Monday, May 20, 2013
Frederick Law Olmstead
THE ANTEBELLUM SOUTH
I’m reading The Cotton Kingdom by Frederick Law Olmstead, a journalist who traveled about the South in the 1850s and recorded experiences which were published in the New York Times and NY Tribune. First-hand accounts, whether or not they are biased, give insight into the physical world of our past.
The first collection of Olmstead’s articles was published in 1857 as From the Journal of a Northern Traveler on Horse back. Eventually his works were consolidated into this 600 page book. This is social history with limited academic overtones. What makes it so interesting is the immediacy of Olmstead’s journey. We travel with him and sweat in the heat, slosh through muddy roads, worry about the horse, and get fleas from dirty beds. We’re bit by mosquitoes. Get caught at night in the rain.
Because of the detail he gives us—he recounts conversations—Olmstead must have taken copious notes. I can see him pulling his horse to the side of a wagon track road to sit on a stump and write down the events and people he’s just experienced. Given the length of his work, you’d think he’d need a cart to carry his many notes, obviously written long hand. I can only wonder what he did with them as he went from farm house to farm.
If you think the wild west was wild, read Olmstead. There were white people in the Nineteenth Century South less civilized than the Indians they disparaged. Many were illiterate and more unwilling than unable to take care of basic needs such as shelter and food. According to Olmstead:
...for every rich man’s house, I am sure that I passed a dozen shabby and half-furnished cottages, and at least a hundred cabins—mere hovels, such as none but a poor farmer would house his cattle in at the North.
I came to realize how little prepared the antebellum South was for travelers. And I’m not just talking about the absence of trains, stagecoaches, and passable roads. Maps were inadequate, roads unmarked, and when Olmstead got lost, he found that the local population couldn’t give directions to landmarks that turned out to be nearby.
As a matter of course, he overnighted in the homes of people. Their hospitality wasn’t necessarily free, but he was always able to find a place to stay, even in the backwoods of Mississippi and Louisiana. To find accommodations, he stopped at one farm and then another as night approached until somebody took him in. Though he found “white houses with groves of evergreen trees about them,” more often than not, he encountered “a hilly wilderness, with a few dreary villages, and many isolated cotton farms, with comfortless habitations for black and white upon them.”
His observations on the Southern attitude toward slavery breaks no new ground, but the examples he provides will make us squirm. Southern abolitionists weren’t uncommon, but they usually wanted slaves freed and sent back to Africa. At the other end of the spectrum were the whites who took it as their God-given right to own slaves. Many of them took better care of their dogs and horses. Olmstead:
I do not think that I have ever seen the sudden death of a negro noticed in a Southern newspaper, or heard it referred to in conversation, that the loss of property, rather than the extinction of life, was not the evident occasion of interest.
Olmstead quotes a conversation he overheard on a steamboat. A passenger describes a runaway slave who was caught by a river captain, put in irons, and left exposed to weather. The man died as a result and the owner said that “[an attorney] offered to take the case and prosecute the captain; and he says if he don’t recover every red cent the man was worth he won’t ask me for a fee. It comes kinder hard on me. I bought the nigger up, counting I should make a speculation on him…I expect ‘twas a dead loss of eight hundred dollars, right out of pocket.”
Many religious slave owners, including preachers, tried to give slavery a good name by claiming it Christianized heathens. Olmstead, who had given this credence, revised his view after visiting the South.
Whatever of civilization, and…of Christianity, they [the slaves] were acquiring…but poorly compensate the effect of the systematic withdrawal from them of all the usual influences which tend to nourish the moral nature and develop the intellectual faculties…
In the latter chapters of the book, Olmstead makes the argument that slavery created a privileged class which used its resources to buy more slaves rather than establish cultural amenities, such as schools and libraries, which might have developed a community spirit. His sentences become long winded and the story tone didactic.
When we read of the conditions in the South less than two centuries ago, our faults fly into our face. It’s easy to fall victim to wholesale condemnation. But there were Southerners like this Mississippian, who said, “it [slavery] is unfortunately fixed upon us; we could not do away with it if we wished; our duty is only to make the best of a bad thing; to lessen its evils as much as we can, so far as we have to do with it individually.”
Olmstead’s account reminds us of how much progress we’ve made, but there are writers today giving us good reasons to keep up the effort, to continue to improve.