Profits Versus Paternalism? Reassessing Christian Paternalism in Light of the New Histories of Slavery

Laura Rominger Porter

Laura Rominger Porter is an independent scholar based in Des Moines, Iowa.

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Laura Rominger Porter, "Profits Versus Paternalism? Reassessing Christian Paternalism in Light of the New Histories of Slavery," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016): jsreligion.org/vol18/porter.

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Among all the compelling new works on slavery and capitalism, Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told lingers in its account of how enslavers maximized labor in the cotton fields. He writes,

[Y]ou can find [in the sources] at one point or another almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture: carpenters’ tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaw, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in “stress positions,” burning, even waterboarding. And descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds.[1]

All of these instruments of torture were components of a widespread, rationalized system of labor discipline in the southwestern cotton kingdom. The “pushing system,” Baptist argues, “extracted more work by using oppressively direct supervision combined with torture ratcheted up to far higher levels than [. . .] before.” All of this violence led to an “astonishing increase in cotton production that required no machinery—save the whipping-machine.”[2]

Baptist is not the first historian to argue that American slavery was capitalist or violent. Yet such passages, along with similar ones in Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams, so convincingly link profit increases to grueling work routines and escalating violence that they cast serious doubt on the notion that humanitarian appeals to masters had any measurable effect at all, or indeed ever could. In these works, acts of torture appear not as isolated acts of sadism by the psychologically unhinged, but as entirely rational expressions of material self-interest that extended from the perverse incentives of the cotton economy. Thus, if we look to these new works to inform the longstanding debate over the nature of the master-slave relationship, they not only leave little question that the paternalistic ideals touted by many slave owners were rarely put into practice, but also—crucially—why they were doomed from the beginning: the claim that paternalistic treatment led to more pliant slaves, more efficient labor and increased profits was, in a word, false.

Such a finding has direct bearing on southern religious history because so many white evangelicals in the antebellum South spoke of Christianizing slavery. Recent histories of southern evangelicalism are clear that Christian masters’ actions were rarely paternalistic. They instead portray paternalism as an often sincere (if seldom realized) expression of the white evangelical conscience and an organized, if failed, effort to remedy the unbiblical aspects of slavery.[3]

Setting aside the obvious distance between paternalistic rhetoric and behavior, I want to draw attention to other, more interesting themes that arise from these new works: specifically, how the drive to maximize profits undermined humanitarian efforts in the antebellum South, even as reformers attempted to reconcile their efforts with profit-making. Put differently, these histories of a capitalist, profit-obsessed white South underscore two aspects of paternalism: 1) Christian paternalists wanted to humanize slavery while enhancing its profitability, and 2) Christian paternalists’ failure to reform slavery stemmed not just from their lack of conviction, but also from their ideological failure to reckon with the material costs of treating slaves as persons rather than property.

In the most general sense, “paternalism” refers to acts of concern or care for slaves on the part of their masters. Yet this terminology comes with substantial historiographic baggage. I am certainly not invoking Eugene Genovese’s classic thesis in Roll, Jordan, Roll: that paternalism was the dominant ethos of the master-slave relationship—a negotiated social reality of reciprocal obligations between masters and slaves, as well as an anti-liberal ideology of mastery that stemmed from white masters’ sense of duty to their enslaved dependents. Few historians today would deploy such a theoretically freighted or empirically suspect concept to describe southern slavery.[4]

Nor am I using “paternalism” to invoke Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s interpretation of paternalistic discourse as part of a widespread ideological defense of a precapitalist South against an encroaching capitalist North.[5] The Genoveses saw Christian paternalism as a key element of white southerners’ defense of organic labor relations against modern liberalism and capitalism, including its profit-maximizing imperative. Yet as shown by the works under consideration here (as well as earlier ones), slavery and the southern cotton economy were not only capitalist but also entwined with the northern and British industrial economies.[6] Additionally, the Genoveses’ treatment of paternalism as a pervasive southern ideology belies an emerging consensus that the white antebellum South, although united by white supremacy and material dependence on slavery, was otherwise divided by region and class.[7] Even more problematically, where the Genoveses saw evangelical Protestantism as a bulwark against the forces of capitalism and modernity, scholars such as Beth Schweiger and Jon Quist have found in it the opposite: a modern, forward-looking cultural force in which one can easily find capitalist undercurrents.[8] The newest literature on slavery is actually late to the game of rebutting Genovese and Fox-Genovese, but it does suggest that the so-called “mind” of the master class would have to have been far more insulated from the currents of capitalism that were swirling up and down the Mississippi River than the Genoveses let on.

Lacy Ford’s account of paternalism is more convincing. Although Ford is unconcerned with portraying the South as anticapitalist, he agrees that paternalism represented southern masters’ main line of defense in the national debate over slavery. And while he is clear that paternalism was seldom put into practice, he contends that paternalists sought to have material, not just rhetorical, impact. They implored masters to reform slavery because they knew it was abusive, because they feared slave rebellions, and because they believed the ultimate rejoinder to northern critics would be the actual implementation of the paternalistic program. Because paternalism outlined a path to reforming slavery in order to preserve it, it was categorically different from such reform schemes as voluntary manumission, colonization and radical abolition. It was a thoroughly proslavery response to the evils of slavery in the Cotton Kingdom.[9]

Ford’s argument is of particular interest to historians of evangelicalism because he considers “Christian paternalism” to be the core of paternalism writ large. To be sure, paternalist discourse drew from several sources—racial ideology, patriarchy, and enlightenment humanitarianism, among others—but it was consistently suffused with biblical appeals and diffused through evangelical institutions. To trace paternalism’s imprint one needs only to glance at white southerners’ sermons on slavery. The so-called “Christian slaveholding ethic” has been extensively examined by historians of southern evangelicalism, going all the way back Donald Mathews’ Slavery and Methodism. Widely endorsed by southern preachers, this distinctly evangelical ethic attempted to apply the Old Testament’s “Abramic” code to American slavery. It exhorted against slave abuse, overwork, and the separation of enslaved families; called for adequate clothing, housing, diet and medical attention, Sabbath rest and regular access to preaching; and it condemned the sexual exploitation of slaves, as well as the abandonment of sick and elderly slaves whose economic value had diminished. In keeping with the evangelizing component, some Christians even advocated educational instruction of slaves so they could read the Bible.[10]

Whatever motives inspired such public exhortations, they nevertheless were not strong enough to compel much substantive action by churches or their individual white members. And whatever rhetorical form paternalism took—political polemic or pulpit admonition—it did not actually function to humanize slavery. In fact in all of my own research of thousands of church discipline cases in the antebellum South, I found exactly one case of discipline for slave abuse. Although that case led to an elaborate public trial of the accused master, it ended in acquittal and a word of admonishment.[11] Even preachers who promoted the Abramic code fell short of its demands in their own conduct—a theme so familiar in the existing religious history that these new works on slavery can scarcely be credited for exposing the role of material self-interest among professing Christians.

These recent economic histories are therefore relevant to religious history not because they expose Christian slaveholders as hypocrites for failing to abide by the demands of their own slaveholding ethic (this should not be surprising to any student of human history, let alone scholars of southern slavery). They are relevant because they compel us to look beyond evidently religious contexts to understand how economic forces shaped the paternalist program and ultimately undercut its humanitarian aims.

Here it is worth noting that histories of southern religion and politics have tended to examine Christian paternalism’s rhetorical purpose in defending and reforming slavery, while histories of the slave economy (from plantation management to the wider cotton and slave markets) have highlighted a more materialist paternalism in market-based, “scientific” prescriptions for achieving “efficiency.” While these two literatures agree that paternalism did not accurately describe slavery, they often talk past each other because they locate paternalism in different rhetorical contexts: one attends to ecclesiastical and political audiences, and the other to southern slaveholders as a class. These two rhetorical worlds were distinct, to be sure, but they just as surely overlapped for the Christian masters who hoped to reconcile morality and profit-making. Such masters looked to paternalism as an ameliorative method of slave management whose reliance on positive incentives rather than violence gave it a humanitarian tinge without sacrificing efficiency or profits—the happy convergence, contemporaries believed, of “humanity and interest.”[12]

Indeed, the new histories of slavery suggest that antebellum southern society was so saturated in the values and market forces of slave capitalism that the Christian and economic reform programs were closely entwined. While it should come as no surprise that the task of reforming slavery was supposed to be harmonious with profit-making and openly acknowledged as such, that fact is often lost when historians approach Christian paternalism as an ethic or ideal of slaveholding instead of a method of slave management—when in fact it was both. This aspect of paternalism has been underplayed not because historians have taken paternalists’ ideals too seriously, but because they have not taken their ingrained realism seriously enough. Christian masters sought to treat their slaves as both people and property.

For all their discomfort in admitting that profits drove them to the whip and the auction block, Christian paternalists were not naïve idealists. Consider the single most successful element of the Christian slaveholding ethic, the mission to the slaves. This mission, widely supported by the southern Baptist and Methodist denominations, required the cooperation of slave masters. And in nearly every push to gain such cooperation, preachers argued for the social control benefits of Christian conversion. They routinely expressed confidence that slave evangelization and even slave education would foster slave obedience—in essence, they reduced evangelization to a labor management strategy based on self-control.[13] The proponents of slave evangelization even claimed that conversions would maximize profits by minimizing slave discontent and rebellion. As the Southern Baptist preacher and theologian Basil Manly, Jr. of Alabama put it: “the dissemination of moral truth [. . .] will always be found at once the cheapest & most effective support of law & order, the most certain check of incendiarism & turbulence.”[14] Relatedly, evangelical leaders could easily reformulate the humanitarian and moral case for Bible-based slavery into an argument touting the economic efficiency of positive incentives and long-term investment in the health of slaves. In fact, many leading southern evangelicals were fond of using the rhetoric of “efficiency” and “expediency” when discussing their various schemes of moral improvement.

Paternalists put their hope in a managerial alternative to violence that would still satisfy the need for profits. Yet as an approach that presumed to reconcile “humanity and interest” rather than maximizing self-interest alone, paternalism held little appeal for aspirational and perpetually indebted slaveholders. If Baptist’s thesis is correct, the difference in profits between “torture” and so-called humane slave management were so vast that there was little reason to expect something like enlightened self-interest or humanitarian sentiment to have had a significant effect on the nature of slave mastery in the cotton kingdom. With the material rewards for maximally exploiting labor so high, only the most benevolent masters would have been willing to make such concessions. Violence was not just profitable; it was more profitable than paternalism.

These new histories underscore the utter failure of paternalism as a reform tactic: they present prima facie evidence that most masters were unpersuaded by either the moral or economic logic of paternalism. Pinning down the exact reason for this failure is beyond the scope of their works. But they do imply that the obsession with profits was so widespread that paternalist spokesmen could not have been ignorant of its pull. And more explicitly, these works lay bare the oppressive material realities that obstructed even the most conservative reform schemes. If humane treatment of slaves was less profitable than torture, then the economics of slave-based cotton agriculture were set overwhelmingly against voluntary reform by individual masters. It is certainly true that professed Christian masters, even those with sincere moral misgivings about slavery, lacked the moral will to alter their slaveholding practices at their own economic expense. But if these new economic histories are correct, those masters were also ill-served by a reform movement whose strongest argument for reform rested on the fiction that treating slaves humanely would not cost slaveholders money.

Thus, what antislavery reformers always said of southern slavery was true: no labor system that permitted such exploitation for the sake of profits could be ameliorated—ever—by the voluntary and individualistic methods that many southern moralists (and northern conservatives) endorsed. Economic incentives were never sufficiently aligned with humanitarian values to have much effect; only abolition would do.

Christian paternalism, however, never set out to challenge the core of slavery itself, the idea that people were property. It was an ameliorative, voluntary, and individualist approach to humanizing the master-slave relationship. As such, it was a thoroughly proslavery answer to the moral dilemma slavery posed to professing Christians. Committed to slavery as an economic system, southern white evangelicals offered nothing but moral suasion to counterbalance the market machinery of slave capitalism—even as the amoral forces of supply and demand gave rise to standardized units of human capital in the language of “prime hands” (in Johnson’s telling) and incentivized torture in the cotton fields of the Old Southwest (as Baptist argues). Perhaps white evangelicals simply failed to see that the evils they saw in slavery—including extreme violence for the sake of profit—were essential to it. More likely, though, their own desire to continue profiting from slavery compromised their ability to admit as much.

In short, the emerging capitalist synthesis does not expose in any new way the failure of the evangelical conscience against the forces of material self-interest. That is an old story. Its contribution is to urge us to examine how white southern evangelicals reconciled their humanitarian interest in reforming slavery with their material interest in exploiting slaves—and to help us understand why even their most conservative reform proposals could never succeed.


[1] Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 141.

[2] Ibid., 121, 142.

[3] The diaries of evangelical masters offer some of the most compelling evidence that they could be both sincere in their humanitarian sympathies yet self-interested in their actions, and in some cases acutely aware of this tension. One of the most sensitive and detailed portraits of such a person, the Presbyterian minister, slave owner, and paternalist Charles Colcock Jones, may be found in Erskine Clarke’s Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).

[4] Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Random House, 1972).

[5] Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[6] The classic rebuttal to Genovese’s paternalistic thesis is James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York: Norton, 1982).

[7] On the more general theme of southern regional and class divisions, see William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, Vol. 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776–1854 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), and The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854–1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); and Bruce Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South (New York: Random House, 2014).

[8] Beth Barton Schweiger, The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Virginia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Jon W. Quist, Restless Visionaries: The Social Roots of Antebellum Reform in Alabama and Michigan (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998).

[9] Lacy Ford, Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (New York: Oxford, 2009).

[10] Donald Mathews, Slavery and Methodism: A Chapter in American Morality, 1780–1845 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), and Religion in the Old South (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); Mitchel Snay, Gospel of Disunion: Religion and Separatism in the Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

[11] This case may be found in the Minutes of Zion Presbyterian Church (Columbia, TN), 22 April 1835–17 May 1825, Records of Zion Church, 1808–1939, Divinity Library, Vanderbilt University.

[12] James Oakes notes this recurring theme of “humanity and interest” among paternalists in “‘I Own My Slaves, But They Also Own Me’: Property and Paternalism in the Slave South,” Review of Lacy Ford’s Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South. Reviews in American History 18, no. 4 (Dec. 2010), 587–594.

[13] Quist, Restless Visionaries, 340.

[14] Quoted in ibid., 343. Quist summarizes this evangelical perspective on slave rebellions on page 352.

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