Undeniable Truths <br> As I see it: Myth of an Illiterate Antebellum South:


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)


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