Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Man with the Dirty Black Beard: Race, Class, and Schools in the Antebellum South

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

The Man with the Dirty Black Beard: Race, Class, and Schools in the Antebellum South

Article excerpt

The Rev. Joseph Caldwell, the New Jersey-born first president of the University of North Carolina, devoted most of his life to reforming his adopted state. In addition to building up its university, Caldwell campaigned against North Carolina's economic and social backwardness by promoting internal improvements, especially a railroad to open up its isolated interior to outside commerce and communication. As part of this effort, the aging professor composed a series of newspaper essays (later published in book form), which contained a poignant description of the southern yeoman who found himself cut off from the fountainheads of nineteenth-century civilization.

After a dreadful physical ordeal that dragged man and team through weeks of drenching rains, mud-clogged roads, and heart-breaking privation, the backcountry farmer who had gone to market and back "at length returns to his own family," the president explained, "and they scarcely know him."

How should they? He is haggard and weather-beaten. His beard is long and black, and full of dirt, because for many days he has not had time to attend to such trifles. His clothes, which were new and clean when he left home, are full of mud and . . . nearly fretted out with rough usage. Perhaps he has not thought it worthwhile to change them through the whole time of his absence.

The journey was equally hard on the traveler's shoes, health, and wagon, Caldwell added, leaving the reader in no doubt that travel would not improve the hapless farmer but debase him almost beyond recognition.1

Joseph Caldwell's pained description of the man with dirty black beard appeared in an appeal for railroad development, but the crusading president could be just as eloquent about the need for public education. In an 1832 call for common schools, Caldwell once more took his readers to the home of the man with the dirty black beard. "Let us look into the dwelling of many a family," he suggested, "into which a book has never entered."

A throng of children is presently before us. They are growing up in all the wilderness [sic] of nature. Their expression is marked with no traits of gentleness or the mild affections to engage the eye; no lineaments denoting intelligence made interesting with the variety of thought. . . . The indurated muscles and sharpened features, manifest the want of a humanizing influence within. . . . How shall it be otherwise, since no culture of the mind, or the affections has ever softened the original asperity of nature [?]2

Caldwell did not stop with the children of the house. "No system appears in the household of the mother," he lamented, and "the father has never been qualified to teach his children, or train them to a system of principles and conduct. . . . Who of us has not observed in the children of such circumstances," the reformer asked his authence with a shudder, "a ferocity and uncertainty at which the spectator recoils with indefinable apprehension for the consequences [?]"3

Lacking the capacity for system, self-denial, and improvement, Caldwell's family of illiterates were almost animals: The traveling farmer was hairy, smelly, and filmy, his wife a slattern, their offspring feral and vicious. Even a moderate evangelical like Caldwell could never confuse their state of nature with the state of grace. "To one thus destitute of opportunity and education," Caldwell sadly concluded, "heaven is out of sight and hell but a note in language." To anyone familiar with antebellum racial stereotypes, the implications were clear: For all practical purposes, the man with the dirty black beard and his family were poor whites whose condition approached the level of slaves, and whose very existence violated all the cultural assumptions of white supremacy.4

The idea of degraded white people posed an urgent problem for all antebellum reformers, for such Americans mocked any notion of republican virtue or evangelical redemption. The problem was even more serious in the South, where white men claimed political equality but slavery fostered vast economic disparities. …

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