At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis

By Shearer Davis Bowman | Go to book overview

3 Honor and Degradation
Section, Race, and Gender

In 1860, Charles Colcock Jones Jr., age twenty-eight, became the youngest man ever elected mayor of Savannah, Georgia, a victory his father termed “a high honor.” Charles Sr. used the word “honor” according to its fundafundamental connotation: something worthy of esteem and respect. Although it is difficult to reduce the term to a concise definition, the “essence” of honor, in the words of a noted medievalist, “combines the self-esteem of an individual with the respect accorded by others.” Human beings seem inclined not to separate and divorce their self-esteem from “the respect accorded by others.” The basic question for historians is always how and why others in a particular place and time deem someone worthy of honorable respect.1

Charlie Jones had thoroughly absorbed from his parents, Charles and Mary, the principle that he and his two siblings should develop and employ “mind and heart and manners” for the purpose of “usefulness in society.” Charles Sr., owner of several slave plantations in low country Georgia, was an ordained Presbyterian minister and a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. He had achieved a measure of fame as, in the words of historian Erskine Clark, “a leading advocate for the reform of slavery in an attempt to make the system of slavery more humane”—and thereby more readily and forcefully defensible. In 1860, a young South Carolinian, William States Lee, “the son of a venerable and highly esteemed minister” at the Presbyterian church on Edisto Island, volunteered to assist Jones in preparing a manuscript history of the Christian church for possible publication by Charles Scribner’s New York publishing house. Lee spent several months in 1860 living in the Joneses’ plantation home. Early the following summer, Jones learned that Peggy, “an attractive young slave” in training as a chambermaid, had just given birth to a mulatto girl and had named Lee as the baby’s father. Jones wrote to the young man, who had since established a school for young ladies in Columbus, “There is a resemblance to you beyond mistake.” Jones was indignant not only that a free white man, especially “a gentleman, a married man, and a Christian,” had abused his power over an unfree black girl by engaging in “illicit intercourse”

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