". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Old Virginia Gentleman & Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War

I've been going through some of the works of household name antebellum writers, who were beloved in their own country, particularly those from Virginia and South Carolina.  Many of them continued writing after the War, particularly if they managed to move north, as so many did do, from W. D. B. DeBow and Sidney Lanier to Mary Chesnut  (who was the only one who didn't believe in either the war or slavery -- at least in the final, published version of her splendid Civil War Diaries).

It's fascinating to see the appalling matters that we've been studying for so many years through the perspective of those who were and remained pro-slavery as naturally as they breathed.  They were as instrumental in making secession and the war as the plantation power and the politicians (sometimes they were politicians as well -- or even ministers). As well as interesting and informing, reading these works is -- frightening. *

The fright comes from what isn't in these works -- what they ignore, what they don't see, what they pretend didn't exist, supremely at odds with what really did happen, how things really were -- the determination to never mention these things in polite company.  They cannot comprehend any of it from the perspective of the enslaved -- nothing else demonstrates so bluntly how the enslaves millions of human beings, to these people,  were not human beings at all. Even today, you read works written by Southern writers which elides the perspective of events and conditions from the point of view of the enslaved still as naturally as breathing.  The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume I 1514-1861 published by the USC press in 1996 is an excellent example.

The author explains that it was clear that South Carolina had seceded by 1851. It was the controversy over Kansas - Nebraska and California wanting to be free states – that 1850 battle in the Senate we call the Great Compromise of 1850, or the Great American Debate was the cause. That these territories were to be, by their own choice as well as earlier Compromises and Decisions, allowed to be free states was ingratitude on the part of the north, to a people who had lost so many of her sons in the Mexican war.  This is why South Carolina sent so many of her young men to Missouri to fight in Kansas for to make the state a slave state, because it was their right .Not a word is given to the fact that the Mexican War was also made by them because they wished to expand the territory of slavery for their benefit. Yet in the run-up to the War in the 1840's it was no secret to the rest of the nation, and itt objected. One of them was  Ulysses S. Grant, which he describes in his Memoirs, as he was one of the many in the professional army who felt utter disgust that they were being used for the powerful interests of the slaveholding elite.

The author also flatly states at the end of this volume, which concludes with the Union army's occupation of the Sea Islands and the escape to freedom by their slaves that the plantation owners never get their property returned to them, and they were never compensated, as were the plantation owners in Jamaica. It is the land, the houses and what they contained, he seems to be speaking of.  But all the museums in the region make it clear that all these powerful men did return after the war and take back their plantations.  So -- it must be their slaves, right?  But the author's not saying so!

In one of the many nostalgic paeans written after the war to life in Virginia before the war, in "The Old Virginia Gentleman," George William Bagby blithely writes:
If the house, the barn, the fields were alive, so also were the woods. There the axe was ever plying. Timber to cut for cabins (the negroes increased so fast), for tobacco houses and for fuel, new ground to clear, etc., etc.
Thomas Nelson Page (b. 1853) tells us in Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War:
The mansion was a plain "weatherboard" house, one story and a half above the half-basement ground floor, set on a hill in a grove of primeval oaks and hickories filled in with ash, maples, and feathery-leafed locusts without number. It was built of timber cut by the "servants " (they were never termed slaves except in legal documents) out of the virgin forest, not long after the Revolution, when that branch of the family moved from Yorktown.
Well, that's all right then, since the fact that the servants are slaves is merely a legal matter.

The authors of both these sketches give a fair number of words to the number of young men on the plantations who were part of what made that life so charming, amusing and interesting: sons, cousins, nephews, friends, etc.. They both inform us that these young men sleep apart from the people in the Big House, in an outbuilding that in Virginia was called 'the office' (in Louisiana it was called 'the garconer'). It's impossible for the reader not to connect the number of young men on the place and "the fast increase of the negroes" isn't it -- yet it never enters either authors' head!  Nor more does it enter their heads that the sale of this 'increase of negroes' to the younger southern states is what supported these plantations in Virginia and South Carolina,  and that it was the servants being slaves 'only legally' made this possible.

Yet -- in "The Old Virginia Gentleman" Bagby tells us that in 'the office' the young men's talk is profane and lewd, filled with stories of what they don't allow their sacred mothers to know they get up to ....

Always the victim, the South saw itself, even from before Independence, and ever after.  Living a despot's life makes it impossible to even comprehend compromise, negotiation or that you can be thwarted in anything you decree. You give orders and it is done and that is that. The entire natural order of the universe is destroyed when anyone disagrees with you, for you, like God, cannot ever be wrong about anything.
* As these three examples show, Southerners didn't 'get it' any better after the oceans of blood than they did before -- not even by the end of the 20th century.

This supports my sense that the New Secession is coming, probably within the next ten years, particularly if there's another Democrat in the Oval Office during that period.  It will probably be Texas first, with Arizona as First Companion.  Texas has always considered itself more a Republic than a state.  With so much of the global Big Oil Bidness, with off-shoring of banking and so many enthusiastic private militias, it doesn't need the U.S. for anything.

That was why South Carolina's secessionist movement began so early after Independence. They signed and ratified the Constitution because they the needed the U.S. federal power to fight Spain for them in Florida -- to where slaves ran to freedom out of South Carolina since the 1600's, and to fight the Indians, with whom the maroons and Spanish allied, first against the British, and then the U.S.  But once Andy Jackson destroyed the Indians or removed them, and the Floridas became part of the slave owning Southern U.S. economic system, South Carolina had no more use for a gummit that included any other state that wasn't interested in the expansion of slavery as institution and as territory.

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