Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Southern Society, and the Sectional Divide

In Within the Plantation Household: Black & White Women of the Old South, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese argues that women in the Old South differed fundamentally from their Northern counterparts. Unlike women in the North, Southern women lived in a household that remained at the center of economic production. Accordingly, they lacked a separate private sphere and were perpetually subject to masculine influence. Fox-Genovese’s conception of the Southern household, as distinct from the Northern home, helps to explain the evolution of the South’s slave society and provides an explanation for distinctly Southern cultural mores that reinforced and exacerbated the divide between the regions.

Fox-Genovese’s concept of the household as the basic unit of social relations in the South is central to her understanding of its development of a slave society, as distinct from a society which had slaves. The coexistence of slavery and the push for freedom in the Upper South, when understood through the lens of the Southern household, best exemplifies this assertion. At the time of the American Revolution, slavery in the Upper South remained unchallenged, and this poses a difficult question. What exactly bound the Upper South to slavery?

Ideologically at the very least, the argument for slavery as a necessary evil dominated the pro-slavery defense. At the very root of slavery’s supposed necessity was the household’s ability to keep production within the family. Although the household developed differently in the Chesapeake Bay region than in other parts of the South, it still provided the structural basis of life there. Were the household not the dominant form of social relation, intimately linking master to slave, the Revolution might have produced more support for abolition of slavery in the Upper South. As Fox-Genovese argues, the Revolution “deeply affected the imagination of southerners but did not significantly disrupt their established social relations.” The household’s role as the predominant unit of production in the South was important in the South’s development as a slave society, a society that was really defined by slavery or to which slavery was truly central. Just as the household contributed to paternalism, strengthening the bond between masters and slaves, it gave birth to the fully developed Southern culture.

From the household that defined the South emerged cultural practices and attitudes that placed Southern life in even greater contrast with life in the North. The household stood as a bulwark against capitalist modes of production, according to Fox-Genovese, creating a South that was “in but not of the bourgeois world.” However much the South might have modernized, such developments nonetheless served the plantation economy. As a result, a system of interconnections among cities failed to develop in the South. The fact that large-scale urbanization did not happen there, as it did in the North, meant that Southern culture remained dominated by interconnected, cherished rural communities.

From the higher value placed on rural, non-bourgeois life there emerged other values that fundamentally widened the sectional divide between North and South. Paramount to the Southern mind, and perhaps most antithetical to the development of full American nationhood, was a specifically Southern patriotic worldview. Patriotism as defined by George Orwell means “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life … Patriotism is of a defensive nature, both militarily and culturally.” Fully binding the South to the North, then, would have been difficult. Southern hearts, wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, were in many ways gripped by “the taste for old customs, with respect for ancestors and memory of the past.” That these customs were locally rooted in a network of households which guarded against the influence of capitalistic norms and outlooks could only have further alienated Southerners from Northern bourgeois society.

The Southern-style household contributed to the South’s culture in a way that further distanced it from the North. The rural values it perpetuated in many ways precluded a nationalist project or full American nationalism, further distancing Southern people from their Northern contemporaries, whose culture had become increasingly capitalistic and city-oriented. In this sense, the historian Ulrich B. Phillips seems to have been mistaken in asserting that the essence of the South was the white man’s supremacy there. A full definition of the South would have to include its type of pre-capitalist household, another important factor which united it as a culture.