American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War

By David Grimsted | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER THREE
The Peculiar Institution of Southern Violence

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate it. . . . The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.

-- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia

His insulting language and manner came not from the heart, but from the head. They were part of his system, a method of controlling society as he controlled his Negroes.

-- Henry Adams, John Randolph

"I don't like that shooting from behind a bush. Why didn't you step into the road, my boy?"

"The Shepherdsons don't, Father. They always take advantage."

-- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

A young lawyer from Cincinnati, William Hauser, wrote his cousin, Julia Conrad, as soon as he arrived in Helena, Arkansasn , in 1841. He had high hopes that he could establish his legal career quickly in the South, and he didn't want Conrad to worry about him just because she'd probably read that a mob had recently drowned fifty to seventy-five "gamblers" in the area. He lectured that it was "such exaggerated accounts" that gave the South "a more abominable complexion" than it deserved: "In this instance I have been assured from the best authority there were not more than thirty men shot or otherwise killed." Hauser didn't mail the letter immediately, hoping to provide more precise details about where he was settling. Eight days later he added a postscript from Mills Point, Kentucky, having concluded, "I would have to sacrifice everything and endanger life to live" in Arkansas. 1 He was on his way home to Ohio.

The Southern violence that drove the young man so quickly northward relates to the central dilemma of antebellum history, bounded as it is by the vastly heavier bloodshed that ended it. To what degree and in what ways did the South differ from the North? And why was the American political structure unable to reconcile, finesse, or forget these differences, as it has all others, without civil war or political fragmentation? The many answers that have been given--distinct economic, constitutional, political, social, moral, or ideological stances--all take shape in the shadow of slavery, the central variation obvious to everyone then and now.

-85-

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