ACADEMIC HISTORIANS seldom reach a general audience, but in recent years historians of American slavery have proved a notable exception to that rule. The trend promises to continue with the publication of James Oakes' The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders. Billed by its publisher as "the first comprehensive history of the American slaveholding class from the . . . eighteenth century to the Civil War," the book is bound to attract widespread notice because, in it, Oakes challenges the work of one of the premier historians of our time, Eugene D. Genovese (whose books include Roll, Jordan, Roll and The World the Slaveholders Made). The challenge does not succeed, but no matter. Any book that draws the attention of new readers to Genovese's towering work deserves credit on that score alone. Despite its weaknesses, which are serious, The Ruling Race cannot fail to extend familiarity with Genovese's work and thereby to perform a worthwhile service.

Perhaps because of the evocative power of the word, it is Genovese's argument concerning paternalism in slave society that continues to excite the most interest -- and to be most widely misunderstood. Genovese has argued that paternalism is first and foremost a political relationship, in which the superior rules the subordinate by direct personal domination, not -- for example -- by an impersonal market transaction, like the payment of a wage by an employer to an employe. The master-slave relation was paternal, not by virtue of the master's benevolence or his inherited belief in social hierarchy, but by virtue of the fact that the master owned his slave's person and, on that basis, claimed absolute obedience and the right to all the fruits of his slave's labor. Paternalist ideology was the translation of this political relationship into the vocabulary of day-to-day life. It was not an autonomous body of ideas that could be inherited, bequeathed, or carried across the ocean in a trunk. It took form -- and constantly changed -- in the same contest of push and shove that characterized the political relationship between master and slave. And from the start its development reflected the fact that masters and slaves constituted a minority in American society.

Oakes shares the widespread preoccupation with Genovese's argument on this point -- disputing it is the main business of his book -- and he exemplifies the common misunderstanding. He regards paternalism as a discrete body of ideas having to do with social hierarchy and reciprocal obligations, arising in Europe, carried bodily to the New World in the immigrants' ideological trunks, and capable of surviving in the New World only if transmitted like a disease from one generation to the next. Having proved -- an easy job -- that paternalism in this sense did not survive the trans-Atlantic crossing for long, he mistakenly assumes that he has disposed of paternalism in Genovese's sense. To make matters worse, he falls into a trap that he himself warns against. After sensibly recognizing that paternalism has nothing to do with benevolence and can indeed be the occasion of great cruelty, Oakes proceeds to argue that the cruel treatment slaves received during the colonial period represented a departure from the paternalist ethos. The paternalist ideology of which Genovese has written was neither an injunction to kind treatment of slaves nor a disembodied "ethos" that masters sloughed off during the colonial era. Rather, it was the reflection in the realm of ideas of the changes the slaveholders' world underwent during the post-Revolutionary and pre-Civil War years: the rise of the cotton kingdom, the spread of evangelical revivalism, the growth of abolitionism, Nat Turner's rebellion, and the thousand-and-one other events great and small that constituted the history of their class. Slaveholders did not depart from paternalist ideology in the colonial period; they had not yet been obliged to create it.

Oakes displays a resolutely ahistorical view of how classes arise and consolidate themselves. He concludes that wealthy slaveowners could not have had aristocratic or anti-democratic pretensions, since their families had gotten where they were thanks to a fluid social structure in which equality of opportunity prevailed. On that reasoning, however, there could never be an aristocracy: every wealthy upper class begins with humble founders, whose descendants do not have to be humble. "Go with what got you here" may be sound advice for major-league baseball teams, but it has seldom sufficed for the consolidation of family or class fortunes. Captains of industry who rose to the heights under free- wheeling, predatory conditions did not generally believe that others should be free to displace them by their own methods. People who have used democracy as a tool for their own ascent do not necessarily prescribe democracy for those they have risen above.

Through his lack of a sense of the development of slaveholders over the course of time, Oakes misses this and many other points. The lack is compounded by the absence of any sense of how the slaveholders' contest of wills with the slaves unfolded in its details of time and place, how it differed from 17th-century South Carolina to 18th-century Maryland to 19th-century Mississippi. Notwithstanding the advance publicity, The Ruling Race is not a comprehensive treatment of the slaveholding class from the colonial period to the Civil War. It is a snapshot of some colonial slaveholders, followed by a discussion of antebellum slaveholders cast in a timeless mold, with illustrative anecdotes drawn in from hither, thither, and yon. Many of the anecdotes, moreover, fail to sustain the generalizations that introduce them, and so do many of the statistics. Oakes attempts a rationale for his ahistorical method: "Most of the fundamental aspects of the slave system were in place by 1800. . . . The structure of slavery was established . . . when Americans declared their independence. . . ." But who would seriously deny that the rise of King Cotton after 1800 and the resulting westward expansion of slavery represented the fundamental aspect of the post-Revolutionary slave system, whose consequences split the Union, brought on war, and ultimately destroyed slavery itself? Predictably, Oakes' pages on the Civil War are among the weakest in the book: nothing in his analysis prepares the reader for the war.

If Oakes has a thesis, it is that slaveholders were a diverse lot, whose ranks included English people, Germans, Irish, Scotch-Irish, Indians, free blacks, and women ("female masters" as Oakes calls them). Not a startling discovery, some readers will say, but also not a bad point of departure. Unfortunately, it is Oakes's final destination. Having chided Genovese for a monolithic view of the ideology of the wealthiest slaveowners, Oakes presents his readers with a yet more monolithic ideology, supposedly middle-class in tone, embracing everyone from planters to Joe Schmoe who once hired a slave. Oakes insists that all these people, a "clear majority" of Southern whites, shared an interest in slavery. Very well, but a group that diverse cannot have shared the same interest in slavery or exerted the same influence over society.

Which interest prevailed within government and why? Who mediated between protectionist sugar planters and free-trading cotton planters? What about Hardy Banks out in Yell County, Arkansas, whose eight slaves produced food crops by slash-and-burn cultivation and spent much of their time, as he spent much of his, hunting and fishing? Did Hardy Banks have the same influence over affairs of state as the great rice planters of South Carolina, the great cotton planters of Mississippi, or the great sugar planters of Louisiana? Certainly the political positions taken by Southern governors, state legislators, United States senators and representatives, and presidents of the United States did not reflect the full diversity of the Southerners who shared an interest in slavery. To whom did they answer? Oakes does not pose such questions. He only informs his readers, unhelpfully, that during the colonial period power "gravitated naturally toward wealth and status," that non- slaveholders and small slaveholders predominated among members of Southern legislatures, and that "the owner of five hundred slaves rarely had more legal and political rights than the owner of a single slave, or even a non-slaveholding farmer."

Oakes' failure to settle, or even raise, such key questions as these points up the major weakness of his book, which the title appropriately announces. In denominating slaveholders "the ruling race," Oakes admits his failure to come to grips with either the concept of race or the concept of rule. Both failures show up in the introduction. The ruling race abruptly becomes a "diverse slaveholding class" (emphasis added). And well it might. Three-fourths of the white families of the South on the eve of the Civil War belonged to the non-slaveholding "race," while a handful of free blacks and a good many Indians belonged to the ruling "race." Fortunately, the race argument floats so superficially over the evidence that the reader can easily lift it aside and get on with the business at hand. The befuddled concept of rule, however, lies so deeply embedded in the argument as to defy surgical removal. When Oakes states that in some states "the 'ruling class' of slaveholding families amounted to between a third and a half of the . . . white population," he promotes to the ruling class every owner of a single slave and unjustifiably equates ownership of a particular form of property with the exercise of rule. Someone could as well assert that a retired schoolteacher whose pension fund is invested in corporate stocks thereby joins the capitalist ruling class. Having assumed away at the outset the problem of political power, Oakes leaves his readers to infer, by turns, that no one ruled and that everyone (that is, all whites) did.

Oakes has done a useful service in undertaking a history of the slaveholders. He cannot be said to have carried it out successfully. Certainly it is a bigger task than any one historian can handle. However, the way forward, when others decide to join him, is not likely to lie along the route he has laid out. Promising a book about slaveholders, he has written a book more nearly about Genovese. Both subjects deserve attention. But on both, readers new to the material would do well to consult Genovese in the original.