March 14, 2006

Antebellum Blues

The Antebellum South is a very difficult period for me to write about again, because I'm not entirely convinced that I have anything new to say about it. I was given some fascinating readings for this period, beginning with a second excerpt from Blassingame's The Slave Community.

I was actually somewhat frustrated by this piece because it made me think it was going to talk about actual slaves, but instead it only addressed the perceptions of their masters. Namely, what do the established negro stereotypes of Sambo (i.e. Uncle Tom and Uncle Remus), Jack (i.e. Aphra Behn's Oroonoko), and Nat (as in Nat Turner and his famed rebellion) tell us about the actual nature of the black population?

The conclusions to be drawn more or less boil down to: 1) Masters talked as though all of their slaves were Sambos, but acted as though all of them were Nats. The stereotypes were therefore somehow not an accurate or adequate depiction of reality. 2) The reality probably amounts to a case of slaves beginning to assume whatever role they felt necessary in order to survive, and (in some cases at least) ultimately becoming that role as time wore on and nothing changed.

Discussion of this phenomenon brought to mind various readings of the character of Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as Faulkner's portrayal of blacks in his novels (particularly The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!). I really ought to go ahead and read the next chapter from Blassingame's book in order to see how the author accounts for the realities of the slave personality.

Meanwhile, our next excerpt came from Grady McWhiney's Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South. This piece, by far the longest I read, was my favorite due in large part to the liberal sprinkling of actual historical events (anecdotes, really) which livened up its pages. The chapters selected were, interestingly, entitled "Pleasures" and "Violence." Our printouts stopped at "Morals." As such, I probably got a slightly imbalanced view of actual life in the Old South.

Nevertheless, the picture was a very telling one. I mentioned previously the uniting of a culture of violent and extreme emotion (the Scotch-Irish) with one dedicated to the preservation of personal honor (the Virginia aristocrats). By the Antebellum period, that blend had had its chance to fully mature and was operating at its peak. The picture painted by McWhiney is of an Old South that easily rivals the Old West in its rambunctious lawlessness and toleration of vice. Sure, the Old West got all the glory for gun battles in the streets and so forth, but the Old South did it first. A dubious honor, that.

The final piece was a chapter from The Slaveholders' Dilemma by Eugene D. Genovese, and I have saved it for last for two reasons. First, it seemed like a logical progression to be working my way up step by step through the social stratosphere of the Old South. Second, I was the most fascinated by this piece. In it, Genovese essentially invites the reader to step back from the moral horror of slavery and objectively consider the writings of Antebellum "philosophers" (for lack of a better term) on the subject.

The most interesting of these was Thomas Dew, a Virginian intellectual who spent much of his life trying to interpret the development of Western civilization. His extensive examination of the various factors involved led him to conclude that eventually the cost of free labor would sink below the level of the cost of slave labor and the slaves would be freed. Meanwhile, the cost of free labor would remain at subsistence level with no way to protect the poor if that level should ever drop. Unlike slaves, the poverty-stricken free laborers would have no protection from economic depression and so forth. Dew regarded this as morally unacceptable, and further, he believed that the poorer classes would go the way of the French Revolution rather than endure such an outcome.

In short (as I understand it), Dew was very strongly in favor of progress of all kinds, but he believed that the lower classes would bear the brunt of the negative effects of progress if they were not "protected" from exploitation and starvation by . . . being slaves. Without slavery, he believed, freedom would ultimately undermined, because the poor classes in any other system would eventually revolt, forcing the rich capitalists to become military despots and quashing all variety of freedoms in the process. "Only slavery or personal servitude in some form could guarantee republican liberties for the propertied, security for the propertyless, and stability for the state and society" (18).

Dew saw the movement of Western civilization as dependent on a choice between progress and social anarchy, or slavery, social stability, and no progress. He didn't like either option, but he settled on slavery as the lesser of two evils. An interesting argument, all things considered, but I wonder how he would account for the actual movement of events. I believe, from what I have studied, that the 50 or so years following the Civil War seem to bear him out. I can't help but be curious about what he might have thought of the Soviet Union.

All that aside, I don't believe I have had the chance to encounter such lucid (and, ultimately, cautious) pro-slavery arguments before reading about Thomas Dew. Perhaps his body of work would be worthy of more study at a future date. Meanwhile, these readings on the Antebellum South provide a valuable foundation of reality for any study of Southern history prior to the elaborate fantasies that were constructed about it after the Civil War.

Posted by Jared at March 14, 2006 02:11 PM | TrackBack