April 3 was Washington Irving’s birthday. While not a Southerner, Irving would have supported the South in its fight for independence in 1861 had he been alive to see it. He at least would have been opposed to coercion. Many notable New Yorkers, and for that matter Canadians, too, believed the same. Two fine treatments on this issue are Clint Johnson’s A Vast and Fiendish Plot and Adam Mayers’s Dixie and the Dominion.
Irving spent a considerable portion of his adult life in Europe. As with Southerner James Johnston Pettigrew, he was attracted to Spanish culture and enjoyed European aristocratic life, which he believed had many similarities with traditional American culture. Irving’s estate, Sunnyside (pictured above), is a beautiful villa inspired by European architecture. Leading Southerners would have felt quite at home there. Irving considered the estate to be more than a home. He was tied to its soul.
Iriving’s work often showed a disdain for the American bourgeoisie and most importantly self-righteous Yankee superiority. Ichabod Crane exemplified this attitude. Crane was a deluded buffoon, a money-grubber, and believed himself to be the intellectual master of the unenlightened souls of Sleepy Hollow, New York. Crane was from Connecticut. The real New Yorkers ran him out of town. Irving also wrote a multi-volume biography of George Washington which was considered to be the best treatment of the quintessential American hero for many decades.
He had contact with most of the leading members of American society during his life. He was friends with Dolly Madison and counted several presidents among his associates. His description of Washington, D.C.–and both James and Dolly Madison–during Madison’s presidency is illuminating:
I emerged from dirt and darkness into the blazing splendor of Mrs. Madison’s drawing-room. Here I was most graciously received; found a crowded collection of great and little men, of ugly old women and beautiful young ones, and in ten minutes was hand and glove with half the people in the assemblage. Mrs. Madison is a fine, portly, buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody. Her sisters, Mrs. Cutts and Mrs. Washington, are like two merry wives of Windsor; but as to Jemmy Madison,—oh, poor Jemmy ! —he is but a withered little apple-john.
Irving described Baltimore society as so inviting one could get lost and never return. He tried to avoid it for that reason. It must be noted that Irving was a typical Northerner during much of the antebellum period. He recognized the value in Southern culture and considered Southerners to be of kindred spirit. Much changed in the ensuing decades.