December 17, 2005

Myth and Myopia II: Emerging Regional Identity in the Colonial South

Spanish explorers were crawling all over the Americas by the early 16th century, and in 1565, in Florida, they established the first successful settlement in the South (and in North America), St. Augustine. The Spanish also kept a tight grip on Texas from an early date.

After the abortive attempt at Roanoke in 1587, English colonists, too, established a beachhead in the New World, at Jamestown (also in the South) in 1607. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the English had expanded south through both Carolinas as well as Georgia, occupying the whole of the South east of the Appalachians.

The French were involved in Europe’s early exploration and population of the South, as well, with inhabitants scattered around the mouth of the Mississippi by the late 17th century. New Orleans, the capital of the Louisiana colony, was founded in 1718, and that enormous territory also included Arkansas and portions of Texas.

The competition between nations which fueled exploration and colonization provides the first clue to a distinct identity for the American South. In this region were combined a mix of influences from four (including the important Native American element) distinct cultures and national histories. By 1700, slaves from Africa (the first having been brought in 1619) were beginning to arrive on American soil in significant numbers, adding a fifth culture to the blend.

Related to this, and also integral to the developing identity, was the Southern experience on the frontier, largely realized by Scotch-Irish settlers. The Scotch-Irish settlers were unique; quite different from the English settlers. They were wild, violent, and ruggedly individualistic, but also fiercely loyal to family and susceptible to religious influence. Many of these prominent features would eventually manifest themselves in the distinctly Southern personality.

A second clue to emerging regional identity lies in the differing motives of settlement between North and South, and in the differing perspectives of settlers regarding the land they inhabited. "If the Puritans established New England to be a City on a Hill, the early Southerners portrayed their area as a new Garden of Eden."

While the colonizing of the North owes a debt to the search for religious freedom, the colonization of the South was (ironically, considering later developments) a purely materialistic venture. The Southern colonies were consistently described as an earthly paradise, infinitely rich and fertile, by everyone from John Smith in the early 1600s to William Byrd II in the mid-1700s.

The third important clue to the divergence of the South as a region lies in the early development of social castes, already firmly in place by 1776. The Southern class-system, standard in this as in other respects, resembled a pyramid in structure, with the smallest group occupying the highest position. These elites were the large planters, a Southern aristocracy existing almost exclusively in the coastal colonies, particularly Virginia and South Carolina.

Beneath them was the upwardly mobile middle-class, aspiring to ever-greater heights of social prestige, and beneath them were the lowly “poor whites,” commonly viewed as illiterate, diseased, and shiftless. And, of course, at the absolute bottom of the pyramid lay the foundation of black Southerners, lowliest of the classes, largely fated to an enslaved existence on the plantations.

Above all else, white Southerners adhered to a moral code that may be summarized as the rule of honor [. . .] The sources of the ethic lay deep in mythology, literature, history, and civilization. It long preceded the slave system in America. Since the earliest times, honor was inseparable from hierarchy and entitlement, defense of family blood and community needs. All these exigencies required the rejection of the lowly, the alien, and the shamed. Such unhappy creatures belonged outside the circle of honor. Fate had so decreed.

It is both significant and interesting to note that, despite this foreshadowing of a separate identity, the colonial South had not yet achieved the recognizable degree of homogeny that would later characterize it. Additionally, Southerners had not yet acquired the all-important attachment to the past which would eventually become so prominent. On the contrary, the vision of the South was focused chiefly on the future, on prosperity to come. It might be speculated that this was less a distinction between earlier and later Southern personality, and more related to the lack of a revered history to obsess over, but such conjecture could only be investigated and confirmed by pursuing lines of inquiry beyond the scope of this paper.

Historians disagree as to the exact date when the South finally emerged as a region apart. During the greater part of the 18th century, at least four different societies existed within the Southern states. However, as unifying, nationalistic sentiments swelled during the American Revolution and after, the South achieved a new unity within itself and came to be considered in different terms from the North.

It is natural that this should be so. The South could hardly be considered separately as a region within a national context until the formation of the nation. Only as the principles that would govern the United States began to take shape could the unique interests of the South emerge in opposition to those of the North.

The more traditional historical view places the flowering of this identity in the 1820s, but John Richard Alden argues for an earlier date. This South, which he calls the “First South” was distinct from the "Old South" of the antebellum period, and was undoubtedly already recognizable by the Revolutionary period, possibly
"as early as 1778."

Certainly the most momentous development in the life of this First South was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. This proved to be of prime importance. The increase in efficiency "release[d] the plantation from the narrow confines of the coastlands and the tobacco belt, and stamp[ed] it as the reigning pattern in all the country" although "it was actually 1820 before the plantation was fully on the march, striding over the hills of Carolina to Mississippi."

Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison became the foremost "intellectual force in the South during the years from the Revolution to the 1820s." The atmosphere during this time was much freer and more open than it would later become. In fact, prior to 1820, more antislavery organizations existed in the South than the North.

Posted by Jared at December 17, 2005 03:21 PM | TrackBack