Slaveholder's Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860

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In antebellum times slaveholders perceived themselves as thoroughly modern and moral men who were protecting human progress against the perversions spawned by the more radical aspects of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The slaveholders insisted that, in resisting the religious heresies, infidelity, ultra-democratic politics, and egalitarian dogmas then sweeping the North and Western Europe, they were proving themselves the firmest carriers of genuine progress itself. Surprisingly, they accepted the widespread idea that freedom generated the economic, social, and moral progress they embraced as their own cause. But they nonetheless increasingly took higher ground in defense of their slave system. In consequence, they plunged into an intellectual and political cul de sac. Genovese, in exploring their efforts to fight their way out of this dilemma, argues that proslavery Southerners--theologians, political theorists, economists, sociologists, and moral philosophers--simultaneously formed part of a broad trans-Atlantic conservative movement and yet advanced a distinct position that set them apart from their Northern and European counterparts. He also holds that the spokesmen for Southern slavery demonstrated a much higher level of intellectual talent than has been generally recognized and that they will no longer be subject to the obscurity into which they have fallen.