THE DREAM OF A GREEK DEMOCRACY
The pronounced drift of southern thought, in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, towards the ideal of the Greek democracy, has been too carelessly forgotten by later times. It was no vagrant eddy but a broadening current of tendency. In its blend of romanticism and realism it fitted exactly the temper of the plantation mind, imparting a fine idealism to shiftless realities and setting a generous goal to be achieved by somewhat inadequate agencies. A humane and cultivated democracy, set free from the narrow exactions of economics to engage in the higher work of civilization, was a conception worthy of the generous southern mind, a conception that does not suffer by contrast with the northern dream of an exploitative industrialism. That it was an impossible dream not does lessen its significance as an expression of the best southern aspiration in the days when slavery was on the defensive.It is plain enough now that this drift of thought resulted from the need of clarifying the logic of the situation, by bringing into harmony two seemingly irreconcilable facts, the system of negro slavery and the rising spirit of white democracy. The feudal principle, which lurks in the background of all slave systems and which was peculiarly congenial to the plantation temper, was confronted on every side by the stubborn democracy of the yeomanry. A hundred miles beyond Charleston the feudal spirit encountered the leveling individualism of the frontier; and this passion for equality, that grew fiercer with every remove westward, was a stumbling-block in the way of the planter aristocracy. Caught thus between the two forces of a Jeffersonian democracy and a slave economy, southern thought found in the Greek ideal the most natural compromise. Since manual labor was black, a white skin was a guarantee against serfdom, and the common race prejudice was accounted sufficient to draw even the poor whites to the support of slavery. The sharp cleavage between the races provided the basis for the conception of a common white democracy of the master class, every member of which shared in the supremacy of the race and was free to enjoy the profits of negro exploitation. The enterprising small farmer might rise to be a gentlemanly planter, providing his children with leisure to fit themselves for citizenship in the commonwealth and assist in the great work of creating a southern civilization. The Greek ideal, in short, met the double need of southern economics and southern prejudices, and made its appeal even to the frontier spirit of equalitarianism. A native growth and rooted deep in southern realities, the new conception emerged in response to the changing times. It may be considered the plantation counterpart of northern industrialism, marking the reaction of the southern mind to the economic revolution in western civilization. With their diverse economics, North and South were facing in different directions, and the Greek ideal was as natural in Charleston as industrial feudalism was natural in Lowell. Created in part as an ingenious measure of defense, it provided an excellent counter offensive against alien critics by turning the light of inquiry upon the bases of capitalism and thrusting upon the attention of godly Puritans the dependence of culture upon exploitation. The new industrialism was creating a new philosophy of labor, and this philosophy the southern apologists seized upon and turned to their special ends. They accepted certain of the capitalistic premises, but they interpreted those premises in a spirit of drastic realism, deducing conclusions disconcerting to the apologists of industrialism. In defending the plantation system they attacked the factory system; in upholding black slavery they attacked wage slavery; and in this game of the pot and the kettle the exploitative root of both systems was nakedly exposed. The major premise of the new southern philosophy was identical with that of northern capitalism, namely, that every civilization rests on labor exploitation. However quaintly they might embroider this fact with romantic patterns, they saw it clearly and deduced from it the conclusion that the North was indulging in a vicious fallacy in confusing wage labor with free labor. In every industrialized society, they pointed out, free labor is an anachronism; where it exists it is a hold-over from a simpler social order. The development of industrialism tends to draw all labor into its capacious maw, and the labor surplus that results from evicting the peasant from the land creates a competitive labor market that speedily reduces the laborer to the status of a wage-slave. Since slavery, then, in some form is the inevitable counterpart of modern civilization, the question that presses on the conscience of every enlightened and generous observer is the question of the relative well-being of the slave under the different systems. Upon this question the southern apologists turned their shrewdest analysis. They examined the condition of the proletariat in the English mill towns; they commented on the callous exploitation of the textile workers in Massachusetts; they assessed the waste in the labor turnover under the factory system; they considered the seeds of class war sown by industrialism and pointed out the insecurity of society under a system of capitalistic irresponsibility. In their estimate of the social evils of industrialism they concurred in the findings of Carlyle and antedated much of the criticism of Ruskin. The huge mass of unpalatable fact which they uncovered was the same mass that inspired George Ripley and Albert Brisbane and Horace Greeley to seek a way out by the path of cooperative commonwealths. But in the hands of these apologists the argument was turned to the narrower end of proving that the southern field-hand fared better than the northern mill-hand. They recognized both systems as capitalistic, established in labor exploitation; but they proved to their own satisfaction that the southern was far humaner, more truly social. In the South, they pointed out, there was no waste in the labor turnover, no ugly labor scrap-heap, no ruthless efficiency in using up the human material. The master was responsible to society for the treatment and conduct of his slaves, and the southern conscience was far tenderer in the matter than the northern. The workers were never troubled by uncertain means of subsistence. The young were free from care, the old and infirm were adequately provided for. Living conditions were commonly pleasant, and the personal relations between master and slave kindly and loyal. When every argument against slavery had been urged it still remained true that the patriarchal tie that existed on the plantation was more humane than the cash-nexus of capitalism. In this fundamental matter Carlyle was right; and right also in his insistence on the need of capable masters. The South was fortunate in its system. On the self-sufficient plantations there was many an Abbot Sampson directing his little world wisely and humanely; collectively these Abbot Sampsons formed a capable and socially responsible ruling class worthy of their trust. The economic returns of a wage-slave industrialism might be greater, but the returns in civilization were far less. 1 Such, in brief, was the reaction of the southern mind in the early fifties to the challenge of an industrializing generation. It was not till the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1851 that southern apologists were fully aroused to the need of counter propaganda. They had been moving slowly towards the conception of a Greek democracy under the leadership of Calhoun, but now under the sharp prod of Abolitionism they turned militant. Facts were collected and arguments clarified, and the war was carried home to New England. In three years following Uncle Tom, according to a recent student, fourteen pro-slavery novels appeared together with other matter. 2 Much of the material made use of in these stories was conveniently assembled in a work entitled Pro-Slavery Argument, published in 1852, a collaboration by Professor Dew of William and Mary College, Chancellor Harper of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, Governor Hammond of South Carolina, and Gilmore Simms. The first reviewed the Scriptural authority for slavery; Chancellor Harper drew from Hobbes the familiar argument that "a state of nature is a state of war"; Simms elaborated the patriarchal theory; but Governor Hammond developed the more significant argument of the degradation of the wage-slave, an argument elaborated at considerable length in another work entitled Letters on Slavery, in which he presented the results of his investigation of English factory conditions. The novels that Miss Tandy comments upon have been pretty much forgotten, but the titles of some of them sufficiently reveal the lines of attack. L. B. Chase's English Serfdom and American Slavery (1854), J. W. Page's Uncle Robin in His Cabin in Virginia and Tom without One in Boston (1855), and S. H. Elliott's New England Chattels (1858) quite evidently reflect the new southern philosophy. If the South were attacked, it was not without weapons to defend itself.
II WILLIAM J. GRAYSONOf this very considerable literature of defense, The Hireling and the Slave presents in convenient compass the most telling southern arguments, and reveals in its sharp contrast of realism and romanticism the common southern temper. Its author, William J. Grayson, was a cultivated South Carolinian who had served two terms in Congress and for years was collector of the Port of Charleston. He was widely read, was familiar with contemporary English writers on economics, and possessed a fluent pen. He had published "an elaborate heroic poem entitled The Country," in which he had sung "the praises of rural life and agricultural pursuits" (Introduction to Grayson's Life of James L. Petigru), and a volume entitled Chicora and other Poems, the title work of which was a romantic poem celebrating the primitive virtues of the Indian. Politically he was affiliated with the anti-Calhoun party of Unionists. His closest friend was James L. Petigru, a sketch of whose life he wrote as a last labor of love, during the unhappy days of the Charleston siege. He did not go so far as Petigru in refusing to have any part in a war that he opposed, but the tragedy of it cut him to the quick. He was no Fire Eater, but a southern moderate - a gentleman of old-fashioned tastes whose views may be taken as those of the cultivated Charleston group to which he belonged, of Petigru, of Legaré, of Alfred Huger. The Hireling and the Slave, published in 1856 when Grayson was sixty-eight and dedicated to Petigru, is a poem in heroic couplets of approximately 1600 lines, divided into two parts. The first part draws a realistic picture of the life of the wage-slave, the second paints an idyllic picture of the life of the bond-slave. In this second part the spirit of romance holds high carnival; the descriptions are done with gusto and the rural pleasures that fall to the lot of the negro provide a striking contrast to the mean environment of the factory worker. About this contrast are grouped the lesser arguments: the hypocrisy of the Yankee Abolitionist, the sentimentalism of English humanitarians, the wisdom of providence in providing masters to protect the negro from destruction by a superior race and train him through apprenticeship in slavery to carry the blessings of civilization to Africa. The heroic couplet was deliberately adopted to offer "some variety to the poetic forms that are almost universally prevalent." "The poetry of the day is, for the most part," Grayson remarked, "subtile and transcendental in its character"; yet "the school of Dryden and Pope is not entirely forgotten," and "the most fastidious appetite may tolerate an occasional change of diet, and exchange dainties now and then for plainer fare" (The Hireling and the Slave, Preface, pp. xiv-xv). The poem seems to have been popular in the South, and a southern reviewer declared that "it ought to be on every man's mantel" (Life of James L. Petigru, p. vii). In the preface Grayson discusses the subject of slavery with a candor somewhat unusual, acknowledging its evils, yet discovering compensations. As an expression of intelligent southern opinion on a question in which the passions of the country were becoming deeply engaged, his views deserve quotation. Slavery, he says, . . . is that system of labor which exchanges subsistence for work, which secures a life-maintenance from the master to the slave, and gives a life-labor from the slave to the master. The slave is an apprentice for life, and owes his labor to his master; the master owes support, during life, to the slave. Slavery is the Negro system of work. He is lazy and improvident. Slavery makes all work, and it insures homes, food, and clothing for all. It permits no idleness, and it provides for sickness, in fancy, and old age. It allows no tramping or skulking, and it knows no pauperism. This is the whole system substantially. All cruelty is an abuse; does not belong to the institution; is now punished, and may be in time prevented. The abuses of slavery are as open to all reforming influences as those of any civil, social, or political condition. The improvement in the treatment of the slave is as marked as in that of any other laboring class in the world. . . . If slavery is subject to abuses, it has its advantages also. It establishes more permanent, and, therefore, kinder relations between capital and labor. It removes what Stuart Mill calls `the widening and embittering feud between the class of labor and the class of capital.' It draws the relation closer between master and servant. It is not an engagement for days or weeks, but for life. There is no such thing with slavery as a laborer for whom nobody cares or provides. The most wretched feature in hireling labor is the isolated, miserable creature who has no home, no food, and in whom no one is particularly interested. This is seen among hirelings only. (Ibid., Preface, pp. vii-viii.) The principle on which Grayson bases his argument is the principle that civilization rests on labor exploitation, but as a good churchman he attributes the evil to God and discovers the children of Adam to be suffering from the primeval curse - "Slave, hireling, help-the curse pursues him still." More specifically the thesis which he defends is this, "The state of the hireling and the slave [is] the same substantially-the condition hard labor, the reward subsistence;" and the conclusion which he draws is that the slave obtains a larger return for his labor than the factory hand. The picture he paints of the condition of the wage slave of England is Hogarthian in its details:
There, unconcerned, the philanthropic eye Beholds each phase of human misery; Sees the worn child compelled in mines to slave Through narrow seams of coal, a living grave, Driven from the breezy hill, the sunny glade, By ruthless hearts, the drudge of labor made, Unknown the boyish sport, the hours of play, Stripped of the common boon, the light of day, Harnessed like brutes, like brutes to tug, and strain, And drag, on hands and knees, the loaded wain: There crammed in huts, in reeking masses thrown, All moral sense and decency unknown, With no restraint but what the felon knows, With the sole joy that beer or gin bestows, To gross excess and brutalizing strife, The drunken hireling dedicates his life: Starved else, by infamy's sad wages fed, There women prostitute themselves for bread, And mothers, rioting with savage glee, For murder'd infants spend the funeral fee; Childhood bestows no childish sports or toys, Age neither reverence nor repose enjoys, Labor with hunger wages ceaseless strife, And want and suffering only end with life; In crowded huts contagious ills prevail, Dull typhus lurks, and deadlier plagues assail, Gaunt Famine prowls around his pauper prey, And daily sweeps his ghastly hosts away; Unburied Gorses taint the summer air, And crime and outrage revel with despair. (Ibid., pp. 24-25.)Grayson does not stint his facts but traces the wretchedness of the wage-slave through all the phases of his misery to provide a background for the happier lot of the bond-slave. It is an unlovely picture, done with considerable vigor, from which one turns gladly to contemplate life on the southern plantation.
And yet the life, so unassailed by care, So blessed with moderate work, with ample fare, With all the good the starving pauper needs, The happier slave on each plantation leads; Safe from harassing doubts and annual fears, He dreads no famine in unfruitful years; If harvests fail from inauspicious skies, The master's providence his food supplies; No paupers perish here for want of bread, Or lingering live, by foreign bounty fed; No exiled trains of homeless peasants go, In distant climes, to tell their tales of woe: Far other fortune, free from care and strife, For work, or bread, attends the Negro's life, And Christian slaves may challenge as their own, The blessings claimed in fabled states alone The cabin home, not comfortless, though rude, Light daily labor, and abundant food, The sturdy health that temperate habits yield, The cheerful song that rings in every field, The long, loud laugh, that freemen seldom share, Heaven's boon to bosoms unapproached by care, And boisterous jest and humor unrefined, That leave, though rough, no painful sting behind; While, nestling near, to bless their humble lot, Warm social joys surround the Negro's cot, The evening dance its merriment imparts, Love, with its rapture, fills their youthful hearts, And placid age, the task of labor done, Enjoys the summer shade, the winter sun, And, as through life no pauper want he knows, Laments no poor-house penance at its close. (Ibid., pp. 50-51.)Convinced of the righteousness and humanity of slavery Grayson turns with scorn upon the Abolitionists and their meddlesome interference with the beneficent ways of Providence. With a few dexterous turns of the spit he browns each one nicely like a roasted goose. His descriptions strip off the gay plumage and reveal the naked fowl. He makes a good job of it, as witness these bits:
There supple Sumner, with the Negro cause, Plays the sly game for office and applause; What boots it if the Negro sink or swim? He wins the Senate - 'tis enough for him. . . . He heeds nor court's decree nor Gospel light, What Sumner thinks is right alone is right. . . . There Greeley, grieving at a brother's woe, Spits with impartial spite on friend and foe. . . . To each fanatical delusion prone, He damns all creeds and parties but his own, Brawls, with hot zeal, for every fool and knave, The foreign felon and the skulking slave; . . . And faction's fiercest rabble always find A kindred nature in the Tribune's mind; Ready each furious impulse to obey, He raves and ravens like a beast of prey. . . . There Seward smiles the sweet perennial smile, Skilled in the tricks of subtlety and guile; The slyest schemer that the world e'er saw; Peddler of sentiment and patent law; Ready for fee or faction to display His skill in either, if the practice pay. . . . (Ibid., pp. 38 - 40.)As he contemplates Mrs. Stowe his full wrath is stirred. He does not spare her sex. Southern chivalry serves the pure and good in lovely woman, not the malignant and selfish. An unsexed woman is hateful to it, and after extolling the true womanliness of Florence Nightingale, angel of mercy, Grayson pays his compliments to the Yankee propagandist thus:
Not such with Stowe, the wish or power to please, She finds no joy in gentle deeds like these; A moral scavenger, with greedy eye, In social ills her coarser labors lie; On fields where vice eludes the light of day, She hunts up crimes as beagles hunt their prey; Gleans every dirty nook-the felon's jail, And hangman's mem'ry, for detraction's tale, Snuffs up pollution with a pious air, Collects a rumor here, a slander there; With hatred's ardor gathers Newgate spoils, And trades for gold the garbage of her toils. In sink and sewer thus, with searching eye, Through mud and slime unhappy wretches pry; In fetid puddles dabble with delight, Search every filthy gathering of the night; Fish from its depths, and to the spacious bag Convey with care the black, polluted rag; With reeking waifs secure the nightly bed, And turn their noisome stores to daily bread. (Ibid., pp. 42 - 43.)The Hireling and the Slave, is vigorous propaganda, carefully documented and pointed with modern instances, the work of an intelligent and humane writer who might be blind to certain evils in slavery but whose eyes were open to the social ills that grew rankly in the muck of industrialism. Outside of the South few in America had as yet come to understand so much -- a handful of New En gland idealists, Parker and William Henry Channing and Emerson and Wendell Phillips, and Orestes Brownson, and a handful of Utopians, Albert Brisbane and George Ripley and Horace Greeley. The inadequacy of southern thought was identical with that of northern: blinded by sectional economic interests, they saw only half the truth. They beheld the mote in a brother's eye, but considered not the beam that was in their own.
1 The same argument was made use of by northern supporters of slavery. Gordon Bennett's New York Herald, for example, "printed a description of slum life in Liverpool, remarking that compared with the English laborer, `the slave lived like a prince.' He had his cabin, neat, clean, and weather-proof: he had his own garden patch, over which he was lord paramount; he was well fed, well lodged, well clothed, and rarely over-worked; sleek, happy, contented, enjoying his many holidays with gusto, he lived to a great age" (quoted in Allan Nevins, The Evening Post: .4 Century of Journalism, p. 271).2 See Jeannette Red Tandy, "Pro-Slavery Propaganda in American Fiction in the Fifties,' South Atlantic Quarterly, January-March, 1922. See also Francis Pendleton Gaines, The Southern Plantation, Chapter III.