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

Review: Kolchin’s American Slavery

Ed. Note – this is one a 100 or so book reviews I wrote for a now long defunct livejournal. I’m posting it, and many others like it for my own records and hopefully your enjoyment.
Name Your Link
Peter Kolchin

If you’re going to read one overview book on the history of slavery in America, and you want it to include not only the racism and sexism that were endemic in the slavery era, but you also want a good discussion of the economic consequences of slavery, and at least some explanation of why the practice was beginning to fail both morally and economically by the late 1800s, you could do worse than read Kolchin’s book.

How’s that for sentence? Read Kolchin, and you’ll get a number just as long.

All kidding about Kolchin’s sentence structure aside, this is one of those rare books which walks the line well between the exhaustiveness of an academic work and the readabilty of popular history. While it isn’t as good as Battle Cry of Freedom, the book on the Civil War, if you ask me, it comes close.

And in fairness to Kolchin, in some ways, a history of slavery is a harder thing to write. The subject matter is unrelentingly horrific. And yet, if you are to do the subject justice, you need to more past the horror to the economics and politics behind it not in a way which trivializes the plight of the enslaved, but goes at least part of the way towards explaining their enslavement. Walking that line is difficult, and Kolchin doesn’t always succeed, but its clearly what he is going for in this work and for that he should be applauded.

Recommended for the enthusiast.