Chapter 13

The South and the Myth of the Garden

Although early settlements beyond the Alleghenies had originated in southern states--Virginia and North Carolina had provided many of the settlers of Kentucky and Tennessee--Southern hostility grew pronounced as the yeoman ideal came to preside over the agricultural settlement of the Mississippi valley. Even before the Constitutional Convention of 1787, representatives of the Middle States and New England had feared that the South would be greatly strengthened by the settlement of the trans-Allegheny; the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812 both helped to ally the South with the West against the North and East. This alliance--which nurtured the political careers of Andrew Jackson, Thomas Hart Benton, and Stephen Douglas--maintained political might into the 1850s.

The Webster-Hayne debate of 1829-30 had its roots in the Southern fear that a coalition of Northern and Western interests would soon surpass the strength of the South, and injure the position of New Orleans as the hub of western trade. Benton argued vehemently for the supremacy of the steamboat in commercial transportation and denounced a transcontinental railroad as impractical, not to say detrimental to New Orleans' economic position. In late 1845 John C. Calhoun argued that since the Western and Southern states occupied a single physiographic region--the Mississippi Valley and the Gulf Plains from the Atlantic to the Rio Grande--its prosperity depended on the utmost possible development of the river systems, and that Fulton's steamboat had in effect converted the Mississippi into an "inland sea." In a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution, Calhoun concluded that this status qualified the region for federal aid (money which would have sustained river commerce). His proposal failed. Ultimately, the south's reluctance to build railways prevented it from establishing a strong commercial connection with the burgeoning Northwest, and when the Civil War began the Northwest allied itself with the Union forces.

Many articles in DeBow's Review, a New Orleans periodical established in 1846, enthusiastically supported Manifest Destiny but gradually realized, as well, that ideas of the course of empire and the impending dominance of the West were implicitly free-soil. Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas was one observer who realized that the hero of expansionism was the independent yeoman of the Western agrarian tradition. The literature of the South, filled with aristocratic masters, honeyed heroines, devoted slaves and steeped in the tradition of pastoral and feudal romance, reached full flower in the writing of John Esten Cooke in the mid- 1850s. But writers like Cooke and John P. Kennedy and DeBow had no imaginative symbol with which to combat the vital yeoman farmer and could only appeal to the harmonious social relations of a superannuated feudal society. Politically, during the 1830s and 40s the annexation of Texas came to represent the expansion of the plantation system. Robert J. Walker of Mississippi claimed in 1844 that the annexation of Texas would provide a "safety valve" through which to siphon off the Negro population from the older Southern states and ultimately bring about the disappearance of slavery into the the regions of Mexico and South America. Walker's intriguing but unconvincing rhetoric was surpassed by another deeply imaginative Southern expansionist dream. The Ostend Manifesto of 1854 demanded that the government of Spain sell Cuba to the U. S. as the first step toward a sprawling plantation system in South America. The Southern conception of a tropical Amazonian empire worked by African slaves and controlling the trade of the Pacific stands in obvious contrast with the ideals of the yeoman farmer and the garden of the world that informed Northwest expansion.

Chapter 14