Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Cotton Kingdom

Had I known this book existed, I would have read it long ago. Before he became a designer of parks and public spaces, Frederick Law Olmsted was a farmer and a journalist, a traveling correspondent sending back first-hand accounts to a newspaper to give readers a flavor of what other places are like.  He went first to England, Walks and Talks of An American Farmer in England (1852), where he traveled largely by foot. I mean to get ahold of that next, but it isn't available in our network of libraries, so I may have to wait.

He took three journeys in the American South and Texas between 1852 and 1857, by horse, by carriage, by rail, by boat, chapters of which were published in the New York Daily Times as he went. Each journey was assembled into a single volume when he returned, and the three collected together as Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom in 1861, now simply called The Cotton Kingdom. It was described to me as a first-hand account of the Slave States by a northerner who objected to slavery largely on economic grounds, who was himself a farmer and thus able to speak knowledgeably with those he met.  Also, though he did object to slavery on moral grounds, he considered many of his Abolitionist friends to be exaggerated in their hatred for all things and all people southern.  Most (not all) Southerners who read his travelogue thought him a fair critic.

The introduction by Arthur Schlesinger says much the same, stressing his objectivity and even sympathy with some of those he met.

The first chapter is rather jarring then, in its moral indignation at slavery, especially cotton and sugar plantation slavery, and condemnation of the culture of the south generally. Where's that objectivity and sympathy I've been hearing about? The first chapter was added at the end, as a preface to the collected travels, just before the outbreak of the war.  By that time, Olmsted had decided that slavery was economically inefficient and had assembled considerable evidence to prove the point. He had come to the conclusion that slavery degraded everyone who came in contact with it, the point being hammered home not only by his observations, but by the repeated admissions of the slaveowners themselves, who were distressed at the environment their children were growing up in.

The profitability of cotton, and to a lesser extent sugar, had distorted all markets.  It was an extractive technology, using up good topsoil quickly, relying on the temporary value of "prime field hands" driven by overseers whose careers depended on immediate profit, not preservation of value. This filtered back through the other slave states, as the value of healthy young slaves who could be worked for sixteen hours a day became so great that owners in Virginia or the Carolinas found the temptation of selling them too great to resist.

The relationship between societies that send raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods is a part of many histories across the world, but I was surprised at how thorough this was in the 1850's.  Nothing was manufactured in the South.  This seems strange to those of us in northern cities who grew up on the stories of manufacturing all going south throughout the 20th C because of cheaper labor, but in that age it was true. Nearly all homes were tiny and made of ill-fitting logs, few had furniture except a bench and a plank, and not so much as a belt buckle was made nearby.  Blacksmiths (usually trained slaves) were used to repair things more than make them. Poverty was almost universal.  Few schools, few preachers of even modest education, churches mostly in the cities.  Rural areas would have religious gatherings, sometimes with a rude building.  All rather harrowing.

Even in farming, Olmsted estimates that it took four times as long, or four times the number of people, to get anything done. Part of that he attributed to the inefficiency of slavery, noting that in places where slaves were well-treated and shared in the general reward they worked much harder; part of the inefficiency he attributed to the culture of the poor whites, who quit working when they had enough to buy a little corn and bacon to get by. There seemed no drive for improvement, just survival. (I wondered what percentage of that might be attributable to malaria.)

I also got a flavor for how various prejudice was. It was almost universally believed that black people were not the equal of whites, but this was along a range, and many of the more prosperous or better-traveled whites thought that slaves were equal and in some ways superior workers to the poor local whites and itinerant Irish, including work in the skilled crafts. Olmsted does record real scenes where the slaves pretty much run a place on their own, sometimes for months at a time when the owner is traveling. The work is not that hard, they are regarded with affection and respect, and aren't unhappy with their lot.  Nearly all say they would prefer to be free, for then they could keep the value of all their own labor and set up a place for themselves, but they don't consider their lives brutally hard. They themselves also attribute much of the comfort to the "bad niggers" who were violent, having been sold away. The prejudice of blacks against blacks and whites against whites was also part of the story.

The value of family, friends, health, and usefulness is very great, after all, and can make up for a lot of other problems.  But Olmsted is quick to note that the presence of happier scenes like those disprove the need for slavery as strongly as the scenes of horror do.  If such independence and self-governance can exist at all, then what is the need of the wise white person to supervise them?  What added value does the system provide? Relatedly, there was a belief among many southerners at the time that free blacks were worse off working in the northern cities, where they might actually starve, and certainly land in jail, because there was no one to supervise them and make decisions for them.  Olmsted concludes that this is rarely true, but not entirely a fantasy. He has this discussion more than once in the coastal south, especially in those areas where the work is easy and the desire of the owner is to be prosperous rather than rich. They project their own situation onto the entire system of slavery, rather deliberately considering only their immediate neighborhood and banishing all thought of the cotton plantations farther off.

So do we all, of course, believe what is convenient and ignore what undermines it.


dmoelling said...

Bernard Bailyn's history of early US settlement "The Barbarous Years" gives a good feeling for the initial settlement of north and south. He follows the initial indentured servant labor force as a natural foundation for future transition to slavery. The motivations of the settler groups as treasure hunters and unprepared adventurers rather than farmers is clear as well. The large land grants by the Crown mimicked the English experience and limited small holders.

When you think of the transportation difficulties in sending goods across the Atlantic at time, only high margin goods fit the bill.

Sam L. said...

Besides malaria, there was hookworm.

Prejudice of blacks on blacks and whites on whites...has always been with us.

How did you hear of this book?

RichardJohnson said...

How did you hear of this book?

A good possibility is my comment in Boomer Pharisaism.

james said...

I've been trying to persuade our civil-war buff daughter to read it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Sam and Richard. That link goes back eventually to a First Things article that I recognised on sight, so that's probably it.

@dmoelling - my go-to book on that subject has always been Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer, which describes the four distinct waves of British migration to America: different regions of origin, different decades, different religion, different class. Fascinating stuff. You can easily see the two Southern cultures (Cavaliers 1640's, Scots-Irish 1740's) in Olmsted's book, though he does not describe them in those terms.

David Foster said...

See also the writings of Fanny Kemble, a famous British actress who married an American and lived on his plantation in Georgia. I reviewed and excerpted some of her work here:


David Foster said...

"Nothing was manufactured in the South"

There was a man named William Gregg who was a strong advocate of southern industrialization. He built and operated a large cotton mill and preached tirelessly about the benefits of industry, but was unable to get much traction among his fellow southernors.

David Foster said...

An interesting piece on William Gregg and his big textile mill and village.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

There was some cultural resistance based on prevailing views of the exercising of the will. I had always thought the phrase "to work like a nigger" referred solely to working long hours at difficult and unpleasant tasks, something like our current idiom "to work like a dog." It did mean some of that, but it also meant to work under the direction of others, which was considered shameful. This was also part of why it was hard to get boys to go to school.

RichardJohnson said...

I had always thought the phrase "to work like a nigger" referred solely to working long hours at difficult and unpleasant tasks, something like our current idiom "to work like a dog."

That sounds correct. At one workplace a work colleague from Colombia told me "Trabaja como un negro," (You work like a black/negro), as a compliment to my work ethic. BTW,the work was mental, not physical.

Thus far, I have only skimmed Cotton Kingdom, or the 3 works that fed into Cotton Kingdom. AVI has unintentionally shamed me into getting going on reading cover to cover.
Similarly, Fanny Kemble has been on my bookshelf for years- unread.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think that's all the phrase does mean now. But I have only heard it from townies in Williamsburg forty years ago, and seen it in print a few times, so that's a small sample. I have heard a black man use it laughingly when about to start a task. All of those were about working hard, toughing it out. Nothing about being driven by another.

Texan99 said...

https://archive.org/details/walkstalksofamer00olmsuoft -- link to an archive.org online view of the book. Images of good quality; this is the site we use at Project Gutenberg to double-check the lower-res scans we normally rely on for ordinary proofing.