Patrick B. McGuigan
In a recent essay, syndicated columnist Rich Lowry deftly deployed the words of two leading American scholars of the modern era.
Reflecting on a surging academic and journalistic movement to redefine U.S. history comprehensively (and negatively) in terms of slavery and attendant sins of the American past, Lowry deployed these words:
“Europeans did not outdo others in enslaving people or treating slaves viciously.” That wisdom came from the late historians Elizabeth Fox-Genovese [1941-2007] and Eugene Genovese [1930-2012].
The couple collaborated extensively during their marriage.
They wrote the following in the latter stages of their distinguished careers, concerning Europeans and their American successors:
“They outdid others by creating a Christian civilization that eventually stirred moral condemnation of slavery and roused mass movements against it. Perception of slavery as morally unacceptable — as sinful — did not become widespread until the second half of the eighteenth century. Today we ask: How could Christians or any civilized people have lived with themselves as slaveholders? But the historically appropriate question is: What, after millennia of general acceptance, made Christians — and, subsequently, those of other faiths — judge slavery an enormity not to be endured?’
Elizabeth was a Marxist in her early life, but eventually converted to Roman Catholicism. She emerged as a leading intellectual voice for conservative women in the early Twentieth-First Century.
She and her husband edited a journal called “Marxist Perspectives” for several years.
For a long time, in her own words, Elizabeth considered herself a Christian, but only “in the amorphous cultural sense of the word.”
However, she changed, becoming a Roman Catholic Christian in 1995. She changed in apparent objection and response to the moral relativism that was already growing within academic and cultural circles.
Like many conservative women of the present era, in her time Fox-Genovese said her feminist and conservative worldviews were sincere and defining of her personal beliefs.
She died in 2007 (after suffering for 15 years from Multiple Schlerosis).
A year later, Eugene finished and published a tender tribute entitled, “Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage.”
Eugene was a member of the Communist Party for five years in the late 1940s, but was pushed out because he too often (as he put it), “zigged when I was supposed to zag.”
He recovered from communist affiliation, and went on to become one of the best-known scholars of his era.
Considered at least arguably the best-ever Marxist-influenced historian in America, Eugene enjoyed deep respect across the political spectrum for most of his career. He shifted away from the hard Left, beginning his journey in the late 1960s.
Ultimately, as is the case with many who stray from or reject the received wisdom of most tenured faculty, Prof. Genovese’s development impacted his reputation.
Although he passionately opposed the Vietnam War, he refused to join academic colleagues who marginalized conservative academics with a different perspective.
Genovese played a crucial role in rallying enough liberal-Left academics to assure that conservatives – then and now a distinct minority in most academic institutions – were not bullied out of groups such as the American Historical Association.
Throughout a long career, Prof. Genovese delved deeply into the human complexities of American life before the Civil War, particularly in the South.
Genovese shifted away from Marxism late in his life, commencing in the Reagan years, even as many of his speeches and writings focused on the limits of the American conservative worldview.
Returning to a faith his Italian parents had embraced, Eugene joined his wife, Elizabeth, in the Roman Catholic communion, in 1995.
It was for his steady development toward a new worldview – based on the evidence of history as he interpreted it – that Professor Genovese was before long deemed a “conservative” by many who did not consider that word a compliment.
Even many critics will admit, if perhaps in a whisper these days, that his academic works are among the most impressive ever assembled on all aspects of American slavery, the AnteBellum Southern economy and related matters. No attempt is made here to catalog those works, even in part. All of his writings are vibrant and worthy of continued examination.
In his latter years, his analysis retained powerful elements of Marxist economic analysis, but he was no longer an acolyte of communism or socialism.
As Professor Genovese reached more and more conclusions with which many of his colleagues in academia disagreed, he was largely denounced by the American Left.
However, he became a welcome guest at gatherings of center-right organizations, and was respected by dissidents within academic organizations.
He passed from this vale of tears in 2012, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Note: An educator and journalist, Pat McGuigan — a certified teacher in 10 subject areas — read books by Eugene Genovese during his studies at Oklahoma State University, where he earned a B.A. (History, with Honors) and a Master of Arts. His M.A. thesis focused on the lives of parish priests in the diocese of Lincoln, England. Much of his analysis in that study focused on primary source material documenting economic stress for priests and common people in the Thirteenth Century. McGuigan’s writing led a tenured scholar (self-described as a Marxist) to contact him about pursuing a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). McGuigan declined the offer, and the rest is history, of a personal sort.