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Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South by Eugene D. Genovese

Slaveholders were preoccupied with presenting slavery as a benign, paternalistic institution in which the planter took care of his family and slaves were content with their fate. In this book, Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese discuss how slaveholders perpetuated and rationalized this romanticized version of life on the plantation. Slaveholders' paternalism had little to do with ostensible benevolence, kindness and good cheer. Their analysis deepens our understanding of the social relationships that shaped the history of the American South, relationships with vast implications even today.

Steeped in comprehensive research, Fatal Self-Deception is cultural, social, legal, and philosophical history at its best - simply brilliant. Genovese wrote more than four decades ago. In Fatal Self-Deception, Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese demonstrate with unflinching clarity just how fatal this self-deception proved.

This judicious assessment of the 'burning contradictions' that riddled slaveholder ideology traces the immensity of that deception in the face of the embarrassments that betrayed the poverty of its moral and intellectual foundation. All along the way, slaveholders scrubbed away evidence that they were not loved by the enslaved, that black people were not inherently inferior, preferred slavery to freedom, and would be wiped from the face of the earth by emancipation, denying in the process and against opposing voices, South and North slavery's 'unremitting despotism'.

In the end, as the authors write, 'Slaveholders had trouble getting their story straight'. The conundrums - including the place of poor white people in a slaveholding society - were unanswerable. The measureable consequence was the destruction of slavery in the US. A work of prodigious research. This is a masterful work of historical scholarship, wholly impressive in every respect. How, in the process of forming, living, and imposing their worldview, planters deceived themselves about their meaning to and relations with their bondpeople emerges powerfully.

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