Southern Conception of the Good Life
Author Donald Davidson wrote of the decline of Northern cities committed to progress and the past resistance of Southern cities like Charleston and Savannah to the relentless march of industrial capitalism. But, he observed the ruins all around us, “the ruins of societies no less than the ruins of cities. Over the ruins stream mobs led by creatures no longer really human – creatures who, whether they make shift to pass as educators, planners, editors, commissars, or presidents . . .” lead the way on the path to destruction.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
Southern Conception of the Good Life
“Continuity of family, of family life, and family position – irrespective of economic status – was in fact a great distinction of Charleston among old American cities; for elsewhere that continuity had been generally broken by one cause or another. With this continuity Charleston had a stability that expressed itself in the pattern of its streets and the conservatism of its architecture. The map of Charleston in 1948 was not substantially different from the map of Charleston two centuries before.
If John Stuart, whom George III in 1763 appointed superintendent of Indian affairs in the South, could have returned in 1948 to seek his home, he would have found it at 106 Tradd Street, just where he built it in 1772 – for a brief occupancy, as it happened, since the Revolution ejected him, as a Tory, rather speedily from his new house.
The secret of Charleston’s stability, if it was any secret, was only the old Southern principle that material considerations, however important, are means not ends, and should always be subdued to the ends they are supposed to serve, should never be allowed to dominate, never be mistaken for ends in themselves.
If they are mistaken for ends, they dominate everything, and then you get instability. You get the average modern city, you get New York and Detroit, you get industrial civilization, world wars, Marxist communism, the New Deal.
Historians, noting that the antebellum South was in a sense materialistic, in that it found ways of prospering from the sale of cotton and tobacco, and relied heavily upon slave labor, have had the problem of explaining why that same South developed a chivalrous, courteous, religious, conservative and stable society quite different from that which obtained in the also materialistic, but more industrialized, rational, idealistic, progressive North.
The planters’ “aristocratic” leadership was the result, not the cause, of a general diffusion of standards of judgment that all the South, even the Negro slaves, accepted a basic principle of life. Mr. Francis Butler Simkins, in his book The South Old and New, has taken securer than the average historian when he notes that the South at the outbreak of the Civil War was almost the only true religious society left in the Western world.
That old, religious South set the good life above any material means to life and consistently preferred the kind of material concerns that would least interfere with and best contribute to the good life. Its preferred occupations were agriculture, law, the church and politics – pursuits which develop the whole man rather than the specialist, the free-willed individual rather than the anonymous unit of the organized mass.
[With] reference to material means of existence, such as money, one could clinch the discourse by pointing out the traditional attitude of the Southern Negro toward work and wages. If you paid the Negro twice the normal wage for a day’s work, you did not get more work from him – that is to say, more devotion to work within a given period, with increased production as the result. Not at all.
The Negro simply and ingeniously worked only half as many days or hours as before – and spent the rest of the time in following his conception of the good life: in hunting, dancing, singing, social conversation, eating, religion, and love. This well-known habit of the Negro’s, disconcerting to employers and statisticians, was absolutely correct according to Southern principles.
The Negro, so far as he had not been corrupted into heresy by modern education, was the most traditional of Southerners, the mirror which faithfully and lovingly reflected the traits that Southerners once all but unanimously professed.
That had been the idea in Charleston too. It was what Mr. Simkins in his book, perhaps being misled by his historical predecessors, had called the “country gentleman” idea. But Charleston, which had always been urban, always a town or a city of counting-houses, warehouses, factors, bankers, financial agents, and the like, was not a city of country gentlemen, exactly.
It had agreed with the country gentleman and with others of every sort, including the Negro, on letting the relationship between work, wages and life be determined by the metaphysical judgment indicated above. That was what made Charleston Charleston and not “The Indigo City” or something of the kind.”
(Still Rebels, Still Yankees, and Other Essays, “Some Day in Old Charleston,” Donald Davidson, LSU Press, 1957, pp. 221-224)