Steady Habits and Chivalry


The burden of our endeavour in this conference is to examine the great morality play of Northern Good versus Southern Evil that is the conventional history of anti-slavery in the United States. This convention dominates not only our understanding of the sectional conflict of the 19th century but colours all of American history with a self-serving distortion that Robert Penn Warren called “the Treasury of Virtue.”

What I want to show is that a hostile critique of the South as a wicked, alien, and threatening Other in the American enterprise was fully developed long before the appearance of abolitionism in the 1830s. This hostile critique of the South had only a marginal relationship to antislavery sentiment. It was a product of a self-absorbed New England culture that, during the early Republic felt itself to be vastly superior to all the rest of the United States but at the same time believed itself to be deprived of its rightful mastership of American destiny. It was New England Federalism’s response to being challenged and defeated by Jeffersonian republicanism led by Southerners.

From their beginnings New Englanders were pathologically self-centered and censorious of others, including even their own neighbours and co-religionists. Cotton Mather’s early 18th century diaries display a man who thinks that God’s main preoccupation is Cotton Mather and other people’s main preoccupation is depriving Cotton Mather of his deserved distinction. This contrasts with the Virginia diaries of William Byrd II from the same period, which are full of high spirits, self-deprecation, and joy in friendship, good living, and nature. Those numerous historians who claim that the only significant difference between the sections was caused by Southern attachment to slavery don’t have a leg to stand on, and in fact are reflecting the propaganda of the abolitionist movement itself.

By the 1850s Charles Sumner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many others were so filled with hate toward their Southern fellow citizens that they spoke of them in terms of ethnic cleansing. I want to show that this attiude was well developed, if not quite as intense, decades before abolitionism appeared. It began to take serious public significance as early as the 1780s. After a brief period of dominance, New England Federalists saw themselves diminishing in influence and falling from what they considered their pre-eminent place, for indeed they thought of New England as the only part of America that really mattered. Non-New Englanders were described as ignorant, lazy, and dissipated, but were growing in numbers and power and spreading into vast new territories beyond control of the Land of Steady Habits. This was a term they often used to describe New England. It was also used by others, usually in a satirical, mocking sense.

The young Yankee poet William Cullen Bryant expressed this attitude in one of his earliest compositions, a poem decrying the Louisiana Purchase, addressed to Jefferson:

Go wretch, resign thy presidential chair,
Disclose thy secret measures, foul or fair,
Go search with curious eyes for horned frogs
‘Mid the wild wastes of Louisiana bogs;
Or, where the Ohio rolls his turgid stream
Dig for huge bones, thy glory and thy theme.

He was not thinking about slavery. His vituperation expressed fear of the wide-open spaces of a growing America out of control by the saints of New England. He hated Jefferson not because he was a slave-owner but because he was allegedly tainted with French Jacobinism and was the hero of the unruly mob of Americans who inhabited the regions beyond the Hudson.

In the 1790s moral criticism of slavery was a philosophical stand characteristic of Quakers and of Southerners of liberal bent like Jefferson. Not of New England Federalists who were wary of attacking property and privilege of any kind. When young John C. Calhoun went from South Carolina to Connecticut to study about the same time as Bryant wrote his poem, he did not go from slavery to freedom. Most of the prosperous families of New Haven, including the most respectable Episcopal and Congregationalist ministers, had at least a few house slaves. Slavery disappeared slowly in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and in all of New England the disappearance of slavery was accompanied by the disappearance of black people. Long after emancipation in New England, the foreign slave trade, so far as Americans were concerned, was still concentrated in Massachusetts and Rhode Island ships. In 1808 the foreign slave trade to America and by Americans became illegal. Southerners largely favoured this and worked conscientiously to enforce the law. From that time right up to The War, New Englanders remained heavily engaged in carrying slaves from Africa to Brazil and Cuba. Fortunes were made and no loss of social standing was experienced even when such lawbreakers were caught. New Englanders also remained heavily invested in slave plantations in Cuba right up to and even after emancipation in the Southern United States.

If anti-slavery was not a significant theme in Connecticut when Calhoun arrived in 1802, then what was? I have looked at diaries, letters, and published works to answer this question. Our time allows only a few examples but there is an abundance of other evidence showing the same thing.

Abolitionist propaganda in the last few decades before secession portrayed Southerners as immersed in slavery and therefore as a violent, lazy, backward, ignorant, immoral people, and an obstacle to the fulfilment of American greatness. But New England writers and politicians at first applied such negatives not just to Southerners but to most Americans outside of New England; and this stereotyping was not a product of opposition to slavery.

New England cultural imperialism has triumphed so completely in American life that it is difficult to remember how self-centered and self-righteous it was. Also to remember that it was for a long time, for most of the first half of the 19th century, a despised minority phenomenon. New York writers like Cooper, Irving, and Melville noted and condemned New England pretensions. Many Americans thought of Yankees as grasping, sanctimonious hypocrites, putting on airs of superiority and piousness while hustling wooden clocks. This was true of the people among whom Lincoln grew up in Indiana and Illinois. His carefully cultivated popularity was enhanced by a fund of Yankee jokes, the most demanded part of his repetoire except for the dirty stories. On the eve of The War to Prevent Southern Independence, the editor of a leading New York City newspaper declared that the solution to the crisis was for New England to secede and leave the rest of the country in peace. The Governor of New York, Horatio Seymour, expressed similar sentiments.

Self-aggrandisement is familiar in history, but this New England business was peculiar in style. Those American citizens who stood in its way were not people with different opinions or different interests, they were evil. Opposition to, or even difference from New England, was explicable only by the perverted, sinful character of the opponent. When Southerners complained in the 1820s about tariffs that gave New England capitalists a guarantee of huge profits at the expense of the agricultural interest, they were told that their economic loss was due to their own laziness. It was even declared that opposition to the tariff, that is, opposition to the interests of New England, was treason. Not nullification or hints of secession were treason, but merely opposing the tariff was treason against the true America. If Yankees regarded opposition to the Sedition Act and to the tariff as treason, it is not surprising that they later condemned opposition to banning slavery from the territories as treasonous.

Jedidiah Morse of Connecticut, Federalist and Congregational minister, is a good place to begin a close look. In the 1780s Morse traveled through the states gathering information which he used in the publication of his “American Geography,” the first work of its kind. Like the dictionaries and history and literature churned out by New Englanders then and later, it was not really an American but a New England work.

Along with geographical, political, and economic information, Morse included a section on the “habits and character” of the people of each state. According to the American Geography, New Englanders were without doubt the most industrious, intelligent, and moral people not only in America but in the world. Almost everything south and west of the Hudson, however, was found wanting. The Dutch of the Hudson River Valley were described as conspicuously ignorant, backward, and lazy, though there was some hope in that New Englanders were bringing their schools to the region. What the New Yorkers thought about this gift is revealed by Washington’s Irving’s s story about Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman.

Three-fifths of the people of New Jersey were described as “ignorant and criminally neglectful in the education of their children.” Pennsylvania Germans were generally ignorant and superstitious. The Scotch-Irish in Pennsylvania were even worse—they were violent, drunken, dirty, lazy, immoral, irreligious and in debt.

These shortcomings were not ascribed to slavery but simply to character inferior to that of New Englanders. When he got to Maryland and Virginia and further south, Morse observed much of the same, but he seemed to see some advantages in slavery. The planters were at least hospitable and generous, and, except for their dissipated drinking, gambling, etc., not too different from the Northern gentry. Still, he found good reason to condemn slavery. It was bad economics because it failed to extort maximum profit out of labour. This was a theme frequent with critical Northern visitors to the South throughout the antebellum period. The Northerners often sound as if they could only get rid of lazy black and white Southerners, then the magic of New England steady habits would produce the immense amount of cotton demanded by the world’s looms easily and at a greater profit. The stupidity of this idea was proved later by the numerous carpetbaggers who went broke.

Morse also considered slavery to be immoral. Why? Because white children growing up in association with Negroes “imbibe their low ideas, and vitiated manners and morals; and contract a negroish kind of accent and dialect.” This too was a very typical Northern reaction to the South. Morse deplored inter-racial sexual relations, not as exploitation of the slave but as degrading to the white race. Among the many benefits that came with emancipation in the Northern states, he wrote, was a decrease in the black population. But to free the blacks and allow them to remain among the white population would be “disagreeable and unnatural.” Like most of the New Englanders I encountered in this study, he vaunted the superior blood of pure Anglo-Saxon New England over the mongrels and inferior breeds of American further south and west. It was even conjectured that some of the depravity of Southerners was due to Indian blood.

Morse felt compelled to measure his fellow Americans against an unquestioned standard—New England virtue. His evaluations are ill-informed and gratuitously offensive. It is difficult to believe that Americans deserved the blanket negative of Morse’s subjective descriptions of irreligion, lack of enterprise, and ignorance. While Morse criticised slavery, he did not find slavery alone to be the cause of the general backwardness of Americans. You can easily imagine him making the same judgments about Londoners or Frenchmen—anyone outside the sacred Pale of New England. In fact, his descriptions resemble the immorality and vagabondage portrayed in English literature of the time.

Morse’s book not surprisingly aroused an unfriendly response. He described Williamsburg, Virginia, as dull, dilapidated, lacking in religion, and a den of gambling. The Virginia scholar St. George Tucker, who was incidentally a sincere advocate of emancipation, replied with a pamphlet pointing out that the town had been devastated by the British during the Revolution, that in years of residence he had seldom seen a pack of cards, and that the people were as quietly devout as Episcopalians anywhere. Morse, said Tucker, was “without one generous sentiment, was never seduced from his road by love or pity; and sorry am I to add, that even the allurements of truth appear to have been equally ineffectual.” He showed a deplorable lack of that charity to be expected from a minister of the gospel.

John Tyler, father of the future President, was even more provoked by Morse’s “American Geography.” “To be sure,” he wrote, “how many dirty efforts are made by these northern cattle to reduce the consequence of Virginia.” He had begun to doubt the soundness of Virginia’s decision to enter into Union with such people. Clearly, what really bothered Morse was not slavery but that Americans had too much freedom to suit a son of the Land of Steady Habits. Clearly, his censure of other Americans filled some psychological need common to those sons.

Another scion of Connecticut, Noah Webster of dictionary fame, visited the South in the 1780s to peddle his spellers. They did not sell well, which he attributed to the laziness and dissipation of the population. In Baltimore, though a temporary visitor, going on in their state. He told the public: “Where people are industrious, there can never be, for any long time, a want of cash sufficient for a medium.” The scarcity of circulating medium he told Marylanders, was due to their laziness. They need only imitate the industrious habits of New Englanders and the shortage of specie would disappear.

Later, in his American Dictionary, Webster would claim that the best and purest English not only in America but in the world was spoken by New Englanders. During his trip to Virginia, Webster confided to his diary these sentiments:

“O New England! How superior are thy inhabitants in morals, literature, civility, and industry!”

Webster was apparently received politely, which must have been a trial for Virginian hospitality. As was typical of young would-be intellectuals from New England at the time, he imposed himself upon Jefferson and Madison. Such Yankee scribes, because heard with polite interest, would later proclaim that their notions had been approved by the great elder statesmen, and would promote themselves with claims of their high standing with the legendary fathers of the republic. Fortunately, we have Jefferson’s real opinion of Noah Webster. He wrote Madison that Webster was “a mere pedagogue of very limited understanding and very strong prejudices and party passions.”

Webster was a common type of wannabe New England intellectual that was widely recognised and usually ridiculed at the time. Outside the Pale, literary and scholarly pursuits were pastimes of gentlemen with useful occupations, who often used pseudonyms to avoid unseemly self-promotion. Only New England was rife with self-promoting scribblers eager for distinction. These were the predecessors of the petty intellectuals all too familiar today who are not really as smart as they think they are. One Yankee scribe published a long treatise instructing Southerners that they should get rid of the slaves, give up tobacco and cotton, and devote themselves to silk worms. He was evidently ignorant of the fact that it had already been tried numerous times over two centuries without success. Another accused Southerners of breeding slaves for sale and of conspiring to renew foreign importations. Both these accusations were false, but it was not noted that they were contrary from an economic viewpoint. Surely, what really bothered this fellow was any potential increase in black population, which was the fault of evilly motivated Southernerners.

Webster was annoyed by the behaviour of Southern black people. He complained that on Sundays in Baltimore “Hundreds of blacks collected for pastime, cracking their whips, elevating their kites in the air, breaking each other’s heads with clubs, and alarming whole streets with their quarrels.” Southern blacks seem to have had more freedom to come and go, let off steam, and enjoy themselves than did the good people of the model republic of Connecticut who might find themselves in the stocks for such behaviour.

In his political correspondence with fellow New England Federalists, Webster wrote that opposition of the South to New England policies, particularly to Jay’s Treaty, was a product of French Jacobinism. That Jay’s Treaty was a sacrifice of Southern and Western interests and opposed for good reasons was not relevant. Their opposition to the desire and interests of New England was explicable only by perversion. He did not connect this perversion to slavery, however, but to “the unstable nature of republican governments. ”

In the 1790s Webster joined an antislavery society and wrote criticisms of slavery. Like Morse, his opposition was economic. He inaccurately portrayed the South as unproductive and made unrealistic recommendations about how Southerners might change their circumstances to become more prosperous. But the emotionalism and censure of abolitionism was absent from his discussion. He approached the slaveholder not as a sinful brute but as a fellow open to reasonable arguments about his self-interest.

By the time of Andrew Jackson, Webster had come to repudiate what he called “the turbulent American democracy” which had triumphed in the place of the New England vision of economic and political virtue. He had also come to believe that the great threat to New England was not the South and slavery but the Catholic Church, an opinion which Morse also embraced. Webster rejected antislavery in the new form it took in the 1830s. He wrote to an abolitionist group: “I am opposed to your proceedings . . . because your proceedings cannot effect your object. You disturb society in the north while you advance not a step toward emancipation in the south . . . .A large proportion of our citizens—and those of the first intelligence and respectability, deny the expediency of discussion in the north, on slavery in the south.

John C. Calhoun said much the same thing.

I will look at one more example—the little group of aspiring creators of American literature known as the Connecticut Wits, who flourished in the 1790s. Curiously, when they wrote about slavery they did not mention the American South at all, but drew a comparison between slavery in Connecticut and in the West Indies.

Here is Timothy Dwight, president of Yale and Federalist stalwart, rhapsodizing about the good life of the slave fortunate enough to be owned in Connecticut:

But kindly fed, and clad, and treated he
Slides on thro’ life, with more than common glee.
For here mild manners good to all impart,
And stamp with infamy the unfeeling heart;
Here law, from vengeful rage, the slave defends;
And here the gospel peace on earth extends.

Dwight then switches his lame poetic fancy to “the Indian isles” where the air is full of “cracking whips,” “shreiks,” and “dying groans.”

Why glows yon oven with a sevenfold fire?
Crisped in the flame, behold a man expire!
Lo! by that vampire’s hand, yon infant dies,
Its brains dashed out, beneath it’s father’s eyes.
Why shrinks yon slave, with horror from his meat?
Heavens! ’tis his flesh, the wretch is whipped to eat.
Why streams the life-blood from that female’s throat?
She sprinkled gravy on a guest’s new coat!
Why crowd those quivering blacks yon dock around?
Those screams announce that cowskin’s shrilling sound.

In the same poem Dwight manages to paint a pretty picture of slavery in New England and to anticipate the most lurid abolitionist propaganda against the South. He also says that hurricanes and epidemics in the West Indies are God’s punishment for sin. Why God would punish the victim along with the sinner was not addressed.

I have looked at all the travel accounts of New Englanders in the South from 1785 to 1826 that are listed in a standard reference, and what these examples show is repeated many times over. Historians have not seen it because they were looking for other things. As one would suspect from my interpretation, the Jeffersonian minority in New England had a different response to the South. Joel Barlow, the only non-Federalist among the Connectict writers mentioned above, in his “Columbiad,” which was the best piece of literature produced by the group, took pains to celebrate Southern heroes of the Revolutionary War and portrayed the fields of the South as sunny and happy. He even praised a Muse that resided on the banks of the James River, apparently acknowledging that Virginia was not a total Sahara of literature.

Elbridge Gerry, Jr., son of the Massachusetts anti-federalist and Jeffersonian Vice-President, spent some months in the South. His letters indicate that he found Southerners very congenial, greatly enjoyed the social and outdoor life, and found slavery mild and largely beneficial. There are other examples.

What aroused the New Englander’s antipathy to Southern society was its opposition to his pride and his profits, which in his mind were obviously correct and no more than his due as the only real American. Resistance to New England dominion could only be explained by the Other lacking his puritan values of self-discipline, order, morality, and industry. Association with other Americans at times seemed almost to put the Yankee in danger of personal contamination. One cannot help but detect in these people some intimnations of envy and of an attempt to cover up a feeling of inferior manhood.

And it never ends. A recent television series portrays the plain, manly patriot John Adams contending in the Continental Congress with a mincing fop from South Carolina.

Henry Cabot Lodge, later the well-known Senator from Massachusetts, published in 1877 a biography of one of his Cabot ancestors in which he gave a positive spin to the matter. The strong and long adherence of New England to the Federalist party, he wrote:

was due, of course, partly to the stubborn and unyielding character of the New England people, but chiefly to the circumstances of their daily lives, to their education, their occupations, and their traditions. The population of New England was of the purest English stock, unmixed with any foreign element…. Settled in towns, and not scattered over a wide extent of territory, their interests and habits were homogeneous and of long standing. The average standard of wealth and education were remarkably high . . . . Their social fabric was perfectly crystalised and firm, and their moneyed interests were large, extended, and sensitive. They were naturally, therefore, the friends of order, stability, and strength in government, and of political conservatism.

The political struggles of the period that we are particularly concerned with, from the late 1780s through the 1820s, present the spectacle of slave-owning Southerners standing for the democratic and liberal tendencies in society and politics, while supposedly enlightened New Englanders stood for elitism, reaction, Anglo-Saxon supremacy, suppression of freedom of speech, and a populace deferential to authority.

While the genuine aristocrat Jefferson lived at ease among his 200 slaves, plain John Adams was fortifying his house in Philadelphia in expectation that the American mob would soon be attacking their betters in imitation of the French. As President, Adams rode about in a carriage with matched white horses, insisted on being address as “Your Excellency,” and signed the Sedition act to jail those who dared criticise him. Jefferson walked to his inauguration in a plain suit, sent his annual message to Congress in writing in order to reduce the monarchical aspects of the Presidency, and instituted Virginia pell-mell in the place of hierarchical protocol at White House social events.

Defeat aroused New England into a hostile critique of the South. Negative stereotyping of their Southern fellow citizens was a response to the challenge and defeat, they thought, of their pride and interests. The critique was not applied to Southerners alone and it was most usually attributed to the influence of revolutionary France, a dire and contagious threat to civilized order which had contaminated America in the view of the ruling class of New England. Like the later abolitionist commentary, this response was hysterical, ill-informed, insular, exaggerated, and largely false. Dwight and others of the devolved Puritan clergy delivered election sermons in which they warned the faithful that a President Jefferson would set up the guillotine in pristine New England and share out the women in common.

One Federalist diatribe against Jefferson referred to “the rice swamps of Monticello” as “the favourite haunt of philosophy, liberty, and other French fairies.” This fellow wrote with more venom than geographical accuracy, but he connected the plantation to an excessive fondness for liberty. The imaginary theme of Southerners as an evil people, threatening all the supreme values and interests of New England, was well-established by the 1790s.

Later Abolitionism was similar in spirit, postulating an imaginary “slave power”dominating the Union and the North. But that was to come later. While the New England Federalists criticised slavery, for the most part privately, as a bad economic system, and they were quick the satirize slave-holding democracts like Jefferson, they did not rail against slavery or consider it the chief cause of their discomfort. In fact, many of them deplored antislavery as social disruption. And most certainly their anti-slavery sentiment contained no element of identification with the African Americans or concern with their wellbeing or future. Far from it. For them, getting rid of slavery and getting rid of black people was one and the same thing. That attitude had far from disappeared from the anti-slavery movement in 1860 or even 1865.

How slavery became the center of anti-Southern feeling and propaganda in the 1830s, and the Southern response to that, is the subject of another paper. Let me conclude by looking at the well-known friendly correspondence between Jefferson and John Adams in their last years. Interestingly, in the light of later abolitionist portrayals of the South as dominated by a few imperious aristocrats labeled as “the slave power,” John Adams wrote to Jefferson that a few old families still exercised inordinate influence in New England. Jefferson replied that he was surprised to hear that. The same was not true in Virginia, where rising talent found favour over ancient lineage.

Also interesting in the light of later events is what John Adams had to say to Jefferson about the Missouri controversy: “I have been so terrified with this phenomenon that I constantly said in former times to the Southern gentlemen; I must leave it to you, I will vote for forcing no measure against your judgments.”

In March 1825 John Quincy Adams took office as President amidst cries of “corrupt bargain!” He immediately announced a neo-Federalist legislative agenda. Opposition was loud, vigorous and wide-spread. In his very last letter to Jefferson in 1826, John Adams found fault with his son’s opponents, particularly mentioning John Randolph of Virginia and George McDuffie of South Carolina. Such opponents he condemned as “our American chivalry.” However he seemed to mean by “chivalry” an aggressive style of political opposition rather than a conspiracy of Southern aristocrats.

After losing re-election, John Quincy Adams devoted himself to establishing a claim that a Southern “slave power” was a threat to the North. He was a key in giving a political focus to the newly fervent, evangelistic abolitionism that appeared.

SOURCE: From The Abbeville Institute The Abbeville Institute 2008 Scholars’ Conference, “NORTHERN ANTI-SLAVERY AGITATION”

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