Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 112 / Number 1 - Review
Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South •
William Kauffman Scarborough • Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003 • xx, 521 pp. • $39.95
Reviewed by James L. Huston, professor of history at Oklahoma State University. He is the author of
Calculating the Value of the Union: Property Rights, Slavery, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (2003).
William K. Scarborough has produced a breathtaking, monumental history of the antebellum slaveholding elite,
a work that will serve as the indispensable reference for historians investigating the great planters of the republic. The
research is awe-inspiring, the appendices wonderful, and the writing graceful. Some of the conclusions may be
questioned, and perhaps the definition of the "elite" criticized, but the work is marvelous.
Scarborough intends to flesh out the social, economic, and political world of the highest echelon of southern
slaveholders. To do so, he combed the censuses of 1850 and 1860 to locate those who owned 250 or more slaves.
He found 181 such individuals for 1850 (appendix C) and 273 for 1860 (appendix D). In appendices A and B he
lists those who owned 500 or more slaves in those same years, and the numbers he gives are staggering. The largest
slaveholder in the nation was Nathaniel Heyward of South Carolina (d. 1851) who owned 1,829 slaves; the
Heyward family together possessed 3,000 chattels. Scarborough's appendices, naming the great slaveholders,
their locations and holdings, by themselves represent a treasure for historians. For the narrative, however,
Scarborough relies upon an exhaustive scrutiny of 125 manuscript collections.
This work has so many important conclusions that it is nearly impossible to pack them into one brief
review, and so only those I think most intriguing to readers will be offered here. Scarborough presents
a picture of a tightly knit elite that in many ways did not interact with the rest of society. The great
slaveholders were immersed in their empires and eschewed politics; they tended to clump together
in certain regions (Natchez, New Orleans, and Charleston) and to vacation together in Newport, R.I.,
or New York City. They intermarried among themselves extensively. They were cosmopolitan, well-traveled,
and conversant with a wide array of intellectual topics. Their marital relations ran the gamut, although
Scarborough emphasizes affectionate relationships and love of children. With their slaves, the elite
tended toward patriarchy, though they insisted on obedience and punishment of misbehavior. Elite
women enjoyed their status and had no compunction about slaveholding. The great planters were
thoroughly religious and convinced that African slavery was a divinely sanctioned institution.
In the economic sphere, the great slaveholders were capitalists. They were engaged in expanding their
property, investing in all sorts of enterprises, and obsessing over profits. Though discipline was necessary
to maintain the slave regime, the elite relied more upon incentives than physical violence to obtain maximum
production. And Scarborough succeeds in establishing the great worth of these individuals, most worth
several million dollars.
Scarborough devotes four chapters to the elite's political attitudes during the sectional controversy, Civil War,
and Reconstruction. His conclusions are likely to startle many readers. Planters were not particularly interested
in politics because they were too absorbed in their business dealings. The large planters divided rather evenly
between Whig and Democrat in their political preferences, and probably the only thing they had in common
was their abhorrence of abolitionists. Their reactions to the crisis over slavery's expansion in the territories
was conservative, and except for a few in the cotton South, most distrusted secession and wanted to stay
in the Union so long as they could obtain security for slavery. Planters were taken into secession rather
than leading the masses there, and during the war some of the elite continued to be Unionist rather than
secessionist. Scarborough remarks that planters during the war were more interested in their profits
than in the success of the Confederacy. After the war, some of the great planters reestablished
themselves, while others went bankrupt. However, the large planters held one view in common: they
hated Congressional Reconstruction and the attempt by Congress to impose new race relations.
Reconstruction produced an animosity greater than the war itself and one that lasted more than
Throughout Scarborough's narrative is a running commentary on the historiographical literature. His
conclusions are informed by an interesting mixture of both older works and more recent ones. On the
one hand, Scarborough leaves no doubt that slavery was a brutal institution that oppressed African
Americans and that slavery was at the heart of all sectional controversies; on the other hand he chides
historians like William Dusinberre and Michael Tadman for over-emphasizing brutality to slaves and
elite willingness to look upon slaves as animal property. Scarborough finds the personal relations
between masters and slaves to have been much more paternalistic than recent authors. Likewise,
he resurrects the blundering generation concept as the primary reason for sectional hostility. This
argument that blends the old and new historiography is interesting and at times perplexing; generally,
Scarborough is introducing (I think) more nuance to antebellum sectional controversy than have
A problem arises with Scarborough's methodology and definition of the "elite." The 250-slave ownership
criterion might be too restrictive for an understanding of the antebellum South's social, political, and economic
leaders. Did the great planters make much distinction between themselves and lesser planters? Who was
actually running governments and the economy? Who was determining social and ideological standards
within southern states, and who decreed the appropriate religious doctrines? The relations between
planters and nonslaveholders in this work, save for the last three or four pages, is nonexistent. One
gets the impression that Scarborough's southern elite had almost abstracted and isolated itself from
all the developments that historians are interested in. If the great planters were not really directing
the South, then who was? The work also lends itself to a consideration of how historians have
abused the term "elite"; if these planters were the elite, then how can we depict political leaders
like Abraham Lincoln as members of the "elite"?
Among the many conclusions that Scarborough presents, however, one is specifically worthy
of notice. His numbers establish beyond question the importance of slave property to the great
planters of the South and their fierce attachment to it. So far as the planting elite was concerned,
"it was southern concern for the security of slave property above all else that precipitated disunion
and the fratricidal war that followed" (p. 314). Admirably put.