Let us keep the focus on relationships between despotism and democracy, for that oddity made the late antebellum South especially peculiar. Collision between one of the nineteenth century’s most advanced private despotisms and one of its most advanced public democracies defined much of the national debate between northern Republicans and the southern Slavepower. Partially democratic, partially despotic modes of social control also established the Slavepower’s power—and lack of power—over its own section.
According to the myth, an impassable racial line separated undemocratic control of blacks from democratic control of whites. New South, New West slaveholders loved that myth. In the spirit of Tennessee’s Andrew Jackson, racist egalitarians argued that authoritarian domination, when restricted to other races, intensified equality among whites. Blacks had to be coercively mastered. No white needed a master.
Old South, Old East aristocrats had less use for the color line. In the spirit of South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, these dominators urged that “mere negro slavery” could never sufficiently consolidate ruling-class reign. Rather, independent men of wealth must master all sexes and ages and classes—and races too.
Despite these clear-cut theories, Southern rulers confusingly mixed their regimes. Dictatorial coercions, supposedly reserved for black slaves, corroded democratic persuasion among whites. Egalitarian persuasiveness, supposedly reserved for white citizens, conditioned authoritarian impositions on blacks. Control from above ultimately was neither altogether democratic nor altogether despotic on either side of a blurred color line.
Mongrelized modes of domination sometimes yielded invincible sway over both races. That was so particularly in the Deep South. Compromises between dictatorial remorselessness and democratic permissiveness also sometimes yielded more vulnerable control over slaves and citizens than slaveholders thought safe. That was so particularly in the Border South.
Some edgy Border South leaders eventually demanded that the national republic bolster anti-republican control over blacks—and sometimes over whites too. The resulting national impositions on both races arguably violated color lines between democracy and despotism in the nation no less than in the Slavepower’s section. Out of that provoking argument, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party—and a nation’s Civil War—would grow.
Frictions between democracy and slavery, inescapable in the nineteenth-century South, have proved more escapable elsewhere. The Old South’s acute form of the conflict occurred at a unique time and in a peculiar place. In the American nineteenth century, not republicanism per se but an increasingly egalitarian form of republicanism had to be reconciled with slavery, that most unequal of human institutions.1
Masters found the reconciliation difficult in the most personal sense, for their two regimes demanded opposite ruling personalities. Egalitarian republics required leaders to play unassuming convincer. Enslaved plantations required elitists to exert overbearing coercion. The egalitarian and elitist inside the same skin often popped out in the wrong realm. Elitists who trespassed onto egalitarians’ turf were especially resented among white folk inside black-belt neighborhoods.
Behind the schizophrenia of the elitist as egalitarian lay a shift in human thought about the source of virtue and thus the personality of right leaders. Eighteenth-century Anglo-American Enlightenment theory, like centuries of pre-Enlightenment Western ideology, presumed that the best men should govern and that the governed, whether citizens or slaves, should defer. All humans were assumed to be born equal, including equally emotionally unsteady. Control of passions required long training in enlightened abstractions. Only a few “natural aristocrats” were up to the training.
Republics were thus precarious affairs. Conspiracies to seize power and patronage abounded. Checks and balances between governmental branches helped forestall civic vice. Civic virtue helped more.
Virtuous leadership required financial independence. Dependent poor folk naturally sunk into selfishness and conspiracy. Lesser sorts should thus be selectively barred from voting and altogether barred from holding office. Independent gentlemen armed with civic virtue could alone elevate dependents and save republics.2
These elitist assumptions made rule over both slaves and citizens compatible acts of the same eighteenth-century persona. The few natural aristocrats must rationally guide those lesser. The many natural non-aristocrats must willingly defer to those better. Both civic virtue and virtuous plantations depended on wisdom from above and deference from below.
The nineteenth-century Age of Romanticism was founded on a countervailing wisdom: that all humans were born with innately wise instincts. Virtuous insight now was presumed to come not from academic training but from instinctive feelings. Common men with common sense were republican noblemen. Overeducated elitists were civic enemies.
These changed assumptions menaced black slavery. Blacks, even if allegedly inferior intellectually, arguably shared the greater human gifts: right hearts, right intuitions. Harriet Beecher Stowe and the romantic abolitionists of her age seized just this proposition.3Worse, egalitarian assumptions sanctioned the sway of ever larger nineteenth-century nonslaveholder numerical majorities, nationally and in the South too. How could imperious slaveholders command a nation and section eager for unpresuming rulers?
The color line provided a freshly consolidated answer. The nineteenth century’s newly rampart racism read blacks out of the new biological equality. Civic virtue now required superior racial genes. The slaveholder must now defer to virtuous white citizens but dictate to degraded black noncitizens.
The South’s more intractable elitists, continuing to see black slavery as only part of patricians’ rightful dictation to all lessers, scorned this partial surrender to egalitarianism. The lie that humans were created wise and wonderful and equal, they believed, promoted the nonsense that slavery must be abolished, that independent men of property must court dependent men impoverished, that nothing in law or constitution should preserve hierarchy from the mob. These old-fashioned commanders, especially powerful in coastal South Carolina and eastern Virginia, stood for saving civic virtue the eighteenth-century way: through the reign of those with the financial independence to be virtuous.
But beyond the oldest South, poorer whites found such elitist republicanism jarring. Their annoyance usually led rulers over blacks to stress the equality of all whites. Race-based slavery, like class-based slavery, nonetheless remained unperfected until well into the 1850s. Even then, neither the great racial proslavery writers, Nott and Cartwright, nor the great class proslavery writers, Fitzhugh, Hughes, and Trescot could altogether keep the realms of the elitist and the egalitarian quite straight. In the Age of Romantic Egalitarianism, the natural outcome of slaveholding democrats’ peculiar position was contradiction and confusion over many aspects of right rule, including whether to strut before white folk lesser.
The slaveholding strut was at once natural and counterproductive among white folk in black-belt neighborhoods. Masters’ personal intimates, whether wives or children or nonslaveholding neighbors, saw for themselves the source of imperial attitudes: slaveholders’ awesome power over slaves. Usually, Massa was all-powerful judge, jury, and jailer on his property. The state rarely intervened, and only when slaves were unconscionably brutalized.4
If the state had little coercive authority over masters, the church had none. In Latin America, European kings often empowered Catholic clerics to govern irresponsible slaveholders. Latin American clergymen used that power but rarely. Still, North American clergymen possessed only the classic democratic weapon over despots: to convince.5
Private despots’ sweeping force lent credibility to their cherished title: MASTER. Few humans, however, master life. Forces beyond our control usually overwhelm us all. To master oneself, to master others, to be master of all one surveys is so unlikely as to make the very concept suspect.
Southern masters’ self-esteem, their self-respect, their very survival swung on legitimacy of title. They would master infuriating slaves, master neighbors and wives, master the mistaken North, master a Western world moving against mastery. They would be the word. The world would be theirs.
But in their egalitarian republic, they could only master slaves if their master, the white majority, concurred; and the majority of nonslaveholding males, however much in awe of the great man of the neighborhood, wished him to treat them as equals. Slaveholders could have more instinctively fulfilled that wish if all slaveless white males had been independent yeomen. Some desperately poor whites, however, ate mud to ease vicious intestinal pains from pellagra. More than 20 percent of white farmers in black belts, owning nary a slave or an acre, were tenants on slaveholders’ estates.6 Other nonslaveholders were on Massa’s payroll, or objects of Massa’s charity, or users of Massa’s cotton gin. Such dependency easily led to patronization.
Even slight condescension could hurt, for southern folk neighborhoods were tight little worlds. A Southerner, if asked to describe his primary allegiance to others, would not likely have said that he was above all an American or a Southerner or a South Carolinian or even a resident of Colleton County. Rather, he was proud to be from Whippy Swamp. A scale of community so tiny maximized cults of personality. Planters intimate with folks, black and white, could epitomize Max Weber’s classic category of those who gain right to rule through personal charisma.7
Commoners relished the master as charismatic egalitarian. It felt ever so good to be treated as The Man’s equal; and in a black-belt neighborhood, nonslaveholders had little economic reason to attack slavery. Rich and poor grew the same crops for the same market. They utilized the same merchant, whether they shipped little or much. Nonslaveholders sold slaveholders extra grain. Slaveholders ginned nonslaveholders’ cotton. Landowners rented landless tenants a few acres. Planters advanced poorer folk a few dollars. Folks were so materialistically intermeshed as to make, at least economically, for one folk neighborhood.8
The term “folk,” denoting blood relations, was accurate. Nonrelatives in tiny clusters of folk not only cared about each other in the manner of relatives but were often somehow related. Marriage between cousins was ubiquitous. When mothers survived almost yearly childbirths, families were huge. When mothers succumbed, fathers selected a new bride—who produced huge families or succumbed in turn. Between first cousins and second cousins and stepcousins and cousins of stepcousins, a planter had hundreds of relations. Family interconnections so extensive, inside locales of rural intimates so small, created a norm of treating neighbors as if they were, well, folks.9
Scholars have a useful label for (white) folks’ political ideal: herrenvolk democracy. Neighborhoods of white folk, committed to treating each other as equals, were equally committed to keeping black folks unequal.10 The herrenvolk southern neighborhood may have been more passionate about white egalitarianism than the northern. Black-belt whites had before their eyes the essence of deviation from independent equality: black slaves.
Unequal dependency also seemed more degraded here because equality looked more achievable. The ruling class, as Southerners sometimes defined the concept, was composed not merely of large planters but of all slaveholders. A poor man with one slave was as much a slaveholder as a rich man with twenty; and twice as many Southerners owned one as owned twenty or more. Equally important, many nonslaveholders expected to own a black someday. A slave characteristically cost less, usually very much less, than a thousand dollars. It was as if every twentieth-century American who owned or expected to own 20 shares of AT & T considered himself a member of the ruling class.11
The apparent ease of entrance into the upper crust made failure to do so more galling. The uncomfortable fact remained that most nonslaveholders never became slaveholders, indeed that many tenants and wage earners never became land owners. Amidst minuscule clusters of folk who considered dependency “nigger” and slaveholding achievable, independent slaveholders did have to be careful not to patronize lessers.
Conditions of class encounter often highlighted dependency. Upper and lower classes most often came together not at egalitarian political barbeques but through unequal economic transactions. Neighborly acts such as sharing cotton gins or lending a few dollars could strengthen white brotherhood. But sometimes the lordly said no. Then, lessers never forgot the degradation. Alexander Stephens, when young and poor, was turned down after one little request. He was “fill[ed] with mortification and a due sense of my humble dependence. There is nothing worse than to ask and be refused.” Even planters who handed over several charitable dollars, after spending all day taking care of black dependents, easily slipped into feeling they were taking care of white unfortunates.12
Paternalistic feelings bred patronizing behavior. Poor farmers who enjoyed economic favors did not enjoy feeling like objects of lordly charity. A Scottish traveler could tell that rich and poor were not “upon an equality—far from it;—for if a man is poor, there are a hundred and fifty ways in which he will feel it.” Poorer guests wandering stiffly and ill-at-ease through James Hammond’s parlors, while the South Carolina squire silently cursed at their poor appreciation of his paintings, exemplified the point.13
Race as a bond between white classes was both a promising and a precarious way to reconcile not-so-equal whites. Racial emphases widened the ruling class to include not merely all slaveholders, whether they owned one black or many, but all males with white skin, whether they owned any. All white men were equally responsible for keeping all blacks unequal.
That racist stance yielded psychological boons. In a system where all whites were supposedly equal, white failures could always glory in being better than “niggers.” Furthermore, all whites, whether worse or better on an economic scale, were equal on society’s most important scale: skin color. Elitism and egalitarianism could indeed co-exist when racial bases of elitism eased wounds from economic inequality.
Still, racially as well as economically, discrepancies between ideal and fact intruded. Just as some whites had inferior possessions, so some blacks had superior positions. To nonslaveholders, the most galling so-called inferior blacks were black slaveholders. William Ellison of upcountry South Carolina, for example, a master of mechanical engineering, owned his neighborhood’s largest, most complicated cotton gin. This free black also owned 63 slaves and 800 acres in 1860. His slaveholdings put him in the top 1 percent of Carolina planters. Six free blacks in Louisiana owned more bondsmen than Ellison did. One owned 152. Another was worth $250,000. These absurdities, as the color line defined the absurd, were exceptions to free blacks’ usual hand-to-mouth existence.14
Free blacks themselves, an anomoly according to the color line, were not so exceptional. A quarter-million of them, 6 percent of the southern black population in 1860, lived in this land where freedom was supposedly reserved for whites. Free blacks in many black-belt neighborhoods were economically better off than some (supposedly superior) whites, especially than “poor white trash” eating mud to ease pellagra.15
Masters more than winked at these ruptures of the color line. They bored other holes. Slaveholders often let (supposedly inferior) black drivers command slaves instead of hiring (supposedly superior) whites to oversee. Yet a master who considered dirt-eating whites trashier than slaves and white overseers worse rulers than black drivers had to proclaim all these white fellows equal members of the ruling class.
Slaveholders’ contorted ideology showed difficulties in maintaining the egalitarian pretense. Masters defending mastery kept implying that slaveholders were better than nonslaveholders. Slavery, they often bragged, beneficently prepared masters of blacks to command whites. Then weren’t slaveholders better rulers than nonslaveholders?
Slavery, they often reiterated, beneficently created a leisure class, with time for the more worthwhile pursuits of life. Only blacks could bear the tropical heat; only whites could create art and literature. Then weren’t slaveholders living more worthwhile lives than tenants and yeomen out slaving in the sun?
Our slaves, they often claimed, permanently work for paternalistic masters, while wage slaves temporarily work for selfish capitalists. Wage slaves could be laid off. Chattel slaves would be forever indulged. Then weren’t (supposedly superior) southern whites who worked for wages worse off than (supposedly inferior) black slaves? Indeed, shouldn’t (supposedly equal) white wage earners become slaves of (supposedly equal) white employers?
That natural outcome of class-based proslavery ideology was scarcely out the mouth before slaveholders had to make the words unnatural. Planters who congratulated themselves on leisure for finer things of life had to squander leisure and finery on barbecues for plebeians. Patricians proud of being a polished leadership class had to lead huzzahs for the “unpolished”. Paternalists, having called wage earners wage slaves, had to tell wage-earning Southerners that slavery had nothing to do with class and everything to do with race. And nonmasters, sensing they were considered inferior, had to overlook times when masters flaunted superiority.
Contradictory cultures love scapegoats. To counter the strain of haughty elites at home, Southerners had the benefit of haughty moralists abroad. Abolitionists called slavery wrong because all men, black and white, were created equal. That version of egalitarianism assaulted poor southern whites’ one basis of superiority. Abolitionists also declared all southern whites ethically inferior. Moral lightweights, as these Yankees weighed the commodity, included every soul who allowed slavery to continue.
Such attacks united the attacked. When sneering at outside meddlers, masters, confused by being more-than-equal egalitarians, at last could legitimately act every inch the magnate. When storming against northern moralists, tenants and employees and tiny farmers and dirt-eating wanderers, uncomfortable about being less-than-equal egalitarians, could at last act every inch the equal. The resulting defensive defiance, at least in black-belt districts, customarily gave proslavery zealots bountiful support. The further result, at least when Yankees were particularly holier-than-thou, was that even white-belt residents damned outsiders enough to create illusions that a South flourished.
A portrait of the scene when rich man met poor would make abstractions about class relationships more vivid. Descriptions of such encounters in the sources are frustratingly few and incomplete. The most tantalizing bit of a portrait occurs in that source so often the best, Mary Chesnut’s South Carolina diary. On October 1, 1861, the wealthy belle reported attending “one of Uncle Hamilton’s splendid dinners—plate glass, Sèvres china, and everything that was nice to eat.” After dinner the gentlemen, while out smoking on the piazza, chatted with one McDonald, a well-digger who had been scratching for water while Uncle Hamilton’s guests feasted. “Apparently,” reported Mrs. Chesnut, “Squire McDonald,” as she contemptuously called the mechanic, “was most at his ease of all. He had his clay pipe in his mouth. He was cooler than the rest, being in his shirtsleeves, and leaned back luxuriously in his chair tilted on its two hind legs, with his naked feet up on the bannister.”
Chesnut and her cousin, Louisa, observing at a distance, sniffed that “the mud from the well is sticking through his toes.” Was their elegant host “courting the country” nonslaveholder a little “strong?” After all, as “a free white man,” the mechanic had power to deny patriarchs’ political office and to damage slaveholders’ Civil War. More likely, the women speculated, the muddy fellow was present on the mudless piazza because “he is a near-relation.”
Relation or not, remarked Cousin Louisa, “see how solemnly polite and attentive Mr. Chesnut is to him.”
“Oh! that’s his way,” responded Mr. Chesnut’s wife. “The raggeder and more squalid the creature, the more polite and the softer Mr. Chesnut grows.”16
There the curtain comes prematurely down on Mrs. Chesnut’s scene. Important questions remain unanswered. Have we seen acted out the drama of tensionless egalitarians, where those lesser on the social scale are not “apparently” but truly the most comfortable, having commanded the attention of those higher? Or have we seen staged a faintly strained scene, where slightly resentful lessers wiggle toes a trifle much at slightly condescending aristocrats?
Everything depends on whether the lower-class star of the charade shared the female diarist’s view that not all was serenely comfortable in this performance. Could the well-digger have missed the ladies’ scorn? Could the employee have been unaware that Mr. Chesnut insultingly (to an egalitarian) changed his tone when addressing a fellow with muddy toes? If “Squire” McDonald caught undercurrents of condescension emanating from gentlemen dressed to the heels, was the shoeless pipesmoker who was “apparently” utterly at ease actually playing the egalitarian charade a little “strong”?17
The sources cannot definitively answer for the usual reason: articulate leaders leave behind many words, while inarticulate masses largely can be seen only in wordless gestures. We know that the articulate suspected the inarticulate’s loyalties. We know that suspicions climactically escalated into worry that Abraham Lincoln might organize a lower-class Republican Party in black-belt neighborhoods, unless the upper class secured secession. We know that poor men mocked such distrust by enthusiastically fighting the rich men’s Civil War for a couple of years. Only in the war’s grim last two years did massive lower-class desertion somewhat justify longstanding upper-class distrust. We know too that long after the Civil War, some nonslaveholders bitterly remembered that “all who owned as much as one negro seemed to feel that they were in a separate and higher class” and that “Negroes and poor white men did the work” while slaveholders enjoyed “hunting and fishing and riding around” and that planters “didn’t treat white men any better than slaves.”18 Many aspects of upper-class, prewar articulations seem capable of nourishing such latter-day class resentments. But had resentment always been an undercurrent, even when the classes met most harmoniously?
The question of how masters and nonmasters really interacted and really felt about the interaction is so important that historians, despite qualms about guessing, have livened the literature with speculative images. Historians’ standard guess features poor farmer, dressed in shabby best, off to celebrate nuptials of some wealthy cousin fifth-removed. That imagined scene feeds on awareness that in a world infatuated with familial domesticity, thin family connections overcame thick class barriers. That is why cousins Louisa and Mary speculated that the well-digger had familial right to occupy his betters’ porch.
But this historian found another scene more often hinted at in the sources. Nonslaveholders seem to have most often prepared for rendezvous with those richer not by dressing for weddings or digging for wells but by piling wagons with unbaled cotton and unhusked corn. A rough road usually wandered through such a worker’s few acres. A tumbling fence sometimes lined the muddy yard. The single-room cabin was usually weathered and crude, mud chinking logs, windows absent, everything gray in this land of black and white. Inside, drab belongings looked packed in—fireplace roaring for cooking despite the heat, jagged pots and pans, children’s quarters in the loft, adults’ mattresses on the floor, spinning wheel for wife, breakfast table laden with cornbread, fat bacon, strong black coffee. A torn poster sometimes splashed color on a wall. Revival tracts often were heaped on the packing case.19 Like dem ribbons wife has in her hair, I fancy the owner of such grim premises thinking as he bid his lady farewell.
The route to the plantation passed several slaveless little farms. Down the road, a redneck worked alongside several slaves on a cramped spread. As the land turned richer, river plantations loomed. In the field, slave women, supposedly picking cotton, seemed to stand still. Bright bandanas, more colorful than whites’ hair ribbons, shielded their heads from the sun. Monstrous lazy niggers, rednecks instinctively reacted. Puttin’ on shows. Do hev to dress purty.20
The plantation’s driveway occupied more acres than most yeomen’s cornfields. Slave cabins lined a side street. Each cabin, with adjoining garden, resembled rednecks’ rude comforts. The Big House ahead was capital of another world.
The plantation owner came out, waving howdy. For almost an hour the two neighbors drawled on, comparing views on politics, weather, cotton. Once they had wasted too much time to be Yankees, they proceeded to a little business. The slaveowner agreed to gin the yeoman’s cotton and to buy his corn. Glad to help, affirmed the squire. No way all folks can buy Yankees’ durn gins. Folks gotta share. Otherwise Yanks gonna bust us all.
The yeoman, preparing to depart, thanked his benefactor a bit profusely. Regretting the tone, he struggled for another. What you gwine do this afternoon? he asked.
Oh, reckon this day will be like most days, the planter answered. Be directin’ blacks and greetin’ neighbors. In between, guess I’ll read up yonder where it’s cooler. Way nature meant it. Whites readin’ and conversin’ and directin’ and blacks laborin’ and sweatin’ and servin’. Couldn’t pay a white man to tolerate that blazin’ sun. Nor could I pay a white man’s daughter to suffer my boilin’ kitchen.
The yeoman choked back rage. He stood the sun. Laboring fueled his dreams. Ain’t nothing nigger about sweatin’, he thought. And ain’t nothing nigger about my darlin cookin.
The planter’s voice drawled on, slicing through such angry thoughts. Gonna be readin one of them fanatic’s books today. Full of isms up north-anarchism and free-love ism. Crazy meddlers, think they’re better than other folks. Think they can tell us how we should live. Think they can make niggers as wonderful as themselves.
The yeoman nodded, resentments swerving. Glad you gwine read it, he said. Don’t know which I hate worse, a fanatic or a nigger. How’d you like to hev a nigger steppin’ up to your darter?21
The slaveholder, relieved, smiled and waved farewell. Wonder why he gave me that dark look, the planter mused while watching the yeoman drive off. Had a funny look when he first came too. Thank heavens these fellas are usually friendly. With a whole world invading, white folk can’t be fussing. Gotta move mountains to be brothers.
And brothers they were in a black-belt neighborhood, even if the brotherhood had elements of strain. Both the brotherhood and the strain were also apparent in rural villages, most Lower South neighborhoods’ only excuse for an urban locale.
Every southern county contained at least one village. Each village featured courthouse, church, and country store. Usually a jail, a newspaper, and a tippling house added to the scene. Down Main Street, doctors, lawyers, and merchants offered professional services, while white laborers and black mechanics hustled after customers. On the outskirts, politicians harangued at barbecues. Nearby, revivalists warned of Jehovah’s wrath and cocks gouged each other amidst cheering gamblers. At Court House Square, men gathered to chaw and gossip.
Sometimes, villages had permanent populations in the dozens. Occasionally they contained numbers in the hundreds. A few burgeoned to become state capitals or fall-line towns. Always they offered an escape from rural loneliness amidst rural surroundings. Town houses, usually white, columned, and Greek in style, looked like plantation mansions. Cow pastures usually fringed on Main Street. Main Street sometimes contained more chickens than people. Here bucolic country and urbanized cluster merged to form an archetypal southern folk community.22
Middle-class village leaders—lawyers, physicians, editors, merchants, bankers, preachers—usually enthusiastically supported the rural regime. Some owned slaves. Some planned to buy a few. All had everything to lose by espousing antislavery.
Lawyers, for example, ascended by praising the plantation. More lawyers than planters achieved political prominence in the Old South. Nothing would have changed if planters had held every office. In black-belt areas, anti-abolitionist speeches paved the road to political success. Political prominence paved the road to legal success. Oratory, that southern art, gave a fellow notoriety and assured potential clients that he was a persuasive pleader. Business came most often from slaveholders—a dreary, profitable round of land titles, wills, estates, and slave sales. No third estate existed, as in eighteenth-century France, whereby groups of laborers or farmers hired lawyers to fight seigneurs. Everything dictated that lawyers help unravel slaveholders’ tangles and help bolster the planters’ regime.23
So it was with other members of the village bourgeoisie. Doctors treated plantation slaves. Merchants marketed plantation staples. Editors sold proslavery newspapers. Bankers financed slave purchases. Proslavery clerics preached at slaves and slaveholders. The village bourgeoisie stood resolutely behind rural seigneurs.
Alas for a planter’s peace of mind, village white laborers were not so resolute. White blacksmiths, drayers, bricklayers, carpenters, stone masons, and factory laborers were wage slaves, in a society which declared wage slaves worse off than chattel slaves. Like yeoman farmers, white employees worked with their hands, in a world which assumed whites worked with their heads. Unlike yeoman farmers, wage laborers had to compete with two classes of black men who, according to proslavery theory, should not have existed. Free blacks often were village craftsmen. Nominally enslaved black mechanics, allowed to hire themselves out, lived like freedmen after paying off owners.
Both black groups benefited when white laborers charged high prices, lest white work be thought “nigger” work. Some blacks prospered so much that they bought slaves. Other resourceful blacks, as Governor William Gist of South Carolina noted, hired “white men to work under their direction.”24 Such shenanigans turned the southern world topsy-turvy. If all whites were superior and all blacks needed a master, how could blacks best whites?
Protests were predictable. Petitions bombarded legislatures. Some constituents urged enslaving free blacks. Others demanded that “hiring out” be banned. All petitioners sought to bolster white psyches by ending black triumphs. “It must be distinctly and universally understood,” Governor Gist answered, “that the white is the governing race”—even when blacks display superiority “of intellect.” Only drastic action, argued a group of Virginians in 1851, would “destroy the great cause of jealousy which existed between the nonslaveholders and slaveholders.” If the legislature failed to act, the Virginians warned, “the day is not far distant when the mechanics and nonslaveholders, generally, will demand the total expulsion of the negroes from our State.”25
Legislatures did fail to act, partly because free black labor was valued, partly because white mechanics hardly verged on revolution. Few saw a way to toss millions of slaves out of the United States. None saw benefits from allowing more free blacks to compete. So planters’ prime antagonists in nearby villages agreed that blacks, if present, must be enchained.
That was small comfort to nabobs sensing white laborers’ resentments. The slavocracy knew that village wage slaves in plantation areas, like yeoman farmers and landless tenants and dirt-eating vagrants, showed scarce tendency to opt for abolition. In a black-belt neighborhood, too many racial, economic, and emotional factors held back class resentments.
Still, the ruling class realistically wondered whether those who had little would always risk everything for those who had much. When the going got roughest, would nonslaveholders’ loyalty to slavery measure up to slaveholders’? Would the poor always prefer massive confrontations to mild compromises? Or would danger, disease, deprivation, death cause nascent class resentments to fester? Not heresy, not even disloyalty, but rather unmeasurable degrees of commitment made masters a little uneasy about black-belt neighborhoods as they moved towards encounter with remoter, more lily-white neighborhoods.
Because dominance over whites in black-belt neighborhoods depended on personal contact, masters feared inability to command far-away white-belt neighborhoods. Large planters possessed no charismatic influence over distant nonslaveholders. Rich squires could not gin far-off folks’ cotton or lend them nickels or buy their kernels or offer them tenancy. The wealthy could not join remote rednecks in controlling blacks; most residents outside black belts rarely saw blacks. Overweening masters possessed none of their customary controlling techniques over those whom it was most necessary to control.
White-belt neighborhoods were folk communities too. But here white folks were more equal, black folks more absent, and the sale of staples less omnipresent. These more self-sufficient whites, when they thought about that other South, mostly prayed that “niggers” and “nigger tyrants” and debt and banks and cotton, cotton, cotton would not overwhelm their communities. They further hoped that zealots north and south would not cause a civil war. If combat came, alien southern and northern armies might invade, destroying nonslaveholder neighborhoods in battle over far-off slaves.26
Very occasionally, relatively slaveless areas assaulted those far-away planters. In thickly populated Upper South cities, white “wage slaves” loathed having to compete for jobs with even a few black chattel slaves. On largely unpopulated Border South frontiers, slaves were too few to develop much of the land, yet plentiful enough to repel many potential white immigrants. Thus white-belt majorities, unlike most black-belt nonslaveholders, sometimes saw compelling economic reasons to drive slaves and blacks out. Equally important, white-belt poorer folk, unlike their black-belt counterparts, possessed neither huge black populations to control, nor dreams of becoming slaveholders, nor a large planter class compellingly resident. Most important of all, since even class differences compounded by geographical separation seldom led to all-out class warfare, remote white-belt areas simply did not care much about black-belt compulsions.
Such neutrality did not make for mastery. The Slave South’s chances could be grim if half the South was indifferent about perpetual slavery. Influence over distant folk was a first necessity and a remote prospect for masters who needed to see fellows to control them.
The result of mastery contained—of Massa’s very tactics of mastering geographically limited—was the classic bully. The slaveholding democrat, when locked in political contests, local or national, often imperiously demanded that other democrats yield. The tenor of the demand felt like dictatorship rampant on the wrong side of the color line. Masters’ imperial attitudes had stirred up slight nonslaveholder resentments inside the black belt. When such masters sought to control white areas geographically far removed, haughty approaches really stirred up the folk. But what was a despot to do but bully when no master or “nigger” or color line was available to establish good old herrenvolk control?
The patriarch, having forced a little condescension on close-by neighbors and a lot of insistence on far-off whites, exerted his haughtier side still more often within his white family. Inside the familial circle as outside it, the color line did not distinguish equals from dependents. A wife was physically weaker and knew less about the world beyond the home. Children were physically smaller and mentally untrained. All were dependents, as dependent as slaves, more dependent than tenants. Such dependency beckoned the elitist rather than the egalitarian side of Massa’s persona, even if the dependent was white and therefore “equal.”
Yet elitism in white homes defied the same revolution in biological assumption which forced Massa to play egalitarian to poorer whites. Romantic feeling, when triumphant over rational abstraction, undermined the biological basis for domestic no less than political haughtiness. (White) women and children were born with right hearts too. In fact, the American mid-nineteenth-century romantic sensibility assumed that women were born with better Christian intuition than men.
South as well as north, female uses of that liberating assumption took two forms. A tiny minority of women, minuscule in the South, demanded equality everywhere, in political no less than in domestic government. If (white) male equality depended on equal intuitions, and if (white) females had the same or better intuitions, women should vote and should help abolish male mastery.
That alternative left slavemasters cold. They made the tropical South such an icy spot for political feminists that the most advanced ladies, South Carolina’s Angelina and Sara Grimké, sought their unsouthern sort of equality up north. Not surprisingly for girls domesticated in the South, the Grimké sisters became exceptions proving the rule. For a time, the Grimkés “unsexed” themselves by giving public antislavery lectures. But upon Angelina’s marriage, both ladies largely retired from politics. Their fights for equality became a long battle for control of the same domicile. When Angelina belatedly resumed her quest for nondomestic emancipation, she became a schoolteacher.27
The huge majority nationally and an almost unanimous South preferred female power, when exerted, restricted to home and school. Domestic feminists, whose leader was the New Englander Catharine Beecher, called women not inferiors in need of patriarchal guidance but rather superiors who must mold civilized youngsters. Beecher employed a version of separate but superior to urge matriarchal domestic dominance. Boys and girls, she believed, were born different. Females had deeper affections and better intuitions into the human heart. Still, the innately superior should not run for political office. Women should use their superiority to teach males. Home and school, once controlled, could command everything else. Women, ethical arbitrators of the domicile, could moralize boys and men and thus indirectly determine male decisions beyond the house.28
A later American generation would condemn this position as feminine surrender. The Old South sometimes savored it as female hegemony, in the right sphere. The southern cult of the lady raised wives, at least in theory, to moral rulership over the Big House. New romantic assumptions about children further crimped patriarchal domineering. Tots, now assumed to be born with right intuitions, presumably needed mother’s tender nurture more than father’s overbearing dictation.
Such deflation of slaveholders’ domestic imperiousness partly reflected familial changes transcending the South. As the eighteenth turned into the nineteenth century and the Industrial Revolution proceeded everywhere in the West, larger and more impersonal factories and farms made the tiny household ever less important economically. But the economy’s emerging cold impersonality made warm domestic firesides ever more important emotionally. Husbands and wives, parents and children hardly cherished each other any more than formerly. Familial affection, however, was now more the reason for the family’s very existence, and that affection, in an Age of Romanticism, was expressed in more romantically effusive ways.29
The American twist on western familial change was to equate sentimental romanticism with parental permissiveness. Male parents especially found a softer domestic rule compatible with less overbearing egalitarian republican command. In past, elitist republican times, patriarchs had more often insisted that children obey. In less egalitarian nineteenth-century England, parents stuck to old insistences. English visitors to Jacksonian America found American children to be rude, bratty, defiant, disobedient, willful, indulged, spoiled, disrespectful—in sum the natural product of permissive disciplinarians. “Imagine a child of three years old in England behaving thus,” wrote Captain Frederick Marryat in 1839, when reporting “one instance of a thousand which I witnessed:
‘Johnny, my dear, come here,’ cried his mamma.
‘I won’t,’ cries Johnny.
‘You must, my love, you are all wet, and you’ll catch cold.’
‘I won’t,’ replies Johnny.
‘Come, my sweet, and I’ve something for you.’
‘A sturdy republican, sir,’ says his father to me, smiling at the boy’s resolute disobedience.”30
Slaveholders smiled at such scenes partly because permissive parenting could yield properly prepared masters. Slaveholders’ need for willful heirs with the right convictions placed high premium on correct education. Cuffing boys into orthodoxy might produce little white slaves. Permitting lads to think anything might produce William Lloyd Garrisons. Warmly, affectionately, with as many soft words and as few harsh spankings as possible, slaveholding parents taught heirs to consent to orthodoxy. Here, Catharine Beecher’s cult of gently persuasive matriarchs combined with America’s cult of adorably aggressive children to mesh weirdly with patriarchs’ desire for imperial little successors, assuming the lord thought the lady was raising the sons properly.31
Still, while changing intellectual, familial, and republican assumptions made patriarchal domestic dictatorship a little unnatural, specifically slaveholding patriarchs also found Beecher-style matriarchal domestic dominance very unnatural, especially when fathers thought mothers were raising heirs improperly.32 New England, lacking slaves, also lacked the ideal of all-powerful patriarchs, especially awesome in the capital of slaveholder dominance, the Big House itself. The family lay at the heart of slaveholders’ class-ridden theory of bondage as a model for male mastery of all races and sexes and ages. To planters who wished to defend more than “mere negro” slavery, the Big House exemplified patriarchs and dependents, superiors and inferiors, a hierarchical world with everyone in his or her place. Husbands as all-powerful and wives and tiny tots as all-powerless proved the perfect model against that supreme example of Yankee egalitarianism-run-amok: female antislavery lecturers “unsexing” themselves by telling males how to rule.
On the other hand, to racist egalitarians happy to base slavery on superior skin color alone, white females powerful in the Big House were altogether natural. From their domestic pedestals, upper-class women could influence familial governance in ways Catharine Beecher described, including criticizing how patriarchs raised sons. The fascination of southern upper-class family life is that women, like their men, were of two worlds and fluctuated between two personae.
Not everyone fluctuated. The class-infested side of southern gentry existence embodied in that word “master” led many women towards obedient docility. Even southern women inwardly harboring slightly feminist attitudes characteristically saw outward passivity as their duty. Gertrude Thomas of Georgia, for example, who presciently saw male chauvinism’s cruelties, shunned talk about what she saw. One day, she “made use of some remark jesting,” and her fiancé, Jeff Thomas, “looked up with such a look of sternness! It startled me! and for a moment my old feeling of pride overcame me.” Feeling “the blood gush to my cheek,” she “almost said too much.” But “Thank Heaven! I did refrain, and now I love him more.” Several years later, Mrs. Thomas was thanking “thee oh Heavenly Father” above all else for “my husband,” who possessed “just such a master will as suits my woman’s nature, for true to my sex, I delight in looking up.”33
Yet if class-based patriarchal elitism demanded that females look docilely up, race-based white egalitarianism invited moral matrons to speak up, particularly on child raising, whether His Majesty the patriarch liked it or not. When lordly elitists resentfully fought back against mothers’ mastery, sparks could fly. Nowhere were marital sparks hotter than in lowcountry South Carolina, center of the most overweening male oligarchs, the very place where cowed wives should have most abounded.
Spats between Thomas Chaplin and his wife Mary provide a rich example. One day son Manny, aged two, “got into a very bad screaming & fretting” fit, including “trying” to throw “dishes & glasses off the table.” The patriarch spanked the youngster. The matriarch “attempted” to “interfere & get him off,” as was “generally the case.” Thomas Chaplin, provoked, continued laying into Manny. Master would teach his boy to “obey me,… even if Mrs. C. gets vexed.”34
Mary Chaplin, fluctuating herself between demanding that the patriarch rule and demanding her equal share of (domestic) ruling power, ultimately reduced the exasperated sometimes-master of the Big House to feeling like “a very great fool… in the management of children.” Chaplin’s wife constantly told him to do something about urchins. Then when he caught and punished a child, “very often … after some wrangling I am told (perhaps in the presence of the child) that I punished him unjustly.” The patriarch, supposed to be absolutist judge and jury, considered himself judged “not fit to judge whether or no a child deserves punishment.”35
Chaplin’s overbearing exasperation was not singular in Carolina coastal Big Houses. You admit “I can be kind according to my notion of things, if you submit to the imposition of my will,” stormed R. F. W. Allston to his wife. “When you suppose therefore that I am … subjecting you to my arbitrary will, you prepare at once to resist the imagined tyranny.” The truth is, trumpeted this master accused of mastery, that “in respect of our domestic affairs and those things pertaining to your department particularly, I have for years past exercised no ‘will.’” Whenever “I did offer an opinion, it was met too often by a ready counter opinion on your part.” Now he “preferred” having “no will.”
Allston, who condescendingly addressed his allegedly mastering wife as “my dear child,” was hardly will-less. This patriarch here displayed that nervous fluctuation between imperial willfulness and affected will-lessness that occurred everywhere when The Man commanded dependents, alias equals. Allston displayed the same inconsistent dictatorial approach towards his children. “My son,” wrote Allston with arrogant pride at being nondictatorial, “you speak of my commanding you to come home and you will obey.” But “it is long since,” bragged the patriarch, that “I have commanded you.” See the world, ordered this allegedly noncommanding lord. When you grow tired of “its emptiness and unprofitableness, then come home and help us.”36
Allston’s words to his son, like the words to his wife, smacked of willfulness swallowed as distastefully as one swallows bile. Why, then, did the “master of all he surveyed” brag about not commanding? Partly because his sensibility was democratic as well as dictatorial—and democratic in a romantically egalitarian style. Partly because home was on the white side of the color line.
Mostly because Massa learned amidst his most intimate folk that egalitarian-style social control could be as effective and more popular than the elitist strut. Most sons came home again. Tiny tots might be slightly riotous, a little rude, a touch silly. But slight indulgences, a little warmth, a dollop of permissiveness produced sober, loyal, effective young heirs. The reward for years of thwarted authoritarianism was the successful transfer of authority itself. But domestic tension had abounded along the way when Massa had carried patriarchal presumption beyond the color line.
Family tensions that occurred when elitists defied racial limits were nothing compared with consequences of destroying racial purity inside the home. One domestic problem provoked such horror as to cause everyone to pretend that the horrible never visited their domicile. The charade, often played, rarely acknowledged, revolved around interracial liaisons productive of mulatto slaves.
The first commandment of racial slavery was that white commanders must not father bondsmen’s children. Consequences of breaking that commandment swept beyond the plantation. The southern world abhorred a mulatto as nature abhors a vacuum. Life in Dixie was supposed to be black and white, despot and democrat, elitist and egalitarian, nothing in between. Mulattoes, the ultimate in-between, made a dubiously natural distinction altogether unnatural.
According to southern law, children inherited their mother’s legal status. When mother was a free white and father a black slave, their child was free, no matter the color. When mother was a free black and father an enslaved black, their offspring was free, no matter the blackness. When mother was a slave octoroon (had one black great-grandparent in eight) and father a white, the offspring was a slave, although legally and physically white.
Such cases mocked color lines. Practical consequences were almost comic. Charlestonians, unable to distinguish between sun-tanned whites and fairskinned blacks, required mulattoes to wear black veils. With this substitution of man-made cloth for self-evident traits, Charlestonians announced their natural order was hopelessly unnatural.37
The unnatural was all too natural. Ending miscegenation required separating the races. Slavery threw the races together. Master and slave lived together, worked together, walked together across sun-drenched fields. They bathed, clothed, nursed each other. Even cultural differences drew them sexually together. Black songs, dances, and prayers, creations of a folk relatively free of Anglo-Saxon puritanical repressions, set off geysers of white libidinal myth. For centuries, whites had whispered about blacks’ allegedly inordinate passions. Now, in this land of honeysuckle and heat, defenseless blacks were available. No need for lonely lustings or paying prostitutes. White teenagers—older planters too—could pluck forbidden fruit.
A nest of serpents marred this chauvinistic paradise. A young aristocrat’s wild oats, unlike those sowed with more difficulty elsewhere, matured on the family estate and sometimes in the family house. Out of sight, out of mind was not possible where the proof resided in the home.
Such close quarters were not so uncomfortable elsewhere. In Latin American Big Houses, where the “stain” more frequently occurred, the phenomenon seemed more natural. Less strait-laced Latin codes of sexual behavior help explain the difference.
North America’s greater sense of taboo also came from the greater incongruity of slavery within egalitarianism. Latin American regimes, lacking principles of democratic equality, had no need for color lines to justify coercive inequality. Democracy for whites, despotism for blacks—such inhumanly rigid formulas were irrelevant in Iberian worlds that considered equality to be unnatural and coercion the human norm. Only the North American despot as egalitarian needed to pretend that tan was black and that the natural was unnatural.
No one knew then—no one will ever know—how often blacks and whites sexually interacted. Even in an age almost innocent of birth control, most sexual liaisons produced no children. Even at a time when census figures were growing more precise, statistics on mulattoes were especially inaccurate. Even when census-takers counted mulattoes correctly, they had no idea who fathered slaveholders’ slaves.
No matter. Numbers had nothing to do with the felt horrendousness of this “problem.” Because the taboo was more loaded, fewer mulattoes served in North America’s white parlors. Because each mulatto seemed more unnatural, North American obsession exceeded anything troubling Latin American homes. Some North American planters spent a lifetime praying that their wives did not correctly suspect them of fathering black children. Others forever suffered from mates’ mistaken suspicions. With miscegenation a forbidden subject, wives could not accuse. They could but peer. Only in her diary could Mary Boykin Chesnut of South Carolina protest that “Rachel and her brood make this place a horrid nightmare to me. I believe in nothing, with this before me.”38
The worst of slavery, continued Mrs. Chesnut’s protest, is to “live surrounded by prostitutes.” Husbands “live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children—and every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but” her own. These “she seems to think drop from the clouds…. My disgust sometimes is boiling over.”39
The myth of the plantation lady was partly designed to keep resentments from boiling over. Whatever slavery did to male morals, so the argument went, enslaving blacks kept white women pure. Slavery protected fair-skinned damsels from defilement by rape, from degradation by seduction, from despoilment by interracial marriage. With purity guaranteed, plantation mistresses could be moral queen of the home.
Some ladies reveled in their triumphant position. Others disliked the empty triumph. Despite hosannas to family and womanhood, they could merely protest when black families were separated, when pregnant black matrons were ordered to work, when their own children grew up amidst moral contaminations.
The man-made myth, thoughtful ladies knew, made women’s victory insulting as well as empty. By proclaiming that slavery guaranteed female virtue, chauvinists announced that female virtue, supposedly superior to men’s, actually needed male guarantees. Southern men in fact doubted that ladies elevated on moral pedestals were moral enough. Stock white male libidinous fantasies starred enormous black male organs. Masters knew, from underground whispering, about “free-issue” children born to white belles and about white husbands stumbling upon wives abed with blacks. Without slavery to elevate white ladies and shackle black men, how many more pedestals would blacks kick down?
That question led to lynchings. A black supposedly looking with lust upon white ladies risked castration or decapitation. As for a black who tampered “with a white lady,” bragged Southrons, “we shoot him down like a dog.”40
Southern belles, when swept up in occasional hysteria about rape, sometimes appreciated lynchings. But white ladies resented males’ constant quaking about female virtue. Mrs. Chesnut ridiculed “a magnate who runs a hideous black harem and its consequences under the same roof with his lovely white wife.” The hypocrite “poses as the model of all human virtues.… Fancy such a man finding his daughter reading Don Juan. ‘You with that unmoral book!’ And he orders her out of his sight.”41
This double standard could mar any lady’s life. That not-so-feminist protofeminist, Gertrude Thomas of Georgia, like Mary Boykin Chesnut of South Carolina, was raised to be a belle. She picnicked on cake, ham, and biscuit. She skipped off to town for kid gloves and velvet. Her head spun over social punctilio. Should she dress in morning or aft? Who would hand her down from the carriage? Whom would she adore, defer to, marry, join in recommencing the cycle?
Jeff Thomas. There was the perfect catch. Jeff was rich and strong, poised and prominent. His and Gertrude’s was a fairybook marriage.
The fairy tale ended quickly. After a miscarriage, Gertrude Thomas winced over pregnant black women slaving under the inhuman sun. If I had “the sole management of a plantation,” she wrote, “pregnant women should be highly favored. A woman myself, I can sympathize with my sex, whether white or black.”42
Mrs. Thomas particularly sympathized with white women damned for interracial sexual intercourse, an offense “which in a man, very slightly lowers, and in the estimation of some of his own sex rather elevates him.” She was “the greatest possible advocate for woman’s purity.” But if some “harangues directed to women were directed” to males who needed haranguing more, “the standard of morality might be elevated.”43
“A singular little circumstance” indicated whose moral declension bothered her most. One day a darkish stranger knocked. Mrs. Thomas, uncertain whether the stranger was a mulatto, asked him in. Mr. Thomas, equally uncertain, discreetly asked the stranger where he voted. The fellow whispered that blacks could not vote. Gertrude inquired which parent was black. His father, replied the mulatto, was black. His mother was white. “Had he replied the other way,” Mrs. Thomas wrote, “I should have been tempted to have insulted him.” To Gertrude Thomas, white sisterhood took precedence over white men’s hypocrisy.44
Mrs. Thomas writhed under male hypocrisy. Her house servants included Lurany, a light-skinned unmarried mulatto, and Lulah and Amanda, Lurany’s children and “as white as any white child.” They knew “little more of the Negroes than I do.” They could be sold at any time to any “brute.” Who had sired these white slaves? Her father? Her husband? “Between a husband and wife,” she wrote, “this is (or should be) a forbidden subject.” She had perhaps “rashly … staked my own reputation upon” her husband’s. Should “actual experience” prove his reputation unreputable, “then would be dissolved” all dreams “of happiness upon earth.”45
And so, exploded Mary Chesnut, “wives and daughters,” affecting “purity and innocence,” pretend “never to dream of what is as plain before their eyes as the sunlight. And they play their part of unsuspecting angels to the letter.”46In this duplicitous area of southern life, Gertrude Thomas and Mary Chesnut might have added, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, prayed that somehow, some way, the color line was not as fictitious as it seemed.
Domestic distress such as Mary Chesnut’s and Gertrude Thomas’s illuminates an emotionally loaded color line inside a schizophrenic regime. Democrats and despots had such different personae and modes of social control that without the color line to separate Dr. Jekyll, elitist coercer, from Mr. Hyde, egalitarian persuader, regimes became uncomfortably confused. Mulattoes did not so much breach the line as smash it, causing everyone to pretend that nothing so catastrophic had happened.
The unusual catastrophe highlighted more usual, less catastrophic tensions. The color line nowhere impassably held back human instincts unnaturally bifurcated. Whether planters were informing rednecks that white necks could not stand the sun, or patriarchs were ordering ladies to coerce unconsenting children, the confusion of the authoritarian with the egalitarian bothered white folk.
But the dictator as egalitarian concealed the haughty manner and honored interracial taboos often enough so that white folks in black belts were almost mastered. Wives’ and neighbors’ resentments, until deep in the Civil War, were no worse than signs that whites’ consent to slavery might someday soften, most likely first in white-belt neighborhoods. Worry about that possibility, one might imagine, should have caused slaveholding democrats to step with relief over the color line, where nothing of democracy, consent, or equality should theoretically have confused elitists’ coercion of blacks.