W.J.R. Cash, The Mind of the South (1948) Chapter 2, “Of an Ideal and a Conflict”
OF AN IDEAL AND CONFLICT
So far, for purposes of perspective, I have dealt with the mind of the Old South in oversimplified terms, touching but lightly or not at all on two important complicating influences which must be thought of as operating on the Southerner concurrently with the rest. I mean the presence of the Virginians-- the colonial gentry-- and the conflict with the Yankee. With the emergence of the new order of planters, as I have before suggested, the old aristocracies largely lost overt political and social power in the South. Here and there they might struggle on as local Whig leaders, might sometimes, in the revolutions of national politics, seem to be almost within grasp of their old sway again. But on the whole, they were gradually reduced to the role of a powerless minority, or, more accurately, became merely a lesser segment of the new ruling class. Nine-tenths of the men who would direct the affairs of the Confederate government, like nine-tenths of the men who would officer its armies, would be, not colonial aristocrats, but new people.
But, by an irony of circumstances, as their power declined, the general influence of these aristocracies was in some fashion increased. In colonial days the backcountry, sharply set apart from the plantation economy and consenting only sullenly to be ruled by them, had been colored by them hardly at all. But now---
What they had been in their palmiest days, and what they largely remained, represented the achievement on a small scale of the goal to which all the forces of the newer South were slowly
converging. If the back countryman turned planter was plainly no aristocrat, he yet had his feet firmly planted on a road that logically led to aristocracy. And the presence of these old realized clumps of gentry served to bring that fact, which otherwise would scarcely have been perceived, clearly into the foreground of consciousness. Inevitably, therefore, they became the model for social aspiration.
The nouveaux would not, in fact, be content merely to imitate, merely to aspire, to struggle toward aristocracy through the long reaches of time, but wherever there was a sufficient property, they would themselves immediately set up for aristocrats on their own account.
Thus baldly put, it seems a feat in unreality impossible to human vanity at its most romantic limit. And so it might have been, indeed, if it had not been for the great whip of the conflict with the Yankee.
That conflict, as has been said before me, was inevitable. And not only for the reasons known to every reader of American history, but finally and fundamentally for the reason that it is not the nature of the human animal in the mass willingly to suffer difference-- that he sees in it always a challenge to his universal illusion of being the chosen son of heaven, and so an intolerable affront to his ego, to be put down at any cost in treasure and blood.
But in this inevitable conflict the South was steadily driven back upon the defensive. It had begun with the control of the national government in its hands, but even there it lost ground so surely and so rapidly that it early became plain that it was but a matter of time before the Yankee would win to undisputed sway in the Congress and do his will with the tariff. Worse yet, running counter, as we have seen, to the stream of its time, and, above all, running counter to the moral notions of that time in embracing slavery at the hour when the rest of the West was decisively giving it up, it had to stand against the whole weight of the world's question and even of the world's frown.
And, worst of all, there was the fact that the South itself definitely shared in these moral notions-- in its secret heart always carried a powerful and uneasy sense of the essential rightness of the nineteenth century's position on slavery. The evangelical religious sects had all begun by denouncing it, and were still muttering over it by the late 1830’s. Of the 130 abolitionist sects established before 1827 by Lundy, the forerunner of Garrison, more than a hundred, with 4/5ths of the total membership, were in the South. And in the days of their sway the old colonial gentry had been so disturbed by the institution that numbers of them had followed the lead of Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina and Thomas Jefferson of declaring it an insufferable crime. In the state of Virginia, as we well know, they had twice come close to abolishing it.
The Old South was, in short, a society beset by the spectres of defeat, of shame, of guilt—a society driven by its need to bolster its morale, to nerve its arm against waxing odds, to justify itself in its own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Hence a large part-- perhaps the very largest part-- of its history from the day that Garrison started to thunder in Boston is the history of its efforts to achieve that end, and characteristically by means of romantic fictions
And of all these fictions the one most inevitable and obviously indicated was the one we know today as the Legend of the Old South-- the legend of which the backbone is, of course, precisely the assumption that every planter was in the most rigid sense of the word, a gentleman.
Enabling the South to wrap itself in contemptuous superiority, to sneer down the Yankee as low bred, crass and money grubbing, and even to beget in his soul a kind of secret and envious awe, it was a nearly perfect defense mechanism. And the stage was magnificently set for its acceptance. For the Yankee, accustomed by long habit and the myopia usual in such cases to thinking of the South in terms
of its nearest and for so many years most important part, Virginia, had the association of plantation and aristocrat fixed in his mind with axiomatic force; he invariably assumed the second term of the equation when he thought of the first. And what was true of the Yankee was equally true of the world in general, which received the body of its impressions of the South directly from him.
Nor was this all. It was for the principal Western nations, as is commonly known, an age of nostalgia. An age in which, underneath all the earnest trumpeting for the future, all the solemn self-congratulation for progress, there was an intense revulsion against the ugliness of the new industrialism and the drab monotony of the new rule of money bags miscalled democracy, and a yearning back toward the colorfulness and the more or less imaginary glory of the aristocratic and purely agricultural past. An age which began with Chateuabriand and flowered in Joseph Maistre, the romanticism of Byron and the Blue Flower, the bitter tirades of Ruskin, and the transcendental outpouring of Coleridge, Carlyle and Emerson, found perhaps the most perfect expression for this part of its spirit in the cardboard medievalism of the Scot novels. It was an age, in other words, of which it may truthfully be said, I think (and however paradoxical it may seem, I include Yankeedom in the allegation), that it was not only ready but eager to believe in the Southern Legend-- that it fell within a certain distinct gladness on this last purely agricultural land of the West as a sort of projection ground for its own dreams of a vanished golden time.
Of the many noted foreigners who traveled or sojourned in the land in the years between 1820 and 1860—men and women often famous among other things for their experiences and shrewdness in the analysis of alien peoples—only Fanny Kemble ever seriously doubted the accuracy of the account embodied in the legend. And the North itself always exhibited a curious Janus-faced attitude; at the same time when its newspapers and its orators, led by the Liberator, were damning the South with
unction and zeal, it was also writing and reading histories which derived from every planter from Cavalier noblemen, and novels which not only accepted the legend but embroidered it. Nor was this, as you might suspect, only by way of setting up a better target for democratic hate; for many of the novels showed an odd reluctance to employ dark colors in the rendering of concrete planters. Even Mrs. Stowe, when she created her most notable villain, must make him, not a Southern plantation master at all, but a Yankee come South to be an overseer!
But with the stars in their courses thus conspiring for the legend, with the South's need imperiously calling for it, it followed that simple perception of interest (a perception that lay always outside the field of consciousness, no doubt, but which was none the less real and effective) and common loyalty wholly suppressed the sneers with which the Virginians might otherwise have been expected to overwhelm the aspiration of the nouveaux to become aristocrats at a swoop.
And so, in the last analysis, it was really not difficult in the least for the nouveaux with the compulsion of the South's need operating upon them perhaps even more potently than upon the Virginians, and with the same habitual association between plantation and aristocrat which the Yankee and the world exhibited, fixed solidly in their minds also to achieve their sweep into the unreal. Pretense? The word is almost a misnomer in the premises. In the romantic simplicity of their thought-processes, they seem to have believed for conscious purposes that in acquiring rich lands and Negroes they did somehow automatically become aristocrats.
Did it belong to aristocrats to have splendid ancestors-- to come down in old line from the masters of the earth? Genealogy would at once become an obsession, informed with all the old frontier inheritance of brag. If they were of English descent, then their forebears had infallibly ridden, not only
with Rupert at Naseby, but also with William at Senlac; if Scotch or Scotch-Irish, they were invariably clansmen of the chieftain's family, and usually connections, often direct descendants, of the royal blood-- of the Bruce and Kenneth McAlpin; if plain Irish, they stemmed from Brian Boru. As for the Germans, I quote you, with a change of names, from the actual genealogical record of a family of upcountry Carolina: “Hans Muller, who was a carpenter by trade and the son of Max Muller, who was the son of a Hamburg merchant and the daughter of a German emperor, immigrated in 1742 and settled in …”
One thing which must be borne in mind is that very often there existed in fact or tradition some slight basis on which to erect these claims. If the Southern immigrants were drawn almost entirely from the masses and lower to middle class of Europe, it is to be remembered that in old societies like those of Europe such long-lost and shadowy patents of distinction as that one which Parson Tringham dug up for John Durbeyfield and his unhappy daughter Tess are, and were, common enough among the masses. Indeed, in view of Davenport's argument that all men of English blood are at least thirtieth cousins, and the well-known calculations of Henry Adams, Malthus, and Blackstone, it may be that: if the inquiry is carried back far enough, they are practically universal. Certainly, failing even this, the Southerners had always the justification of a coincidence in names. And it is the very measure of their simplicity and their capacity for romance that they could construct the most elaborate and showy pedigrees on no better foundation in the conviction of truth.
So innocent was the thing, in fact, that quite often it was done without putting away the memory of the artisan, the petit bourgeois, the coon-hunting pioneers, who were their actual fathers. The genealogical record I have quoted, with its naive juxtaposition of carpenter and emperor's daughter, is the essential type of hundreds of such genealogies. And more than a few of the lesser planters, in at least the more primitive regions, continued to the end, and at the same time they were elaborating their lineage, to practice, with more or less conscientious thrift, as millers, wheelwrights, harness-makers, or-- and here we are no longer necessarily confined to the lesser sort-- to trade in horseflesh.
So it went. Was it the part of aristocrats in the nineteenth century also to exhibit a noble culture? Was this an essential part of the legend with which the Yankee was to be put in his place? The nouveaux, the Virginians, all the South in fact, would join in asseverating and believing that Southern culture outran not merely the Yankee's but even that of mankind as a whole, represented perhaps (they did sometimes seem to interpolate a barely perceptible perhaps) the highest level ever attained.
Ultimately, indeed, the powers of candid belief engendered in the South by need and exercise, the will to the expansion of the legend, carried it beyond the measure originally set by the presence of the Virginians-- swept these Virginians themselves beyond that measure, too. And even Walter Scott was bodily taken over by the South and incorporated into the Southern people's vision of themselves. If it is not strictly true that, as H. J. Eckenrode has it, his novels (which one Yankee bookseller said he sent below the Potomac by the trainload) … gave the South it’s social ideal, it is unquestionable that they did become the inspiration for such extravaganzas as the opera bouffe title of “ the chivalry,” by which the ruling class, including the Virginians, habitually designated itself.
But in the course of this account I have occasionally spoken of "the South" or "the whole South," and the reader may be wondering if I mean to imply that the common whites are to be thought of as having had some more than passive relationship to the developments I have been describing. That is what I do mean.
To understand this properly we shall have to begin by noting that it was the conflict with the Yankee which really created the concept of the South as something more than a matter of geography, as an object of patriotism, in the minds of the Southerners. Before that fateful engagement opened, they had been patriots, but only to their local communes and to their various states. So little had they been aware of any common bond of affection and pride, indeed, that often the hallmark of their patriotism had been an implacable antagonism toward the states which immediately adjoined their own, a notable example being the ancient feud of North Carolina with Virginia on the one sIde, and wIth South Carolina on the other. Nor was this feeling ever to die out. Merely, it would be rapidly balanced by rising loyalty to the new-conceived and greater entity-- a loyalty that obviously had superior sanction in interest, and all the fierce vitality bred by resistance to open attack.
And in this loyalty the common white participated as fully as any other Southerner. If he had no worth-while interest at stake in slavery, if his real interest ran the other way about, he did nevertheless have that, to him, dear treasure of his superiority as a white man which had been conferred on him by slavery; and so was as determined to keep the black man in chains, saw in the offensive of the Yankee as great a danger to himself, as the angriest planter. Moreover, this struggle against the Yankee and the surging emotion of patriotism it set off provided a perfect focus for his romantic and hedonistic instincts and for his love of self-assertion and battle-- a chance to posture and charge and be the dashing fellow.
Add up his blindness to his real interests, his lack of class feeling and of social and economic focus, and you arrive, with the precision of a formula in mathematics, at the solid South. You can understand how farmer and white-trash were welded into an extraordinary and positive unity of passion and purpose with the planter - how it was that, when Hinton Helper (author of The Impending Crisis of the South, published at New York (1857) and others began at last on the eve of the Civil War to point out the wrongs of the common white and to seek to arouse him to recognizing them, they could get no
response; how, on the contrary, when the guns spoke at Sumter, the masses sprang to arms, with the famous hunting yell soaring in their throats; how, against ever mounting odds and in the face of terrible privations, the South could hold its ranks firm even in the long gloom of the closing years of the war, fight its magnificent fight, and yield only when its man power was definitely spent.
The implications here are extensive. But what concerns us now is that this solidification of feeling and interest in the South involved the final development of the paternalistic pattern (although the term is more than half wrong, I use it for the sake of convenience). Yeoman and cracker turned to the planter, waited eagerly upon his signal as to what to think and do, not only for the reasons I have already set down but also, and even more cogently, because he was their obviously indicated captain in the great common cause, “The stupid and sequacious masses, the white victims of slavery ... believe whatever the slaveholders tell them; and thus are cajoled into the notion that they are the freest, happiest, and most intelligent people in the world,” wrote the bitter Helper, gazing in baffled anger upon the scene.
There you have it, then. Seeing always from within the frame of Southern unity, the common white, as a matter of course, gave eager credence to and took pride in the legend of aristocracy which was so valuable to the defense of the land. He went farther, in fact, and, by an easy psychological process which is in evidence wherever men group themselves about captains, pretty completely assimilated his own ego to the latter's-- felt his planter neighbor's new splendor as being in some fashion his also.
His participation in the legend went even further yet. Though nothing is more certain than their innocence of conscious duplicity, one who did not know them might have said that these planter captains of his were studying with Machiavellian cunning to dazzle and manipulate him. For continually, from every stump, platform, and editorial sanctum, they gave him on the one hand the Yankee-- as cowardly, avaricious, boorish, half pantaloon and half Shylock-- and on the other the Southerner-- as polished, brave, generous, magnificent, wholly the stately aristocrat, fit to cow a dozen Yankees with the power of his eye and a cane-- gave him these with the delicate implication that this Southerner was somehow any Southerner at random.
So we come finally to the obvious question: What was the effect on the Southern pattern of all this, apart from its overt meaning-- In imitating the Virginians and setting up for aristocrats on their own account, how greatly were the new cotton planters modified? How far did the tradition of the Virginians, the standards of aristocracy, really enter into them? What was the influence on the common white of the legend, and his enthusiastic adherence to It?
Let us begin with the matter of manner; for manner, of course, was the badge and ensign of the aristocratic claim, and it was in this that, striking on the congenial soil of the old backcountry kindliness and easiness in personal relations, the model of the Virginians achieved its happiest effect on the new planters. One must not suppose, surely, that the manner of these planters ever became identical with that of the colonial aristocrats. At its best it was essentially simpler, less formal and highly finished; often the homespun of the frontier showed through; and yet at its best it did capture much of the beautiful courtesy and dignity and gesturing grace of its exemplar-- did body forth, in measure, the same sense of pageantry, and seem to move, as it were, with stately tread and in the rustling of silken robes, to the sound of far-away trumpets forever heralding the charge. In its highest and most favorable aspect, in sum, it was a manner not unworthy of aristocracy-- a manner which was perhaps a good deal better than many genuine aristocracies have been able to show.
But there was a flaw in it. In so far as it was aristocratic, it was ultimately not an emanation from the proper substance of the men who wore it, but only a fine garment put on from outside. If they could
wrap themselves in it with seeming ease and assurance, if they could convince .themselves for conscious purposes that they were In sober fact aristocrats and wore it by right, they nevertheless could not endow their subconsciousness with the aristocrat's experience-- with the calm certainty, bred of that experience, which is the aristocratic manner's essential warrant. In their inmost being they carried nearly always, I think, an uneasy sensation of inadequacy for their role. And so often the loveliness of their manner was marred by a certain more or less heavy condescension-- a too obvious desire (reported directly or by implication by Olmsted, Fanny Kemble, the patriotic Hundley, and the wholly friendly J. H. Ingraham) to drive home the perception of their rank and value. And if this condescension was relatively inoffensive at home and among their familiars and loyal admirers, it could be, and often was, overbearing and brutal when confronted by the unknown quantity of a stranger, or by any person who might be suspected of challenging or doubting or even of failing to be sufficiently Impressed by their claims.
Moreover, it must be borne in mind that the general assertion of aristocracy had naturally played a great part in reinforcing the land-and-slave pride, in heightening the concern with the class idea In the narrow sense, which produced, at its worst, the Cotton Snobs who aroused the anger and contempt of Olmsted and Hundley. And in the hands of these-- at one and the same time the least adequate to aristocracy and the most determined to have its glory for their own-- the planter manner was frequently torn from the simplicity which, as its only true sanction, and subjected to grotesque exaggeration. Its beauty vanished under such pomposity, such insistent and extravagant lady-and-gentleman grandness as one expects to find only in the pages of some servant-girl romance; or lacking this, in a preciousness so simpering and so nice or, again, so loftily supercilious that one might decline to believe in it if it had not been set down by the soberest observers.
Turning from the planters to the common whites, we find manners still definitely affected by the Virginia model and the aristocratic ideal. Indeed, I am not sure that the most fortunate result of
all in this field is not to be found in the case of the better sort of those yeoman farmers who stood between the planters and the true poor whites. It did not go so far; there was no magnificence of sword and plume here, as there was no claim to personal aristocracy. But therein lay its strength. These men took from aristocracy as much as, and no more than, could be made to fit with their own homespun qualities; and so what they took they made solidly their own, without any sense of inadequacy to haunt them into gaucherie. The result was a kindly courtesy, a level-eyed pride, an easy quietness, a barely perceptible flourish of bearing, which, for all its obvious angularity and fundamental plainness, was one of the finest things the Old South produced.
And something of the same kind can be said of the poor white himself. All the way down the line there was a softening and gentling of the heritage of the backwoods. In every degree the masses took on, under their slouch, a sort of unkempt politeness and ease of port, which rendered them definitely superior, in respect of manner, to their peers in the rest of the country.
From manner we pass naturally to the notions of honor and decorum, of what is proper and becoming to the gentleman, which constitute the deeper essence of aristocracy. Indeed, the most obvious result here passes over eventually into the realm of manner-- of, at any rate, manners-- in the broadest sense.
Encountering in the new planters the pride of the backcountry and the romanticism and hedonism which we have seen, these gentlemanly concepts-- themselves a distillation from the age-long pride and romance of Western man, of course, fused with and intensified them, contributed very greatly to rounding out and fixing the pattern of the personal and the extravagant. And at the same time they served to bring into that pattern a certain discipline, to bend its native uncouthness, its frontier
swagger, to seemIiness and investment in established forms. Thus, for example, among these planters the tradition of fisticuffs, the gouging ring, and unregulated knife and gun play tended rapidly, from the hour of their emergence, to reincarnate itself in the starched and elaborate etiquette of the code duello, though the latter commonly underwent a considerable simplification in the process and never became universally and fully established.
“Instant in resentment, and bitter in his animosities, yet magnanimous to forgive when reparation had been made... There was no littleness about him. Even toward an avowed enemy he was open and manly, and bore himself with a sort of antique courtesy and knightly hostility, in which self-respect mingled with respect for his foe, except when contempt was mixed with hatred, and then no words can convey any sense of the intensity of his scorn ....
“Even in the vices of Prentiss, there was magnificence and brilliance imposing in a high degree. When he treated, it was a mass entertainment. On one occasion he chartered the theatre for the special gratification of his friends-- the public generally. He bet thousands on the turn of a card and witnessed the success or failure of the wager with the nonchalance of a Mexican monte-player, or, as was most usual, with the light humor of a Spanish muleteer. He broke a faro-bank by the nerve with which he laid his large bets, and by exciting the passions of the veteran dealer or awed him into honesty by the flame of his strong and steady eye.
"Attachment to his friends was a passion. It was a part of the loyalty to the honorable and chivalric... He never deserted a friend. His confidence knew no bounds... scorned all considerations of prudence and policy. He made his friends' quarrels his own... would put his name on the back of their paper, without looking at the face of it, and gave his carte blanche, if needed, by the quire…
“Sent to jail for fighting in the courthouse, he made the walls of the prison resound with unaccustomed shouts of merriment and revelry. Starting to fight a duel, he laid down his hand at poker, to resume it with a smile when he returned, and went on the field laughing with his friends, as to a picnic. Yet no one knew better the proprieties of life than himself-- when to put off levity and treat grave subjects and persons with proper respect...."
That, if I mistake not, is the nearly perfect measure of what happened when the tradition of aristocracy met and married with the tradition of the backwoods. It contains at once the Iron man of the frontier, the wild boisterousness of the backlandsman at play, and something, a great deal in fact, of such sweepingly splendid fellows as Mr. Richard Steele and Mr. Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Mr. Charles James Fox -- contains them so integrally and inseparably that it is impossible to say where the one ends and the other begins…
It is an overdrawn and idealized measure, yes. But that in itself is significant. Prentiss was a native Yankee, studying to get on as a politician in the deep South, and making such a success of it that it was said of him he might have any office in the gift of his constituents for the nod of his head. And his portrait-maker, Baldwin, a Southerner of the best type, was scarcely less successful at the same trade. Do I need to add that the politician universally succeeds in the measure in which he is able to embody, in deeds or in words, the essence, not of what his clients are strictly, but of their dream of themselves?
Here, in brief, was the thing that most planters, in the unpuritanical half of their characters at least, liked to fancy themselves to be, and that they more or less seriously saw themselves as being. And so here was the thing that, after an imperfect human fashion but in a really striking degree, a handful of the best endowed, the least trammeled by Puritanism, the most generous and bold and romantic by nature, actually came to be. Here was the thing that, if, in the long run, it had to reckon with the tough fibre, the horse trading instincts, and the coarseness of grain native to self-made men in general, yet did enter into and become the stamp, to an appreciable extent, of the body of these masters of the South.
But I must not seem to confine its influence to the planters alone. Farmer and cracker admired and shared more than vicariously in this ideal-- shall we call it? -- created by the impact of the aristocratic Idea on the romantic pattern. It determined the shape of those long, lazy, wishful day-dreams, those mirages from an unwilled and non-existent future, in which they saw themselves performing in splendor in moving in grandeur. And its concept of honor, of something inviolable and precious in the ego, to be protected against stain at every cost, and imposing definite standards of conduct, drifted down to them-- to the best of the yeomen in a form simpler but not less good, perhaps sometimes even better than that in which it was held by the generality of planters; to the poor white the most indistinct and primitive shape-- to draw their pride to a finer point yet, to reinforce and complicate such notions of “the thing to do” as they already possessed, and to propel them along their way of posturing and violence.
I speak of violence. One of the notable results of the spread of the idea of honor, indeed, was an increase in the tendency to violence throughout the social scale. Everybody, high and low, was rendered more techy. And with the duel almost rigidly bound to that techiness at the top, everybody's course was fatally mapped. These men of the South would go on growing in their practice of violence in one form or another, not only because of the reasons at which we have already looked but also because of the feeling, fixed by social example, that it was the only quite correct, the only really decent relief for wounded honor-- the only one which did not Imply some subtle derogation, some dulling and retracting of the fine edge of pride, some indefinable but intolerable loss of caste and manly face.
Moreover, this honor complex and the rising popularity of the duel reacted on law and government was a strong factor in blocking the normal growth of the police power. As is well known the laws of
most of the states either openly or tacitly countenanced the formal affaire, and in none of them was killing in such a brush likely to bring forth more than perfunctory indictment. And the common murderer who had slain his man in a personal quarrel and with some appearance of a fair fight, some regard for a few amenities, need not fear the indignity of hanging. If the jury was not certain to call it self-defense, the worst verdict he had to expect was manslaughter.
But the conception of honor and decorum we have seen at work here is a fundamentally narrow and incomplete one. The ideas of rigid personal integrity in one’s dealings with one’s fellows and of noblesse oblige and chivalry in the widest sense-- of the obligation to be not only just but more than just, of the obligation, above all, to the most tender concern for the welfare and happiness of the weak and powerless-- these ideas, representing the highest product of aristocracy, and constituting perhaps its only real justification in the modern world, are only imperfectly adumbrated or are missing altogether. Is that to say that they are to be dismissed as having no ponderable influence on the mind of the great South? Far from it. I have merely wished to emphasize the fact that it was the narrow and egotistic conception of honor which fitted most easily into the Southern pattern and which therefore went the furthest toward establishing itself fully.
In truth the cotton planters seized upon the ideas of aristocratic probity and noblesse with zeal, and professed them with heartiness. And believed in their own professions. No group of people anywhere, indeed, ever more constantly represented to themselves and to the world that they were absolutely under the domination of these ideas and the Christian virtues to which they wedded them; no group even more completely contracted the habit of referring every act to these motives, of performing even the most commonplace of deeds only to the accompaniment of solemn protestations of selfless devotion; and no group was ever more convinced that it was all so.
What is more, the masses about them were convinced that it was true also-- accepted these planters as being the soul of honor and social responsibility. (We look once more into the machinery of the pattern of paternalism.) More yet, the masses were themselves impregnated with something of the same thing. The habit of noble profession, of accounting for every move in terms of fealty to the social good, to standards that were essentially both aristocratic and Christian in the best sense, and of the most impenetrable conviction that it was strictly so, passed down through the whole of Southern society and became a characteristic Southern trait.
But the measure of reality underneath is not hard to come at. Wherever these notions of integrity and noblesse encountered the simple tradition of uprightness which I have mentioned as belonging inherently to such men as the old Irishman whose story I have recited-- and such men were to be found not only among the planters but in the yeoman-farmer class too-- the result was extremely impressive. This primitive uprightness was ripened, expanded, brought to issue in a great cleanness and decency, a wholly admirable rectitude, which is one of the most pleasant things that ever grew up on American soil.
In the hands of men of this stamp the convention, thrown up on the wave of high profession, that no one but a cur beat, starved, or overdrove his slaves became a living rule of daily conduct: a standard so binding as to generate contempt for whoever violated it. Occasionally, indeed, these notions of aristocratic honor acted with a particularly strong sense of the moral indefensibility of slavery and an uncommon honesty in Christianity to propel such a man to the great gesture of renunciation-- forthright manumission.
And others were prompted to the lesser gesture of liberation after a given term of years. Just as striking was the attitude generated in this sort of man toward trade-- the repugnance to anything
which smacked of deception and chicane. Sometimes it even combined with a kind of snobbishness to set up a scorn for trade of any kind, as being in its very nature incurably mean. More usually, and more rationally, it brought forth such finely scrupulous actions as that of my old Irishman, who used to sell his corn at a certain fixed (and low) figure regardless of the market, scorning to take advantage of scarcity and the need of his neighbors, waiting peacefully through years for his pay, and, failing of it altogether, finding an excuse for the culprit in the saying: “Poor fellow, he never had any luck. He would have paid me if he could have.” Or, again, such a splendid if not uncanny attitude as that of an old Scot, the Irishman's neighbor, who, having money to lend, lent it always on the borrower's bare oral promise to repay, despising mortgages and notes as inventions of the devil to betray the feet and weigh down the wings of the naturally candid spirit of man.
And so I might go on indefinitely listing the effects of the notion of honor on these men. But I really need to mention only one more: As part and parcel of their spirit, they developed a real and often tremendous sense of obligation (I speak mainly of the planters among them now, of course) to the common whites about them-- a feeling that they were bound to go beyond the kindness of the old backcountry, to set them an impeccable example of conduct and sentiment, to advise them correctly, to get them out of trouble when they got in, to hold them up to the highest possible moral and intellectual level in this world, and somehow to get them through the gates of jasper at last. Thus that old Irishman, in addition to making impossible trades in which various shiftless souls acquired hams, flour, and other concrete goods in return for certain vague promises concerning the delivery of a fish or a deer or sassafras roots for tea in the spring, in addition to scandalously abusing his powers as a magistrate on the side of mercy, and in addition to financing the activities of three or four parsons, used also, in his latest days, to keep a free school on his place, manned by an ex-blacksmith with a great authority in his fist and a bowing acquaintance with the three R's, to which the boys and girls of the neighborhood who were too poor to attend the Presbyterian academy were all but literally compelled to come.
But when all this is said, we come back to the fact that the men to whom it applies, those to whom it can be made to apply in degree, were the best. In the majority of the planters the notions of integrity and noblesse oblige did not make any great progress toward dissolving out the hard core native to the commoner sort of fellow who has shouldered his way up in the world. The most that would be achieved here (and, with the necessary changes, this applies to the masses also) would be some softening of the surface, a slight expansion of the frontier tendency to kindness, perhaps, and a disposition to embrace whatever, without interfering with interest, gave opportunity to the love of high profession, whatever was presented in the name of the common welfare.
To be noticed, too, is that, even at the best and fullest, the idea of social responsibility which grew up in the South remained always a, narrow and purely personal one. The defect here was fundamental in the primary model. The Virginians themselves, if they had long since become truly aristocratic, had nevertheless never got beyond that brutal individualism-- and for all the Jeffersonian glorification of the idea, it was brutal as it worked out in the plantation world-- which was the heritage of the frontier: that individualism which, while willing enough to ameliorate the specific instance, relentlessly laid down as its basic social postulate the doctrine that every man was completely and wholly responsible for himself.
I have before painted the common white as being immensely complacent. But the planters-- both nouveaux and Virginian if anything, outdid him. The individualistic outlook, the lack of class pressure from below, their position as captains against the Yankee, the whole paternalistic pattern in fact, the complete other worldliness of the prevailing religious feeling, and, in the nouveaux, the very conviction that they were already fully developed aristocrats-- all this, combining with their natural unrealism of temperament, bred in them a thoroughgoing self-satisfaction, the most complete blindness to the true facts of their world.
And so, even when they were most sincere in their sense of responsibility to the masses, they began, with an ingenuousness that might have been incredible elsewhere, by assuming their own interest as the true interest of the common white also-- gave him advice, told him what to think, from that standpoint. Outside of two or three exceptions, such as William Gregg of South Carolina, hardly any Southerner of the master class ever even slightly apprehended that the general shiftlessness and degradation of the masses was a social product. Hardly one, in truth, ever concerned himself about the systematic raising of the economic and social level of these masses. And if occasional men like my Irishman kept free schools for their neighborhoods, these same men would take the lead in indignantly rejecting the Yankee idea of universal free schools maintained at the public charge-- would condemn the run of Southern whites to grow up in illiteracy and animal ignorance in the calm conviction of acting entirely for the public good.
Let us go back now to the conflict with the Yankee, for we have by no means seen all its results yet. There are those extensive implications I have referred to as being involved in its solidification of the South. If this solidification was in some sense an effect of the prevailing absence of class antagonism, if it could have arisen only from that ground, it was also an integrally determining factor for that absence, struck down and eliminated whatever beginnings of such feeling may have been spawning in Southern breasts, and finally and decisively confirmed the pattern. And in doing this it of course played a great part in fixing and expanding the intensely individualistic outlook.
Moreover, it was this solidification before the Yankee, the universal concentration of Southerners on the will to victory in the struggle for mastery, that brought to full development the Southern passion for politics and rhetoric. Politics, it goes without saying, was the battlefield on which the contest would be waged for the thirty years before the ultimate resort to arms. And politics was also, so to speak, the temple wherein men entered to participate in the mysteries of the common brotherhood of white men, to partake of the holy sacrament of Southern loyalty and hate. And the shining sword of battle, the bread and wine-- if I may be permitted to carry out the theological figure-- through which men became one flesh with the Logos, was, of course, rhetoric, a rhetoric that every day became less and less a form of speech strictly and more and more a direct instrument of emotion, like music.
Within this frame of politics and rhetoric the hammer and thrust of the Yankee inevitably did something else, too: It called forth that final term of Southern extravagance, that significant type of people's captain, the fire-eating orator and mob-master. Let us take good care to understand him. It is easy to think of him, to think of a William Yancey or a Barnwell Rhett, as having been a mere poseur and a conscious demagogue. But it is no more true of him than of his congeners on the military side, the dramatic cavalry captains of the Civil War. As surely as these, he was a normal and ingenuous evocation from the character of a whole people-- under fire. And if he gave the masses gasconade and bluster, if he had them to understand that any Southerner at random was equal to whipping a whole squad of Yankees, he did it not out of mere calculation or irresponsibility, but because the solidity of the South operated upon him to fill him with a wonderful sense of vicarious power, because it seemed to him, as it seemed to every one of his roaring hearers, to be a mere statement of fact.
More notable yet was the influence of conflict and solidification upon the religious pattern. Under its influence, God began rapidly to be distinctly a tribal God. He remained Jehovah, certainly. As time went on, indeed, He became more purely Jehovah – the stern, simple, direct, God of the Old Testament, with elements of the Apocalypse added, the God of battles and the flaming sword,
and of the pale horsemen and the winepress of blood. A severe, almost primitive, naivete of belief and feeling got to be the fashion, sweeping back even such sophistication of religion as was already growing up, and penetrating gradually almost into the very strongholds of the Virginians themselves. If the falling of the stars in 1833 could still be interpreted rationally by the more enlightened sort of evangelical ministers, there were not many non-Anglican pulpits left in the South in 1857 which did not see the passage of Donati's great comet as a herald of the imminent outpouring of divine wrath. And not every Anglican church was immune to intimations of the kind.
But nobody intimated or suspected that this wrath might possibly pour upon the South itself. The South, men said and did not doubt, was peculiarly Christian; probably, indeed, It was the last great bulwark of Christianity. From the pulpit the word went forth that infidelity and a new paganism masking under the name of Science were sweeping the world. From pulpit and hustings ran the dark suggestion that the God of the Yankee was not God at all but Antichrist loosed at last from the pit. The coming war would be no mere secular contest but Armageddon, with the South standing in the role of the defender of the ark, its people as the Chosen People.
You suspect me of picturesque extravagance? Then hear the Presbyterian Dr. J. H. Thornwell declaiming in 1850, the year before his countrymen were to call him to the presidency of the College of South Carolina, from which he had some time ejected Dr. Cooper for his “infidel” views: “The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders-- they are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground-- Christianity and atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity the stake.”
But this was not all. There was that eternal uneasiness of the South's conscience over slavery - the need to appease its own doubts before the onset of the Garrisonian attack. Well, but what if it was not really wrong, after all? Suppose, as one of the first churchmen of the South, Dr. Benjamin Palmer of New Orleans, put it, it was a " providential trust "? Really God's plan for instructing the black man in the Gospel and securing him entry into eternal bliss? Suppose the South was only the favored vessel of His will to that end? The Baptist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, dominated by South-hating Yankee parsons, denied that logic? Then let them go fry in perdition, as they probably would anyhow. The South would have a Baptist Church, a Presbyterian Church, a Methodist Church of its own.
But this Southern Methodist Church would be one which was not strictly Methodist any more. For as the pressure of the Yankee increased, the whole South, including the Methodists, would move toward a position of thoroughgoing Calvinism in feeling if not in formal theology. It would never completely arrive there, to be sure. The old Arminian doctrine of Free Will-- the doctrine most natural to the frontier, and most congenial in many respects to the Southern pattern generally-- would retain a great deal of vitality always. God would continue to be, in considerable measure, a sort of constitutional monarch, bargaining for the allegiance of His subjects and yielding a quid for a quo. Nevertheless, everybody did come increasingly, and without regard for his traditional creed, to think and speak of Him as being primarily the imperious master of a puppet-show. Every man was in his place because He had set him there. Everything was as it was because He had ordained it so. Hence slavery, and, indeed, everything that was, was His responsibility, not the South's. So far from being evil, it was the very essence of Right. Wrong could consist only in rebellion against it. And change could come about only as He Himself produced it through His own direct acts, or-- there was always room here for this-- as He commanded it through the instruments of his will, the ministers. The repercussions of this through the whole structure of Southern life and thought were extensive. But it is enough here to direct attention
to the fact that, in combination with the strong other-worldliness natural to the evangelical sects, and the perhaps logically incompatible doctrine which made out the superior fortune of the planter to be Heaven's reward to superior virtue and piety, it was a signally important element for the complacency of both the masses and, as I have mentioned in passing, the master class; and that it, of course, served mightily for the increase of the power of the ministers, it is in the connection of the conflict with the Yankee, again, that we can perhaps best understand the South's unusual proneness to sentimentality.
The root of the thing, obviously, was in the simple man with whom we began. It was part and parcel, in fact, with his unrealism and romanticism, and grew as they grew. It gathered force, too, from the Zeitgeist of course-- from the great tide of sentimentality which, rolling up slowly through the years following the French Revolution broke over the Western world in flooding fullness with the accession of Victoria to the throne of England. Nowhere, indeed, did this Victorianism, with its false feeling, its excessive nicety, its will to the denial of the ugly, find more sympathetic acceptance than in the South.
But a factor which served more importantly for the growth of the pattern was the interaction of the Yankee's attack with the South's own qualms over slavery.
Wholly apart from the strict question of right and wrong, it is plain that slavery was inescapably brutal and ugly. Granted the existence, in the higher levels, of genuine humanity of feeling toward the bondsman; granted that, in the case of the house-servants at least, there was sometimes real affection between master and man; granted even that, at its best, the relationship here got to be gentler than it
has ever been elsewhere, the stark fact remains: It rested on force. The black man occupied the position of a mere domestic animal, without will or right of his own. The lash lurked always in the background. Its open crackle could often be heard where field hands were quartered. Into the gentlest houses drifted now and then the sound of dragging chains and shackles, the bay of hounds, the report of pistols on the trail of the runaway. And, as the advertisements of the time incontestably prove, mutilation and the mark of the branding iron were pretty common.
Just. as plain was the fact that the institution was brutalizing-- to white men. Virtually unlimited power acted inevitably to call up, In the coarser sort of master, that sadism which lies concealed in the depths of universal human nature-- bred angry impatience and a taste for cruelty for its own sake, with a strength that neither the kindliness I have so often referred to (it continued frequently to exist unimpaired side by side, and in the same man with this other) nor notions of honor could effectually restrain. And In the common whites it bred a savage and ignoble hate for the Negro, which required only opportunity to break forth in relentless ferocity; for all their rage against the" white-trash" epithet concentrated itself on him rather than on the planters.
There it stood, the-- terrible, revolting, serving as the very school of violence, and lending mordant point to the most hysterical outcries of the Yankee.
But the South could not and must not admit it, of course. It must prettify the institution and its own reactions, must begin to boast of Its own Great Heart. To have heard them talk, indeed, you would have thought that the sole reason some of these planters held to slavery was love and duty to the black man, the earnest, devoted will not only to get him into heaven but also to make him happy in this world. He was a child whom somebody had to look after. More, he was in general, and despite an occasional spoiled Nat Turner, a grateful child - a contented, glad, loving child. Between the owner and the owned there was everywhere the most tender and beautiful relationship.
Mrs. Stowe did not invent the figure of Uncle Tom, nor did Christy invent that of Jim Crow-- the banjo-picking, heel-flinging, hi-yi-ing happy jack of the levees and the cotton fields. All they did was to modify them a little for their purposes. In essentials, both were creations of the South-- defense mechanisms, answers to the Yankee and its own doubts, projections from its own mawkish tears and its own mawkish laughter over the black man, incarnations of its sentimentalized version of slavery. And what is worth observing also is that the Negro, with his quick, intuitive understanding of what is required of him, and his remarkable talents as a mlme, caught them up and bodied them forth so convincingly that his masters were insulated against all question as to their reality-- were enabled to believe in them as honestly as they believed in so many other doubtful things.
But there was another factor which was perhaps even more Important for the growth of sentimentality than this: the influence of the presence of the Negro in increasing the value attached to Southern woman. For, as perpetuator of white superiority’s legitimate line, and as a creature absolutely inaccessible to the males of the inferior group, she inevitably became the focal center of the fundamental pattern of proto-Dorian pride.
Nor, in this connection, must we overlook the specific role played by the Negro woman. Torn from her tribal restraints and taught an easy complaisance for commercial reasons, she was to be had for the taking. Boys on and about the plantation inevitably learned to use her, and having acquired the habit, often continued It into manhood and even after marriage. For she was natural, and could give herself up to passion in a way impossible to wives inhibited by Puritanical training. And efforts to build up a taboo against miscegenation made little real progress. I do not mean to imply, certainly, that it was universal. There were many men in the South who rigidly abstained from such liaisons, and scorned those who indulged. Nevertheless, that they were sufficiently common is indisputable. Melville Herskovits informs us, in The American Negro, that “Instead of 80- 85% of the American Negroes being wholly of African descent, only a little over 20% are unmixed, while almost 80% show mixture with white or American Indian .... Between one third and one fourth (27.3% to be exact) have American Indian ancestry."
And everything points to the conclusion that this state of affairs was already largely established by 1860. We must not overlook the fact, of course, that the Portuguese and Spanish slave-traders had been industriously engaged in bleaching the tar-brush for two centuries before the Negro was introduced into the South-- nor that the Yankee has never shown himself averse to furthering the comity of nations. But, relatively speaking, the share of responsibility to be laid to these was doubtless small. Nor can the South's ruling share be dismissed as due merely to the aberrations of degraded white trash. Every Southern community where Cuffey flourishes abounds in stories which run to the tune of “the image, my dear, the living image, of old Colonel Bascombe himself!”
But this set up conflict with domestic sentiment. And such sentiment, without regard to the influence of the Negro’s presence, was even stronger in the Southerner than in the American generally. In the isolation of the plantation world the home was necessarily the center of everything; family ties acquired a strength and validity unknown in more closely settled communities; and, above all, there grew up an unusually intense affection and respect for the women of the family-- for the wife and mother upon whose activities the comfort and well-being of everybody greatly depended; (yes, and even particularly in those houses with many servants; for the Negro as he developed under slavery in the South was one of the laziest and in general most untrustworthy servants ever heard of, requiring endlessly to be watched and driven).
Yet if such a woman knew that the maid in her kitchen was in reality half-sister to her own daughter, if she suspected that her husband sometimes slipped away from her bed to the arms of a mulatto wench, or even if she only knew or suspected these things of her sons or some other male of her family, why,
of course she was being cruelly wounded in the sentiments she held most sacred. And even though she feigned blindness, as her convention demanded she should-- even if she actually knew or suspected nothing-- the guilty man, supposing he possessed any shadow of decency, must inexorably writhe in shame and an intolerable sense of impurity under her eyes.
Join to this the fact that the Yankee's hate (and maybe his envy) had not been slow to discover the opening in the Southern armor, that his favorite journals were filled with screamers depicting every Southerner as a Turk wallowing in lechery, and it is plain that here was a situation which was not to be tolerated.
And the only really satisfactory escape here, as in so many other instances, would be fiction. On the one hand, the convention must be set up that the thing simply did not exist, and enforced under penalty of being shot; and on the other, the woman must be compensated, the revolting suspicion in the male that he might be slipping into bestiality got rid of, by glorifying her; the Yankee must be answered by proclaiming from the housetops that Southern Virtue so far from being inferior, was superior, not alone to the North's but to any on earth, and adducing Southern Womanhood in proof.
The upshot, in this land of spreading notions of chivalry, was downright gyneolatry. She was the South's Palladium, this Southern woman-- the shield-bearing Athena gleaming whitely in the clouds, the standard for its rallying, the mystic symbol of its nationality in face of the foe. She was the lily-pure maid of Astolat and the hunting goddess of the Breotian hill. And-- she was the pitiful Mother of God. Merely to mention her was to send strong men into tears-- or shouts. There was hardly a sermon that did not begin and end with tributes in her honor, hardly a brave speech that did not open and close with the clashing of shields and the flourishing of swords for her glory. At the last, I verily believe, the ranks of the Confederacy went rolling into battle in the misty conviction that it was wholly for her that they fought.
“Woman! The center and circumference, diameter and periphery, sine, tangent and secant of all our affections!” Such was the toast which brought twenty great cheers from the audience at the celebration of Georgia's one-hundredth anniversary in the 1830 's.
Another effect of the interworking of the Yankee's attack and slavery was the heightening of the snobbish feeling in the master class.
I have already suggested that this feeling was made much stronger by the development of the legend of general aristocracy; for the reverse face of this claim to gentility and noble descent on the part of the planters was, of course, the convention that the common whites were "not our kind of people"-- a different flesh altogether.
But now, in the last years before the Civil War, the incessant need to justify the "peculiar institution" was to give birth to a definite philosophy of caste. Slavery, it must be said was not only God's commanded order, not only the most humane order, but also the most natural order. The natural order adverted to was not Rousseau's, as I need not tell you, but Auguste Comte's. Professor Dew of Virginia, Chancellor Harper of South Carolina and their imitators fell early upon that philosophy's sociological system and from that basis proceeded to envisage the South as on its way to being-- as bound to become on an early tomorrow-- a rigid caste society, rising tier on tier from the" mud-sill” of the happy slave to the planter, charged with all power at the top: a society which, according to their rhapsodies, would so ideally fit the true nature of humanity that the whole world, witnessing its glory, would abandon the stupid fetish of democracy and hasten to follow suit.
As I said a good while ago, this philosophy remained always primarily one for the schoolmen and professional apologists for an economic system; few men in the South ever understood its impli-
cations; and almost none of them assimilated it sufficiently to make it the genuine root of their thinking. Even those who loved best to strike the pose of Cato the Censor, to quote the dying words of Agricola Fusilier: "Master and man-- arch and pier-- arch above, pier beneath," to lampoon Mr. Jefferson as a "leveller," were really concerned only with the defense of slavery and the titillation of their vanity; they never entirely freed their subconscious minds from the old primitive democracy of outlook bequeathed by the frontier.
But the doctrine did serve once more to strengthen and expand the planter's narrow class pride, to increase his private contempt for the common whites, to ratify his complacency and harden toward arrogance the conviction which was growing up in him, as a natural result of the paternalistic habit, that it was his right to instruct and command-- never to the point, as we know, of setting up tangible resentment and interfering with the social solidification of the land-- but far enough for us to take careful cognizance of it none the less.
The final result of conflict and solidification, we have to notice, is that it turned the South toward strait-jacket conformity and made it increasingly intolerant of dissent. Perhaps, in view of Southern individualism, this seems paradoxical and even contradictory. The right to dissent, one might think, is the very sap and life of individualism. But in fact there is no real contradiction here, or none that was not inherent in the South itself.
We go back to the point that it was the individualism of extremely simple men, shaped by what were basically very simple and homogeneous conditions. The community and uniformity of origins, the nearness in time of the frontier, the failure of immigration and the growth of important towns-- all these co-operated to cut men to a single pattern, and, as we have been seeing continuously, the total effect of the plantation world was to bind them to a single focus which was held with peculiar intensity.
Conformity and intolerance never became absolute in the Old South, certainly. Down to the Civil War it was possible for a man to be an open atheist or agnostic in most districts, though perhaps not in all, without suffering any greater penalty than being denounced every Sunday from the local pulpits, and subjected to the angry mutters or the intrusive warnings and jeremiads of his neighbor, the jeers and maybe the missiles of the children, when he passed among them. But when the great central nerve of slavery was touched, there was no such latitude. Let a Yankee abolitionist be caught spreading his propaganda in the land, let a Southerner speak out boldly his conviction that the North was essentially right about the institution, and he was not merely frowned on, cursed, hated; he was, in this country long inured to violence, dealt with more pointedly and personally: he was hanged or tarred or horsewhipped. At the very luckiest, he had to stand always prepared to defend himself against assault.
“I warn the abolitionists, ignorant and infatuated barbarians as they are, that if chance shall throw any of them into our hands, they may expect a felon's death," cried Congressman J. H. Hammond of South Carolina, as early as 1836 - and the overwhelming body of his countrymen cheered him hotly. The State of Georgia officially posted a reward of five thousand dollars for whoever should kidnap Garrison and fetch him within the Cracker jurisdiction to stand trial on charges of inciting the blacks to insurrection. In North Carolina a young Tarheel professor, B. S. Hedrick, was expelled from the faculty of the State University at Chapel Hill on a wave of popular rage because he was reported to have said that he would vote for John C. Fremont for President on the ground that Fremont s position on slavery was virtually identical with that of Jefferson; and his flight to the North was made imperative and swift by the roar of a mob hard upon his heels.
In all Dixie, indeed, from 1840 on, only a dozen or so men of the greatest and most impregnable position, such as Cassius Clay, of the border state of Kentucky, and Robert E. Lee, stationed in the North, would be able even mildly to express doubts about the institution in public without suffering dismaying penalty. Not even the cloth of a minister was sufficient protection. For when Daniel
Worth, of North Carolina, and John G. Pee, of Kentucky, almost alone among Southern ministers, attempted to speak out against it, Worth was jailed for a winter and had to endure an appalling stream of vituperation and insult; and the more militant Pee is said to have fallen twenty-two times a victim to mobs, and on two occasions to have been left for dead.
The habit spread in ever widening circles, poisonously. From the taboo on criticism of slavery, it was but an easy step to interpreting every criticism of the South on whatever score as disloyalty-- to making such criticism so dangerous that none but a madman would risk it. And from that it was but another and just as easy and almost inevitable step to a state of affairs in which criticism of any sort at all was not impossible, surely, but an enterprise for bold and excitement-loving spirits alone. If it touched on any social sore point, on anything which the commonalty or their prompters, the planters, counted dear-- and there were few things that did not fall under this description-- the critic stood an excellent chance of being mobbed. If it touched only some person or private interest, he was likely to be waited on with a challenge or to be larruped through the streets of the courthouse village while the lounging populace looked on and grinned.
One can almost write the last chapter in the life of a newspaper editor in the Southern country at that time without making inquiry. For, from John Hampden Pleasants of the Richmond Whig down, the record is rich in entries of "fatally wounded in a duel," or " shot dead in the streets." On the Vicksburg Journal, indeed, the mortality by violence actually reached the total of five editors in thirteen years!
The natural result-- seeing that really competent critics are by ordinary nervous souls-- was that criticism either waxed feeble and effeminate, or, with a few salient exceptions, degenerated into an irrational and wholly personal bellow, usually dedicated to mean ends and practiced mainly by violent blackguards.
Definitely, in short, the South was en route to the savage ideal: to that ideal where under dissent and variety are completely suppressed and men become, in all their attitudes, professions, and actions, virtual replicas of one another.
With all these characteristics established, we are in a position to turn to the examination of the South's claim to a superior culture. Or, more correctly, since everything we have seen falls within the meaning of culture in the wide sense, to that claim in so far as it relates to culture in the narrow sense-- to intellectual and aesthetic attainments.
And in this respect, it may be said without ceremony that it was perhaps the least well founded of the many poorly founded claims which the Southerners so earnestly asserted to the world and to themselves and in which they so warmly believed.
I know the proofs commonly advanced by apologists-- that at the outbreak of the war the section had more colleges and students in those colleges, in proportion to population, than the North; that many planters were ready and eager to quote you Cicero or Sallust; that Charleston had a public library before Boston, and its famous St. Cecilia Society from the earliest days; that these Charlestonians, and wIth them the older and wealthier residents of Richmond and Norfolk and New Orleans, regularly imported the latest books from London, and brought back from the grand tour the paintings and even the statuary of this or that fashionable artist of Europe; that, in the latest days, the richest among the new planters of the deep South began to imitate these practices; that in communities like those of the Scotch Highlanders in the Cape Pear country there were Shakespeare libraries and clubs; that Langdon Cheves of South Carolina is reported by Joseph LeConte to have discussed the idea of evolution in private conversation long before The Origin of Species and so on ad infinitum.
But such proofs come to little. Often, as they are stated, they are calculated to give a false picture of the facts. Thus, the majority of the colleges were no more than academies. And of the whole number of them perhaps the University of Virginia alone was worthy to be named in the same breath with half a dozen Yankee universities and colleges, and as time went on, even it tended to sink into a hotbed of obscurantism and a sort of fashionable club, propagating dueling, drinking, and gambling.
Thus again, the general quoting of Latin, the flourish of "Shakespeare says" so far from indicating that there was some profound and esoteric sympathy with the humanities in the South, a deliberate preference for the Great Tradition coming down from the ancients, a wide and deep acquaintance with and understanding of the authors quoted, really means only this, it seems to me: that the great body of men in the land remained continuously under the influence of the simple man's almost superstitious awe for the classics, as representing an arcanum beyond the reach of the ordinary.
And over and behind these considerations lies the fact that the South far overran the American average for (white) illiteracy that not only the great part of masses but a considerable number of planters never learned to read and write, and that a very great segment of the latter class kept no book in their houses save only the Bible.
But put this aside. Say that the South is entitled to be judged wholly by its biggest and its best. The ultimate test of every culture is its productivity. What ideas did it generate? Who were its philosophers and artists? And-- perhaps the most searching test of all-- what was its attitude toward these philosophers and artists?
Did it recognize and nurture them when they were still struggling and unknown? Did it salute them before the world generally learned to salute them?
One almost blushes to set down the score of the Old South here. If Charleston had its St. Cecilia and its public library, there is no record that it ever added a single idea of any notable importance to the sum total of man's stock. If it imported Mrs. Radcliffe, Scott, Byron, wet from the press, it left its only
novelist, William Gilmore Simms, to find his reputation in England, and all his life snubbed hIm because he had no proper pedigree. If it fetched in the sleek trumpery of the schools of Van Dyck and Reynolds, of lngres and Houdon and Flaxman, it drove its one able painter, Washington Allston (though he was born an aristocrat), to achieve his first recognition abroad and at last to settle in New England.
And Charleston is the peak. Leaving Mr. Jefferson aside, the whole South produced, not only no original philosopher but no derivative one to set beside Emerson and Thoreau; no novelist but poor SImms to measure against the Northern galaxy headed by Hawthorne and MelvIlle and Cooper; no painter but Allston to stand in the company of Ryder and a dozen Yankees; no poet deserving the name save Poe-- only half a Southerner. And Poe, for all his zeal for slavery, it despised in life as an inconsequential nobody; left him, and with him the Southern Literary Messenger, to starve, and claimed hIm at last only when his bones were whitening in Westminster churchyard.
Certainly there were men in the Old South of wide and sound learning, and with a genuine concern for ideas and, sometimes, even the arts. There were the old Jeffersons and Madisons, the Pinckneys and the Rutledges and the Henry Laurenses, and their somewhat shrunken but not always negligible descendants. Among both the scions of colonial aristocracy and the best of the newcomers, there were men for whom Langdon Cheves might stand as the archetype and Matterhorn-- though we must be careful not to assume, what the apologists are continually assuming, that Cheves might just as well have written The Origin of Species himself, if only he had got around to it. For Darwin, of course, did not launch the Idea of evolution, nor yet of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. What he did was laboriously to clarify and organize, to gather and present the first concrete and convincing proof for notions that, in more or less definite form, had been the common stock of men of superior education for fifty years and more. There is no evidence that Cheves had anything original to offer; there is only evidence that he Was a man of first-rate education and considerable intellectual curiosity, who knew what was being thought and said by the first minds of Europe.
To be sure, there were such men in the South: men on the plantation, in politics, in the professions, in and about the better schools, who, in one degree or another, in one way or another, were of the same general stamp as Cheves. There were even men who made original and important contributions in their fields, like Joseph LeConte himself, one of the first of American geologists, like Matthew Fontaine Maury, author of Physical Geography of the Sea, and hailed by Humboldt as the founder of a new science; like Audubon, the naturalist. And beneath these were others: occasional planters, lawyers, doctors, country schoolmasters, parsons, who, on a more humble scale, sincerely cared for intellectual and aesthetic values and served them as well as they might.
But in the aggregate these were hardly more than. the exceptions which prove the rule - too few, too unrepresentative, and, above all, as a body themselves too sterile of results very much to alter the verdict.
In general, the intellectual and aesthetic culture of the Old South was a superficial and jejune thing, borrowed from without and worn as a political armor and a badge of rank; and hence (I call the authority of old Matthew Arnold to bear me witness) not a true culture at all.
This is the fact. The reason for it is not too far to seek.
If we were dealing with the cotton South alone, one might be tempted to think, indeed, that it resides wholly in the question of time, in the consideration I have emphasized, that there were but seventy years between the invention of the cotton gin and the outbreak of the Civil War. But even here the answer is hardly adequate; in view of the wealth and leisure ultimately afforded the master class, in view of the fact that the second generation had largely grown up in this wealth and leisure, one might have expected, even though this cotton South had stood quite alone, to find a greater advance, something more than the blank in production we actually find.
But we are not dealing with the cotton South alone, of course. As we have sufficiently seen, it was the Virginians, too. Here was the completed South, the South in flower-- a South that, rising out of the same fundamental conditions as the great South, exhibiting, with the obvious changes, the same basic pattern, and played upon in the first half of the nineteenth century by the same forces, had enjoyed riches, rank, and a leisure perhaps unmatched elsewhere in the world, for more than a hundred years at least; a South, therefore, which, by every normal rule, ought to have progressed to a complex and important intellectual culture, to have equaled certainly, probably to have outstripped New England in production, and to have served as a beacon to draw the newer South rapidly along the same road. And if it did none of these things, why, then, we shall have to look beyond the factor of time for a satisfactory explanation, not only of its barrenness but, to a considerable extent, of that of the great South also.
In reality, the reason is immanent, I think, in the whole of Southern life and psychology. Complexity in man is invariably the child of complexity in environment. The desire for knowledge when it passes beyond the stage of being satisfied with the most obvious answer, thought properly so called, and, above all, aesthetic concern, arise only when the surrounding world becomes sufficiently complicated to make it difficult or impossible for human energies to escape on a purely physical plane, or, at any rate, on a plane of direct activity. Always they represent, among other things, a reaching out vicariously for satisfaction of the primitive urge to exercise of muscle and nerve, and achievement of the universal will to mastery. And always, too, they feed only upon variety and change. Whence it is, no doubt, that they have never reached any notable development save in towns, and usually in great towns.
But the Southern world, you will remember, was basically an extremely uncomplex, unvaried, and unchanging one. Here economic and political organization was reduced to its simplest elements. Here were no towns to rank as more than trading posts save New Orleans, Charleston, Richmond, and Norfolk; here, perhaps, were no true towns at all, for even these four (three of which were scarcely more than overgrown villages) were rather mere depots on the road to the markets of the world, mere adjuncts to the plantation, than living entities in their own right, after the fashion of Boston and New York and Philadelphia. Here was lacking even that tremendous ferment of immigration which was so important in lending variety to the rest of the American scene. And here everywhere were wide fields and blue woods and flooding yellow sunlight. A world, in fine, in which not a single factor operated to break up the old pattern of outdoor activity laid down on the frontier, in which, on the contrary, everything conspired to perpetuate it; a world in which even the Virginian could and inevitably did discharge his energies on the purely physical plane as fully as his earliest ancestor in the land; a world in, which horses, dogs, guns, not books, and ideas and art, were his normal and absorbing interests.
And if this was not enough? If his energies and his ambition demanded a wider field of action? He went, in this world at battle, inescapably into politics. To be a captain in the struggle against the Yankee, to be a Calhoun or a Brooks in Congress, or, better still, to be a Yancey or a Rhett ramping through the land with a demand for the sword-- this was to be at the very heart of one's time and place, was, for the plantation youth, full of hot blood, the only desirable career. Beside it the pursuit of knowledge, the writing of books the painting of pictures, the life of the mind, seemed an anemic and despicable business, fit only for eunuchs. “Why,” growled a friend of Philip Pendleton Cooke, Virginia aristocrat and author of the well-known lyric, Florence Vane, “Why do you waste your time on a damned thing like poetry? A man of your position could be a useful man”-- and summed it up exactly.
But it was not only the consumption of available energy in direct action. The development of a considerable intellectual culture requires, in addition to complexity of environment, certain predisposing habits of mind on the part of a people. One of these is analysis.
“L’etat de dissociation des lieux communs de la morale semble en correlation assez etroite avec Ie degre de la civilization intellect tuelle,” says Remy de Gourmont-- and says truly. Another is hospitality to new ideas. Still another is a firm grip on reality; and in this connection I am not forgetting the kind of art which is called romantic and the more fanciful varieties of poetry; in so far as they are good, In so far as they are truly art, they also must rise ultimately from the solid earth. And, finally, there is the capacity, at least, for detachment, without which no thinker, no artist, and no scholar can do his work.
But turn back now and examine the South in the light of this. Analysis is largely the outcome of two things: the need to understand a complex environment (a consideration already disposed of) and social dissatisfaction. But, as we are aware, satisfaction was the hallmark of Southern society; masters and masses alike were sunk in the deepest complacency; nowhere was there any palpable irritation, any discontent and conflict, and so nowhere was there any tendency to question. Again, being static and unchanging, the South was, of course, an inherently conservative society-- one which, under any circumstances, would have naturally been cold to new ideas as something for which it had no need or use. As for the grip on reality, we know that story fully already. Imagination there was in plenty in this land with so much of the blood of the dreamy Celt and its warm sun, but it spent itself on puerilities, on cant and twisted logic, in rodomontade and the feckless vaporings of sentimentality. And as for detachment, the South, you will recall, was, before all else, personal, an attitude which is obviously the negation of detachment. Even its love of rhetoric required the immediate and directly observable satisfactions of speech rather than the more remote ones of writing.
There is still more here. As well as having nothing to give rise to a developed intellectual culture, as well as having much that was implicitly hostile, much that served as a negative barrier, the Old South also had much that was explicitly hostile and served as a quite positive barrier. The religious pattern will come to mind at once. Theologians have everywhere been the enemies of analysis and new ideas, and in whatever field they have appeared-- feeling, quite correctly, that, once admitted, there is no setting limits to them. And in this country in which the evangelical ministers had already won to unusual sway, in which they had almost complete control of the schools, in which they had virtually no opposition, they established their iron wall with an effectiveness which went well beyond even its American average.
But the greatest force of all was the result of conflict with the Yankee. In Southern unity before the foe lay the final bulwark of every established commonplace. And the defense of slavery not only eventuated, as we have seen, in a taboo on criticism; in the same process it set up a ban on all analysis and inquiry, a terrified truculence toward every flew idea, a disposition to reject every innovation out of hand and hug to the whole of the status quo with fanatical resolution. Detachment? In a world in which patriotism to the South was increasingly the first duty of men, in which coolness about slavery was accounted treason, it was next to impossible.
In sum, it was the total effect of Southern conditions, primary and secondary, to preserve-- but let Henry Adams tell it, in the pages of the Education, from direct observation of Roony Lee, the son of Robert E. Lee, and other young Southerners he knew at Harvard between 1854 and 1858, who had behind them two hundred years of shaping in the pattern, and who are to be taken, as Adams infers, as the typical flower of the Old South at its highest and best:
“Tall, largely built, handsome, genial, with liberal Virginia openness toward all he liked, he [Lee) had also the Virginian habit of command .... For a year, at least ... he was the most popular and prominent man in his class, but then seemed slowly to drop into the background. The habit of command was not enough, and the Virginian had little else. He was simple beyond analysis; so simple that even the simple New England student could not realize him.
No one knew enough to know how ignorant he was; how childlike; how helpless before relative complexity of a school. As an animal the Southerner seemed to have every advantage, but even as an animal he steadily lost ground.
… Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two…
There it is then. We return to the point with which we began. It was the total effect of Southern conditions, primary and secondary, to preserve the Southerner’s original simplicity of character as it were in perpetual suspension. From first to last, and whether he was a Virginian or a nouveau, he did not (typically speaking) think; he felt; and discharging his feelings immediately, he developed no need or desire for intellectual culture in its own right-- none, at least, powerful enough to drive him past his taboos to actual achievement.