Clarification

Richard Williams offers a thoughtful response to my post of a few days ago in which I describe his reference to "Stonewall" Jackson as a "champion of enslaved men and women" as dangerous.  Williams response is based on a short book review that historian Peter Carmichael did on Elizabeth-Fox Genovese’s classic Within the Plantation Household (University of North Carolina Press, 1988) in the most recent issue of Civil War Times Illustrated.   Williams quotes Carmichael as evidence of his contention that the relationships forged between Jackson and his slaves qualifies as friendship. Here is the quote: No one can ignore the overwhelming historical evidence mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South . . .”  He goes on to point out that Fox-Genovese also explores the complex chains of affection between slaveowners and their slaves.  Williams is absolutely correct on this point and I know this all too well because I read this book as a graduate student; not only did I read it, but I’ve read plenty of other articles and books by both Fox-Genovese and her husband Eugene Genovese.  I could be wrong since it has been some time, but I don’t remember seeing this book cited by Williams or any other recent analytical study of slavery in the bibliography of his Jackson book. 

By placing himself in the same camp as Fox-Genovese and Carmichael, Williams believes that by extension I must also believe that they too are dangerous.  Not at all.  In fact I agree with the assertion that slavery created a wide range of mutually affective relations or mutual closeness during the antebellum period.  To do so would be to ignore some of the most interesting literature to come out of this field over the past few decades.  One of the most important points that Eugene Genoves makes in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that slaves cultivated chains of affection because they understood that slaveowners could not help but acknowledge their humanity.  From this perspective such relationships can be understood as manipulated by the slaves themselves to help make a horrific situation bearable.  At one point William suggests that it is not unreasonable to equate mutual affection with friendship.  Perhaps, but I believe it to be very difficult in the context of the slave-master relationship because it seems to me that the concept of friendship implies freedom of choice and by definition that is absent.  This is a point that Aristotle makes in his Nicomachean Ethics with the other being that friendships are built over time around mutual interests.  That said, to a certain extent this is beside the point because my problem is with Williams’s claim that Jackson ought to be understood as a "champion of enslaved men and women." 

On this point I feel safe in assuming that Carmichael would disagree with Williams here.  In addition, I’ve never read anywhere in Fox-Genovese’s scholarship which implies anything along these lines.  Let me state again for the record that I am well aware of the scholarship that has outlined the ways in which the lives of slaves and slaveowners intersected and often resulted in close personal ties.  It would be surprising to me if it didn’t given the social dynamics involved.  I am exploring just such a relationship as I edit the letters of Captain John C. Winshmith of South Carolina.  The problem I have, and the reason I find the assertion of "champion" to be dangerous, if not perverse, is it involves what appears to be a celebration.

6 comments… add one

  • matthew mckeon Oct 20, 2007

    If we recognize that slaveowners and slaves had opposing interests, how can a slaveowner champion a slave, while supporting the institution of slavery? Given a relationship so one sided, how could a slave champion a slaveowner within the system of slaveownership.

  • matthew mckeon Oct 20, 2007

    In “Army Life in a Black Regiment” T.W.Higginson recounts a raid on a plantation by his unit. One of his corporals, Robert Sutton, had been a slave on the plantation, before escaping to Union lines. Higginson describes how he had a civilized conversation with the lady of the house, eliciting her comments on how well treated her slaves were, then suddenly produced the armed and uniformed Sutton. The lady was chagrined, Higginson was delighted(now here’s a guy who was a champion of the enslaved), but Sutton himself, as Higginson notes, was impassive.
    Sutton showed Higginson some of the manacles and other apparatus of slavery. But he outwardly showed little interest in being vengeful– he seemed to have little or no personal interest with his former owners at all. Wasn’t this indifferance the more common relationship between the owned and owners?
    Higginson did write that Sutton seemed more concerned that his white officer and his white owner would find a common ground that wouldn’t include him–which was very perceptive of him.

  • Marc Ferguson Oct 20, 2007

    Kevin,
    I find your point that “chains of affection” must not be equated with friendship extremely important. The complexity of white/black, owner/slave, relationships is often invoked as evidence that the brutalities of slavery are misrepresented. Aside from being a misunderstanding of what this complexity of relationships actually indicates, this ignores the fact that the vast majority of slaves did menial labor, and did not have the kind of intimate contact with their owners that would cultivate even “chains of affection.”

    Marc

  • Mannie Gentile Oct 20, 2007

    Kevin,

    For about ten years I led Civil War travel/study tours, bringing about 45-50 people from West Michigan to various Civil War sites.

    During one such trip, at the Museum of the Confederacy, one of my regular travelers said to me: “Weren’t there benevolent slaveholders?”

    I responded: “Replace the word ‘slaveholder’ with the word ‘rapist’… now you tell me.”

    She later told me it was an eye-opener for her.

    Mannie

  • Brooks Simpson Oct 20, 2007

    Mr. Williams’s argument is too clever by half.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 21, 2007

    Matthew, — Your comments are so obvious that it is unfortunate that it even needs to be mentioned. Perhaps it is a reflection of just how absurd Williams’s suggestion is.

    Marc, — Thanks for the comment. It is an absolutely crucial distinction and one that Williams too easily collapses. That Williams chooses to equate “mutual affection” with friendship or champion suggests that he is not really familiar with the arguments that Fox-Genovese and others are trying to make about the complex interactions between whites and blacks. More specifically, I don’t believe that he’s read much of anything that historians have written about slavery over the past few decades. What is ironic is that Williams constantly berates historians like Fox-Genovese and Carmichael as part of the PC-Liberal establishment which is simply a non-starter and vacuous.

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