Undeniable Truths <br> As I see it: August 2010


Myth of an Illiterate Antebellum South:

A literate population is usually hailed as a goal of the soft communism called democracy, though literacy is no measure of education. The view of Southern theologian Robert L. Dabney was that “if all you mean by education is teaching people to read and write, then all you accomplish is to create a mass market for trash literature.” Even de Tocqueville saw through the veil of base and common literacy as serving “the ever increasing volume of readers and their continual craving for something new [to] ensure the sale of books that nobody much esteems.”

Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute

Myth of an Illiterate Antebellum South:

“The first thing to observe is that the common folk of the South obviously received relatively more schooling than has generally been supposed. By comparing the illiteracy of the Southern people with that if the people of New England, where for well-known reasons a common school system had long existed, the South has been made to appear as a land where mass ignorance prevailed. In 1850, for example, the census showed that only 1.89 per cent of the white population of New England above twenty years of age could not read; but in the South 8.27 per cent of this age group were illiterate.

Just how illiterate, however, is the 8.27 per cent of the South…[And] in comparison with the situation in most countries of the world at that time the Southern folk were one of the most literate major groups of the entire world. In 1846, for example, of all the couples throughout England and Wales who got married, 32.6 per cent of the men and 48.1 per cent of the women affixed their marks instead of their signatures to applications for licenses. In the French army of 1851, of 311,218 conscripts 34 per cent could neither read nor write.

Literacy is not education; however, if college attendance is any test of an educated people, the South had more educated men and women in proportion to population than the North, or any other part of the world. According to the 1860 census, out of a white population of 7,400,000 there were 25,882 students enrolled at Southern colleges, whereas in the North, with a white population of over 19,000,000, there were only 27,408 students in college; and quite a large number of these were from the South. That is, there was one college student for each 247 white persons in the South and one in 703 in the North.”

(Plain Folk of the Old South, Frank L. Owsley, LSU Press, 1949, pp.146-148)


Illustrating Little Regard for the Union

Any serious student of the causes of the War Between the States is left with many unanswered questions. If the war was truly fought over the secession of States from the voluntary union, who or what caused that secession to take place, and who resisted compromise to hold the union together? As suggested below, why did the North sign on to the Compromise of 1850 when it had no intentions of abiding by it?

If the African slavery they once had among them in the North (and their New England slave trade) was so evil, what prevented Northern agitators and their financiers from finding a peaceful and effective solution to slavery in the South? If slavery’s demise was desired by the philanthropic British and New England abolitionists, why didn’t they press peaceful solutions as they did for themselves? Why was fratricidal war and the loss of a million lives necessary?

Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute

Illustrating Little Regard for the Union:

“In the North, sincere if fanatical abolitionists and opportunists alike used the slavery issue for political advancement. In the South, the voices…grew more passionate in their crusades for independence. Northern agitators gave them the ammunition. When the Southern States had adopted the Compromise of 1850, the Georgia legislature summarized the attitude of them all. Serving notice that the preservation of the Union depended on the Northern States’ faithfully abiding by the terms of the Compromise, the Georgia delegates stressed its particular application to the federal laws regarding fugitive slaves.

This was a very real issue to the planters, and nothing so impressed the individual Southerner with Northern hostility as the protection given runaways in the North and the actual attacks on federal officials trying to enforce the laws on stolen property. On this last point, the Georgians stated, “It is the deliberate opinion of this convention that upon the faithful execution of the fugitive-slave bill depends the preservation of our much-loved Union.”

Yet in the North, many people continued to repudiate and defy the fugitive slave laws, which constituted about the only thing the South got out of the Compromise. To the Southerners trying to promote secession, this breach of faith served to illustrate the little regard in which the North held Union. Then Northern literature erupted into what amounted to an anti-Southern propaganda mill. In 1851 appeared Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that inflammable work of the imagination, to start the decade in a spirit of recriminations. With the pamphlets and literature which took up where Mrs. Stowe left off, newspapers joined in the denunciations of their fellow Americans. To support the fictional pictures of the benighted Southerners, the New York Tribune stated flatly that plantations were “little else than Negro harems,” and that, of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Tyler (who was still living) “hardly one has failed to leave his mulatto children.”

Even Virginia, which produced these Presidents, had been brought to ruin by “pride and folly and…[Negro] concubinage…” while south Carolina, with its “chivalry-ridden inhabitants,” like the other States, “is a full thousand years behind the North in civilization.” Emerson and Longfellow, Lowell and Whittier, the new literary pillars of that civilization, conjured up pictures of the vileness of their Southern neighbors.”

(The Land They Fought For, The Story of the South as the Confederacy, 1832-1865, Clifford Dowdey, Doubleday and Company, 1955, pp. 44-45)

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