Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Southern Manners and Slavery
By Frederick Law Olmsted (18221903)
[Born in Hartford, Conn., 1822. Died in Belmont, Mass., 1903. The Cotton Kingdom. 1861.]
THERE are undoubted advantages resulting from the effects of slavery upon the manners of some persons. Somewhat similar advantages I have thought that I perceived to have resulted in the Free States, where a family has been educated under favorable influences in a frontier community. There is boldness, erectness, largeness, confidence, with the effect of the habitual sense of superiority to most of the community; not superiority of wealth, and power from wealth merely, but of a mind well stocked and refined by such advantages of education as only very unusual wealth, or very unusual individual energy, rightly directed, can procure in a scattered and frontier community. When to this is added the effect of visits to the cultivated society of denser communities; when refined and polished manners are grafted on a natural, easy abandon; when there is high culture without effeminacy either of body or mind, as not unfrequently happens, we find a peculiarly respectable and agreeable sort of men and women. They are the result of frontier training under the most favorable circumstances. In the class furthest removed from this on the frontierpeople who have grown up without civilized social restraints or encouragements, and always under what in a well-conditioned community would be esteemed great privationshappens, on the other hand, the most disagreeable specimen of mankind that the world breeds; men of a sort almost peculiar to America and Australia; border ruffians, of whom the rowdies of our eastern towns are tame reflections. Cooper has well described the first class in many instances. I know of no picture of the latter which represents them as detestable as I have found them.
The whole South is maintained in a frontier condition by the system which is apologized for on the ground that it favors good breeding. This system, at the same time, tends to concentrate wealth in a few hands. If there is wisdom and great care in the education of a family thus favored, the result which we see at the North, under the circumstances I have described, is frequently reproduced. There are many more such fruits of frontier life at the South than the North, because there is more frontier life. There is also vastly more of the other sort, and there is everything between, which degrees of wealth and degrees of good fortune in education would be expected to occasion. The bad breed of the frontier, at the South, however, is probably far worse than that of the North, because the frontier condition of the South is everywhere permanent. The child born to-day on the Northern frontier, in most cases, before it is ten years old, will be living in a well-organized and tolerably well-provided community; schools, churches, libraries, lecture and concert halls, daily mails and printing presses, shops and machines in variety, having arrived within at least a days journey of it; being always within an influencing distance of it. There are improvements, and communities loosely and gradually cohering in various parts of the South, but so slowly, so feebly, so irregularly, that mens minds and habits are knit firm quite independently of this class of social influences.
There is one other characteristic of the Southerner, which is far more decided than the difference of climate merely would warrant, and which is to be attributed not only to the absence of the ordinary restraints and means of discipline of more compact communities in his education, but unquestionably also to the readiness and safety with which, by reason of slavery, certain passions and impulses may be indulged. Every white Southerner is a person of importance; must be treated with deference. Every wish of the Southerner is imperative; every belief, undoubted; every hate, vengeful; every love, fiery. Hence, for instance, the scandalous fiend-like street-fights of the South. If a young man feels offended with another, he does not incline to a ring and a fair stand-up set-to, like a young Englishman; he will not attempt to overcome his opponent by logic; he will not be content to vituperate, or to cast ridicule upon him; he is impelled straightway to strike him down with the readiest deadly weapon at hand, with as little ceremony and pretence of fair combat as the loose organization of the people against violence will allow. He seems crazy for blood. Intensity of personal pridepride in anything a man has, or which connects itself with him, is more commonly evident. Hence intense local pride and prejudice; hence intense partisanship; hence rashness and overconfidence; hence visionary ambition; hence assurance in debate; hence assurance in society. As self-appreciation is equally with deference a part of what we call good breeding, and as the expression of deference is much more easily reduced to a matter of manners and forms, in the commonplace intercourse of society, than self-appreciation, this characteristic quality of the Southerner needs to be borne in mind in considering the port and manners he commonly has, and judging from them of the effects of slavery.
It must be also considered that the ordinary occupations and amusements of people of moderate wealth at the North are seldom resorted to at the South; that public entertainments of any kind, for instance, are impracticable to a sparse population; consequently that where men of wealth are socially disposed, all intercourse with others is highly valued, prepared for, and made the most of. Hence, with these, the act of social intercourse is more highly esteemed, and is much more frequently carried to a nice perfection of manner than it usually is with men otherwise of corresponding education and habits at the North.
In a Northern community a man who is not greatly occupied with private business is sure to become interested in social enterprises and to undertake duties in them which will demand a great deal of time and strength. School, road, cemetery, asylum, and church corporations; bridge, ferry, and water companies; literary, scientific, art, mechanical, agricultural and benevolent societies; all these things are managed chiefly by the unpaid services of gentlemen during hours which they can spare from their private interests. In the successful operations of such enterprises they find much of the satisfaction of their life. So, too, our young men, who are not obliged to devote their thoughts chiefly to business success, are members and managers of reading-rooms, public libraries, gymnasiums, game-clubs, boat-clubs, ball-clubs, and all sorts of clubs, Bible classes, debating-societies, military companies; they are planting road-side trees, or damming streams for skating-ponds, or rigging diving-boards, or getting up firework displays, or private theatricals; they are always doing something, not conversing for the entertainment of the moment. Planters, the details of whose business fall into the hands of overseers, and young men of fortune, at the South, have, when at home on the plantation, none of these occupations. Their talents all turn into two channels, politics and sociality; the very paucity of society making it the more esteemed and the more carefully used. Social intercourse at the North is a relaxation from the ordinary bent of mens talents; at the South, it is that to which mainly their talents are bent. Hence, with men who are otherwise on a par, in respect of natural advantages and education, the Southerner will have a higher standard of manners than the Northerner, because, with him, social intercourse is the grand resource to which all other possible occupations of his mind become subordinate. The Northerner, being troubled by no monotony, unquestionably too much neglects at present this, the highest and final art of every type of civilization. In making this comparison, however, it must not be forgotten that it is made between men who are supposed to be equal in all respects, except in the possession of this advantage, and who are equally at leisure from any necessary habitual occupation for a livelihood.