58: James Oakes’ The Ruling Race

In the early 1980s, while new social historians were focusing on the internal dynamics of slave communities, James Oakes was using quantitative methods to understand the diverse conditions and experiences that made up slaveholding culture.  In The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders, Oakes strongly critiques Eugene Genovese’s conception of a relatively homogeneous paternalistic “master class;” he argues that slaveholding culture varied over time and was different in different places.  He also argues that slavery was a capitalist enterprise, not precapitalist, and thus that its implications need to be considered within the broader context of American capitalist development.

Oakes’ emphasis on quantitative data doesn’t allow him much leeway for interpreting cultural processes, but it does allow him to paint a diverse picture of slaveholders in antebellum America.  Working with data on some 500 planters (10 different counties, 50 planters each), Oakes determines that

  • although the typical slave lived on a plantation with 20+ slaves, the typical slaveholder owned fewer than 20 slaves, so the majority of planters were smallholders, not aristocrats
  • this means that slaveholder culture is actually driven by “men on the make,” not comfy paternalist planters
  • it also means that slave culture was developing on the edges of the South, where these smallholders could afford to buy land, rather than in the old tidewater regions
  • and it means that if a distinctive slaveholding culture DID emerge, it was that of the smallholder trying to make a better life for himself and his family, with emphases on economic growth, sustained expansion, political democracy, and Protestantism.

This book is not without its problems – for one, culture is mysteriously undertheorized, and I’m not sure that sheer numerical dominance is enough to determine cultural dominance, especially since many of these smallholders acquired slaves specifically to to “share in a larger American experience.”  However, it does complicate slaveholder culture and disrupt the myth of the old South.  While this book does not allow for much dialectical movement between slave culture, smallholder culture, and aristocratic planter culture, it opens up that possibility for future writers.

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