Genovese, as authorities: For any class of workers, Genovese stressed, slaves, peasants, serfs, or wage-earners, any order is preferable to no order at all. Like John C. Calhoun, he regarded the most resonant passage in the Declaration of Independence as a rhetorical excess and quite literally untrue. Human beings are not born free and equal but weak and dependent, in desperate need of protection and support from the get-go. (p. 208)
For any class of workers, Genovese stressed, slaves, peasants, serfs, or wage-earners, any order is preferable to no order at all. Like John C. Calhoun, he regarded the most resonant passage in the Declaration of Independence as a rhetorical excess and quite literally untrue. Human beings are not born free and equal but weak and dependent, in desperate need of protection and support from the get-go. (p. 208)
Nothing Paquette wrote following this passage can justify this error, which arises from the failure to distinguish positive law from natural law. Of course, slavery has existed from time-immemorial, but as George Washington wrote in another context, “Law can never make just what is by nature unjust.” There are numerous rationalizations for slavery but no justification.
Apparently, Genovese attempted to differentiate American slavery from other forms by stressing the “paternalism” of the system. But that did not keep slave masters or their overseers from beating slaves senseless, or raping female slaves, or selling any of them to the highest bidder when “necessary.” If and when slaves “negotiated” their status with their masters, it was only the whim of the master that made that possible.
And by failing to distinguish wage-earners from slaves, peasants, or serfs, both Genovese and Paquette credit the Southern propaganda that blacks (and no less whites!) are better off in the supposedly “paternalistic” system than those who choose their jobs or leave them, at their discretion. One need not subscribe to the “perfectibility of man” to prefer free labor to slave labor.
Finally, one can say that the battle over the admission of Missouri as a slave state “warned the South, now clearly revealed as a minority power within the federal union, of brewing political storms.” But one can also say that the North had the same reaction to an attempt to give the South a political advantage in outnumbering the free states in the Senate and the Electoral College. Yet the South was already overrepresented in the House of Representatives by the infamous three-fifths clause that augmented their census figures with nonvoting slaves.
One can only imagine how difficult it was to state the truth “that all men are created equal” in a land that declared open season on those who criticized slavery in their “paternalistic” territory.
Richard H. Reeb Jr., Ph.D. (retired)
Instructor of Political Science and Philosophy
Barstow Community College Barstow, California
Robert Paquette Responds
Dr. Reeb misconstrues my assignment from Academic Questions. Its editors asked me to present the essentials of the historical scholarship of Eugene Genovese, not those of the Straussian political philosopher Harry Jaffa. I am quite confident that I have rendered Genovese’s evolving views accurately. In rushing to judgment, Dr. Reeb has not only attempted to conflate Genovese’s views, as I have presented them, with my own, he has misrepresented what I said. To take one example, Genovese’s understanding of paternalism, as I presented it and as Genovese himself wrote, “had little to do with Ole Massa’s ostensible benevolence, kindness, and good cheer” but “the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation.” Treatment has several different meanings. Referring to the material conditions of life of various kinds of workers, free and unfree, Dr. Reeb might want to consult the comparative quantitative data in Without Consent or Contract (1989), the magnum opus of the Nobel prize-winning economist Robert William Fogel.
Jaffa, as many readers of this journal may remember, engaged in a lively debate with the southern conservative M.E. Bradford in the 1970s on the history and meaning of the Declaration of Independence. In that dust-up, Genovese would have raised the hand of Bradford in triumph as the superior interpreter of American history. Multiple meanings of equality circulated in the states at the time of the Founding; most presented no threat to the existence of slavery. The term “natural law” cannot be waved as a magic wand to dissolve historical complexities, especially since what the term means and how precisely it coincides with natural justice is a controversial topic, dating back millennia in Western culture. Before 1776, all the world’s habitable continents had long experience with the institution of slavery; all the world’s great religions gave it authoritative approval; all of England’s colonies in the Americas had slaves.
On the “infamous” three-fifths clause, which represented a constitutional compromise in counting inhabitants of states for the purposes of representation and taxation, the eminent historian Gordon Wood has argued for the clause as a Southern defeat, not a victory, since “[t]he fact that the slaves could not vote was irrelevant; neither could white women, children, and in most states in 1787 propertyless men, but they were still counted in determining the size of each state’s representation.”
For Genovese, the Civil War represented a great tragedy. He had no wish to reduce it to a battle between the children of light and the children of darkness. Neither do I.