Skip to main content

The Old South, Early and Late


ISSUE:  Autumn 1942

The Coming of the Civil War. By Avery Craven. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.75. The Old South, The Founding of American Civilisation. By Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker. Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.50.

Extensive as is the literature of Southern history, there are yet few volumes which deal with the record of the section as a whole. When two such works as “The Coming of the Civil War” and “The Old South” by such eminent scholars as Professor Craven and Professor Wertenbaker are published almost simultaneously, the event is a notable one. Many Southern historians, unlike the generality of their Northern contemporaries, enjoy riding hobbies. As Professor Craven points out, the North has written the history of our nation to the glorification of that section. Southerners generally take issue with the “orthodox” view and derive some satisfaction from a sense of originality, but they usually pay for it by having their efforts impugned in the pages of the American Historical Review. Professor Wertenbaker, however, can hardly be classed with the Rebels. His hobby is a distaste for the aristocracy of the Old South, and the powers that be will hardly punish him for that. He quotes, among others, Sir Francis Nicholson’s sneering remarks made in 1705 as to “. . . whence these mighty dons derive their originals.” If Professor Wertenbaker wishes his conclusions to stand on contemporary testimony, he should not render a verdict until all the evidence is in. Another colonial governor had something to say on the subject, and presumably his evidence is as good as Nicholson’s. Writing in 1663, in his “Discourse and View of Virginia,” Sir William Berkeley stated that “. . . men of as good Families as any Subjects in England have resided there [Virginia], as the Percys, the Barkleys, the Wests, the Gates, the Throgmor-tons, Wyats, Degges, Chickeleys, Moldsworths, Morrisons, Kemps, and hundred others, which I forbear to name, lest I should misherald them in the Catalogue.” Granted that their grandfathers had been members of the landed gentry, or perhaps knights of the shire, that mattered little, says Professor Wertenbaker, to a merchant-tailor or a woolen draper. But good blood is not to be undervalued in man or beast, and there are many who still believe there is more in breed than pasture. After all, an aristocracy is supposed to be a minority and its worth depends on the leadership it produces and the standards it sets. It is significant that Professor Wertenbaker cannot write the history of Virginia, Maryland, and Carolina without writing largely of that upper class which he tends to minimize.

Professor Craven also tends to minimize the importance of the aristocracy. He stresses its limited numbers and comes to the shocking conclusion that “in the colonial Caro-linas, common men were just as numerous as in Virginia”! The reviewer also has a hobby and it is that in a democracy leadership is just as important as in any other form of government. It is not a product of spontaneous growth, on the frontier or elsewhere; and it is not developed by high school courses in “citizenship.” Industrial societies have not distinguished themselves by their development of political leaders, but the plantation society of the Old South was noted for the quality of its political leadership and that much, at least, can be said in behalf of its upper class.

Professor Wertenbaker’s book does not touch upon the institution of slavery; Professor Craven’s is devoted largely to political effects of the peculiar institution. The reviewer does not hold with those who maintain that it was an economic handicap to the South; and, despite inevitable abuses, the moral tone of Southern society was not degraded by it. It was in the political and intellectual spheres that the damage was really done, and this, as Professor Craven indicates, need not have been the case. High political ideals and genuine liberalism were developed by such leaders as Jefferson and Mason during the Revolutionary period. But the question of slavery was not then a political issue. When it became so, the South turned its back upon the doctrines which had been enunciated by the Founders and marched in the direction of obscurantism.

This is the general tone of Professor Craven’s book. It is animated by a conviction that the slavery issue need not have led to war, and the sectional heroes who used it for political purposes are deprived of their customary halos. Neither Calhoun nor Lincoln is made to look like a saint, and the South, now more realistic than the North in dealing with its history, will doubtless accept this verdict with good grace. But the sombre Mr. Lincoln will be retained on his pedestal for at least another generation.

Professor Wertenbaker’s volume confines itself to the colonial and early republican periods, and to the area between the Savannah River and the Mason and Dixon Line. No systematic chronological arrangement is followed, and the subjects treated fall into no organized pattern. Certain phases of social and economic history are discussed; intellectual life, land speculation, migration, and handicraft manufactures are touched upon, but the principal emphasis is upon the development of Southern architecture. The author explains that he does not consider architecture to be, in itself, of prime historical importance, but he thinks it aptly illustrates the component parts that go to make up civilization. This point is brought out in the discussion of Charleston buildings, and here he finds “all four of the fundamental forces which created American civilization.” They are enumerated as “the melting-pot,” local conditions, the cultural dominance of England, and nationalism. The author apparently is fond of the “melting-pot” idea, and stresses the importance of the middle class, the early history of the Valley of Virginia being used to illustrate these points. Yet the Valley was settled largely through the instrumentality of land speculators, and it is difficult to see how penniless immigrants could have acquired land titles without their assistance. The speculators certainly intended to profit by their operations, and sometimes their economic morality was low. Rut they were not all rascals. Col. Philip Ludwell has been taxed by some writers with a serious land fraud. This charge is based upon manuscript records of the British Board of Trade not now accessible to the reviewer, but Professor Wertenbaker’s reference in this connection to the Calendar of State Papers has no relation whatever to Col. Ludwell.

The author has pointed out the diversity in the life of the South, and the place of the tenant farmer and the handicraft worker is given new emphasis. He has used a free hand in the selection of material as well as subject matter. He has discovered and exploited some interesting manuscript sources, but his researches are not always thorough and there are occasional slips of the pen. It was the Scotch-Irish, not Scotch Highlanders, who settled Mecklenburg County, North Carolina; Virginia’s piedmont rivers hardly flow in a “southwesterly” direction; Beverley Manor was in Augusta, not Botetourt County; the early Tennessee school-teacher was named Samuel Doak, not Doah; ships normally used Ocracoke, not Hatteras, Inlet to gain access to Pamlico Sound; Lord Howard’s treaty with the Iroquois was made in 1684, not 1784; the name of Jost Hite has been spelled in various ways but “Jorst” seems to be a new one; and George Brent was Fitzhugh’s law partner but not his son-in-law. Professor Craven has slipped on a few place and personal names, such as “Cerles” for Curies, and “Lesesue” for Lesesne, but his book represents intensive research and careful analysis. He does not maintain that his conclusions are final, but they represent what the reviewer believes to be the sanest approach that has yet been made to the struggles which culminated in the Civil War.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading