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Fatal Self-Deception
Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South

$76.00 (P)

  • Date Published: October 2011
  • availability: In stock
  • format: Hardback
  • isbn: 9781107011649

$ 76.00 (P)

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About the Authors
  • Slaveholders were preoccupied with presenting slavery as a benign, paternalistic institution in which the planter took care of his family, and slaves were content with their fate. In this book, Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese discuss how slaveholders perpetuated and rationalized this romanticized version of life on the plantation. Slaveholders' paternalism had little to do with ostensible benevolence, kindness, and good cheer. It grew out of the necessity to discipline and morally justify a system of exploitation. At the same time, this book also advocates the examination of masters' relations with white plantation laborers and servants – a largely unstudied subject. Southerners drew on the work of British and European socialists to conclude that all labor, white and black, suffered de facto slavery, and they championed the South's “Christian slavery” as the most humane and compassionate of social systems, ancient and modern.

    • A reassessment of paternalism with implicit replies to professional criticism and a discussion of the slaveholders' relations with the white servants and laborers on their plantations
    • Evidence that the slaveholders had to convince themselves that their slaves not only accepted slavery but loved their masters
    • How prevalent racist ideology in the North significantly, if inadvertently, reinforced the Southern proslavery argument, convincing the slaveholders that they were the blacks' only friends
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    Reviews & endorsements

    "In this remarkable culmination of four decades of intense study, Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese marshal their impressive knowledge of slaveholding Southerners. With no holds barred they examine the disparate emotions and self-justifications of slaveholders’ ideas, including a true picture of the complex and even contradictory ideas of paternalism. Their analysis deepens our understanding of the social relationships that shaped the history of the American South, relationships with vast implications even today. Steeped in comprehensive research, Fatal Self-Deception is cultural, social, legal, and philosophical history at its best - simply brilliant."
    Orville Vernon Burton, Clemson University, and author of The Age of Lincoln and In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions

    "'One day they learned that they had been deceiving themselves and living intimately with people they did not know at all.' This Eugene D. Genovese wrote more than four decades ago. In Fatal Self-Deception, Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demonstrate with unflinching clarity just how fatal this self-deception proved. This judicious assessment of the 'burning contradictions' that riddled slaveholder ideology traces the immensity of that deception in the face of the embarrassments that betrayed the poverty of its moral and intellectual foundation. All along the way, slaveholders scrubbed away evidence that they were not loved by the enslaved, that black people were not inherently inferior, preferred slavery to freedom, and would be wiped from the face of the earth by emancipation, denying in the process (and against opposing voices, South and North) slavery’s 'unremitting despotism'. In the end, as the authors write, 'Slaveholders had trouble getting their story straight'. The conundrums - including the place of poor white people in a slaveholding society - were unanswerable. The measureable consequence was the destruction of slavery in the US. A work of prodigious research."
    Thavolia Glymph, Duke University

    "An extraordinarily learned and persuasive exploration of the intellectual world of the southern slaveowners, Fatal Self-Deception delves with unprecedented depth into the slaveholding mind and helps us make sense of their understanding of paternalism and their always fraught defense of slavery. This is a masterful work of historical scholarship, wholly impressive in every respect."
    Mark Smith, Carolina Distinguished Professor of History, University of South Carolina, and author of How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses

    "In remarkable ways, this brief, lapidary volume, the last in the Mind of the Master Class series, at once hones and culminates the argument, about planter hegemony’s rise, funcitons, operations, fall, and consequences, that Eugene Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese developed over a half century. How, in the process of forming, living, and imposing their worldview, planters deceived themselves about their meaning to and relations with their bondpeople emerges powerfully. So does planters' very different - and, in many respects, more distant and classist - regard of their white servitors, even when dining together. That thirty percent of the book is given to endnotes is a crude measure of the daunting research that underlies the work's conclusions about the affective bonds and disconnects both in paternalist ideology and among the holders and those who resisted and bore the consequences of that hegemony's emotional claims and sway."
    David Moltke-Hansen, Director, Simms Initiatives, University of South Carolina

    "This thoughtful treatise lets slaveowners speak for themselves, showing how they struggled to square paternalism with the need for profit. Readers get a fresh look at the Southern master’s relationships with a host of household members. By drawing upon an immense number of original sources, the Genoveses persuasively argue that slaveowners practiced self-deception, not hypocrisy, by viewing their way of life as the best possible for all concerned."
    Jenny Wahl, Carleton College


    "In this final volume of their Mind of the Master Class trilogy, the Genoveses explore with characteristic acuity the fundamental."
    Richard Follett, The Journal of American History

    "… a rich and complicated portrayal of elite slaveholders' self-perceptions that is well worth reading."
    Margaret Abruzzo, The Journal of Southern History

    "Fatal Self-Deception is a captivating read because it exposes the psyche of what is arguably one of the most curious characters in American history - that of the slaveholding master. While Genovese and Fox-Genovese never defend the behavior of these men, they allow readers a glimpse into the convoluted ideologies that contributed to the founding of the American nation."
    Emma Heishman, GRAAT Online (

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    Product details

    • Date Published: October 2011
    • format: Hardback
    • isbn: 9781107011649
    • length: 250 pages
    • dimensions: 241 x 160 x 20 mm
    • weight: 0.45kg
    • availability: In stock
  • Table of Contents

    1. 'Boisterous passions'
    2. The complete household
    3. Strangers within the gates
    4. Loyal and loving slaves
    5. The blacks' best and most faithful friend
    6. Guardians of a helpless race
    7. Devotion unto death.

  • Instructors have used or reviewed this title for the following courses

    • African Americans in the 19th Century
    • History of North American Slavery
    • Origins of the Civil War
    • Race and Slavery: An American Dilemma
    • Social Stratification
  • Authors

    Eugene D. Genovese
    Eugene D. Genovese is a retired professor of history. He served as chair of the Department of History at the University of Rochester and taught at other institutions. He also served as president of the Organization of American Historians and of The Historical Society and he was a member of the Executive Council of the American Historical Society. He is the author of nine other books, most recently Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage.

    Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
    Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1941–2007) was Eleonore Raoul Professor of Humanities at Emory University, where she was founding director of Women's Studies. She served on the Governing Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities (2002–7). In 2003, President George W. Bush awarded her a National Humanities Medal; the Georgia State Senate honored her with a special resolution for her contributions as a scholar, teacher and citizen of Georgia; and the fellowship of Catholic Scholars bestowed on her its Cardinal Wright Award. Among her books and published lectures are The Origins of Physiocracy: Economic Revolution and Social Order in Eighteenth-Century France; Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South; Feminism without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism; and Marriage: The Dream that Refuses to Die.

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