Friday, August 19, 2016

The New Aristocracy of the South: From Plantations to Monasteries, Part 2nd

In the Old South, the plantation was the institution of greatest importance.  The pattern of life there set the tone for the rest of Southern society.  Indeed, to become a gentleman-planter was the goal to which many in the South aspired (even among the clergy).

For instance, writing of antebellum Mississippi (which one may take as a microcosm of Southern life in general from this period), Charles Sydnor wrote (Slavery in Mississippi, Columbia, S. Car.: U of SC Press, 2013):

As a cotton plantation seems to have been the aim of most residents of the State, medicine and other professions were frequently stepping-stones to this end.  Ingraham observed that “medico-planters are now numerous, far out numbering the regular practitioners . . .” (p. 52)

And again,

A number of planters were retired clergymen; for some of these, as well as many physicians and lawyers, deserted their profession and became planters (p. 57).

So it is not surprising to see that plantation life was flourishing in the 19th hundredyear: 

According to the census of 1860 there were 3,552 plantations in Mississippi of thirty or more slaves . . . (p. 67). 

But what was this life that one found there?  It was a self-sufficient, hierarchical society, focused on the production of two kinds of goods, one kind material and one kind non-material:  the material being agricultural products and kindred handcrafts of various sorts and the non-material being an outward code of virtuous behavior.

Of the organization of plantation life, there is this witness in Prof Richard Weaver’s The Southern Tradition at Bay (eds. Bradford and Core, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1989, p. 35):

General John Mason, son of George Mason of Gunston Hall, has testified regarding that division of labor which made each plantation a relatively self-sufficient community:  “It was much the practice with gentlemen of slave and landed estates . . .  so to organize them as to have considerable resources within themselves; and to employ and pay but few tradesmen, and to buy little or none of the coarse stuffs used by them . . .  thus my father had among his slaves carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, shoemakers, spinners, weavers, and knitters, and even a distiller.”

At the head of this stable social order in which ‘everyone had his place’ and in which ‘even the humble could have the deep human satisfaction that comes of being cherished for what one is’ (p. 36) was the gentleman, who, together with his wife, the lady, embodied, for all the rest of Dixie to imitate, a set of virtues that were very much directed towards the world outside themselves.  Robert Calhoon wrote of the typical education of men and women in the South,

The education of women in this model, then, began with spiritual guidance and culminated in strategies for virtuous, pious behavior while the moral training of males started with direct observation of social reality and moved from that point toward a mature understanding of the functioning of the culture (Evangelicals and Conservatives in the Early South, 1740-1861, Columbia, S. Car.: U of SC Press, 1988, p. 149).

In the constellation of virtues that arose from this mindset, honor held a very high rank.

No problem so vexed southern evangelical clergy, therefore, as how to deal with pride in a proud culture.  One solution was to envelope it in a larger value system: the defense of honor.  Evangelicals believed that pride could be managed and even tamed through an appeal to honor—the human passion superceding sensual gratification and ego fulfillment.  . . .  Honor, as well as pride, meant respecting and responding to one’s most elevated feelings, fulfilling deeply felt obligations, and preserving the innocence of emotional bonds to superiors—especially to God (pgs. 144-5).

Such was Dixie’s life before the corruption that set in after the War (and which still remains very much a part of her, however much it has waned).  How it may be brought to a higher level of being through the leaven of the Orthodox Faith we hope to write of next.

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