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The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview
The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Cambridge University Press, 2005
824 pp., $35.99

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Harry S. Stout


Puritans, Planters, and American Intellectual History

The Mind of the Master Class is a masterpiece.

In The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese embark upon a task of rehabilitative intellectual history remarkably similar to that undertaken by the Harvard historian Perry Miller in the 1930s. Both have chosen a decidedly unfashionable subject for serious study. In the 1920s and '30s, the Puritans were the bete noires of serious American culture. When he began work on the two-volume opus that would become The New England Mind, Miller recalled in the foreword to the 1954 edition,

Oddly enough, I found myself driven to study the structure of the original Puritanism of New England in a time when the perverse tendencies of the American sensibility were most excited against my subject. All around me, in the 1920s, I was being shown by pundits and philosophers whom I respected, that "Puritanism" was the source of everything that had proved wrong, frustrating, inhibiting, crippling in American culture.

In his magisterial reassessment Miller came to the opposite conclusion. Far from being incidental or marginal to "serious" American intellectual history, the Puritans represented "one of the major expressions of the Western intellect" in American culture. Whatever feelings of personal revulsion or disagreement Miller harbored for his subjects (and as a self-confessed atheist they were certainly present), he recognized that an enormously significant component of America's cultural and intellectual legacy had been missed by his smugly superior intellectual peers.

In 21st-century America, antebellum Southern slaveholders are the new Puritans, who stand for everything that is repulsive in American history. Racist, violent, misogynist, willing to destroy the nation to preserve their "peculiar institution," slaveholders in post-civil rights movement America are about as politically incorrect a subject for sympathetic study as any scholar could choose to explore. "To modern sensibilities," the Genoveses ...

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