The South and the Myth of the Garden

By the 1850's the South had become actively hostile to the yeoman ideal which had been developed as a rationale of agricultural settlement in the Mississippi Valley. But this break with the Northwest came only after a long struggle on the part of Southern leaders to maintain economic and political ties with all the interior basin.

The first advance beyond the Alleghenies, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, had been decidedly Southern in coloring. Virginia and North Carolina had been the bases for the settlement of Kentucky and Tennessee. Even the earliest Anglo American penetration north of the Ohio, in the wake of George Rogers Clark's expedition during the Revolution, was largely a Southern venture. The history of Western exploration is filled with Southern names, from Boone and Lewis and Clark to James Clyman of Virginia and John Charles Fremont of South Carolina. Through Jefferson, Virginia had provided the geographical in sight and the strategic planning for the first half century of westward advance. So marked was the Southern dominance of this process that as late as 1846 the Pennsylvanian William Gilpin could, to be sure with an element of exaggeration, ascribe the entire impulse to the South. "The progeny of Jamestown," he declared, "has given to the Union twelve great agricultural States; has created that mighty production and generating capacity on which are based the grand power and prosperity of the Nation." Among Southern accomplishments he listed not only the settlement of Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and the Southwest, but


also that of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa.l Even after the Civil War Whitman declared in his poem "VirginiaThe West" that Virginia had given to the nation the stalwart giant of the West whose plenteous offspring had put on uniforms of blue and preserved the Union against the rebellious Confederacy.2

The association between South and West had been reflected in national politics. Many representatives of the Middle States and New England had feared from the beginning that the development of the transAllegheny would unduly strengthen the South. In August, 1786 James Monroe wrote to Patrick Henry from New York, where Congress was sitting, that the Northerners meant to break up the settlements on the western waters in order to "keep the States southward as they now are." 3 In the Constitutional Convention of 1787 Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania proposed inserting into the Constitution a provision "That the number of representatives in the first branch from the States here after to be established shall not exceed the representatives from the States already confederated." 4 Delegates to the Convention regarded this proposal as a clear test of strength between North and South. It was rejected by the close vote of four states to five, with Pennsylvania divided. The states favoring the measure were Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland ( which, having no claim to Western territory, was jealous of Virginia). Those opposing it were New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina South Carolina, and Georgia.5

During the next twenty years the alignment of South and West against North and East persisted through a series of crises of which the most spectacular arose from Federalist opposition to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and to the War of 1812, especially in its Western phase. As Benton picturesquely summarized the attitude of New England Federalists, the cry was, "The Potomac the boundary; the negro States by themselves! The Alleghenies the boundary, the western savages by themselves! The Mississippi the boundary, let Missouri be governed by a Prefect, or given up as a haunt for wild beasts!" 6 The alliance of West and South continued into the 1850's as a political force to be reckoned with. It was the basis of the careers of Jackson Benton, Douglas, and other Democratic leaders: and even after


the Northwest had been won for the Republican Party in the election of 1860, Western sympathy with the South found expression in the powerful Copperhead movement of disaffection during the Civil War. But the changes in the structure of American society recorded in the Republican victory of 1860 had begun soon after the War of 1812. Although the introduction of steam boats on the western waters for a time strengthened the sway of New Orleans throughout the Mississippi Valley, the Erie Canal, steam transportation through the Great Lakes, and the eastwest trunk line railways eventually tied the Northwest to New York rather than to the Gulf of Mexico.

The changes which had begun to take place in the relations among the sections were fully explored in the famous Webster- Hayne debate of 1829-1830, noted in the history books for its bearing on constitutional theory, but originating in a Southern bid for Western support. The doctrine of nullification which Hayne, acting as the mouthpiece for Calhoun, announced in the course of this debate, and which South Carolina put into effect two years later in its declaration that the tariff of 1832 would not be enforced in ports of the state, expressed the Southern fear that a coalition of North and West would soon outweigh the strength of the South within the Union. From this time on the South wavered between two strategies. One was to surrender its longstanding but now weakening dominance of the West and fall back on constitutional minority rights. The other was to try to regain control of the West through development of trade routes from the south Atlantic coast to the Ohio Valley. Southern spokesmen in Congress resisted federal aid in the construction of canals and other means of bringing the Northwest and New England closer together, and tried to protect the position of New Orleans as queen of the trade on the western waters.

Benton stated the doctrine underlying such efforts: ". . . every canal, and every road, tending to draw the commerce of the Western States across the Allegheny mountains, is an injury to the people of the West." His desire for a continued economic alliance of South and West clouded his vision of the impending revolution in transport. Here, as in his discussion of a trans continental trade route, he insisted that the steamboat would


always outweigh the railway in importance. The bulky products of Western farms and packing houses would continue to make their way to market downstream through New Orleans. "As to the idea of sending the products of the West across the Alleghenies, it is the conception of insanity itself No rail roads or canals will ever carry them, not even if they do it gratis" Commercial routes from East to West could be useful only for carrying manufactured goods of relatively small bulk. If Westerners bought these goods they endangered their own market at New Orleans; for New Orleans could not buy if she were not allowed to sell. Besides, decline of the trade with New Orleans threatened to destroy the immensely important steamboat system of the West, which already, in 1829, had grown to three hundred thousand tons.7

The desire to strengthen economic ties with the West ac counts for one of the strangest moments in the career of Calhoun, arch-champion of the strict construction of the Constitution which most Southerners believed forbade federal aid for internal improvements. Having reluctantly accepted an invitation to attend the Memphis Commercial Convention of November, 1845,8 Calhoun

was elected president of the meeting and delivered the opening address. This discourse shows what a strong attraction was being exerted by the West on Southern constitutional theory. Calhoun begins with the assumption that the Western and the Southern states occupy a single physiographic region, consisting of the Mississippi Valley and the Gulf Plains from the Atlantic to the Rio Grande a patent translation of political desire into geographical terms. He dwells on the need for free and ready transit for persons and merchandise among the various portions of this vast region of the world. Integration of the South with the West obviously depended upon the utmost possible development of the river systems, especially of the Mississippi, whose current drew the produce of every part of the valley to the Southern metropolis of New Orleans.9

The crucial importance to the South of maintaining this commercial connection along the channels of the inland waterways demanded every effort to foster navigation, including federal appropriations to remove snags, dredge channels, install lighthouses, 149 and so on. Calhoun Democrats had opposed such appropriations for twenty years as unconstitutional. But before an astonished and delighted audience Calhoun himself now proceeded to per form the mental gymnastics necessary to reach the conclusion "that the invention of Fulton has in reality, for all practical purposes, converted the Mississippi, with all its great tributaries, into an inland sea. Regarding it as such," he continued, "I am prepared to place it on the same footing with the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, and the Lakes, in reference to the superintendent of the General Government over its navigation''10 Indeed, under the influence of this new exaltation, Calhoun even found himself celebrating the passage to India. In words that might almost have come from the lips of William Gilpin he announced in conclusion: you occupy a region possessing advantages above all others on the globe, of the same extent, not only for its fertility, its diversity of cli mate and production, but in its geographical position; lying midway between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, in less than one generation, should the Union continue, and I hope it may be perpetual, you will be engaged in deliberations to extend your connection with the Pacific, as you now are with the Atlantic; and will ultimately be almost as intimately connected with the one as the other. In the end, you will command the commerce . . . of the world, as well as that of our great Union, if we preserve our liberty and free popular institutions.ll But Calhoun's effort was in vain. The South failed in the end to maintain its hold on the developing Northwest, and the failure was a turning point in American history. When the break between North and South came in 1860, the Northwest went with the Union. The weakening of the South's hold on the area north of the Ohio can be traced in the history of the now familiar symbols which expressed the ultimate purposes of the two sections. The richest vein of Southern materials bearing on this subject is the file of DeBow's Review, established in New Orleans in 1846 and devoted to the promotion of commercial relations between the South and the West along the lines endorsed by the Memphis Convention. DeBow and his contributors constantly urged the development of trade routes connecting New Orleans with the upper Mississippi Valley. They warned the South of the ominous increase in trade from the Great Lakes through the Erie Canal.l2


They urged New Orleans to waken from her complacent reliance on the Mississippi and build railways.l3 In accordance with the geographical conception advanced by Calhoun, which regarded the South and the Mississippi Valley as forming one region, DeBow celebrated the progress of the Great West as enthusiastically

as Benton himself.14 This policy led him to publish con contributions from Western spokesmen developing the theme of the garden of the world. As late as 1858 DeBow included in his Review two characteristic essays by William Gilpin.l5 He also published articles by Jessup W. Scott of Ohio, who had long been a contributor to Hunt's Merchant's Magazine of New York on the development of the West. Scott, who will come up for fuller discussion in another connection, elaborated for DeBow's readers the familiar ideas of manifest destiny, predicting that the Star of Empire would "shine for ages and ages from the zenith on our central plain." 16 DeBow's commitment to the theme of Western progress which implied national unity if it was to benefit the South, early came into conflict with his enthusiastic support of slavery. As early as 1851 he was speaking of secession as a step the South might have to take if Northern attacks continued.l7 Southern leaders were eventually forced to recognize that the notions of the course of empire and of the coming dominance of the West were implicitly freesoil. By 1860 Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas could put this awareness into words in an attack on Andrew Johnson's expansionism:

The Senator from Tennessee [declared Wigfall] supposes that we have a sort of blatherskiting Americanism that is going to spread over the whole continent, and cross the Pacific, and take in the Sandwich Islands; and that, in the area of freedom, we are going to take in the whole world, and everybody is going to benefit us. The whole of that is false doctrine. I think it is a doctrine that no Democrat should ever entertain.

There was no manifest destiny, Wigfall insisted, in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. "We ought to begin and repudiate and trample on this national idea," he exclaimed. The notion of colonizing and extending the area of freedom was nothing but "Red Republicanism; it is Federalism; it is nationalism; it is an ignoring of history.''l8 Wigfall's instinct was sound. The very men to whom DeBow turned in the late 1850's for celebration of the imperial destinies of the Mississippi Valley were freesoilers, soon to enter the Republican party. The hero of their expansionism was Gilpin's soldier of the pioneer army, the axe man, the industrious farmer, the independent yeoman of the Western agrarian tradition. And this man was free.

Nothing could stand in greater contrast to the symbols which had meanwhile been created to express the ideal ends of the slave system. These symbols were grouped in the powerful and persuasive myth of the Southern plantation. Originating within the nostalgic and sentimental mode of Washington Irving, and first applied to the South in John P. Kennedy's Swallow Barn (which was published in 1832 at the turning point of Southern history), the picture of aristocratic masters, brilliant and charming heroines, and devoted slaves reached full development in the historical fiction of the Virginian John Esten Cooke in the middle 1850's. So compelling to the imagination was this group of symbols, bathed as they were in the charm of pastoral tradition and feudal romance, that they long survived the destruction of the plantation system itself. In the hands of such Southern writers as Thomas Nelson Page after the Civil War the idealized image of the plantation proved to have a strong appeal to Northern as well as to Southern audiences, and indeed to this day forms an apparently indestructible part of the national store of literary themes.19

But the briefest glance at the plantation in literature shows why it could not compete with the myth of the garden of the world as a projection of American experience in the West, and therefore why men like DeBow had no imaginative weapons to supplement their geographical and economic arguments for maintaining the Mississippi Valley under the hegemony of the South. The fiction dealing with the plantation emphasizes the beauty of harmonious social relations in an orderly feudal society. It pre supposes generations of settled existence and is inimical to change. Literary plantations are almost always in the older South, and when they are situated in the new, developing Southwest, they are unhistorically depicted as duplicates of the Virginia and Carolina estates on which the convention was first based. Such


symbols could not be adapted to the expression of a society like that of the West, either South or North, where rapidity of change, crudity, bustle, heterogeneity were fundamental traits.

It is true that during this same period the Southwest produced its own striking symbols, embodied in the newspaper sketches and oral tales which were called, collectively, Southwestern humor. These symbols were also destined to survive the Civil War and to have important consequences for American literature. They formed the tradition out of which developed Mark Twain. But Southwestern humor was of little or no use politically be cause while it depicted a society containing slaves, it dealt with slavery only incidentally and had no case to make for the institution. The boisterous mood of this writing veers toward satire rather than toward apologetics; it makes no appeal to sentiment, which proved to be the most powerful weapon of both defenders and attackers of slavery.

During the 1830's and early 1840's the case for westward expansion of the plantation system was the case for the annexation of Texas. The fertility of this enormous region beyond the Sabine, the mildness of its climate, its unexampled resources of every kind were presented so enthusiastically by travelers and settlers that an epidemic of "Texas fever" raged in the South.20 Despite Mexican laws, slavery had been established in Texas from the earliest days of Anglo-American settlement, and it was generally recognized that the region offered a vast area suitable for the cultivation of cotton and other plantation crops. Yet pro slavery advocates of annexation failed entirely to create symbols comparable to the freesoil symbol of the yeoman. They were prepared to defend slavery as such with the standard doctrines, and to state the familiar propositions of manifest destiny, but they were not able to endow the westward expansion of the slave system with imaginative color. One of the most celebrated statements of the case for annexation is a letter written by Robert J. Walker of Mississippi for circulation as campaign literature in 1844. Asserting that the reannexation of Texas is "the greatest question, since the adoption of the constitution, ever presented for the decision of the American people,''21 Walker makes the standard appeal to the need for restoring the integrity of the Mississippi Valley. The Creator, he declares.


has planed down the whole valley, including Texas, and united every atom of the soil arid every drop of the waters of the mighty whole. He has linked their rivers with the great Mississippi, and marked and united the whole for the dominion of one government and the residence of one people; and it is impious in man to attempt to dissolve this great and glorious Union.22 The oratory moves with assurance toward the images that had become a part of the folk heritage: Who will desire to check the young eagle of America, now refixing her gaze upon our former limits, and repluming her pinions for her returning flight? . . . Who will oppose the re-establishment of our glorious constitution, over the whole of the mighty valley which once was shielded by its benignant sway? Who will wish again to curtail the limits of this great republican empire, and again to dismember the glorious valley of the West? . . . Who will refuse to heal the bleeding wounds of the mutilated West, and reunite the veins and arteries, dissevered by the dismembering cession of Texas to Spain? 23

But in his treatment of the problem of slavery Walker falls back upon the defensive, picturing the economic ruin of the North and the social chaos of the South that would follow emancipation.24 The annexation of Texas, he argued, would drain Negro population away from the older Southern states. A large and increasing number of Negroes, attracted by a congenial climate, would cross the Rio Grande and mingle with the population of the Latin-American republics to the South on a basis of social equality. Indeed, this process would eventually bring about universal emancipation. Slavery, announced the prophet with the emphasis of italics, "will certainly disappear if Texas is reannexed to the Union...." 25 Providence would open Texas "as a safety valve, into which and through which slavery will slowly and gradually recede, and finally disappear into the boundless regions of Mexico, and Central and Southern America." 26

Although this is ingenious, it is not an ideology of slavery expansion. The only Southern expansionist dream which had imaginative depth led in a different direction. This was the notion of a Caribbean slave empire, which found its most spectacular expression in the Ostend Manifesto of 1854. The Southern diplomats who in this remarkable document threatened forcible con quest of Cuba if Spain refused to sell the island to the United


States, were trying to put into effect a geopolitical conception developed in part from the general notion of manifest destiny and in part from the idea of the passage to India. The oceanographer Mathew F. Maury, leading Southern scientist of his day, had called the Gulf of Mexico the American Mediterranean. Into this sea emptied the Mississippi, and the archaic Southern tendency to emphasize the primacy of natural waterways allowed Southern thinkers to conceive of the Gulf as dominating the whole interior valley. On the east the Gulf merged into the Caribbean, which touched the Isthmus of Panama, gateway to the Pacific; control of the Gulf was said to mean mastery of the dominant commercial route to the Indies. Southward the Caribbean led to South America, where the slave empire of Brazil in the fabulous basin of the Amazon offered the world's most promising theater for expansion of the plantation system.27 The key to all this potential empire was Cuba: ". . . if we hold Cuba," wrote an editorialist in the Richmond Enquirer, "in the next fifty years we will hold the destiny of the richest and most increased commerce that ever dazzled the cupidity of man. And with that commerce we can control the power of the world. Give us this and we can make the public opinion of the world." 28

Well might a Southerner point out that the South had a manifest destiny different from that of the North.29 The conception of a tropical empire occupying the basins of the Amazon and the Mississippi and controlling the trade of the Pacific, populated by Negroes brought from Africa through a reopened slave trade "the purple dream," as Stephen Vincent Benet calls it,

Of the America we have not been

The tropic empire, seeking the warm sea

The last foray of aristocracy,30

*Copyright, 1927, 1938 by Stephen Vincent Benet offers a glaring contrast with the myth of the garden of the world which expressed the goals of freesoil expansion into the Mississippi Valley. But the dream was powerful enough to inflame a young printer and newspaperman in Keokuk, Iowa, Sam Clemens by name, who set out down the Mississippi in 1856 on his way to found a coca plantation on the Amazon.3l