Book Review: The Mind of the Old South by Clement Eaton

Bottom Line Up Front: Read it for a good overview of the liberal Southern tradition (with complementary annoying liberal perspective) of the antebellum period. Go here to buy.

The Mind of the Old South, published in 1967, serves, for the Reactionary, as a moderately-detailed study of the liberal tradition in the South between the turn of the 19th century to the War Between the States, with emphasis on the 1830-1860 ‘Reactionary Enlightenment.’ Eaton, a Southern liberal from North Carolina, strives hard to justify his viewpoint of the Old South, but ultimately his task is too great and his analysis devolves into passive-aggressive sniping couched in strong cognitive dissonance.

The problem which Eaton cannot overcome is that his dual goals, to highlight the nobility, virtue, and open-mindedness of Southern liberals, and simultaneously the “stifling” conservative culture of the Old South, cannot be reconciled. Either his examples serve one stereotype while contradicting the other, or he finds that his subjects are, quite inexplicably to him, liberal in one aspect of their thinking, like business or education, while conservative in others, like slavery or religion. For example, he finds that although Southern businessmen possessed liberal aspects “that arose out of the very nature of business,” as a whole they failed to “emancipate themselves from agrarian ways of thinking… They were much closer to agricultural and agrarian ideals than were Northern businessmen.”

The word “emancipate” demonstrates the author’s biases admirably. For him, the contemporary North is the golden standard by which to judge the Southern civilisation. Areas where the South differed from the Northern ways of thinking are regarded as moral and intellectual failures. This is the defining characteristic of all liberal and Leftist histories of the South.

It does not occur to Eaton that the Southern conservative worldview was held by men just as much possessed of their intellectual and moral faculties as any Southern, Northern, or European liberals. For him, the act of displaying sympathy or allegiance to any aspect of the Old South is a failing which he assigns to the malevolent conservative influences of Southern society. Either he was an honest historian beset by unconscious biases or a dishonest one actively seeking to appeal to the prevailing Leftist interpretations of history of his time.

The latter view is perhaps enhanced by his choices for archetypes of the liberal and conservative Southern worldviews, and the language he uses to describe these representatives. For the former, he chooses John Hartwell Cocke, “an exemplar of the liberal facet of the Southern mind of the antebellum period.” Eaton spends fifteen pages gushing over Cocke, “one of the few social reformers that the Old South produced.” He assigned the driving force for this impulse to Cocke’s religiousness, calling him a “Puritan cavalier” who crusaded against alcohol and even tobacco use and pursued “an enlightened plan of gradually removing the slaves from the state” and promoted the education of slaves. Eaton says,

The failure of General Cocke to carry out his enlightened program of reform illustrates the difficulties of being a liberal in the Old South. The cards were stacked against the liberals then just as they have been in most periods of history. The inertia opposed to change was extraordinarily powerful in the Old South. The overwhelmingly rural condition of society, the existence of slavery, the masses of illiterate and provincial voters, the strongly orthodox religion of the people were allied forces to defeat liberalism.

Of course, we can easily infer Eaton’s proscribed antidote from this passage – to urbanize society, free the slaves, educate the voters, and destroy the religion. These things have now been done, and we are living the resultant dysfunction.

As Cocke’s conservative counterpart, Eaton chooses the flawed James Henry Hammond, a man of “unsurpassed intellectual equipment” who failed to live up to his potential due to his adherence to the Southern way of thinking. Eaton goes on to conduct a detailed (and not wholly undeserved) character assassination campaign:

His fortune made him indolent and gave him the leisure to indulge his immoral tendencies, his self-pity, and his morbid taste for being sick… Ever ambitious and self-seeking, Hammond accepted the values of the conservative and aristocratic society into which he had been born.

What’s interesting is that Hammond was not born into the upper-crust of the aristocracy, coming from the less-refined upcountry of South Carolina and marrying into the planter class. Cocke was in fact more immersed in the aristocratic mindset; but, of course, he refused to “accept those [debased] values.” Eaton fails to rise above the petty attacks Hammond’s personality, simply attributing his personal failures to the intellectually and morally impoverished state of the society in which he lived.

Hammond was certainly a Southern conservative, and certainly a flawed man. Why did Eaton choose him to represent the Southern conservative mindset as a whole? Eaton spends very few words on George Fitzhugh, Albert Bledsoe, R.L. Dabney, John C. Calhoun, or any of the perfectly honorable defenders of the Southern tradition. It is easy to see why – to shed more light on these figures damages the carefully constructed narrative of the Southern mind which Eaton is attempting to put together.

The cognitive dissonance mentioned earlier reaches its highest crescendo in the chapter entitled “The Mind of the Southern Negro.” Here the author meets with quite the dilemma – he attempts to show both that slavery “greatly retarded the normal development of Negroes in the South” and that “a considerable number of slave and free Negroes in the South… were able to rise above the general level of the culture of their race and confute the prevailing Sambo image.” Each example given for one hypothesis works against the other. The true story is that slavery generally aided in civilizing the Africans, who were undoubtedly better off than if they had been left as slaves in Africa, and the “remarkable individuals” which Eaton highlights were indeed able to use their proximity to white society, and the humaneness of Southern slavery, to capitalize on their natural gifts.

Eaton uses as an example Reverend John Chavis – a truly remarkable man of which I’ve unfortunately not heard of before, and who does more to hurt his hypothesis than help it. Chavis, a free Negro born in North Carolina, was educated at Washington Academy (now Washington and Lee University) in Virginia, and likely also studied at Princeton. Being perfectly free to travel where he might (except, of course, those Northwestern states which had outlawed Negro immigration) he chose to return to North Carolina to preach and teach. He went on to teach both black and white pupils – including some of the most influential and prominent political leaders of his state, referring to US Senators and former students as “My Son” in letters. Unfortunately but necessarily, his school was shut down in the aftermath of the Nat Turner slave revolt, but North Carolina still paid him his salary until his death. Wiki states that he was killed by a mob of whites, though I doubt there is evidence for that other than “local legend.” Eaton does not mention it.

The society which capitalized on Rev. Chavis’s gifts, and which Eaton wishes to characterize as inherently backward, was defended by Rev. Chavis himself. He was strongly opposed to abolitionism, writing, “I am clearly of the opinion that immediate emancipation would be to entail the greatest earthly curse upon my bretheren [sic] according to the flesh that could be conferred upon them especially in a Country like ours.” He goes on to invalidate the slaves’ feelings on the matter: “I suppose if they knew I said this they would be ready to take my life, but as I wish them well I feel no disposition to see them any more miserable than they are.”

The Mind of the Old South is not all bad. It is a good, if slanted, history of the liberal Southern tradition of the antebellum period, and very readable if you can overlook the subtle unsubstantiated and tiresome language employed to denigrate Old Southern society. It is simply another in a long line of works dedicated to psychoanalyzing “the Southern mind” which has apparently perplexed liberal historians for decades. Like the rest of these works, the conclusion is that “the Southern mind” is backward, overly emotional, stupid, or worse. And like the rest, this conclusion is attained through an inability to question Enlightenment notions of How Things Should Be accompanied by some impressive mental gymnastics.

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One thought on “Book Review: The Mind of the Old South by Clement Eaton

  1. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/04/10) | The Reactivity Place

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