In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina

By Orville Vernon Burton | Go to book overview

2. Edgefield from the White Perspective

What then were these regional mores that set the South apart from the more plastic North . . . (1) an exaggerated sense of honor, based on the cult of the gentleman; (2) a profound religious orthodoxy; (3) an intense local attachment or patriotism that was supported by a strong feeling for family (including blacks and whites) -- Calhoun said that the North was an aggregate of individuals, the South of communities.

Clement Eaton, The Mind of the Old South1

The poor, yeoman middle class, and elite held many values in common. Notions of honor and virtue, of paternal priority in the family, of the importance of religion -- all were shaped and shared by the different groups.2 Mores are long-lived, and despite the effects of the Civil War on white society, most of the values of the antebellum community survived the war. While this chapter considers white society before the Civil War, much of the discussion of culture is also applicable to the postbellum period. Change over time will be discussed primarily in later chapters where postbellum blacks and whites are compared.


Poor Whites

The South has been viewed as a land of extremes, of Tara and Tobacco Road, of cavalier aristocrats and poor white trash. On the one hand, popular literature depicted a paternalistic and aristocratic South devoted to tradition, with family as the cornerstone of that tradition. On the other hand, we have images of Snopeses and of the Erskine Caldwell characters who starved a grandmother to death.3

In rural Edgefield almost everyone, poor or rich, black or white, did the same thing in basically the same way: they farmed (see Table 2-1). Most, of course, had agricultural jobs. Even those with special skills were usually involved in agriculture-related activities, such as blacksmithing. Almost fourfifths of those whites gainfully employed in 1850 (excluding women, since the

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