“The mind of the bigot is like the pupil of the
eye; the more light you pour upon it, the more it will contract.”

—O.W. Holmes Jr.

In July 1865 John R. Dennett, a Massachusetts journalist and recent graduate of Harvard College, arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, the first stop on an eight-month journey that would take him from Virginia to Louisiana. Dennett’s tour was sponsored by The Nation, a new journal of liberal opinion that eyed the recently defeated Confederacy with special attention. The guns had just fallen silent and the killing had ceased when Dennett arrived in the South. Southerners—white and black alike—were faced with the exigencies of survival and recovery. Dennett carried with him a bagful of preconceptions and prejudices (he was, after all, a Massachusetts man, with all that connoted in 1865). But curiosity overrode partisanship: the dispatches he mailed to the editorial offices in New York revealed a man willing to let Southerners talk freely about their situation. And talk they did! With the volubility so characteristic of the South, they filled Dennett’s notebooks with their sorrows and hurts, their fears and expectations, their bitterness and anger, their pluck, courage, and tenacity.

In his travels Dennett visited Guilford County, North Carolina, the subject of Gail O’Brien’s The Legal Fraternity and the Making of a New South Community, and on numerous occasions he encountered idealistic young Northerners (a type examined in Joe Richardson’s Christian Reconstruction) who had flocked to the South to “construct Christian civilization.”

Professor O’Brien’s book is the grotesque progeny of a marriage between sociology and quantification, a union that American historians have been increasingly proud to bless. Poor Guilford County has been assaulted by whirring computers and reams of graphs, tables, and statistical computations. Instead of flesh-and-blood Guilfordians, we meet “powerholders” who compete for “power scores.” A mountain of statistics and computer printouts has strained to bring forth a mouse: Guilford County “represented a prototype of the ‘New South.'”

Professor Richardson’s Christian Reconstruction exemplifies the more traditional genre of institutional history. He examines the activities of the American Missionary Association, one of many Northern philanthropic organizations that seized upon the Confederacy’s fall as an opportunity to remold the South in the image of the North. Between 1866 and 1880 the AMA employed over 2,000 agents in this endeavor. These operatives—mainly young women from the Midwest and New England—labored to educate the newly freed slaves by meddling in every corner of their lives, attempting, not very successfully, to impose Yankee efficiency and Puritan morality upon the freedmen.

The books by O’Brien and Richardson, along with Dennett’s observant account, open many vistas upon the postwar South. Perhaps most important, they prompt us to raise again some old and familiar questions. Given the situation at the end of the war, how might the future of the South have been channeled into a different course? Could the woeful mistakes—committed by all parties involved—have been obviated? Could the South have been spared the war’s legacy of poverty, bitterness, and racial antagonism?

Certainly the agents of the AMA would have answered yes to the last question, for they saw the moment as ripe for rectifying old errors, extirpating cancers from the body politic, and erecting in the South a social order of which New England could be proud. They had to reckon, however, with the recalcitrance of white Southerners, a people defeated but not supine. Dennett attested to “the hatred of Northern people, which makes itself manifest more or less distinctly in nearly every Southern community.” He should have expected no less, especially since he surveyed a ravaged Columbia, South Carolina, remarking that “one is everywhere surrounded by ruins and silent desolation.”

The AMA teachers were perplexed by the former Confederates’ passionate aversion. Couldn’t Southerners comprehend that they were being proffered the blessings of Yankee civilization? Even more puzzling to these eager young women was the resistance of the blacks to their ministrations. Yes, the freedmen wanted schools and teachers, but increasingly they clamored for black teachers and for schools administered by members of their own race. They also resisted the schoolmarms’ adjurations to comport themselves like proper New Englanders, to quit drinking, smoking, and snuffling after scarlet women. Above all, they were to stop wailing, moaning, and shouting in church. There was also that curious identity that former slaves felt with their homeland. As a black AMA teacher from North Carolina put it: “I am proud to say that I am a daughter of the South with no taint of Yankeeism in my veins.” A bond existed between white and black Southerners— an intertwining of the two races that the Yankee mind could not fathom. The future of the South had to be forged out of this relationship; blue-coated soldiers and well-intentioned schoolteachers from Ohio and Massachusetts could only retard the working out of a distinctively Southern modus Vivendi.

Unfortunately, the white Southerner’s aversion to Yankees did not extend to Northern capitalists, or at least not to their capital. Dennett encountered fellow New Englanders scouting the South with money to invest and discovered more than a few Southerners eager to swallow the bait. Atlantans were already panting for progress and economic development, and from New Orleans Dennett wrote: “As for Northern capital, they welcome it.” The citizens of Atlanta and New Orleans had minor-league counterparts throughout the South—bustling entrepreneurs who saw the destruction of the old order as an invitation to get rich.

Nearly 40 years ago Vann Woodward, in his Origins of the New South, argued that the war toppled the old planter elite, replacing it with a regime of lawyers and businessmen who laid the foundations for the “New South.” Professor O’Brien gives an intriguing twist to Woodward’s thesis, contending that in Guilford County the “planter-businessman-attorney” rose to prominence on the eve of the war, held on during the conflict, and in the years after engaged in a flurry of enterprise that helped transform North Carolina into the South’s most industrialized state. Although they owned plantations, these men honored no exclusively agrarian ethos; land was simply another form of income, and they readily speculated in their broad acres. They possessed, in O’Brien’s words, a “vigorous entrepreneurial spirit” that dreamed of cities and factories as the salvation of the South. This entrepreneurship was for whites only; and even for whites, save for a select few, it led not to general prosperity but to exploitation by absentee investors.

If neither Northern schoolteachers (backed by Yankee bayonets) nor Southern entrepreneurs could set a different course for the South, then who could? For starters, the federal government might have pursued a different policy. Until the North wearied of coercing the South and removed the last of its troops in 1877, Washington focused almost exclusively on enforcing voting rights (crucial for Republican dominance in the South and The Nation) and civil equality for blacks, the very programs guaranteed to incense white Southerners. Attention would have been better directed toward mitigating racial friction and establishing blacks on a sound economic footing. Dennett observed that the freedmen expected to receive land grants from the federal government—a hope quickly dashed. Many plantations lay abandoned, their former owners either dead or too impoverished to pay taxes. These lands could have been parceled out to black farmers; instead they were sold to whites, often Northerners.

Another alternative existed: The government could have established willing blacks on the virgin lands of the Great Plains, an area that later would be settled and cultivated by white farmers. This would have enhanced economic prospects for the freedmen and, by reducing the black population of the South, eased white anxieties over the presence in their midst of three and one-half million former slaves. Why did the North not grasp this opportunity? The answer lies largely in the bitter antiblack sentiment that infected the North, especially the Middle West that provided the bulk of settlers for the Plains states. The cry of “free soil for free men” had reverberated through the Midwest in the 1850’s; this sentiment implied not only hatred of slaveholders and the institution of slavery, but of blacks as well. The Republican Party, dependent upon Midwestern votes, had no intention of alienating its main constituency by promoting the settlement of blacks in the new lands west of the Mississippi.

That leaves one possibility for what could have been a dramatic alteration in the future course of the South. Perhaps this possibility asks too much of human nature, for it would have required an embittered, defeated people to shoulder the burden of creating an equitable society. A genuine paternalism had existed among slaveholders in the antebellum period. To note this is not to ignore the horrors of the slave system but to say that many slaveholders were decent men who refused to brutalize their bondsmen. Lamentably, this paternalism was severely battered by defeat, emancipation and Yankee coercion. But suppose the old paternalism had somehow reasserted itself Suppose that former slaveholders had seen justice in the hopes of blacks and had voluntarily rewarded their former slaves with land. Some form of federally financed compensation to the former masters for lost property would have facilitated such magnanimity. A revived paternalism might also have accepted the duty of schooling blacks in the ways of freedom and responsible citizenship, recognizing that if the two races were to live in harmony, whites were obliged to aid blacks in elevating themselves.

John Dennett and the AMA agents found surprisingly little anger or resentment among Southern blacks. The urge to avenge themselves upon their former owners did not loom large among the freedmen. They insisted on maintaining their free status and sought an economic stake in society, but beyond that, most blacks exercised an admirable restraint and moderation. They would probably have responded favorably to overtures of aid and friendship from whites. Thirty years later, Booker T. Washington still asked for no more than a chance for the blacks to prove themselves in the economic arena. Because blacks were so remarkably patient in the years after the Civil War, it is not outlandish to suggest that, offered the opportunity to farm their own land, they would have foregone voting rights and civil equality until times were more propitious. As it was, they got nothing from the white South and only a paper freedom from the North. Ironically, as independent landowners, they would have formed the bedrock of the yeomanry whose passing the Nashville Agrarians lamented in the 1930’s.


[The South as It Is, 1865-1866 by John R. Dennett, edited by Henry M. Christman (Athens: University of Georgia Press) $12.50]

[The Legal Fraternity and the Making of a New South Community, 1848-1882, by Gail Williams O’Brien (Athens: University of Georgia Press) $23.50]

[Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861-1890, by Joe M. Richardson (Athens: University of Georgia Press) $30.00]