@Book { oakes1982,
    author = {James Oakes},
    title = {The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders},
    publisher = {W. W. Norton},
    address = {New York},
    year = 1982,

Page numbers here are from the 1998 reprint by Norton.

Oakes argues that the slaveholding class was heterogeneous, and that the views of a minority of tradition-bound “paternalist” large slaveholders have often been mistaken for the views of the whole. Thus, historians read large traditional planters decrying materialism and grubby capitalists and conclude (like Genovese) that the master class was pre-capitalist or even anti-capitalist. In reality, says Oakes, “paternalism” was on its way out by the end of the colonial period, replaced by bourgeois values among “planter-businessmen” (12) who were oriented towards the market. Armed with an evangelical “gospel of prosperity” and a belief in white supremacy, they set out trying to make “factories in the fields.”

Of particular interest for this project is Chapter 3, “The Slaveholders’ Pilgrimage,” which argues that geographic mobility and movement west became closely identified with “upward mobility” for slaveholders in the antebellum period, who were constantly on the move and on the make. “Beginning with the assumption that their prosperity was divinely inspired, slaveholders went on to view black slaves and western lands as core elements in the construction of a physically and economically mobile culture” (226).

Viewed from this perspective, Refugees to Texas during the Civil War were not aberrations so much as continuations of an older story. His comments about the sons of older, conservative planters also ring true with the evidence I’m finding about the Weeks Family, the Martin-Littlejohn-Pugh Family, and others. His comments about paternalistic parents and their advice to sons in Chapter 7 helps illuminate clash between Robert Cambpell Martin, Sr. and Thomas Pugh Martin.


On skewing in the literature on slaveholders caused by preponderance of manuscripts from unrepresentative families:

Inevitably, the biases of the manuscripts have found their way into the history books. We think of the Old South as a society imbued with a strong sense of “family,” but we draw that conclusion on the basis of collections saved by families that were unusually concerned with the preservation of their own legacies. We read the papers of the wealthiest elite and conclude that the society was singularly aristocratic (xxii).

p. 6-7: “As the South approached the revolutionary era, those who clung to the paternalist world view found themselves increasingly outnumbered by slaveholders who were more receptive to the seemingly inappropriate doctrines of individualism and equal opportunity.”

p. 7: “Well before the end of the colonial period, the American dream of upward mobility became implicitly linked to land and slavery in the minds of many white Southerners.”

On the paradox of revolutionary era slaveholders ascribing to doctrines like “all men are created equal” while holding slaves:

But most slaveholders who expressed misgivings about bondage used religious rather than revolutionary arguments, and a high percentage of the manumissions during the revolutionary era were made by ministers (31).

On the legacies of the eighteenth century for the nineteenth:

The patterns of slaveholding that emerged in colonial America were not profoundly altered in the nineteenth century. Long before the Revolution, the cash-crop economy had encompassed small slaveholding farms and large plantations alike. Cotton technology did not yet dominate southern agriculture, nor was there a workable marketing system that could service the cotton economy. But if the specific crops changed, if the South’s physical boundaries expanded, most of the fundamental aspects of the slave system were in place by 1800, and they remained virtually intact through the antebellum years (34).

On the gap between myth and reality:

The slaveholders of legend were men bound by tradition. Attached to family and community, they lived lives of stability and comfort. If they were hedonistic, the needs of their black and white dependents were nevertheless chief among their concerns. Solidly agrarian, they resisted the hectic materalism of the more urban and industrial North. The society they established was unique, marked by its gentility, its reverence for the established ways, and an admirable blend of self-discipline and civility. But this legend has served the purposes of proslavery ideologues and post-Civil War romantics more than the cause of historical accuracy. It distorts the past by dismissing almost entirely the experience of the vast majority of slaveholders who were not planters and who rarely lived in bucolic relaxation. It further distorts by presenting an idealized image of the plantation divorced from the mundane and oppressive realities of everyday life (51).

On the equation of upward mobility with migration:

The dominant slaveholding culture grew out of the colonial experience in America and embraced the diversity of southern society. It took form in the rapidly expanding slave economy of the antebellum period and so produced a world view that equated upward mobility with westward migration. For unlike plantation life, physical movement, upward mobility, and social fluidity shaped the destinies of the vast majority of American slaveholders (68).

Chapter 3: The Slaveholders’ Pilgrimage

On generational differences:

Slaveholders pressured their sons to go to college, to be prudent in their investments, to live according to the dictates of Christianity, but above all else to succeed. Not surprisingly, most young slaveholders were deeply religious and at the same time obsessed with their own economic advancement. They were imbued with a materialistic ethos that ruled their lives, pushing them from their homes in search of prosperity, causing many to live in a style that belied their own wealth (69).

p. 72: “… materialism passed from one generation of slaveholders to the next with all the certainty of a genetic trait. Only a small fraction of masters ever stood aloof from the avid pursuit of wealth.”

p. 73: “Raised in a society where the pressure to succeed was brought to bear from every direction, slaveholders quite naturally were intrigued by the various devices available to them for making money.” Especially land and slaves.

p. 76: “After the Mexican War, the emphasis was on [migration to] Texas.”

p. 79:

The Arkansas Gazette was impressed by the “renewed vigor” of migration in 1845. The ferry at Little Rock “has been crowded, for several days, with movers, going South, some to Texas, but principally to settle in the fertile lands of the Red River district. Among those who have passed through town since Sunday morning we presume there were not less than 300 negroes.”

There was no period before the Civil War when this massive movement of slaveholders slowed down for long. Indeed, it reached its climax with the migration into Texas in the 1850’s. The state’s population tripled in just ten years, and half of the increase was in slaves.

At the same time, Oakes finds frequent expressions of frustration with and distaste for Texas upon arrival—prefiguring refugees’ experiences, too (see p. 80: “some slaveholders moved because they felt they had no choice”; p. 82: “the living conditions after slaveholders arrived at their new homes were rarely better than tolerable”).

p. 87: “Demographic mobility was so much a part of life in the slaveholding South that those who yearned for stability were often frustrated.”

Oakes even suggests that “by the late antebellum period, movement meant more to slaveholders than the rational pursuit of economic goals” (90). “Like a sacred pilgrimage, westward migration justified itself” (94).

More quotes

p. 123: “Because the study of slaveholders is a success story by definition, it is difficult to understand the fear of failure that was part of the culture of slaveholding.”

Chapter 7: Masters of Tradition

This is a chapter on the elite few paternalists who were increasingly alienated from the slaveholding class as a whole by the late antebellum period.

p. 201: “While it was not at all unusual for slaveholding parents to take anxious interest in their children’s careers, the concern of paternalistic parents was unusually intense, with subtle but significant differences of emphasis from that of most slaveholders. Where prudence and sobriety were normally encouraged as the pathway to success, material reward was not stressed heavily in conservative households” (201).