Paternalism is a term used to describe the relatively humane system or method of governance and management of individuals and societies through the guise of a father’s benevolence toward his children. This benevolent manner, however, can mask the male’s real underlying desire and intent to dominate, often characterized by intrusive and controlling behavior. The term is often used interchangeably with patriarchy. The meanings of the two words are nuanced, however, and ultimately differ. Patriarchy in its purest sense denotes absolute male authority, wherein unconditional power resides with the male head of household. The patriarchal system is thought to be paternalistic when male patriarchs exercise their absolute authority constrained by a sense of affection, compassion, and noblesse oblige toward their dependents—women, children, enslaved and free workers, and members of the larger community.

For the South, the relationship between enslaved people and the men who owned them, according to historian Eugene D. Genovese (the scholar most associated with this perspective), involved a complex set of reciprocal arrangements between masters and slaves, commonly held assumptions about what to expect, and clear constraints on the treatment of enslaved people. The end result was a social order governed by an overall paternalistic ethos. Other factors that influenced the emergence of the South’s paternalistic society included the importance of kinship relations, especially in an agrarian society; the racial assumption of the supremacy of all whites over blacks regardless of class; the cultural acceptance of the subordination of all females, children, and slaves by white men, who expected deference and faithful service; a feudal sense of honor and a dreaded fear of dishonor as a valid state of mind; an evangelical yet conservative and patriarchal religious belief that defends racial slavery; an economic- and class-based system dependent on racial slavery as its mooring; and the social expectations of a largely rural and rigidly hierarchical social order. The paternalistic rules that culturally governed the exercise of authority by white male slaveholders over almost all others in society were, it is argued, codified in law and institutionalized in custom over time.

Historians disagree about the extent to which the term paternalism describes the antebellum South. Some contend, for example, that the term’s usefulness depends on what part of the South is studied. The time period can also make a difference. Perhaps, some argue, the idea holds more validity for the Upper South and less for the Lower South. As planters (patriarchs) moved westward (that is, to the Mississippi frontier) in the 1820s, they may have lost their commitment to the gentler, kinship-enforced version of paternalism and regressed to a more tyrannical form of absolute patriarchal authority over their families and slaves. Nevertheless, over time, this form of domination marked by a sense of constraint and deference (paternalism) softened the more brutal aspects of patriarchy and helped to enlarge the arena in which servile and subordinate people participated in shaping their own lives.

Further Reading

  • Joyce L. Broussard, “Female Solitaires: Women Alone in the Lifeworld of Mid-Century Natchez, Mississippi: 1850–1880” (PhD dissertation, University of Southern California, 1998)
  • Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (1982)
  • Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery (1982)
  • David Foster, Review of Politics (Fall 1994)
  • Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (1988)
  • Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1972)
  • Eugene D. Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation (1969, 1988)
  • Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (1986)
  • Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime (1966)
  • William K. Scarborough, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth Century (2003)
  • Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s–1880s (2001)
  • Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Paternalism
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 3, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018