Review: Oakes’s The Ruling Race

Ed note: this and the many other reviews I’ll be posting over the coming weeks come from a now long defunct livejournal and are posted here for my records and (hopefully) your enjoyment.

The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders
Jim Oakes

I know many smart people (people much smarter than me) who have read Oakes and loved him, but I found this book to be more than a little disconcerting. It is almost entirely the story of slaveholders and the way they lived and thought. Which is fine, this is an important area of inquiry. We need books on slaveholders. But I find Oakes’s attempts to humanize a class of people few in the modern age want to reckon with, he ends up downplaying the horrific nature of slavery.

There talk here about the striving of slave owners, and their view of slaves as another commodity for advancement. And the book goes a long way in showing that most slave owners weren’t of the Thomas Jefferson plantation type, but were hard working people with less than a handful of slaves who were just trying to get ahead. There is talk of the violence and casual cruelty suffered by the slaves, to be sure, but I think it is lost in the examination of the lives of the slaveowners.

Humanizing slaveowners is all well and good. Its important to remember that these were not monsters, but regular people, but lets not pretend they weren’t horrible regular people. Lets not gloss over the routine horrific violence slaves suffered at the hands of their masters, rich or no. Maybe I am just not sophisticated enough in my reading of the book, but I think in portraying the way slave owners thought about themselves, Oakes may have begun to loose sight of what they actually were – motherfuckers to a person.

Recommended for the enthusiast

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