"The Difference of Race": Antebellum Race Mythology and the Development of Southern Nationalism

By Watson, Ritchie | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

"The Difference of Race": Antebellum Race Mythology and the Development of Southern Nationalism


Watson, Ritchie, The Southern Literary Journal


In January of 1860, less than one month after John Brown's execution and less than a year before the fateful election of Abraham Lincoln, the influential New Orleans periodical, De Bow's Review, presented for the edification of its readers an article entitled "The Basis of Northern Hostility to the South." The author advanced a provocative thesis that would explain, he contended, the widening chasm of opinion and sentiment between the northern and southern states. The article argued that the antagonism between northerners and southerners, which had most recently and dramatically manifested itself in the trial and execution of John Brown, constituted more than a mere disagreement over slavery. Indeed, the writer maintained, Yankees would remain eternally hostile to the South, even if they could be brought to agree with southerners on the issue of slavery, for the dispute between North and South was not merely political and economic in nature. It also reflected a deep cultural and racial division that had originated over two hundred years ago in England in the antagonism between Puritan and Cavalier. "The cavaliers and puritans of that age" the writer observed, "were undoubtedly the ancestors, and, to a great extent, the prototypes of this.... The puritan hatred of the cavalier was deep and bitter, but neither deeper nor more bitter than that of the mass of the Northern, for the people of the Southern States, especially that portion of the North known as New England" ("Basis" 9).

In pursuing its thesis of the fundamental antipathy of the North toward the South, the DeBow's article asserted that "the Southern States had been settled almost entirely from the better and more enlightened classes of Great Britain and France." The people of New England, however, were "lineal descendants of the English puritans; and the other Northern States, especially Ohio, [had been] settled in great part from New England" ("Basis" 10). If northerners and southerners were not precisely delineated in this passage as members of separate races, they were certainly viewed as descending from very different elements within English society. And the writer clearly judged the northern heirs of English Puritans to be inferior to the "more enlightened" and aristocratic Cavaliers who had endowed the South's genealogical inheritance.

For the author of the De Bow's essay the strongly contrasting backgrounds of northerners and southerners explained what he considered the obvious superiority of southern culture to that of the North. "In our descent" he boasted, "we, of the South, have advanced rapidly on the intellectual, moral, and social development of our ancestors; perfecting the great work they began" The region's impressive cultural advances over a relatively brief period of time could hardly be surprising, given the noble qualities of the South's original Cavalier settlers:

   They were brave, honorable, social; loyal to their king, and loyal
   to the church. Knowing that earth could not be made a paradise,
   they did not, therefore, seek to turn the fair footstool of God
   into a gloomy hell. Failings they had, but dishonor, sordid
   meanness, and mammon worship, they knew not; and they served their
   king and their church, with a loyal devotion that history had
   seldom paralleled. Their intellectual development was then not
   surpassed in Europe, and their moral culture was at least equal to
   that of their age.
   ("Basis" 10, 9)

The author of the De Bow's essay was of the firm opinion that the culture of the Yankee North could never hope to rival that of the South, for northerners had "inherited, with interest, all the characteristics of their puritan ancestors." And what were these unfortunate cultural traits? "Misanthropy, hypocrisy, diseased philanthropy, envy, hatred, fanaticism, and all the worst passions of the human heart were," he opined, "the ruling characteristics of the English puritans; and they continue to be the ruling characteristics of New England Yankees. …

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