Wealth in the Antebellum South: Paternalism and the Weeping Time (part 1)

Lately I’ve been reading The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin Before the War by James Battle Avirett. Published in 1901, it was dedicated “to the memory of the old planter and his wife – the only real slaves on the old plantation of many overgrown children, servants on the estate, from 1817 to 1865 – the father and mother of THE AUTHOR.” About the best thing I can say about this particular work is that the dedication advertises right up front which particular pro-slavery tropes the author will be engaging in. Here, friends, we have a fine example of paternalism, that branch of argument that held that African-Americans were just like little children, and had to be enslaved for their own good because goodness knows they’d never be able to take care of themselves.

Avirett also enjoys idealizing the white plantation dwellers of the antebellum south in a way that will be familiar to many a modern reader:

The Cavalier civilization, with its centers in the South, was, in many particulars, different from the Puritan. A close study of history will discover the fact that it brought across the ocean less of that restlessness and more of that restfulness, which naturally inhere in those conditions of respect for authority and precedents than was found among our Northern brethren. The continuity of these conditions accounts for the absence, in all her fair borders, of those “isms” which, like wasteful and destructive parasites, sap the very life out of a people’s faith, both in God and in each other.

Ah, those Southern Cavaliers. They will ever be with us, I suspect. At any rate, the tome is slow going because of the dense and convoluted prose, and also because I keep having to resist the urge to either pause for a few minutes to giggle maniacally (respect for authority as a prime characteristic of a region that seceded, y’all) or to throw it at a wall, which would be difficult since I’m reading it in electronic format on my computer.

Anyway, Avirett manages to say with a straight face that “The Southern people, prior to 1865, were a plantation people and were patriarchal, in a sense and to a degree unknown in any part of this country before- or since.” I’m not sure he noticed that here he’s decided that the “Southern people” were actually less than 10% of the society he and his parents were actually living in. He does go on with some interesting clarity, though, in describing plantation society:

Largely of one blood, living on large estates in the employment of their African servants, there was among them, in the absence of manufacturing and large commercial centers, that freedom from restless change, which can alone be hoped for in any community in the perfect absence of those sharp antagonisms between Capital and Labor. At the South these two mighty giants, whose wrestlings have aforetime vexed governments and overturned empires, were at peace. And this was so because, to put it epigrammatically, our Capital was our Labor and our Labor was our Capital. Hence it was, in the old South, we were enabled to present that enviable condition of fixedness and stability which came of families living for generations with their servants on the same ancestral estates.

Apparently, you can only establish Utopia when the workers who provide for your luxurious lifestyle are unable to complain. Because you own them. This also explains a lot about the canonical plantation family that was Brought Low by the Civil War. These people weren’t wealthy in the sense of holding large amounts of cash, they were wealthy in the sense that they held assets (a plantation and enslaved people) that were valuable. The plantation, obviously, would be difficult to convert into ready cash, it was not a liquid asset. Enslaved human beings were nearly a liquid asset, requiring one to merely sell off a few at the nearest slave market, or to the slave traders who came through the upper south collecting lots of human beings to sell in the Cotton Kingdom.

One of the better illustrations of this is the Weeping Time, whose Sesquicentennial was March 2nd and 3rd of this year. It also demonstrates quite nicely that members of the planter class were perfectly capable of impoverishing themselves with no marauding Yankee army required.

The Weeping Time was a result of the financial problems of one Pierce Butler. He’d previously been married to the British actress Frances Kemble, whose Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, 1838-1839 documented life on the Butler plantation, which was on Butler island. She divorced Pierce in 1849; the fact that she was an ardent abolitionist may or may not have had something to do with it.

At any rate, Pierce and his brother John inherited plantations, townhouses, and 900 enslaved human beings upon the death of their parents. John had died by March of 1859, when Pierce’s debt (to the tune of some $700,000) forced the liquidation of his property. A Philadelphia man, Sidney George Fisher, wrote in his diary,

It is a dreadful affair, however, selling these hereditary Negroes. . . . It will be a hard thing for Butler to witness and it is a monstrous thing to do. Yet it is done every day in the South. It is one among the many frightful consequences of slavery and contradicts our civilization, our Christianity, or Republicanism. Can such a system endure, is it consistent with humanity, with moral progress? These are difficult questions, and still more difficult is it to say, what can be done? The Negroes of the South must be slaves or the South will be Africanized. Slavery is better for them and for us than such a result.

The sale was covered by the journalist Mortimer Thomson, who went by the colorful pseudonym “Q. K. Philander Doesticks” for reasons that history does not relate. He titled his report on the auction of 436 men, women, and children, What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation? Great auction sale of slaves, at Savannah, Georgia, March 2d & 3d, 1859. A sequel to Mrs. Kemble’s Journal He describes the scene thusly:

The sale had been advertised largely for many weeks, though the name of Mr. Butler was not mentioned; and as the negroes were known to be a choice lot and very desirable property, the attendance of buyers was large. The breaking up of an old family estate is so uncommon an occurrence that the affair was regarded with unusual interest throughout the South. For several days before the sale every hotel in Savannah was crowded with negro speculators from North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana, who had been attracted hither by the prospects of making good bargains. Nothing was heard for days, in the barrooms and public rooms, but talk of the great sale; criticisms of the business affairs of Mr. Butler, and speculations as to the probable prices the stock would bring. The office of Joseph Bryan, the Negro Broker, who had the management of the sale, was thronged every day by eager inquirers in search of information, and by some who were anxious to buy, but were uncertain as to whether their
securities would prove acceptable. Little parties were made up from the various hotels every day to visit the Race-course, distant some three miles from the city, to look over the chattels, discuss
their points, and make memoranda for guidance on the day of sale. The buyers were generally of a rough breed, slangy, profane and bearish, being for the most part from the back river and swamp
plantations, where the elegancies of polite life are not, perhaps, developed to their fullest extent.

Mr. Doesticks proves himself an interesting and lightly sarcastic correspondant, noting fears for his own safety (due to his association with the New York Tribune, a paper with an abolitionist slant, and his own philosophy) with

Your correspondent was present at an early date; but as he easily anticipated the touching welcome that would, at such a time, be officiously extended to a representative of The Tribune, and being a modest man withal, and not desiring to be the recipient of a public demonstration from the enthusiastic Southern population, who at times overdo their hospitality and their guests, he did not placard his mission and claim his honors.

His little tome makes for hard reading; he points out that these 436 people had been born and lived their whole lives on the two plantations from which they were taken, and their communities and families were now to be broken up and sold. His description is moving:

It is true they were sold “in families;” but let us see: a man and his wife were called a “family,” their parents and kindred were not taken into account; the man and wife might be sold to
the pine woods of North Carolina, their brothers and sisters be scattered through the cotton fields of Alabama and the rice swamps of Louisiana, while the parents might be left on the old plantation to wear out their weary lives in heavy grief, and lay their heads in far-oft’ graves, over which their children might never weep. And no account coukl be taken of loves that were as yet unconsum-
mated by marriage; and how many aching hearts have been divorced by this summary proceeding no man can ever know.

And the separation is as utter, and is infinitely more hopeless, than that made by the Angel of Death, for then the loved ones are committed to the care of a merciful Deity; but in the other instance, to the tender mercies of a slave-driver. These dark-skinned unfortunates are perfectly unlettered, and could not communicate by writing even if they should know where to send their missives.

And so to each other, and to the old familiar places of their youth, clung all their sympathies and affections, not less strong, perhaps, because they are so few. The blades of grass on all the Butler
estates are outnumbered by the tears that are poured out in agony at the wreck that has been wrought in happy homes, and the crushing grief that has been laid on loving hearts.

This is getting long already, so there I’ll leave it. In part two, we’ll take a look at the sale itself.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] in the Antebellum South: Paternalism and the Weeping Time (part 2) In part 1, I touched on paternalism as a justification for chattel slavery, and moved on to the way the […]

  2. i so sorrow for those people. makes me somewhat ashamed of being “white”. my great grandfather fought for the union in the civil war. i pray to god that part of the reason was that he was against slavery. sadly, i have no confirmation of that. please try to forgive us. our greed then blinded us as it cetainly does today. i’m white, lucky by most standards, and am glad to be alive. i respect admire and appreciate the black friends i have. god bless us all,everyone.


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