American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War

By David Grimsted | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
White Fears

Silencing Questions

The white people of the South are essentially a fine kindly breed. . . . Perhaps their early and fatal mistake was that they refused long before the Civil War to allow the South differences of opinion. . . . Men act as they do in the South, they murder, they lynch, they insult, because they listen to but one side of a question.

-- W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction

We are both heartily sick of this atmosphere redolent of insane violence. . . . There is a strong party adverse to violent men and violent measures, but they are frightened into submission--afraid even to exchange opinions with others who think like them, lest they should be betrayed.

-- Joel Poinsett to Benjamin F. Perry,
December 16, 1850, Perry Papers, Ala DHA

After 1835 Southern ideology put one category of person, abolitionists, farther beyond the human pale than even their ambiguous chattel. No one, at least publicly, demurred from the bloody-bones rhetoric that passed for description, as in this typical enough letter in the New Orleans Bee: "The murderous designs of these fiendlike fanatics would not only place the firebrand in our dwellings, but prepare their knives for the cutting of our throats." The self-contradictory elements that followed in this description of the "hydra monster" suggested how abolition became a pastiche of villainy that blotted out any need to think about the real motives of any person questioning slavery and that even obviated rational structuring of the stereotype. They were "sickly sentimentalists" and "wretches, who delight in confusion and disorder, merely with a view to plunder." Their bloodthirstiness led to "untiring exertions to accomplish the extermination of the white population of the South," but expectation of making money was "the true secret of the humbug." They were "bloodless hypocrits" but were driven by uncontrolled lust for blacks and "unnatural tastes" that were "peculiarly disgusting" in women. 1 The abolitionist became not only Evil and the Enemy, but a mirror deflecting northward the darker aspects of Southern realities, precisely when the South first came to insist, with at least outward unanimity, that slavery was no evil at all.

Such abolition stereotypes were less surprising than was the vacuum of any attack on them, of any more reasoned analysis. The Jacksonian Globe steadily pretended that abolition was a British plot to destroy republicanism, a view also propounded by the Democratic Review for two decades. The most respected Whig paper, the National Intelligencer-

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