Sunday, April 15, 2007

More Thoughts on William Freehling: A Footnote

I have previously expressed my admiration for Stephanie McCurry's Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum Lowcountry (New York: Oxford University Press 1997).

In The Road to Disunion II, William W. Freehling has a footnote (actually an endnote) discussing Professor McCurry's book that exemplifies the kind of writing that I admire in historians. It sets forth an issue as to which they disagree and explains why. It also explicitly acknowledges that his conclusion is an inference, not a certainty. In short, it uses precisely the sort of approach that I wish Professor Freehling had employed throughout the book.

The endnote appears at the end of a paragraph of text in which Professor Freehling is discussing why non-slaveowning white yeomen in the South Carolina lowcountry supported planters. Professor Freehling's typically frustrating prose (at 360-61) conveys more impression than fact:
Lowly whites as black belt political superiors had no qualms about elevating squires to the legislature or about ousting abolitionists from the neighborhood. In the paramilitary societies that patrolled the lowcounty in the fall of 1860, nonslaveholders paraded beside their richer neighbors, proudly keeping blacks ground under. The patriarchal obligation of all white men to guard their wives, gratifying to poor men's chauvinistic egos, included the necessity to keep a 90 percent black majority from murdering white dependents.

It is precisely this sort of passage that makes one feel queasy, because it presents what are presumably inferences without qualification or acknowledgment of uncertainty. It does not even acknowledge that they are inferences.

Then, in the endnote (at 569), Professor Freehling says precisely what you wish he had said in the text:
This may be a better (or worse) guess than Stephanie McCurry's speculation that white yeomen massed behind wealthier men's domination over dependent blacks in order to preserve white males' domination over dependent wives. We are all guessing from missing evidence about yeomen's motives; that is usually a difficulty with history from the bottom up. But I've seen no hint that South Carolina white males feared, or had the slightest reason to fear, female domination before the war. In contrast, I've seen much evidence that fear of racial unrest afflicted lowcountry whites -- and plenty of reason for that fear. Still, Professor McCurry's gender-based speculation is intriguing; her evidence of poorer whites' full participation in 1860 paramilitary pressures is irrefutable; and I applaud her success in making the hitherto invisible lowcountry white nonslaveholders highly visible in the secession story. . ..

You may or may not think that Professor Freehling characterizes Professor McCurry's thesis with absolute precision; you may or may not agree that Professor Freehling's "guess" is the better one; but at least you know what conclusion he draws, why he draws it, and why he believes that it's a better inference than Professor McCurry's. Even more significantly, he acknowledges with utter candor the uncertainty that characterizes so much of the historical art.

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