“Slavery is as ancient as war, and war as human nature.”

Americans, with their strong tendency to externalize the evil within them and to project it onto others, have been waging crusades to extirpate or crush one kind of evil or another for almost 200 years now. The Pelagian belief in man’s natural innocence and capacity for perfection was the root of many heretical movements which swept the northern United States in the post-revolutionary period and the foundation of a host of religions from Finneyite Christianity to Transcendentalism and Mormonism, and it is still the core of the institutionalized leftism of the American academy.

The work of Eugene Genovese is a powerful rebuke to the Pelagian worldview of American historians, particularly as manifested in their treatment of the American South. Genovese is a former Marxist whose political philosophy has become more and more conservative in a Burkean sense, and who recently returned to the Catholic Church of his ancestors. He is a meticulous, thorough, insightful, and fair-minded scholar whose work on both the black and white South is among the best in his field; his early work on the Southern slave system was brilliant and continues to set the standard for the subject. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974) remains required reading for those wishing to penetrate beyond the caricatures of the slave system presented in such works of fiction as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Alex Haley’s Roots.

In the second half of his career, Genovese turned his historical attention to the thought and ideals of the Southern slaveholding class and their political and theological allies. His forthcoming volume, The Mind of the Master Class, promises to be an impressive work of American history. In the meantime, he has produced three slim volumes of recent lectures that offer an introduction to his investigation of a neglected but important and rich body of thought. The first volume, The Slaveholders’ Dilemma, was published in 1992; the second. The Southern Tradition, came out in 1994; and the present volume, A Consuming Fire, in 1999.

Almost all American historians present Southern history as nothing more than a dismal story of the long oppression of blacks by whites, interrupted by a brief and unsuccessful white rebellion against the Union, followed by the uplifting stop, of black resistance to their oppressors and their salvation at the hands of the federal government under Kennedy and Johnson. While Genovese holds no brief for either slavery or segregation (he considers them “enormities”), he despises the lazy leftist historians who treat the history of the South as a simplistic moral drama in which good finally triumphs over evil. As Genovese himself complained in a 1992 speech at the University of South Carolina, Southern youth “are being taught to forget their forebears or to remember them with shame”; “too often, [Southern] history is now taught, when it is taught at all, as a prolonged guilt-trip—a prologue to the history of Nazi Germany.” He denounced this practice as “a cultural and political atrocity—a successful campaign to strip Southern youth of their heritage, and, therefore, their identity.”

Genovese is no blind apologist for the South, nor does he suggest that the historian should gloss over past injustices. Yet, despite what he regards as the white South’s “tragic commitment to slavery and racism,” he is willing to praise “Davis and Stephens, Calhoun and Thornwell, Lee and Stonewall Jackson” as “great men.” He has insisted that the best minds of the Old South in the fields of political economy and political science, constitutional theory, Christian theology, and historical studies “deserve to be ranked among America’s ablest thinkers,” and he has consistently maintained that their work, along with that of their successors, forms an intellectually coherent and sophisticated cultural tradition that “constitutes America’s most impressive native-born critique of our national development, and, indeed, of the more disquieting features of the modern world.”

But while Genovese has been a thorn in the side of a pedantic and self-assured liberalism for years now, he has not failed to trim the sails of Southern nationalists who want to ignore the place of slavery in the Old South. He writes:

The Confederacy may have come into being as a bastion of constitutionalism, states’ rights, and traditional values, as its originators and many others since have claimed with considerable justification, but it also came into being as a slaveholding republic.

While pointing to the obvious truth that slavery formed the basis of the Southern socioeconomic order, Genovese has gone on to note that Southerners themselves claimed that their system of organic social relations was superior to the free labor system of the North. In Southern eyes, the Northern system promoted a socially destructive radical individualism, rewarded materialism and greed, and was hostile to Christian principles, while some form of bound labor resolved the threatening “social question,” buttressed social order, created harmonious class relations, preserved a necessary social hierarchy, and created a more favorable environment for Christian principles and the spread of the Gospel.

A Consuming Fire examines two questions that Southern Christians grappled with as soon as it became apparent that they would lose the war and that continue to bother the historically knowledgeable among them to this day. First, why did God allow the Northern states, filled as they were with infidelity, heresy, and Mammon-worship, to defeat the largely orthodox Christian South? As Genovese documents, from the beginning of the war. Southern pastors, lay civilians, and soldiers were confident of two things: first, that they would defeat the Northern armies and gain their independence; second, that God Almighty was on their side. Even up until the last year of the war, most continued to hope that God would deliver them victory. When defeat did come, Southerners were spiritually shaken. Nevertheless, few abandoned their faith in the Lord, and many actually emerged with a faith strengthened and deepened by the crushing of their earthly hopes. Genovese credits the pastors for subtly warning their congregations, after the first serious military reverses in 1862, that God does not always guarantee victory in war to the cause of right and that He often uses heathen, heretics, and pagans to discipline His people.

The traditional answer to the question of why God decreed a Northern victory is that He was punishing Southerners for owning slaves. But as Genovese demonstrates. Southern Christians had sound biblical reasons for rejecting this explanation in the postbellum era, for they knew that the Bible neither explicitly nor implicitly declares slavery per se to be sinful; on the contrary, it sanctions the custom, provided that certain conditions are met. Genovese writes:

The Southern divines, relying on the Word, forged a strong scriptural case. They cited the Old Testament to show that the Israelites, including Abraham and other favored patriarchs, held slaves without drawing Cod’s censure. They cited the New Testament to demonstrate that neither Jesus nor the apostles ever preached against slavery and that, while Jesus drove the money changers from the temple. He never drove the slaveholders from His church.

However, he does not let the matter rest there. He argues that slavery as practiced in the South “fell well short of biblical standards,” that Southern Christians knew this at the time but failed to enact the necessary reforms, and that therefore God punished them by defeating them in war and taking away those whom God had entrusted to their care. Genovese takes the title of his book from Deuteronomy 4:23-24: “Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the Lord your God, which he made with you. . . . For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.” He believes that Southerners failed to meet their responsibilities as Christian masters to “follow the example of Abraham and to treat their slaves as members of their household and as brothers and sisters in the eyes of the Lord.” They failed to realize that slavery was a sacred trust to be regulated in strict “accordance with the Decalogue, the standards of the Abrahamic household, and the teachings of Jesus.” According to Genovese, the slaveholders and statesmen of the South simply did not meet this standard of biblical stewardship. Thus, he believes, God deposed them as stewards for their persistent failure to heed God’s word, just as Christ warned He would do in Luke 16:1-2.

This opinion is neither anachronistic nor original. Many of the South’s most distinguished theologians, pastors, and bishops came to the same conclusion in the aftermath of the war, and sometimes earlier. Long after the war, most of them believed that, if only they had reformed slavery in time, God would have brought them victory in war and decreed the establishment of their independent Southern republic.

Genovese is willing to concede that the Southern pro-slavery reformers were intelligent men of conscience who honestly thought a Christianized slave system to be consistent with Scripture. On the other hand, he has no hesitation in condemning the stand-patters for complacency in ignoring the Christian call for reform. He insists that, while Southern divines may be criticized “for theological error” in upholding slavery in any form, they may not fairly be accused of ignorance, bad faith, or hypocrisy. However, Genovese never spells out the nature or biblical content of that error. The reader is left wondering whether Genovese thinks the modern condemnation of slavery per se (slavery in the abstract) is theologically and morally groundless or whether it has simply never been made.

Genovese ably summarizes the efforts of Southern Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist, and Catholic church leaders to urge their congregations to reform slavery along Christian lines. They implored Southern planters to provide more religious instruction for their slaves. They encouraged Southern legislators to repeal the literacy laws, which forbade teaching slaves to read, for by denying them that skill, they were denying them the Bible. They also called for the legal recognition of slave marriages and slave families so that planters could no longer break up de facto families. Genovese recognizes that many, if not most, planters tried to avoid this practice, but he also notes that it happened more often than many Southerners at the time were willing to admit, since the temptation to make a good profit by a particular sale often proved too strong even for Christian slaveholders. The Southern divines warned their congregations that such sales not only violated the sacred institution of the family but provided occasions for slaves to commit adultery. The reformers also urged their faithful to allow slave testimony in court, and to enact laws to punish cruel and neglectful masters and to prevent the seizure or sale of slaves for unpaid debts or foreclosures. The object of this last measure was to bind slave families not only to a particular piece of land but also to a particular owner. As Genovese points out, the sum total of these reforms would have transformed the master-slave relation into “a more humane system of personal servitude.”

Needless to say, there was little reform along these lines either before or during the war. Genovese addresses the question of why a predominantly churchgoing and Bible-reading people did not do as their pastors urged them. As he points out, Southern reformers cast much blame on the Northern Abolitionist movement. They constantly complained that it was difficult to persuade planters that they should be teaching their slaves to read when the Abolitionists were sparing no effort in smuggling into the Southern states inflammatory literature which urged the slaves to rise up and slit their masters’ throats, among other things. The palpable hostility and antagonism displayed by the Abolitionists toward the white South, their calls for a bloody slave rebellion, and their unrealistic demands for immediate and unconditional emancipation undoubtedly made slavery reform more difficult by producing resentment, fear, and a siege mentality among the whites. Although Genovese does not mention the fact, many Northerners (including Sen. Daniel Webster, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, and Princeton theologian Charles Hodge) condemned the Abolitionists for actually worsening the plight of the slaves and for creating hostility and distrust between the Northern and Southern people. Genovese probably underestimates the complicity of the Abolitionists in blocking reform, but he is correct to point out that Abolitionist fanaticism and conspiracies did not absolve Southern planters of their responsibility for fulfilling their Christian duties to their slaves.

The second important question that Genovese examines concerns the likely future of the peculiar institution in the event that the Southern states had won their independence. He reveals that many prominent Southerners, including church leaders, statesmen, and writers, advocated gradually transforming slavery into a system of bond labor in which bondsmen would be granted certain minimal legal rights of property, personal liberty, and full legal recognition of marriages and parenthood. Those who advocated such a change included the Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell, Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, and novelist William Pendleton Kennedy. Genovese stresses that the reformers were not willing to consider adopting the free labor system of the North; rather, they all insisted that “a stratified social order based on the strict subordination of the laboring classes and the legally enforced personal responsibility of a master class toward those who labored for them” be maintained.

In Genovese’s opinion, an independent Southern Confederacy would have shrunk from such radical reform, which, by removing the planter’s absolute control over his labor property, would have reduced the profitability and productivity of Southern agriculture and hence “promised to turn the South into a second- rate power” and its planters into “the clients of Northern capital.” Genovese is saying that, ultimately, members of the planter class had three choices available to them: first, to maintain the profitable but harsh system of chattel slavery, while incurring God’s judgment; second, to reform the institution and save their souls, though dooming themselves to declining wealth and power and eventual Northern economic domination; or, third, to emancipate the slaves and create a free labor system which would have led to “rapid industrialization” and the imitation of the worst and most un-Christian features of Northern society. “One way or another,” Genovese writes, “the slaveholders, however metamorphosed into a new class, faced a decline in their class power and an end to their dream of an alternate road to modernity.”

He may be right, but it is at least possible that an independent South might have enacted the reforms urged by her Christian leaders and thus avoided falling into a state of economic backwardness and dependency. After all, Southerners consistently valued such non-monetary goods as country living, personal independence and liberty, and an harmonious and rich social life at least as much as mere wealth and material accumulation; and independence might have created a more favorable environment for Christian reform of their labor system. Southerners might have introduced a smaller and more humanely scaled industrialization to provide some measure of industrial self-sufficiency, and black Southerners might eventually have achieved legal equality and propertied independence. In other words, an independent South could well have found an alternate —and more Christian—path to modernity. Thanks to Mr. Lincoln, we shall never know.

Perhaps the least satisfactory portion of this otherwise excellent book is Genovese’s brief discussion of racial thinking and racial policies in the postwar South, where he argues that the Southern divines failed to build a scriptural case for racial segregation, anti-miscegenation laws, and Southern support for Western “racial imperialism,” all of which he condemns. “No postbellum defense of racial dictatorship and segregation,” he writes, “compared in biblical scholarship and intellectual power to the defense of slavery.” This may be true, but it is also true tliat Southerners did not think that such a defense was necessary. Even in the North, only the most radical Republicans questioned the necessity or morality of some form of racial subordination of the freedmen. Perhaps the tables should be turned around to face the Northern liberals, who have never bothered to formulate a biblical argument for their egalitarian principles and policies. In short, Genovese’s criticism of the postbellum South seems uncharacteristically unfair and anachronistic. On the whole, however, this important book is marked by meticulous scholarship and profound insight.


[A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South, by Eugene D. Genovese (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press) 169 pp., $24.95]