The American Gentry

 

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

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 purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803.

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.

All four of these men avidly pursued political careers, embraced the social norms of their era, and all hailed from the Old South.

Ironically if one found the courage to ask their occupation, none would have mentioned politics. Instead, to a man, all would have replied, “I am a farmer.”

To modern ears that curt answer feels a bit disingenuous and profoundly understated. However, in the early nineteenth century, exercising dominion over large tracts of land, and cultivating crops as far as the eye could see, was considered the most noble and honorable of pursuits. In keeping with carefully practiced manners, one politely, and tactfully left unmentioned, the reality that hidden among the hogsheads of tobacco, the bales of cotton, and bags of rice, there germinated a mightier harvest of exaggerated superiority, violent racism, and self deception.

The truth was these politicians were all slave masters; Lords of the Lash, who derived a living “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” (as Lincoln so eloquently described). These four also minimized the financial underpinnings which afforded each man’s elevated social standing; for any talk of the dark brutality behind their “greatness,” was simply not discussed in genteel society. Each cavalier capably hijacked, and effectively distorted  American virtues, such as the ideals of freedom and the social contract to suit their own ends.

No central power held any authority over their personal affairs and conduct.

The maestro of this sophistry was Thomas Jefferson. Proffered as the “Sage of Monticello,” Jefferson brilliantly articulated a vision of America where all lived freely, untouched by the outside world, upon private acres of liberty, immune from any overreaching government. Occasionally those noble scions of property did assemble together to establish necessary laws on general issues; infrastructure, property disputes . . . common needs beyond plantation boundaries. For Jefferson, his fellow planters were “natural aristocrats,” the only power qualified to decide what mattered most. Only this paternal elite knew best what constituted the common good for lesser members of the community.

After the regrettable passage of a clearly unconstitutional law, the Sedition Act in 1798, Jefferson jumped into action against the Adams administration, authoring a tract titled the “Kentucky Resolution.” This position statement, submitted to the Kentucky Legislature, introduced the concept of ‘nullifying’ Federal law. The idea was simple. If a majority of delegates, assembled in special convention, renounced this Federal statute, the law was rendered null and void within the state.

For the first time, in one pivotal moment, Jefferson’s insidious principle found its way into the fabric of American politics, but found no traction in surrounding states . . . at least not yet.

Away from public scrutiny, Master Tom held sway over some 600 slaves, and fathered six children by his deceased wife’s half-sister—a slave—Sally Hemings. According to plantation records meticulously scribed by “the Sage,” himself, regular whippings, especially of young male slaves were scheduled, performed, and unquestioned. Jefferson understood slave labor required obedience, and obedience was assured only through violence. Apologists have argued that Jefferson felt troubled by such practices, and attempted to lay blame in the nation’s colonial past. Yet, he did nothing meaningful to end this tortuous practice, even when he could. Emancipation would have simply been his ruin.

And it is that legacy of deception–Jefferson’s cries for personal liberty versus the cries of the enslaved–that shaped his politics. The human nightmare Master Tom inflicted on his people laboring upon his lands was nobody’s business but his—and Jefferson’s aristocratic peers shared that same view.

Andrew Jackson interestingly enough didn’t care for Thomas Jefferson. As a young Congressman, then Senator from Tennessee, Jackson realized he couldn’t remain seated through all that talking and rules of procedure required in law making. Jefferson, in return, thought the brash young man a tad impetuous and well, nuts. But both planters did share in the same world view, “What happens on my plantation stays on my plantation.” Jackson too, was a ferocious master who answered to no law, but his own. A merchant in both horse and slave trading, Jackson dueled any who questioned his honor, supervised cotton production on his fiefdom (The Hermitage) and eradicated indigenous peoples on lands Jackson saw as better suited for more cotton production.

To Jackson’s credit he did not attempt any pretense of civic virtue, or learned philosophy.

When elected in 1828, President Jackson exercised a different style. “Old Hickory” governed very efficiently without any of the political nonsense of protocol or formality.

Even Supreme Court reverses proved no obstacle. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Cherokee Nation, et al, could remain on their ancestral lands in Georgia. Unimpressed by the judicial decision, Jackson cynically carried on ordering the military to remove the tribes from the state. The President knew the land in question was broad, and fertile; perfect for plantation crops. Plus gold discoveries in the same region put paid to the inevitable, accelerating a massive forced death march known as the Trail of Tears.

In another episode, Jackson, finding himself formally censured by the Senate (for vetoing the re-authorization of the Second Bank of the United States) used his considerable influence to have that rebuke expunged from the Congressional Record. His overly exaggerated sense of honor demanded that Jackson demand that this official insult be eradicated.

In a candid moment Jackson later confessed his only regrets as president was not hanging the Senator behind the censure.

Jackson injected a petty impetuosity to national politics unrivaled until today’s shenanigans. And though Jackson’s enemies christened him “King Andrew I,” his unilateral style did not derive from any monarchical notions. Rather, the President’s conduct came from his background. Jackson was accustomed to being obeyed—he was Master Andrew, a member of the planter class.

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 clarity, young Representative Calhoun once confessed that slavery was a “necessary evil,” vital to South Carolina’s prosperity. Over time he married a wealthy Charleston cousin, elevating his standing and political authority in Southern society. Calhoun began renovations on Fort Hill, a plantation in the uplands of South Carolina, which, with his new wife, cemented his bona fides as a member the ruling class. This ambitious politician had truly arrived, assuming the role of gentleman, influential political figure, and a prominent slave master. Much like Monticello, Fort Hill was an ever-expanding operation, endlessly improved using the same teams of slaves that tended his fields.

However, in a series of unforeseen reverses beginning in 1828, Calhoun’s political prospects declined.

This self-made politician-planter coveted the highest office in the land. Calhoun had served as Vice President under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and viewed his ascendency to the White House a natural next step. Yet circumstances played out beyond his control. These events aren’t exactly pertinent to this essay, but look them up. Interesting stuff.

Bitter, Calhoun resigned the vice presidency and returned to Fort Hill an angry man. His stance on slavery changed as well, leaving him vitriolic and defensive. Under increasing pressure from growing abolitionist criticism, Calhoun, speaking now for the entire South, adamantly insisted the institution was not evil, after all, but instead a ‘positive good.’

When a high import tariff was passed by Congress, Calhoun defiantly announced South Carolina would not collect this “Tariff of Abominations.” Moreover, the angry former Vice President organized a state convention to nullify (remember Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution?) the Federal law. With Calhoun’s newly minted militancy, the former Vice President defiantly stood his ground.

President Jackson did not suffer Calhoun’s impertinent challenge lightly. A another slave master, he bluntly threatened Calhoun in terms both “gentlemen” understood—the president personally guaranteed Calhoun’s thrashing. Fortunately this particular crisis was averted by cooler heads in Washington, postponing the curse of fraternal bloodshed for a later generation.

But the question of states’ rights, local control, and the sovereignty of the master class merely continued to boil. Nullification bloomed into full secession by 1861 after decades of discord. No longer did the planter class tolerate insults or challenges to their natural preeminence and power. South Carolina, (The deceased Calhoun’s home state) became the first of the eleven to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860. Delegates attending the state convention did not wait for the final electoral college results, to reject the victory of nationalist Abraham Lincoln as president. So enraged were these aristocratic lords, that Lincoln’s name did not appear on the ballot in most southern precincts.

I’ve added Confederate President Jefferson Davis to this piece because of his later role in perpetuating the genteel myth of the Southern aristocracy. After battles and bullets finally settled the supremacy of the Federal government, Davis, released from jail began a writing career. He penned first, 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 revisited the events leading to secession, briefly described in this essay.

Rehashing Constitutional debates from the Philadelphia convention, Davis insisted that the States existed before the Union, thus could leave whenever the Feds no longer acted on their behalf. Reiterating this view in both volumes, the defeated Secessionist defended the South’s righteous justification in standing up to tyranny. Davis repeatedly echoed the virtues of States’ Rights, nullification, and local political control. Sadly for our nation’s history, Jefferson Davis had not only the last word, but also the lasting spin on the creating the fictional myth of “The Lost Cause.” Oh, and this is significant—Jefferson Davis was a planter as well, the master of “Brierfield,” a plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi before the onset of war.

For this student of history, the bandying about of terms like “States Rights,” “nullification,” and “secession,” coupled with an unending vilification of the Federal Government gives me pause. This fanciful yarn was only concocted as an appealing cover for a legacy of hubris, power, greed, hate, racial exploitation, and violence.

This essay closes with no examination of the State’s Rights’ issue in the Twenty-first Century. Modern history most certainly has much to lend, especially regarding the Civil Rights Movement. The point of this effort, rather, is to shed light on an enduring political influence. This lot is not only vibrantly alive, but has left a tradition of chaos, intransigence, and gridlock. And this crowd has no intention to cooperate or compromise.

And I must confess when Representative Joe Wilson, a defoliant-resistant sprout from South Carolina shouted, “You Lie,” to President Obama, on the occasion of his first State of the Union address, my Nationalist-leaning blood froze. Though no longer permitted to inflict public whippings, or issue challenges to duels; the outraged indignation of America’s antebellum period roared across the House Chamber. On that cold, historic, January night in 2009, the master’s voice thundered once again.

Gail Chumbey is the author of River of January.

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