Eugene Genovese is one of the foremost American historians. A former Marxist, he is often branded a conservative—”a label applied to me frequently these days by people who understand nothing,” he wrote in 1994. Though he may eschew being labeled a conservative Genovese admits to having always admired much in conservative thought while being a longtime friend and frequent ally of conservatives.
A specialist in the American South, Genovese is the author or editor of more than a score of books and countless articles. Among his most important books are The Political Economy of Slavery; Roll, Jordan, Roll; The Slaveholders’ Dilemma; The Southern Tradition; and A Consuming Fire. In these books he has argued for an interpretation of the Old South as a fundamentally conservative, Christian society. He has also consistently maintained the controversial position that Southern theologians got the best of their Northern counterparts in the debate over whether slavery could scripturally be classed a sin.
Roll, Jordan, Roll, arguably his most important book, posits an economic instead of a racial interpretation of the master-slave relationship. Genovese also dealt seriously with religion in this book—a rare accomplishment in our cynical age—viewing it as more than simply an opiate of the slaves or a justification for rebellion. In The Slaveholders’ Dilemma, he argues that antebellum Southerners did not think their society anti-modern or anti-progressive. Rather they considered themselves progressives who sought a different path to modernity and material progress; one that avoided the perils of radicalism and class conflict that had plagued the West since the French Revolution. Their dilemma was that they believed slavery to be the only secure foundation for a free Christian society while also recognizing that the societies which were achieving the most material progress were also those which were eradicating human bondage and were most susceptible to the radicalism they detested. In The Southern Tradition, he describes the principal tradition of the South as being “quintessentially conservative,” Christian, anti-industrial. This conservative Southern tradition offers a critique of modernity which he insists “contains much of intrinsic value that will have to be incorporated in the world view of any political movement, inside or outside the principal political parties, that expects to arrest our plunge into moral decadence and national decline.”
Genovese was a founder and served as first president of the Historical Society, a professional society for historians launched in 1998. He believed a new, non-ideological professional society was needed because the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, of which he is a former president, have become too politicized. In their journals and at their meetings they increasingly overemphasize narrow race, class, and gender studies while excluding conservatives and historians of less politically fashionable subjects in the name of diversity. Genovese’s goal is nothing less than to reorient the historical profession toward producing accessible studies free from ideological proscription. In this, as in much else, he has proven himself a steady ally of conservatives.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Genovese, Eugene D. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South. New York: Pantheon, 1965.
–. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.
–. The Slaveholders’ Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820-1860. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
–. The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
–. The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Cultural War. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
–. A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.