Alabama: The History of a Deep South State

By William Warren Rogers; Robert David Ward et al. | Go to book overview

EIGHT
Antebellum Society

ON the eve of the Civil War in 1860, Alabama planter Daniel R. Hundley published his interpretations of the class structure and social relations in the South. The dominant class was, of course, Hundley "Southern Gentleman" of "faultless pedigree," although he thought the "Cotton Snobs" were more numerous. W. J. Cash in his classic 1941 work, The Mind of the South, challenged the legend of an antebellum South with a spreading plantation aristocracy. Cash suggested the frontier period was too near and time too limited for a true aristocracy to rise and rule before war came and ruined it all. This time constraint was certainly true for Alabama.1 Yet the legend persisted, and no more so than in myths of the gentleman's mate, Hundley's "true- hearted daughter of the sunny South," a simple woman unaffected in manners, pure in speech and soul, and "ever blessed with an inborn grace and gentleness of spirit lovely to look upon." She was "A perfect woman, nobly planned, To warm, to comfort, and command."2

Despite the proverbial pedestal, white women in Alabama suffered under some of the same legal restrictions as free blacks and slaves. They, too, had no primary rights of citizenship and could neither vote nor serve on juries. Following the English common law, a married woman's possessions, including her personal clothes, were owned by her husband. Any real estate a married woman might inherit could be controlled by her husband, and he could sell it without her consent and appropriate the money for his own purposes. The editors of the reformist--free thought publication Free Enquirer, which was based in New York, noted in 1829 that "a married women belong[ed] to her matrimonial master, as in the case of any other slave."3

Ironically, Alabama--not New York, as often cited--was the first state in the nation where the legislature debated changing the common law property relationship between husband and wife. Enoch Parsons of Claiborne introduced a "ladies bill" in 1828, but it failed in the senate after opponents "questioned the wisdom of altering human and divine laws . . . God had vested in Adam and Moses."4Sally Wilson of Big Sandy,

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