Lacy K. Ford’s Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009) is a magnificent survey of the Jacksonian South’s struggle to reconcile itself with slavery. Actually, according to Ford, it was the Jacksonian Souths’ (Upper and Lower) struggle to reconcile themselves to slavery, as circumstances in the Early Republic called for reconsideration of whether white Americans should own black Americans.
Ford, an award-winning professor of history at the University of South Carolina, identifies three phases experienced by the South as slavery went from being considered a necessary evil to a positive good. The first was from the 1780s to 1808, when the Upper South paid mere lip service to ending slavery, while the Lower South became more enamored of the institution as cotton began to gain more importance. The second phase lasted from 1808 to the early 1830s. During these years, the Lower South looked to “lighten” itself by selling slaves further south. At the same time, Lower South whites acted ambivalently toward the internal slave trade, deploring the “blackening” of their states, yet needing the labor force to continue the profitability of the cotton empire as it spread westward. Finally, the remainder of the 1830s witnessed Upper and Lower South whites responding to the increasingly vocal abolitionist movement that emerged after Nat Turner’s rebellion (5).
This latter reaction produced different reactions among white southerners. Those living in the Upper South determined to continue the movement of slaves to the Lower South, while at the same time reconstructing their political institutions and revising their states’ constitutions to lessen or eliminate the influence of free blacks (359-360, 444-445). In the Lower South, religious leaders helped lead a reconfiguration that argued that racial differences predisposed African Americans to slavery; that African American slavery maintained white solidarity in the face of the class conflict unleashed by capitalism; and that paternalism was the best method of maintaining order in southern society. Paternalism particularly allowed southerners to justify a system of human bondage predicated on the responsibilities of both the owner and the owned to construct interlocked communities, starting at the plantation level, that created a region free from the upheavals of capitalism experienced by the North (508-509, 524-526).
My only criticisms of the book are minor. One is that there were a number of errors in the book’s footnotes (see especially pp. 583-584). Misspelled words and wrong book titles seem like obvious things that should have been caught during the copy-editing process, but, frankly, in a book of this size, copy-editing errors are going to get through. Secondly, and more substantively, I am not as convinced as Ford that “[r]ace mattered; little else did.” He goes on to argue, “This singular emphasis on racial difference . . . established race as the primary basis for social distinction, shoving character, wealth, education, and property ownership into the background” (532). I think this claim is far too simplistic in its explanatory power. Race was significant, of course, but the Jacksonian South was more complex than this one defining characteristic. Kinship networks, just to give one example, were extremely important in helping “men on the make” get ahead in society.
Undergraduate instructors will likely find this book challenging to use, although they might be able to assign certain chapters, such as the ones Nat Turner’s rebellion or the constitutional discussion in Tennessee in the 1830s, successfully to their students. Graduate students will undoubtedly find this book on their list of readings for comprehensive exams. Scholars of the Old South, Jacksonian America, and antebellum slavery will want to mull over the argument that Ford has made and consider particularly its ramifications for our understanding of southern paternalism.
You can read more about Lacy K. Ford’s book in his interview with Civil War Book Review.