Masters of Their Universe | The Nation


Masters of Their Universe

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Beginning in the fifteenth century, Africa, Europe and the Americas came together in the Atlantic to create new economies, new cultures and new societies. At the center of those societies was the plantation, a radically new unit of production that employed slave labor to grow exotic commodities for sale in distant markets. Atop the plantation strode a new class, men of enormous wealth and power, who--with good reason--preferred the title "master." For the next 400 years, they were masters of the universe.

About the Author

Ira Berlin
Ira Berlin, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, is the author, most recently, of Generations of...

The masters' rule extended to all corners of the Atlantic world. The shadow that their great houses cast over nearby slave cabins reached as far as the distant metropoles, so that few were untouched by the planters' enormous presence. During the past three decades historians have unraveled much of the history of what Eugene Genovese once called "the world the slaveholders made." Of late, historians have focused on the subalterns of the plantation world: slaves, free people of color, white nonslaveholders and even plantation mistresses. Perhaps spurred by the era of Republican dominance and a reassertive ruling class, historians have given new attention to the plantocracy.

Of course, there have been numerous studies of the planter class, as well as biographies of individual planters. However, they have produced little agreement as to its character. The result is a farrago of contradictory ideas, with visions of seigniorial patriarchs dueling with notions of upward-striving capitalists. On the one hand, planters have been depicted as perennial hotspurs--hard drinking, fast-living men whose hair-trigger tempers demonstrated little foresight and generated even less systematic thought. On the other hand, they have been portrayed as cultivated gentlemen, caring stewards whose hospitality became famous and whose book-lined drawing rooms oozed great ideas. The planters' residence amid black slaves and their consequent fear of enslavement, according to some historians, bred a fierce independence that made planters into great apostles of liberty, if only for white men. One famously wrote that "all men are created equal." Rejecting the idea that slavery was the great leveler, others have seen planters as hidebound aristocrats, and their commitment to chattel bondage as a prop for traditional hierarchies.

A plethora of new studies of the plantocracy offers an opportunity to revisit these masters of the universe. Two of the best are Rhys Isaac's Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation and Trevor Burnard's Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. Each offers fresh insights into the character of the plantocracy and its evolution. Because they draw upon two different slave societies and address men of such different temperaments, they provide an opportunity to think broadly about the plantocracy.

Carter and Thistlewood presided over slave plantations at the pinnacle of the planters' 400-year reign, the mid-eighteenth century. They received--as they expected--the full measure of wealth, privilege and respect due their place. Indeed, in many ways, they represented the finest attributes of the planter class, its driving ambition, commitment to human advancement (for whites, at least) and willingness to take responsibility for the world it had created.

Planters believed they represented the best, not merely for themselves but also for those they governed. For the most part, they were learned men, knowledgeable in letters and science. Carter read deeply in the literature of antiquity--naturally in the original Greek and Latin--as well as in the new novels of sentiment. He named his home plantation Sabine Hall and constructed one of the great libraries in colonial America. Thistlewood's taste ran toward science, although the works of Milton and Pope found their way onto his bookshelf. Both men were devoted to the ideas of the Enlightenment. As compulsive improvers, they perused agricultural journals for more productive seeds and bettered their herds with blooded stock. They introduced new techniques to their plantations, reorganizing work routines in a manner that would make Frederick Taylor proud. As David Brion Davis long ago noted, the plantation represented not the encrusted sloth of the ancient regime but the sleek efficiency of the nascent capitalist order. Carter and Thistlewood, each in his own way, were cheerleaders of human progress.

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