Douglas Wilson On a Roll

The History News Network reports that historian Eugene Genovese has come to the defence of Douglas Wilson, co-author of Southern Slavery, As It Was, a booklet that asserted that (among much else):

There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world…Slave life was to [the slaves] a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care.

Wilson’s booklet is a few years old, but it came to media attention last December, when it was noticed that it was being used as a textbook in a Christian school in North Carolina. I noted at the time that Rev Wilson was a kind of Christian Reconstructionist, with links to D James Kennedy. Wilson’s co-author Rev Steve Wilkins is a director of the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as as a hate group (Atrios also has some nice quotes from League founder Michael Hill, second item). Apparently the the booklet was withdrawn after it was shown to have been partly plagiarised from another source.

Now Eugene Genovese has provided editorial help for a new edition, to be entitled Black and Tan, along with a blurb:

The Reverend Douglas Wilson may not be a professional historian, as his detractors say, but he has a strong grasp of the essentials of the history of slavery and its relation to Christian doctrine. Indeed, sad to say, his grasp is a great deal stronger than that of most professors of American history, whose distortions and trivializations disgrace our college classrooms. And the Reverend Mr. Wilson is a fighter, especially effective in defense of Christianity against those who try to turn Jesus’ way of salvation into pseudo-moralistic drivel.

As HNN notes, Genovese is responsible for a highly-regarded study of slavery, Roll, Jordan, Roll. Genovese is a former Communist who converted to Roman Catholicism and neo-conservatism in 1996 (yawn), several months after his wife (a fellow leftist academic). According to a 1996 book review in First Things:

Fundamentally, he discovered [in his early researches] that Marxism gravely underestimates the power of religion. Among both black and white southerners, Genovese writes, “the overpowering evidence of religious faith aroused in me a skepticism about the reigning tendency in Academia to, as it were, sociologize faith out of religion-to deny the reality of spirituality.”

Genovese here was right (in general) about Marxism, and was on to something quite early (for his discipline, at least). But if he correctly diagnosed an academic blind spot back in the 1970s, this was hardly relevant by the 1990s, by which time scholars like George Marsden, Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll had all produced ground-breaking books on American religious history (See also this recent essay from Stanley Fish). Back to the review of Genovese:

In the decades before the Civil War…as slavery came under harsher attack, southerners retrenched…The crux of the problem, as they saw it, was that under industrialism the elites took no social responsibility for the working classes. By contrast, slavery was an organic, personal, face-to-face relation; it was an extension of the “household” (which, in preindustrial societies, included dependent laborers)…[Genovese] praises the slaveholders’ “unshakable insight that bourgeois social relations irresistibly generated a self-revolutionizing social and economic system that dissolved family and community and made the marketplace the arbiter of moral and social life.”


No matter how kind or decent individual slaveholders may have been, the institution of slavery was itself inherently unjust, since it reduced human beings to economic property to be bought and sold. (This was also the fatal flaw in southerners’ claim that slavery was organic-i.e., outside the marketplace.)…Apologists for the South typically stress the independent freeholders as shapers of the region’s ethos, while tracing its origin ultimately to the older Christian civilization of Europe. “This will not do,” Genovese admonishes.

The rights and wrongs of this thesis have no doubt been considered at length elsewhere (an interesting progressive critique of Genovese from Manuel Yang can be seen here). But it sounds very different from Douglas Wilson’s slave apology. Has Genovese just moved further and further to the right since then? Has Wilson’s new booklet toned it down (there is no mention of Wilkins as co-author this time)? Does Genovese now conflate the value of understanding the religious perspectives of slaveholders with actually holding the same view today? Or is Genovese just another neo-con opportunist?

2 Responses

  1. Wow. I didn’t know he’d gone off the deep end

  2. Genovese stared at the poster of Marx that hung in his office for many decades. This fixed contemplation resulted in a hallucination in which the image of the Biblical God emerged. Beards have a way of causing misidentifications.

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