Born September 28, 1941 in Eunice, Louisiana James L. Roark is a Stanford educated historian who has written countless texts on American History and the impact of the American Civil War, to include The American Promise: A History of the United States (2008), No Chariot Let Down: Charleston’s Free People on the Eve of the Civil War (2001) and Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South (1986). He is a currently a Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of American History at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and working on a documentary on the Confederate States of America .
Though I may not have expected it to be so, this award winning literary piece was actually quite thought provoking and well-written in a way that reaches far beyond similar works of its time. Roark eloquently presents a well thought out and well written series of arguments organized in subsections relying dominantly on the use of primary sources, along the lines of diary entries and personal letters, to display the thoughts and examine the philosophy of Southern planters. He presents the well-researched examination of the impact of Reconstruction and all of its components from secession to emancipation.
Though their thoughts and understandings, their ideologies ma have been centralized and immensely focused on the idea f the plantation, the way in which Roark presents their thoughts and opinions allows the reader to open their minds about the process of Reconstruction in a way that allows them to think freely about the institution of slavery in a different way. In the days of its practicing the institution of slavery was presented and lived in tune vision, it was a way of life that was so widespread that there was no way to see around it and thus no one ever ventured to look.
It was a system of hatred and oppression, yes, but it was above all a way of life, making it difficult for many to have imagined life in any other way, thus making southern planters quite nervous to have their system of living threatened by Union efforts at Reconstruction. The planters, slave masters shared a sense of unity amongst a class of people whom they believed to be untouchable because for them, their lives as slave masters was all that there was to their identities and without it, how would they continue to exist.
How would they be able to go on having had their way of life threatened and attacked. I enjoyed the way that Roark broke down the process of Reconstruction for the reader in a way that allowed them to more fluidly follow the path secession. He sets forth three periods in his analysis and presentation: the planters decision to secede, the effects of the Civil War on the planter’s way of life-on their plantations, and the period of adjustment required to cope with a new world and a reformed system, thrust upon them by emancipation.
Not altogether sadly, the southern planters had made the mistake of forming the thought and eventually believing that the American government was put in place to support and protect them, to prevent such happenings as emancipation. When they realized that this was in no way true is when they began to recognize, but not at all accept defeat. Over time some were able to cope and others were not, ultimately relocating to an area that better suited their understanding of the world. The saddest of truths revealed by Roark in this work is the actual mental processes of the slave owners.
They honestly felt that slavery was the best way to go and that there could or should be nothing else but slavery. There was no evidence of guilt on the part of these individuals, no conscious thought or understanding of the hatred and innate inhumane treatment that was eroding the intended and to that point completely false American system of democracy. All that mattered to these people was the fact that this was and had always been the way that they had lived their lives and that way of life was being threatened by outsiders whom they felt simply could or did not understand the way their system of living worked.
These people were fully committed to their lifestyle at all costs and on every level. The institution of slavery was for many all that they knew making it impossible for them to conceive of anything else. They did not feel that they lived in a land that would take the essence of their existence, the ownership of other human beings, away from them and had absolutely no understanding of how others lived outside the institution of slavery because for them slavery was all there was and all that there could ever be. It was the base upon which their entire life, their reason for being, was founded.
Nothing else could be conceived because nothing else existed, they couldn’t’ even understand poverty and how poor whites were able to function economically forced to live outside f the institution of slavery. Roark presents a type of homeland versus homestead view of the American lifestyle and way of functioning. From reading this work one can deduce that all Americans were either on one of two sides – they either erred on the side of the Union and sought unity for their nation as a whole or they erred on the side of the Confederacy and sought the maintenance of their current living situation.
Either you were willing to turn away from the life that you had always known for sake of nationwide unity or you were dead focused on maintaining the life you had always known and did not feel should be interrupted. Some may find fault in this homeland versus homestead view but what must be understood is that these were peoples lives they may have been living immorally, this I do not deny, but these were their lives nonetheless and the reader must therefore attempt to understand the rationale behind the division of understanding that is relayed to them within the pages of this work.
There may be aspects of your life with which others ay find great fault, but it is your life nonetheless and your story thus bears interest in being told. I do not in any way agree with the institution of slavery but I do understand that prior to reading this work a great deal of the literature that I have read about the institution of slavery over the years has come from the standpoint of the enslaved not portraying the ideas or thoughts of those who relied on that enslavement.
I am never one to make excuses especially for improper behavior, hatred and moral relativism, but I am one who prefers to have both sides of every story, no matter how ignorant the one side may be. With this having been said it is clear that although I do not approve of the southern planters views or understandings of the way that the world works, I was able to appreciate the manner in which those understandings were portrayed to the reader by the author of this work. In his use of extensive quotes and personal accounts Roark adds a great deal of in depth analysis of the southern planters’ thoughts and position to the reader for review.
In my opinion this puts literature at its finest to honestly present the material and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions and form their own ideas of the material. It is my belief that the reasoning for the slaveholders story never having been told is that there is in literature as in every other aspect of culture a division between the minority and majority standpoint as viewed by the public and unfortunately it is not all too often that the minority standpoint is presented to the authors’ readership.
Slave owners were greatly outnumbered by the slaves that they took ownership over; they were able to control these people with the numbers of individuals involved being greatly imbalanced. I, again, do not condone such acts or behaviors, but that fact that thousands of slave owners could take captive and keep hundreds of thousands of people enslaved bears note. They should ever had owned other human beings but it is important to find out why they owned other human beings; what was their thought behind the ownership and forced labor of another man.
There were instances throughout history were men were enslaved for payment of debt or loss of battle, but the American institution of slavery was not one of those such instances. This was the forced capture of innocent peoples and the enslavement of those people for the acquiring of free labor. Thus it bears note to question and present what could have possibly lain on the minds of such individuals that would perform these immoral acts.
These people viewed slavery as necessary for the furthering of the American agricultural agenda. No place else could you acquire labor for free and they felt that enslaved labor was not necessarily the only kind but it was the best that no money could buy. They honestly didn’t’ feel that they should have had to pay for the labor put to use by force on their lands, they probably figured that they had paid enough having purchased the slaves in the first place.
What bears great note is the understanding of these planters’ views of the world – they honestly did not see anything morally wrong or corrupt with what they were doing. They looked upon the ownership of human beings as business as usual. It was nothing out of the ordinary because it was how they had always lived their lives. This is why they had such difficulty imaging and accepting the idea of emancipation even in the partial state in which it was enacted, because to them there was no other way but slavery to bring out all the work that America needed done.
Emancipation, they felt was thrust upon them, and it challenged not only everything that they knew, but all that they believed could be possible. They lived their lives based on an innate thought of African Americans as inferior beings and thus could not on any level imagine the states of America (because they were not yet united) putting these inferior beings in a position of liberation, the removal of legal and physical restraint, and giving them any of the rights these slave owners believed were set aside for whites only.
For these southern planters the very thought of this was inconceivable. Roark presented the battle over emancipation as the revolutionary transformation and struggle that it was intended to be, unable at the time to present the shortcomings that would result from the somewhat failed attempt at liberation of the African American people. There is no presentation of the actual outcome of emancipation because that is not what this work is about.
The focus of this work was to underline the deep-seated issues that southern planters had with the very idea of slavery being abolished, it’s not about how they would later and not long after form a new system of oppression that would keep African Americans enslaved for decades following the intended emancipation. Yes, the slave owners would emerge victorious over the attempt at destroying their way of living because of the fact that the American government failed to redistribute lands to freed peoples, ensuring that the class of planters would still have all of their power because they still ha all of the land.
It was not as if the Africans brought to this country and enslaved could now return home, but although this is a very great point, it was not the purpose of this work, and as such this piece should appreciated for the task that Roark set out to accomplish having been just that, accomplished. Prior to Masters Without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction there was no study exclusively dedicated to the exploration of slave owners’ view of the world in the days leading up to and surrounding American Reconstruction.
There was no one to offer us a glimpse into the social and moral values (or lack thereof) of the class of slave owners present in America at that time which is undoubtedly and without question one of the most critical moments in our nation’s history. Roark presents the attitudes of the slave owners at the very thought of emancipation and the difficulties that they endured in attempting to adjust to and make a comeback from the acts implemented as a division of Reconstruction.
These slave owners were pointed out and told explicitly that their way of life was absolutely wrong and not just that it had to be changed but that it was going to be changed in the very near future whether they liked it or not. This work chronicles their reaction to that knowledge and their planning of a comeback for what they initially perceived as a defeat but later found to be a bright new opportunity.
The institution of sharecropping was not altogether the same as the institution of American slavery, but it was not a far cry from the same oppression that slaves had experienced for years. Roark must be commended for his obvious talent for portraying the truths that not many would desire to recognize and for doing so in such an eloquent manner. He has taken the thoughts of slave owners at the time of American Reconstruction and put it in the face of the reader for consideration of the slave owners’ thoughts on emancipation and their return from defeat of their lifestyle.
The unfortunate truth is that all positives have a negative and along those lines just as there was so much that I enjoyed and appreciated about this work there were also aspects of this piece which I found either fell short or remained unsettled. The greatest issue that I believe may be found in this work as far as I am concerned is that Roark created only one group of planters. There was no distinction presented between ideologies or ideals, he in many ways formed a race, a collective and representative sample consisting all al southern planters.
There was no distinction made in the possibility that maybe planters had different ideals coming from different areas of the country. I can understand is view of this matter because for e and clearly for Roark tyranny is tyranny and there can be only two cases of oppression- the oppressor and the oppressed, but from a literary standpoint I do believe that a greater distinction could have been made between the classes of planters and that it would have added a lot to the work.
There were also some points in the work that were touched on very lightly in comparison to how the themes and ideas could have been developed thus taken some of the effect way from the work itself. Thing like the beginning of the work when Roark speaks about secession, I believe that portion of the work could have been more well developed and if it had been would have likely added a great deal of affect to the already substantial quality of the work. Roark adds exquisite detail to most other portions of the work so to have lightly grazed upon the subject of secession makes the work, in many ways, appear unfinished and imbalanced.
You cannot ask for everything, for every element of a literary work to be present and in perfect condition, but I do feel that this could have added a lot to the aesthetics of the piece. Yet even lacking in these two somewhat vital elements the book still does not lose its focus in exposing the reader to the thoughts of slave owners in the days leading up to Reconstruction. In this fashion, Roark did much to accomplish all that he set out to do. He presented the reader with an unbiased account of southern planter ideologies as based on their own words and thoughts of how they viewed their lives.
The author does not add anything to their views or take anything away that could jeopardize the quality of his work. The book was written professionally in the manner expected of Stanford graduate and life-long historian with Roark being careful not to allow his personal views or ideas concerning the institution of American slavery to cloud his presentation of the evidence, leaving the ultimate decision whether or not to judge completely up to the reader.
Roark’s distant relation of the materials sets him apart from other historians by making the presentation of the content more interesting and easy to follow. All-in-all a quality experience and fine read. I would recommend this work to others.
Roark, James L. “James L. Roark Department of History Faculty Webpage”. Emory University Department of History. Retrieved: 20 April 2009 <http://www. history. emory. edu/Faculty/roark. html>
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