The First South

A review of The First South (LSU Press, 1961) by John Richard Alden

One of the things I’ve discovered since I began studying Civil War history is that the roots of that conflict go back to before the United States were declared “free, sovereign and independent”, and so a knowledge of the history of the early South is very useful and relevant in order to understand how the South of 1860 came to exist, as well as simply being interesting history in its own right. “The First South” (as contrasted with “The Old South” of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis) is defined for the purposes of this book as the time between 1775 and 1789. “It appeared with the American nation”, Alden states, “and it clashed ever more sharply with a First North during and immediately after the War of Independence. This First South did not hasten under the Federal Roof with swift and certain steps, but haltingly and uncertainly.”

Alden takes us through the history of this region, the Revolutionary South, home to Patrick Henry, Light Horse Harry Lee, John Rutledge, and George Washington, among so many others. The book is divided into five short chapters, each filled with much information that was new to me.

The book begins by detailing how “the South” and “the Southern states” came to be referred to as a distinct region of the American Union. During the time period covered, the inhabitants of those southern states (Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, usually Virginia, sometimes Maryland) were not sure that it was wise to be a part of the Union, fearing a tyranny from Congress under the Articles of Confederation. “Heat, geography, racial and national composition, economic pursuits, social order, and even political structure were ties of unity rather than sources of discord below the Susquehanna. That such was so is proven by events, for the First South frequently behaved as a section before 1789.” (p. 7)

Why a distinct South? Culture and manners set the North and South apart, and the number of slaves did as well. Disagreements between North and South at this time were about how to count slaves in terms of voting and taxation in Congress, not the morality of the institution.

The climate differed between North and South. The North was suited for fishing, general farming, lumbering and shipping. The climate of the South led to specialized farming of rice and indigo which could not be grown up North, and this is one reason why slavery became more prominent in the South as Africans were imported to do the work. It became a cycle: as the population of slaves grew, the amount of farming grew. The greater amount of farming, the greater the need for more labor.

The generally hotter climate tended to discourage white immigration to the region, though for a time there was almost parity in population between North and South. This time period was as close as the South ever got to equal numbers with the North. The South had about 1,900,000 inhabitants compared to 2 million in the North. Indeed, at the time that the 1790 census was taken there were some who believed the South would outpace the North in population, but it was not to be.

Nationalism overcame sectional disputes for a time during the Revolutionary War as all States had a common cause and a common enemy, but sectionalism returned once the common cause was achieved and the war won. Alden makes the case that most Americans today know very little about the Continental Congress and the work they did, and he asserts that all things considered they did fairly well in some very trying circumstances, even with the sectional bickering to contend with. Southerners in the Congress distrusted New Englanders and clashes were frequent. Southern planters objected to black men serving in the Continental army, though it was Henry Laurens of South Carolina who later proposed to free slaves who would fight for independence. His plan was approved by Congress but failed to be approved by South Carolina and Georgia.

Attempts to revise the Articles of Confederation created sectional conflict. There were debates over who would pay for the national government, and how the burden would be fairly divided up. There was great concern that “the common good” meant the North would rule over the South. There was concern that giving Congress treaty-making power would allow the New England states to control shipping to the detriment of the South. The fiercest sectionalism came from South Carolina, whose delegates in Congress were very concerned about tyranny by the central government, even under the comparatively weak government created by the Articles of Confederation.

There were other issues that North and South clashed over under the Continental Congress:

  • The North was concerned with obtaining fishing rights in the Atlantic, while the Southern States were far more concerned with opening the Mississippi to navigation. This would remain a hot issue until the Louisiana Purchase.
  • The admission of new states was a source of conflict, with both North and South concerned about losing votes and thus power in the Confederation. The North didn’t want Kentucky admitted, and the South didn’t want Vermont.
  • There was conflict over the location for a national capital.
  • There was an economic depression in 1785 and 1786 which caused finger-pointing.
  • The North was hostile to Southern expansion while the South was opposed to the Northern grip on maritime trade.
  • There was conflict over giving Congress the power to levy import and export duties, because the South feared that the North would use the power again, to monopolize trade.

By 1786 it had become almost impossible to make changes to the Articles, because changes had to pass muster both with Congress and the states, which wasn’t going to happen. Sectional conflicts had in many ways paralyzed the government. James Madison noted that it was a difficult stumbling block, while James Monroe warned that some in New England were considering forming a separate Union. It was decided to create a new government and propose it to the States for consideration.

With all the conflict and mistrust between North and South, Alden considers why the Southerners helped to make the Constitution and why the Southern States ultimately all ratified it. There were several reasons:

  • The North was not attacking slavery, so there was no need to defend it, as there would be in decades to come.
  • The South had won some of the sectional conflicts, so they felt they had a fighting chance to win future conflicts as well.
  • They felt it was possible to both establish a stronger central government and yet limit its ability to act against Southern interests.
  • As noted above, in 1787-1788 many believed that the Southern population was growing faster than the Northern population, and the possibility that they might have greater numbers than the North and thus more representation in the new government was a factor in the decision.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the first chief executive couldn’t be anyone but George Washington, a Virginian and a Southerner, and the one man the entire country respected.

There were other reasons, not confined just to the South:

  • Rising nationalist feelings.
  • Disgust over state bickering
  • Many wanted a stronger defense against Indians and against Europe.
  • All States would reap economic benefits from a stronger Union.
  • People who had lost political power and influence during the Revolution hoped to regain it again with a stronger central government, and to benefit financially as well.

Even so, there were plenty of sectional conflicts in the Constitutional Convention itself. Chapter Four details those, and since so much of that is available elsewhere, I won’t go into detail. Many of the sectional feelings were sharper from Southerners than Northerners, but both sides demonstrated the ability to set aside some concerns for the greater good and compromise, which all at the convention appreciated.

Despite the unanimous election of Washington, and the adoption of the Constitution, the underlying problems were still present. According to Alden, “But if all the American people listened to the “voice of reason” in electing Washington, there was no oracle, then or afterward, which persuaded North and South that they had naught that was basic about which to quarrel, and Southern sectionalism was to endure, reaching a climax in 1861.” (p 128) The laws passed during Washington’s administration seemed to favor the North, and as early as 1791, “Southerners who had favored the Constitution were joining Southerners who had opposed it to defend Southern interests.” (p 130) Jefferson urged Washington to run for a second term to prevent violence and secession, because the Southern people had confidence in him. Washington fought against and advised staying away from sectionalism, but once he was out of office the divisions came to the fore again and continued. The North outpaced the South in population, and the Old South that is so much more familiar than the First South would soon appear.

The author lists seven pages of sources at the end of the book, among which are many legislative records and convention records, and the papers of important men who played a role in the early nation. The Journals of the Continental Congress were a major source of information for Professor Alden. Ultimately, Alden makes the case that “southern sectionalism appeared with the American republic”, from the very first days, and he makes the case convincingly. This book is recommended to the student of Southern history, and for anyone who is interested in the roots of the Southern identity that led to the secessions of 1860-61. It is not a long book and if you’re like me, you’ll finish it and immediately want more information about the time period that the book covers. A student of Southern history will not go wrong by reading this book, and I highly recommend it.

You might also enjoy these articles...