Beginning in the 1830s, the South developed a new and aggressive sense of “nationalism” that was rooted in its sense of distinctiveness and its perception that it was ringed by enemies. The South began to conceive of itself more and more as the true custodian of America’s revolutionary heritage. Southern travelers who ventured into the North regarded it as a “strange and distant land” and expressed disgust about its vice-ridden cities and its grasping materialism.
At the same time, southern intellectuals began to defend slavery as a positive factor. After 1830, white Southerners stopped referring to slavery as a necessary evil. Instead, they argued that it was a beneficial institution that created a hierarchical society superior to the leveling democracy of the North. By the late 1840s, a new and more explicitly racist rationale for slavery had emerged.
With the emergence of militant abolitionism in the North, sharpened by slave uprisings in Jamaica and Southampton County, Virginia, the South began to see itself as surrounded by enemies. Southern leaders responded aggressively. On the Senate floor in 1837, John C. Calhoun pronounced slavery “a good--a positive good” and set the tone for future southern proslavery arguments. Before the 1830s, southern statements on slavery had been defensive; afterward, they were defiant.
In the 1840s, a growing number of southern ministers, journalists, and politicians began to denounce the North’s form of capitalism as “wage slavery.” The condition of free labor, they argued, was actually “worse than slavery,” because slaveholders, unlike greedy northern employers, provide for their employees “when most needed, when sickness or old age has overtaken [them].” Northern workers, they declared, were simply “slaves without masters.”
During the 1840s, more and more Southerners defended slavery on explicitly racial grounds. In doing so, they drew on new pseudoscientific theories of racial inferiority. Some of these theories came from Europe, which was seeking justification of imperial expansion over nonwhite peoples in Africa and Asia. Other racist ideas were drawn from northern scientists, who employed an elaborate theory of “polygenesis,” which claimed that Africans and whites were separate species.
Seeking to free their region from cultural, economic, and religious dependence on the North, southern “nationalists” sought to promote southern economic self-sufficiency, to create southern-oriented educational and religious institutions, and to develop a distinctive southern literature. Beginning in 1837, southern leaders held the first of a series of commercial conventions in an attempt to diversify the southern economy and to rescue the South from northern “pecuniary and commercial supremacy.”
Efforts to develop the southern economy were surprisingly successful. Southern railroad mileage quadrupled between 1850 and 1860--although southern track mileage still trailed that of the free states by 14,000. By 1860 Richmond manufactured more tobacco than any other America city and exported more goods to South America than any other American port, including New York.
Other southern nationalists strove to create southern-oriented educational institutions to protect the young from, in Jefferson’s words, “imbibing opinions and principles in discord” with those of the South. Schoolbooks, declared one southern magazine, “have slurs and innuendoes at slavery; the geographies are more particular in stating the resources of the Northern States; the histories almost ignore the South; the arithmetics contain in their examples reflections upon the Southern states.”
The struggle for independent southern colleges achieved considerable success. By 1860 Virginia had 23 colleges and Georgia had 32, while New York had 17 colleges and Massachusetts just 8. In 1856 the University of Virginia had 558 students, compared to only 361 at Harvard.
Regional independence was also called for in religion. Due in large part to fear of antislavery agitation, southern Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians sought to sever their denominational affiliations with northern churches. In the early 2000s, only the Baptists remain divided.
Southerners also called for a distinctive and peculiarly southern literature. More than 30 periodicals were founded with the word “Southern” in their title, all intended to “breathe a Southern spirit, and sustain a strictly Southern character.” Authors such as Nathaniel Beverly Tucker and William Gilmore Simms called on the South to write on southern themes and to overcome the taunts of “Englishmen and Northernmen” that they were intellectually inferior.
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