Yesterday, I linked to two videos that feature Civil War historians discussing various issues related to the Civil War and historical memory. In the second video, the panel was asked to share what they take to be one of the most popular misconceptions of the war. While Emory Thomas and James I. Robertson highlight the tendency among some to downplay the importance of race and slavery in the war, Professor William Scarborough offers the following curious assessment:
There is a misconception about how harsh slavery was. I mean it was not akin to the Nazi Concentration Camps at all. It wasn’t great, that’s for sure but it was a lot more flexible than a lot of people think today. Now I am a conservative, a neo-Confederate so that’s my point of view.
I have no idea what one’s identification as a conservative has to do with a question about the history of slavery and its brutality so I am going to steer clear of it. Scarborough’s identification as a “neo-Confederate” is baffling given that those who group themselves around such a label or are identified as such steadfastly resist coming to terms with its importance to the coming of the war and if they do discuss it it comes wrapped in the old “loyal slave” or black Confederate narrative. Yes, historians have clearly shown over the past few decades that slavery was flexible in any number of ways depending on where you look and at what time. What’s is truly baffling is that Scarborough himself has contributed to this literature on slavery and has even highlighted its brutality. One of the most interesting studies that I’ve read about slavery is his, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-nineteenth-century South (Louisiana State University Press, 2003). It’s a thick book, but well worth your time.
Scarborough opens up chapter 5, “Toiling For Old ‘Massa'”, with the following:
Whether they toiled in the miasmic rice swamps of the South Carolina Low Country or in the broiling heat of the cotton and cane fields in the Southwest, the African American slaves of the antebellum South earned handsome profits for their owners but often at the expense of human suffering almost without parallel in modern times. It should be remembered, however, that the condition of laboring people generally in the nineteenth century was little short of deplorable. It was that condition that impelled Karl Marx to launch his midcentury assault against the exploitation of labor by capital in the rapidly industrializing nations of the Western world. Indeed, with respect to the material conditions of life–food, clothing, shelter, and hours of labor–the chattel slaves of the South did not fare badly compared to their working class counterparts elsewhere on the planet. Rather, it was the absolute denial of freedom that set them apart from other workers and often made their lot unbearable. Slavery rendered them impotent to protect the integrity of their families and frequently exposed them to the erratic behavior of insensitive owners.
While some may have trouble swallowing Scarborough’s placing of slavery within the broader context of nineteenth century labor he still makes the point about the brutality of slavery, which, at its core involved the denial of freedom and the treating another individual as a means to an end. Unfortunately, I don’t think such a paragraph and the book as a whole qualifies Prof. Scarborough for “Neo-Confederate” status. This is historical scholarship at its best. No “Gone With the Wind” fantasies in this book.
I know “Neo-Confederates”. You sir, are no “Neo-Confederate”.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone identify himself as a neo-Confederate before; most people who have been called that consider it a slur.
I’m as baffled as you Kevin – I wonder what he means. His statements in the video imply a proscribed, innate historical memory from being a Southerner and a conservative, for which I must have been playing hooky when they passed that out.
It really makes this whole historical memory thing so interesting.
Here’s what Scarborough said in a review of Richard Follett’s “Sugar Planters” in “Civil War History,” September 2009 (p. 420):
“this reviewer found ‘The Sugar Planters’ unnecessarily and excessively polemical. Indeed, if I were to locate this book in the histoiographical spectrum of slavery, I would characterize it as a neoabolitionist tract so extreme in tone that it would have brought a smile to the lips of Solomon Northup or Theodore Dwight Weld…. If one believes Follett, the sugar masters were a universally villainous crew, devoid of any vestige of human compassion or Christian charity. Perhaps so, but I suggest that this is a classic example of applying twenty-first century values to nineteenth century conditions. Now that William Dusinberre has vilified the planters (‘Them Dark Days’….) and Richard Follett the sugar masters, it remains only for some enterprising historian of the slave South to apply similar treatment to the cotton nabobs. So much for any pretense of scholarly objectivity.”
I never thought much about Scarborough’s politics until reading that review. Yes, he makes a good point about maintaining historical objectivity, but the response seems fitting for someone who has spent a lot of time writing about the planters. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that a scholar who edited the diaries of Edmund Ruffin might have some pro-Confederate leanings.
Bill Scarborough was a professor of mine and is in many ways about as crazy a neo-Confederate as one can imagine (This is a man who moved to Mississippi in the 60s because he believed that North Carolina wasn’t tough enough on the race issue–meaning, suppressing the civil rights protesters; he had two flags in his office–a Confederate battle flag and an apartheid-era South African flag). He is also a meticulous scholar, and one of the main theses of “Masters of the Big House” that flies in the face of the neo-Confederate myth-making that Kevin often exposes on this blog is that the war was somehow not about slavery. Scarborough’s work shows definitively, through the analysis of letters and diaries of the largest slaveholders of the region–the “Slave Power”–that they certainly believed the war was about slavery, and concerns about slavery (not tariffs, or railroads, or culture, or states’ rights, or any other thing that gets thrown out there as a “cause” for secession) were paramount in their minds leading up to the war. “Masters of the Big House” is a crucial work for anyone trying to understand the coming of the war and the motivations of those who held the economic power in the South.
Hi Tom. I thought this post might lead to a comment from you. Thanks for filling in some of the personal background. I still don’t think Scarborough would find a home in today’s “neo-Confederate” groups – at least not with this book.
By the way, I am still thinking about the Gettysburg marathon. I will get back to you soon.
His work certainly debunks most neo-Confederate arguments about the cause of the war.
Is denying the brutality of slavery essential to being a Neo-Confederate?
Perhaps not, but Scarborough’s book would not make him too many friends in the “Neo-Confederate” camp.
Do all neo-Confederates deny the brutality of slavery? I don’t like dealing in absolutes (and I know a few neo-Confederates who deny the role of slavery, but not the horrors of it), so I would have to say probably not.
That being said, the concept of the “happy slave” is a narrative that comes primarily from the neo-Confederate camp.
Interesting post, Kevin. It’s amazing that his statement in the video you posted yesterday could contrast so greatly with his earlier publications.
I don’t know if Scarborough would acknowledge any conflict at all with any of his scholarship. That’s one of the things I find so interesting.
I think his statement in the video is too vague to consider it contradictory to his book. Will anyone disagree that Nazi Concentration Camps did not exhibit worse conditions than slave plantations of the South?
In my experience, they usually frame it as “of course slavery was wrong, but. . . .” followed by something about Lincoln being a racist, Grant owning slaves, treatment of immigrants in Northern factories, or some other non-sequitur intended as deflection.
The difference here is that Scarborough is not referencing the conditions of the laboring class to detract from a proper historical analysis of the master-slave relationship.
Usually a dead giveaway, both in the 19th century and now, is when you hear northern factory workers being referred to as “wage slaves”. I have no illusions as to the grim realities of free labor in the 19th century and well into the 20th. I grew up in an area where many adults who I knew when I was a child had experienced coal towns which were once terrorized by the Coal and Iron Police & where Tennessee Ernie Ford singing “I owe my soul to the company store” was documenting a grim reality, and entire states where lethal force was used to attempt to prevent unions from forming in the mines and the mills. However, at their absolute worst, a mine or mill owner did not have the right to sell a worker and/or his wife and/or his children to another mine. One of the cruelest things that slavery did was to deny the enslaved the hope, central to the American dream, that, however bad things might be now, that by working hard, etc. that people could provide their children with opportunities that they never had themselves.