Freedom of Thought in the Old South

By Clement Eaton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
A DARK CLOUD OF ILLITERACY

A BRILLIANT Northern journalist ascribed much of the intolerance displayed toward antislavery men in the South to the widespread illiteracy of that section.1 So natural is such a conclusion that few persons would be disposed to question it. Nevertheless, it is not sufficient simply to show a co-existence of intolerance and an extraordinary state of illiteracy in the Southern States. It must be ascertained what role the illiterates played in determining the laws and social atmosphere of that section. Within the classification of "illiterates," moreover, those persons should be included who could barely read and sign their names, yet who were, to all practical purposes, as ignorant as the completely unschooled. Horace Mann declared that the statistics of illiteracy during this period should be increased by one third in recognition of this fact.2 Did these unlettered people of the South vote in large numbers? Were they kept illiterate that they might not question the status quo? Did the planters and their silver-tongued orators use them as pawns in the game of politics? Were the illiterates necessarily unintelligent and incapable of voting wisely?

Until the Federal census of 1840 no official statistics of illiteracy in the Southern States could be had. But even the illiteracy returns of this census were shown by Dr. Henry Ruffner, President of Washington College at Lexington, Virginia, to be grossly inaccurate. In a report to the Virginia legislature ( 1841), he pointed out that in four large counties of the state, not dis-

____________________
1
Horace Greeley in the New York Daily Tribune, Jan. 30, 1856.
2
A. D. Mayo, "The Organization and Development of the American Common School in the Atlantic and Central States of the South, 1830-1860"," Report of the Commissioner of Education, United States Bureau of Education, 1899- 1900 (Washington, D. C., 1900, I, 436.

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