December 19, 2005

Myth and Myopia III: Deepening Sectionalism in the Antebellum South

Cash strongly refutes the myth of an old and established Southern aristocracy, arguing that only a single generation at most (1820-1860) separated most of the South from its rough, uncivilized, and embattled frontier days and the Civil War. Nevertheless, those intervening decades are the setting for the plantation myth, possibly the most lasting and dominant picture of an idyllic South among later generations.

Central to what began as an outgrowth of the Southern need to distinguish itself from the North is, of course, its vision of Southern plantations as epitomizing the highest principles of the Old South. The plantation was the foundation of the agrarian social order, the stately center of civilized life, dominated by a patriarchal family unit which benignly governed its community of black slaves. Ruled by a complex system of honor, manners, and a hierarchical social order, this dignified aristocracy maintained an ideal way of life. This mythic view of antebellum Southern life is also called “moonlight-and-magnolias” after the image presented by the maudlin novels of Thomas Nelson Page and others, published during the final decades of the 19th century.

The Cavalier myth stood hand in hand with the plantation myth. Its imagery embodies the idealized Southern male, whose every action was characterized by an adherence to the code of Southern virtue. Cavaliers were the courtly sons of wealthy planters, and, later, the brave and tragic defenders of the Confederacy.

The strong appeal of the Cavalier image lies in its combination of four qualities: wealth (in both currency and land), class (as heir to the highest tier of Southern social life), heritage (as heir, also, to a long and hallowed lineage of Southern aristocracy), and honor (virtuous nobility, generosity, and magnanimity in dealing with friends, implacable courage, strength, and skill in the protection of women, family name, and home).

Acceptance of the Cavalier image is akin to belief that Arthurian ideals of chivalry and nobility were universal among the aristocracy of medieval Britain. Nevertheless, the Cavalier and plantation myths became two of the defining ideas that separated North and South, and would grow into cherished recollections of a legendary past following the Civil War.

Also during the antebellum years, the Southern mind continued to develop apart from the North along four distinct paths: First, politically, the attitudes of Southern sectionalism deepened steadily as a result of events like the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and the nullification crisis of the early 1830s. In this and in other important legislative events, John C. Calhoun, senator from South Carolina and the most influential Southern politician during the first half of the 19th century, became the spokesperson for Southern interests.

Serving in various roles in government throughout his life, Calhoun was chiefly concerned with threats to the “peculiar institution” (slavery) and agrarian interests of the South. Hints of unrest among the slave population surfaced occasionally, and even flared into revolts, as with the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831, and this, too, drew Southerners together.

Second, intellectually, the South began to seriously develop its unique historical consciousness. It is perhaps a mistake to speak of the Southern mind at this time in intellectual terms. As Henry Adams wrote in 1905 about his experiences in 1854, "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."

In any case, between 1830 and 1850, a multitude of historical societies sprang up in the region, and the Southern view of history began to shift from national to regional. Aspects of Southern life common to the whole region were stressed and differences downplayed on the one hand, while, on the other, differences between South and North were emphasized over similarities between the regions. Southerners celebrated the heroes of the past and attached annual importance to the dates of historic events.

However, despite an increased awareness of their history, Southerners were not engaging in any meaningful analysis of it. As Cash puts it, "Analysis is largely the outcome of two things: the need to understand a complex environment [. . .] and social dissatisfaction." Without either of these ingredients, the South produced no thoughtful examinations of their history or of their society. Mythological elements began entering historical perspectives almost immediately.

Third, religiously, the antebellum decades saw a movement of faith described as a "triumph of the evangelical sects." Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians; these and denominations like them began to dominate Southern religion, marginalizing the Anglican Church. The Southern religious experience came to be characterized by passion and emotion, a strict view of morality, intolerance, and a focus on the frightening images of hellfire and damnation; in short, a Southern interpretation of the legacy of the Puritans, and a foreshadowing of the fundamentalism of later generations.

The extremes of chivalry aspired to by the Southern male were also related to this aspect of Southern life, if only tangentially. This led ultimately to what Cash calls "downright gyneolatry." He explains the worship of Southern woman as a reaction to the shame felt by Southern males regarding adultery with black slaves and the resultant necessity of maintaining a fiction of marital fidelity. This fiction needed to be sustained not only in order to preserve the stability of familial bonds, but also in the face of the intolerable attentions directed by the North at so-called "Southern lechery and decadence."

Without such a fiction, the South would lose both the moral high ground and the very foundations of its society; hence, the intense veneration of Southern Womanhood. Cash concludes that, "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."

Fourth, socially, the quintessential Southerner of the antebellum South, what Cash calls "the man at the center," far from an aristocratic Cavalier, is a simple yeoman farmer of the frontier. As such, it is important to note the appeal of Jacksonian-era democracy to the Southern mind. Andrew Jackson, the first president from outside of the clique of the American Revolutionaries, departed significantly from the earlier democratic ideas of the founding fathers (whose intellectual roots lay in the Enlightenment).

Jackson’s idea of a democracy was one where all free, white men had a vote, not merely the intellectual, landed gentry. Rather than connecting freedom to knowledge and opportunity, Jacksonians viewed freedom as economical, social, and inherent. In the South, Jacksonians saw slavery as protecting independent white farmers from becoming subservient to the plantation owners. Slavery was a way to preserve the equality of whites, particularly those Southern whites who were conquering the frontier with their visions of joining the world of plantations and Cavaliers.

This highly romanticized vision of the Old South was not unique to Southerners, either. The North (and Europe with them) also bought into the myth wholeheartedly. The New England mind, long accustomed to acquiring its perception of the region from its nearest neighbor, Virginia, had no trouble envisioning the South as a land of majestic plantations governed by hospitable aristocrats.

Additionally, these pre-Civil War decades were the years of the Romantic Movement in art and literature, whose adherents sounded the call to return to nature, in all its common simplicity, for inspiration. Nothing could be more natural than for some of this sentiment to direct itself towards one of the last purely agrarian regions in Western culture.

The prevalence of the Cavalier myth is strikingly illustrated by the most influential anti-slavery novel of the 19th century: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1852. The chief villain of Stowe’s novel is not a Southerner at all, but a Yankee overseer.

Posted by Jared at December 19, 2005 09:49 PM | TrackBack