The American Gentry


Note: My students used to ask how the planter aristocracy persuaded poor whites to fight for their interests in the Civil War. I think the answer lies in the power and position that the underclass envied and hoped to attain.

Please permit me to reintroduce these four figures from America’s antebellum period.

Thomas Jefferson Best recognized as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the U.S., and the man behind the 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory.

Andrew Jackson The celebrated hero of the Battle of New Orleans, noted Indian fighter, and seventh president of the U.S.

John C. Calhoun Congressman, turned Senator from South Carolina, who served two separate administrations as Vice President.

Jefferson Davis, a former soldier in the Mexican War, one-time Secretary of War, and later President of the Confederate States of America.

These four men forged political careers prior to the Civil War that fully embraced the social norms of early America. To a man, all hailed from the Old South, where each man shaped distinguished reputations, built spacious mansions, entertained illustrious guests, all on the backs of slave labor.

Ironically if one asked these men’s occupation, not one would have mentioned politics. Instead, each would have replied, “I am a farmer.”

To modern ears that answer feels a bit misleading and absurd. However, in the early nineteenth century, exercising dominion over large tracts of land, and cultivating crops as far as the eye could see, was viewed the most noble and honorable of pursuits. But a gnawing truth lay behind the practiced manners and broad, fertile fields. A profound self deception had also taken root, sowing an overblown sense of racial superiority, and human oppression of nightmarish proportions.

That these “farmers” were all slave masters is the cruel truth–Lords of the Lash, who derived a living “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” (As Lincoln so eloquently phrased).

These four planters also minimized the brutal underpinnings which sustained each man’s fiefdom. Jefferson, Jackson, Calhoun, and Davis capably hijacked, and sheltered behind “republican virtues,” including freedom and the social contract to suit their own interests.No higher authority held any sway over these planters–they were marked as privileged.

The patriarch of this sophistry was Thomas Jefferson.

Esteemed as the “Sage of Monticello,” Jefferson brilliantly articulated a vision of America where all lived freely upon private land, untroubled by outside interests. Residing upon acres of personal liberty, this master managed his estate immune from any overreaching government. For Jefferson, he and his fellow planters were the “natural aristocrats,” of the new nation, meaning they held the only legitimate claim to power. Only the elite of the community, like Jefferson, knew what was best for all.

The Sedition Act, passed by Congress in 1798, moved Thomas Jefferson to show his true political colors. President John Adams had wanted to silence political critics of his administration, and jammed this dubious legislation through Congress. In reply Jefferson authored a protest titled the “Kentucky Resolution.” In his tract, submitted to the Kentucky Legislature, Jefferson introduced the concept of ‘nullifying’ Federal law. Specifically, when a majority of state delegates, assembled in special convention, renounced a Federal statute, the law was rendered null and void within that state.

For the first time, in one pivotal moment, Jefferson’s insidious principle found its way into the bloodstream of American politics.

Ironically Andrew Jackson didn’t care for the intellectual, and philosophical Jefferson. Still, despite temperamental differences, Jackson did share Jefferson’s world view of complete dominion over his land and “people.” A ferocious master, Jackson answered to no civil law, but his own. Dabbling in both horse and slave trading, Old Hickory frequentlyoften challenged any man who questioned his conduct or honor.

To his credit Jackson did not pretend to care about high brow thinking or civic virtue. His philosophy was simple; the master was never wrong.

Before Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina soured into a states’ right’s militant, his political outlook had been national in scope. With unusual candor a very young Congressman Calhoun self-consciously confessed that slavery was a “necessary evil,” vital to South Carolina’s prosperity. But his marriage to a wealthy Charleston cousin elevated his social status, which in turn, adjusted Calhoun’s thinking. Assuming the role of a gentleman, while cultivating a prominent political reputation, Calhoun also became a slave master. Much like Jefferson’s Monticello, or Jackson’s Hermitage, Calhoun’s plantation, Fort Hill, was an ever-expanding operation, endlessly renovated using teams of slaves who also tended his fields.

In 1829, as Jackson’s new Vice President, Calhoun quickly butted heads with America’s new President. Steadily embittered by Jackson’s arbitrary, monarchial style, and indifference to law, Calhoun resigned the vice presidency and returned to Fort Hill an angry man. His stance on slavery hardened as well, leaving him a vitriolic defender of the practice. Under increasing pressure from Northern abolitionist, Calhoun, picked up his pen and insisted that slavery was not evil after all, but a ‘positive good.’

When Congress passed a protective tariff for northern goods, this former Vice President organized a state convention to fully resist the new Federal law. Calling his defiance “nullification,” Calhoun put into action Jefferson’s “resolution” that refused obedience to Washington.

Fortunately this particular crisis was averted by cooler heads in Congress, delaying the curse of fraternal bloodshed for a later generation.

By 1860 nullification had bloomed into full secession. No longer would the planter class tolerate insults or challenges to their natural superiority and authority.

It came as no surprise when South Carolina became the first of the eleven states to secede from the Union. Delegates attending a state convention in Columbia did not wait for the final electoral results to reject the election of Abraham Lincoln. So enraged were these aristocrats that Lincoln’s name had not even appeared on the ballot in most southern states.

I’ve added Confederate President Jefferson Davis to this piece because of his later role in perpetuating the genteel myth of the South. After four years of bloody battle and countless bullets finally settled the issue of Federal authority, Davis, released from jail began a writing career. He first penned, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, followed later by A Short History of the Confederate States of America. In both of these works, Davis invented a romantic world of gentlemen, belles, and contented slaves in the fields. The fantasy was bunk, but Davis, the onetime master of of Belvoir, and Brierfield, Mississippi, somehow got in the last word.

Davis’s fanciful yarn was only concocted as a charming fable to disguise a legacy of hubris, power, greed, hate, racial exploitation, and violence.

In answer to the question posed by my history students, poor whites defended the southern gentry because they wished to live just like them.

Gail Chumbey is the author of the two-part memoir,  “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” available on Kindle.