Was the Old South Feudal?

Eugene Genovese wrote several works on antebellum slavery that essentially argued the Old South was neither feudal nor capitalist. His book Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism and earlier writings on slave economies postulated that the Southern mode of production was pre-capitalist and utilized a type of bondage not compatible with feudal society.

On the other hand, Richard Weaver in The Southern Tradition at Bay, described the antebellum South as a “feudal paradise” and the plantation as a “little cosmos” with everyone playing an important role in the production process. Weaver saw the plantation system of the Old South as feudal because it protected its community from dependence on outside institutions and generally operated on a code of chivalry.

So, was the Old South feudal or not? Let us dig deeper, to an older time and place, for a better understanding.

What was Feudalism?

Feudalism emerged after the fall of the Roman Empire. The lack of leadership and stability led to a desire for protection. Naturally, there was also a desire to re-establish roads and trade, and preserve Greek and Roman learning. As a result of these needs, less powerful people promised their loyalty to more powerful people in exchange for protection.

Both the South and feudal society had a similar hierarchical system, but the complexity of both systems is often overlooked. In addition to laboring classes of serfs, there were also vassals that were expected to fight as soldiers in the feudal system. These forms of vassalage and serfdom were often hereditary and varied from country to country. Marc Bloch, in his two volume work, Feudal Society, gives an example of how these ties functioned:

“To be the ‘man’ of another man: in the vocabulary of feudalism, no combination of words was more widely used or more comprehensive in meaning. In both the Romance and the Germanic tongues it was used to express personal dependence per se and applied to persons of all social classes regardless of the precise legal nature of the bond. The count was the ‘man’ of the king, as the serf was the ‘man’ of his manorial lord…An instance of this, dating from the end of the eleventh century, is a petition of Norman nuns, complaining that their ‘men’ – that is to say their peasants – were forced by a great baron to work at the castles of his ‘men’, meaning the knights who were his vassals.”

In the case of vassals, they were expected to pay homage to their manorial lord and sometimes received land grants called fiefs. But make no mistake, vassalage was a system not so different from slavery. For example, the Carolingians had a list of offences which, if committed by the lord, would justify a vassal breaking their contract. With the exception of such cases, the tie lasted for life and working in the fields was considered a task anyone could perform. Another example showing distinction in class of vassal and lord can be found in the provisions of the old Norman law. Both the lord who killed a vassal and the vassal who killed a lord could be punished by death. But only the crime against the chief involved the dishonorable death of being hanged.

Serfdom was step below vassalage and also varied in condition from place to place, but was essentially the same as slave bondage. Bloch described the typical daily life of a serf:

“On certain days, the tenant brings the lord’s steward perhaps a few small silver coins or, more often, sheaves of corn harvested on his fields, chickens from his farmyard, cakes of wax from his beehives or from the swarms of the neighbouring forest. At other times, he works on the arable or the meadow of the demesne. Or else we find him carting casks of wine or sacks of corn on behalf of the master to distant residences. His is the labor which repairs the walls or moats of the castle. If the master has guests the peasant strips his own bed to provide the necessary extra bed-clothes. When the hunting season comes round, he feeds the pack. If war breaks out he does duty as a foot-soldier or orderly, under the leadership of the reeve of the village.”

Bloch goes on to describe two distinct forms of serfdom. The first included those who performed mostly agricultural labor and were officially classified as moveable property; they often lived in tenements and were regarded as human cattle. The second form of serfdom was classified as the tenant-slave, who had his own dwelling, subsisted on his own produce, could sell his own surplus, and was not dependent on any master.

It’s also important to point out that those who were considered “free” men were still subjects of the king and mostly dependent on some particular lord. In some cases, “free” men were not even permitted to marry outside of their manor. During the reign of St. Louis in France, for example, almost the entire population consisted of persons whose status was described as servile.

Honor and Land

One of Weaver’s most convincing arguments for the South being feudal is his assessment of slavery. He insists that land ownership and productivity were important to all Southerners. According to Weaver, there was a kind of noblesse oblige on the part of the landowners to make sure their land and slaves were well maintained. He uses several examples to explain this concept, including Robert Carter and George Washington.

When “King” Robert Carter of Virginia’s Corotoman plantation devised his will in 1726, he listed seventeen indentured servants among the personnel of the homestead, including “sailors, tailors, and carpenters, a glazier, a bricklayer, and a blacksmith.” A later member of the Carter clan, Robert the master of Nomini Hall, counted among his slaves eleven carpenters, two joiners, two postilions, a bricklayer, a blacksmith, a miller, a tanner, a shoemaker, a hatter, a sailor, a carter, a butcher, a cook, a waiter, and a scullion from the men; and from the women three housemaids, two seamstresses, two spinners, a laundress, a nursemaid, and a midwife.

George Washington had thousands of acres with a great number of both slaves and indentured servants. White indentured servants were typically expected to perform some type of specialized service. They had drawn up contracts which allowed them a house, a stated amount of provisions, and sometimes placed restrictions on their moral conduct. His slaves included waiters, cooks, drivers and stablers, smiths, waggoners, carpenters, spinners, knitters, a carter, and a stockkeeper. Washington was even reputed to visit his sick slaves on occasion and supervise their treatment. Mount Vernon was divided into five farms, each under the management of an overseer and all under the authority of a single steward that reported to Washington.

On the other hand, in the Middle Ages, agricultural labor was regarded as contrary to the honor of nobles and the military class. According to Bloc, ploughing, digging, and hauling goods were decided by Parliament of Paris to have been jobs designated to serfs and peasants. Feudal Society gives the following description of nobles and farm labor:

“Though usually a countryman in the sense that his home was in the country, the noble was nevertheless no agriculturalist. To put his hand to the hoe or the plough would have been an indication that he had come down in the world…And if he sometimes liked to contemplate the workers in the fields or the yellowing harvest on his estates, it does not appear that as a rule he took a very direct part in the management of the farm.”

Perhaps because of weather, or maybe a desire to attach the family name to a piece of land, Southerners had  much stronger ties to agricultural pursuits. James Henry Hammond’s estate, Redcliffe, for example, was worked by over 400 slaves and had a gristmill, a forge, a wheelwright’s shop, a hospital and a church that was visited by a white preacher once per month. Hammond eventually wrote a plantation manual that talked about crop rotation and even featured progressive practices for female slaves that breastfed. Southern women also tended to be very involved in the daily functions of the plantation. Eliza Lucas Pinckney, for example, managed three plantations and cultivated strains of indigo that were highly prized around the world.

Manliness and Chivalry

It’s common to equate the Southern gentleman to the medieval knight. Richard Weaver, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and many other authors have done much to show that the Southern gentleman was an adherent to a chivalric code. This code, in both the South and the Middle Ages, was a complex system that involved frequent tests of manliness. Just as the knights often settled conflicts in trials by combat, Southerners had the pistol duel. The duel had its own written code and was often reserved for men of the gentleman caste. If a man was challenged by someone of his own standing and refused to duel, his manhood might be challenged next. Even though these conflicts tended to be highly personal and publicized, they were also looked down on as archaic and denounced from time to time.

After the last legal duel in Virginia, an issue of the Baltimore Sun declared in 1873:

“It is earnestly to be hoped that this most mournful event will at least have the effect of rousing the public sentiment of Virginia to put down a cruel, bloody and inhuman practice, combining in itself the elements of both murder and suicide, as contrary to the laws of God and to those of man, and not more contrary to either than to reason, common sense and justice.”

While dueling was seen as barbaric to some, its practice was rooted in a simpler time when men were willing to fight for their own honor. And duels did not always end violently either. In an 1826 duel between John Randolph of Roanoke and Henry Clay, Randolph chose to fire what could have been a fatal shot into the air and the two men resumed a courteous political relationship afterward.

But behind the acts of chivalry was a desire to exude male dominance. For the poorer whites, who did not always have the option of dueling, there was the practice of gander-pulling. The gander-pull was the Old South’s version of the joust. For the contest, a live gander was greased up and hung by its feet. The competitors, on horseback, rode at full gallop, reached up to grab the gander by the neck and rip off the head. This practice was described in William Gilmore Simms’ 1852 story As Good as a Comedy, in which Simms described a Tennessee gander-pull by saying it was “one of those sports which a cunning devil has contrived to gratify a human beast” and that it was “a source of pleasure to the purely vulgar and uncultivated nature.”

Simms literally compared the sport to the joust himself and stated “Gander-pulling has been described as a sort of tournament on horseback; the only real difference is that the knight has a goose for his opponent instead of a person like himself.” Simms also pointed out that these contests occurred while the competitors were “in a state of betweenity,” meaning not drunk or entirely sober, and noted that the crowd’s screams “form no bad echoes to the cries of the goose.” Many refined people like Simms thought the abuse directed toward the gander made this sport undesirable, but the mere existence of the gander-pull shows us that the South was feudal in many ways. In the Middle Ages, riding in the saddle was an essential skill that most knights had to master. Combine this with the dexterity and grip required for the gander-pull, and you have a unique and challenging Southern sport that was inspired by the feudal age.

Blood and Vendettas

In the South and the Middle Ages, complicated situations often ended with demands of satisfaction that could lead to blood feuds and vendettas. During feudal times, individual acts often involved entire kinfolk and whole communities took up arms to punish the murder or wrongdoing of members. Feudal Society provides some examples, one of which can be found in twelfth century Flanders, where a noble lady’s husband and two children were killed by enemies. An ensuing blood-feud spread throughout the countryside and a saintly Bishop named Arnulf of Soissons came to preach reconciliation – but the widow refused to listen to him and raised their drawbridge to avoid talking to him. Another example could be seen in the Frisians, who were known to hang the corpse of a murdered kinsman in their manor until the day vengeance was accomplished.

These characteristics match almost exactly with Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s work Southern Honor. He argued that there were several characteristics that were crucial in the formulation of Southern conduct, one of which was “honor as immortalizing valor, particularly in the character of revenge against familial and community enemies.” Wyatt-Brown called the War Between the States a test of manhood, and asserted that “Courage in the Old South, as in ancient times, was a personal attribute, but it could not be wholly separated from the familial context.”

The South has plenty examples of this primal attachment to family vendetta. The Hatfields and McCoys had a feud that started during the War Between the States, intensified over the alleged theft of a hog, and resulted in dozens of deaths. When “Devil Anse” Hatfield explained why he had murdered so many McCoys, his answer was: “A man has a right to defend his family.” By family, he meant all Hatfields and kin. Andrew Jackson also possessed this dedication to family, having once fought a duel to defend his wife’s honor against charges of adultery and fought in many more to defend his own personal honor.

Final Verdict

Ultimately, the South was a lot more homogenous in government and diverse in society than Europe in the Middle Ages. The South, and American society in general, was designed with the flaws and strengths of the feudal system in mind. There was also a dominant, republican political tradition within the South, while feudal society saw constant conflict between numerous principalities, kingdoms, and small republics over issues like religion and territory. Many Southerners believed their society was thoroughly modern and provided a better route to progress than the Northern system of industrial wage slavery.

Most people reckon the Middle Ages to have lasted until about 1500, but its social systems lasted for hundreds of years afterward in some places, like France, where feudalism was not abolished by law until 1789 during the French Revolution. Meanwhile the first Southern colony, Jamestown, was established in the early 1600s, in a world geographically far from the Enlightenment. In the big picture of history, there was not a huge time difference between the Middle Ages, the founding of the South, and the end of feudalism. Maybe the South was feudal, not in some complicated societal sense, but in the traditions and practices of its people.

Michael Martin

Michael Martin is a teacher and independent historian currently residing in Eastern North Carolina. He's the author of Southern Grit: Sensing the Siege of Petersburg from Shotwell Publishing and you can find more of his work on his YouTube channel, Truth Decay.

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