Antebellum Richmond, Fall 1995, College of William and Mary

Karen Daly

December 1995


My Native Southern Land
I love thee-- dearly love thee-- thou glorious southern land,
With all thy varied scenery of mountain, vale and strand;
Thy rushing rivers, grand and free, that pour their ceaseless tide,
And the gold and purple tracery that makes thy sunsets pride. . .
Though those who should our brothers be, despise us and deride,
And those who should be first to cheer-- have been the first to chide;
Though they mock when dangers threaten us, and coldly turn away,
And will not see the wrongs we bear, nor heed the words we say--
Yet oh! thou beauteous southern land, thy children love thee still,
And their hearts must ever cling to thee, through good report and ill;
And would not give the name they bear-- the fame their fathers won,
To gain the fairest heritage that e'er the sun shone on.

When C. H. Surry's poem appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger in February of 1860, the lines were more than just mere words for Southerners. Rushing head first into the Civil War, Southerners throughout the Confederacy still clung to the honor and glory which characterized their past. Unable to let go and forced to defend their society and institutions, Southerners adopted a separatist movement well before the publication of Surry's poem. Searching for ways to express and display this sentiment, Southerners and especially Virginians, turned to the pen. As a result, Virginia writers played a key role in displaying and furthering the sense of separatism developing throughout the South in the decades preceding the Civil War.

The capital of the Old Dominion, Richmond, stood as the publishing center for Virginia and the South. As the city's industry grew during the antebellum period, so to did its writing. One of the most notable examples of this literary expansion was The Southern Literary Messenger, founded in Richmond in 1834. Standing as the most influential magazine south of the Potomac, The Southern Literary Messenger provides first hand illustration of Richmond's society and politics, as well as its abundance of authors. Newspapers, poets, and novelists also flourished in the city and often helped shape Richmonders' political views and values. The growing sense of separatism is displayed throughout the works of the period, but a major division can be seen following the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Examining the tone of the authors both before and after this event shows the shift from a simple display of Southern pride toward a direct defense of southern society. Essays, poems, and novels served to further this rift.

The decade preceding the Civil War was one of duality for the South. While industry and progress swept through cities like Richmond, the population continued to cling to the images of glory that shaped Virginia's past. Although the Old Dominion had at one time led the nation, boasting four of the first five presidents, it now struggled to support a growing industrial economy with the slave system so ingrained in its culture. As a result, a sense of separatism from the North began and Southerners sought proof that the slave-holding South could maintain a culture as rich and profitable as that of the North. In this vein, Southerners desired outlets to refute outsiders' attacks on their society. Out of this desire grew the depth of writing that abounded in Richmond.

In December of 1852, however, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin transformed the entire literary scene in Richmond. This novel served to deepen the already existing rift between the North and South by concentrating anti-slavery sentiment from Northerners and forcing Southerners to defend their institutions and society. As Stowe wrote in her preface, "The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it." As a result of this novel, the literary works produced in Richmond shifted from calling for an independent Southern culture to blatantly defending the existing Southern culture and attacking the accusations of the North. In fact, sixteen significant works were published to rebut Stowe's argument in the three years following its unveiling.

Stowe's novel encouraged such a response not only because she depicted slavery as a harsh and inherently evil, but because the author claimed the events to be representations of the truth. In the final chapter of the book Stowe wrote, "The separate incidents that compose the narrative are, to a very great extent, authentic, occurring, many of them, either under her own observations, or that of her personal friends." This proposal by Stowe, that the abuses and mistreatment of slaves was a general practice, inflamed Southerners more, perhaps, than the work itself. The December 1852 issue of the Messenger presented a lengthy review of Uncle Tom's Cabin which expressed these feelings.

We have said that Uncle Tom's Cabin is a fiction. It is a fiction throughout; a fiction in form; a fiction in its facts; a fiction in its sentiments, a fiction in its morals, a fiction in its religion; a fiction in its inferences, a fiction equally with regard to the subjects it is designed to expound, and with respect to the manner of their exposition. . . When, then Uncle Tom's Cabin employs representations of southern slavery, even if supposed to be true, which are calculated not merely to wound and outrage the feelings of Southerners, which would be comparatively a slight offense, but to pander to malign prejudices, to disseminate throughout the Union dissensions and hostilities, and to circulate scandal abroad throughout the world, neither sincerity nor ignorance would afford any pallisition for the rash, foolish, and criminal procedure.

This hostile reaction was typical of most Southerners, and Stowe received many direct criticisms. The Southern Quarterly Review commented on the author and book, "Does slander cease to be painful because it is gross? Is it enough for us to know that these obscene and degrading scenes are false as the spirit of mischief which dictated them?. . ." For the South, Uncle Tom's Cabin symbolized the antagonistic nature of Northerners, who were directly attacking their way of life. This feeling spurred authors to defend their society.

The newspapers in Richmond both responded to and heightened this separatist sentiment. Lack of quick communication, like CNN or even the radio, in the fist half of the nineteenth century facilitated the popularity of newspapers and, in fact, well over a dozen periodicals were published in Richmond during the antebellum period. Since these papers, like most throughout the country, encouraged readers to contribute their own work, the pages displayed not just the facts, but theories, editorials, and original literature and poetry as well. As a result, the articles and editorial pieces illustrated the development of the rift between the North and the South before the Civil War.

In the newspapers, this defense of the Southern way of life and bitterness toward the North was displayed throughout editorials following Uncle Tom's publication. In February of 1856, for example, the Daily Dispatch contained an article calling for internal improvements for Richmond and Virginia in order to protect the Old Dominion in time of war if need be. The point is emphasized in the lines, "It is our weakness that tempts aggression, and it is only by might . . . that we can vindicate our right." Similar sentiments were displayed in a February 1857 issue of the Richmond Enquirer that outright stated, "If the union of the present thirty-one states is ever dissolved it must begin in the South." In the same issue an unidentified author wrote, ". . .When the abolition states shall be thus in possession of all the powers of the government . . . will they not seek to do that constitutionally which they are now so sedulously striving to do in despite of constitutional guarantees and the obligations of justice?"

Inviting southern authors to contribute to their own magazine, the Southern Literary Messenger further illustrated the rift developing between the North and South. Begun in Richmond in 1834, almost two decades before Stowe's novel, the magazine sought to provide an outlet for Southerners' ideas and creativity. Though the magazine accepted contributions from throughout the country, its main focus was the development of literature in the South, and specifically in Virginia. In the first issue, James Fenimore Cooper commented that, "the South is full of talent and the leisure of its gentlemen ought to enable them to bring it freely into action."

Publisher Thomas Willis White depended on that talent and stressed the need for a Southern literary outlet. "Hundreds of similar publications thrive and prosper north of the Potomac . . . Shall not one be supported in the whole South?" he wrote. The opening article went on to mention the feelings of resentment already felt by the South toward the North, "Are we to be doomed forever to a kind of vassalage to our northern neighbors - a dependence for our literary food upon our brethren . . . ?" This plea was continued throughout the Messenger's run as shown by the editor's note in the January 1838 issue. Urging southern authors to contribute he wrote, "By the desire of self-improvement . . . we invoke the dormant talents of the South (especially) to rouse up from their slumber and employ the means now offered them of assisting to mold and fashion the age."

These articles, and similar ones published in the Southern Literary Messenger, prove that a distinct Southern culture had indeed already developed. And, in fact, the South had already begun to defend its longstanding tradition of slavery. The institution of slavery even drew the defense of Richmond's best known author, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe, who spent the majority of his childhood in Richmond before leaving to live with the Allan family in England, joined the Southern Literary Messenger in August of 1835 eager to return to the city from Baltimore. In a letter to White he wrote, "I have been desirous, for some time past, of paying a visit to Richmond, and would be glad of any reasonable excuse for so doing. Indeed I am anxious to settle myself in that city . . ." His literary critiques and short stories in the Southern Literary Messenger were the beginning of his esteemed writing career and he quickly worked his way into an editor's position. In the April 1836 issue of the magazine Poe displayed the character of the South with a striking defense of slavery in a book review.

"We hope the day has gone by when we are to be judged by the testimony of false, interested, and malignant accusers alone . . . Our assailants are numerous, and it is indispensable that we should meet the assault with vigor and activity. Nothing is wanting but manly discussion to convince our own people at least, that in continuing to command the services of their slaves, they violate no law divine or human . . . we believe that society in the South will derive much more of good than of evil from this much abused partially-considered institution."

Although this separatist feeling already existed, articles following Uncle Tom's Cabin became increasingly pugnacious and defensive. Understandably, slavery was one of the most divisive issues covered in the magazine. Although the first editor, T. W. White sought to stay away from the topic in order to keep a national and international audience, the issue surfaced later in the magazine's run, as spurred by the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In fact, the lead story of the October 1856 issue emphasized the duty of the southern author to defend the institution of slavery. Beginning as a seemingly repetitive plea for more southern writers to contribute, the piece concluded calling for all southern authors to pick up their pens to justify slavery. On the second page the author wrote, "Wild crusades have been set on foot against our institutions . . . Let southern authors, men who see and know slavery as it is, make it their duty to deluge all the realms of literature with a flood of light upon this topic."

Throughout the magazine's run, pieces on the early history of Virginia focussed on recapturing the past while poets emphasized the beauty of the state. In 1860 the poem by C. H. Surry called "My Native Southern Land" stressed the continual love of southerners for the South, ". . . Thou beauteous land, thy children love thee still,/ And their hearts must ever cling to thee, through good report and ill." While the poet illustrated the physical beauty of the land in these lines, he simultaneously called for its citizens to remain faithful to the state in both good times and bad. The poem seems to display Virginian's, and Richmonder's, incredible resistance to letting go of the South's past glory, as well as their knowledge of a forthcoming blow to the already declining Old Dominion.

In 1860 the sense of separatism was stated outright in the Messenger in an article entitled "The Difference of Race Between the Northern and Southern People." No title could better portray the feelings of the South at the time. This piece's thesis was that the United States was from the beginning two distinct nations. The author wrote that the division between the two regions, "may be considered peculiarly historical and philosophical" rather than simply political. The article even goes so far as to suggest a difference of race between the two stating, "That standpoint is to be found . . . in the ethnological superiority of that race to which the southern people, in the main, belong . . . " A striking point to the layout of this article, was that directly below the conclusion was printed a poem entitled "Rose Bud" by W. B. C. The poem featured the story of a beautiful, pure rose to "be worn, on the bosom of virtue" forever, but it ended with the rosebud touching impurity and "wither, oh! wither!" While the article seems to foreshadow the coming of a great crisis, the poem seems to illustrate the withering state of Virginia. Once a leader of the nation, the state weakened over time due perhaps, as the touching of impurity may symbolize, to the influence of outsiders such as Stowe and abolitionists in general who sought to change the entire social organization of Virginia and the South. Together the two works compactly summarize the complex conflicts arising within the South.

Novels published at the time in Richmond, specifically the southern romance, similarly foretold the coming of a crisis while focusing on Virginia's past majesty. Although these authors brought up current issues such as gentry, slavery, and even immigrants, they focussed on the past in order to trace the current state of separatism into the roots of Virginia. One excellent example of this transposition was a novel by George Tucker entitled The Valley of Shenandoah. Published in 1825, this two-volume piece sought to illustrate "something of the life and manners which prevailed about twenty-five or thirty years ago, in Virginia, and especially in that part of it which is called the valley of Shenandoah." Through Tucker's narration of the lives of two William and Mary friends, one a Northerner and one a Southerner, the smouldering internal conflict of the Old Dominion is revealed. Grayson, the southern friend, displays the duality of sentiments toward slavery at the time in his conversations with his northern friend. "We, of the present generation, find domestic slavery established among us, and the evil, for I freely admit it to be an evil, both moral and political, admits of no remedy that is not worse than the disease." The earliness of this piece is clearly evident by this sympathy toward slaves. Not yet had Uncle Tom's Cabin forced southern authors to staunchly proclaim slavery's necessity and the South's glory. As a result, Tucker was still able to include a sympathetic image of a slave auction. "One not accustomed to this spectacle, is extremely shocked to see beings, of the same species with himself, set up for sale to the highest bidder, like horses or cattle; and even to those who have been accustomed to it, it is disagreeable, from their sympathy with the humbled and anxious slave." These conflicting emotions displayed throughout The Valley of the Shenandoah-- a recognition of slavery as evil but a defense of the "necessary" southern institution-- leave readers with the sense of a growing turmoil within the South, a turmoil with no easy or foreseeable solution.

John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn further emphasizes this mounting turmoil. Originally published in 1832, the novel displayed an image of a Tidewater Plantation seen through the eyes of a visiting New Yorker. Virginia's past glory was again displayed as Kennedy wrote, "Four Presidents have been given to the Union from her nursery . . . In the light of these men and of their gallant contemporaries, she has found a glory to stimulate her ambition, and to minister to her pride." Though it initially only touched on the evils of slavery, Kennedy rewrote the novel and then re-released it in 1856 as a direct rebuttal to Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. In the process the story shifted from a gentle recognition of problems within the slavery system to a stiff defense of the southern institution. In the first edition for example, Merriweather, the slave owner of Swallow Barn, explains the wrongs of slavery as well as the problems that emancipation would cause. He then goes on to suggest elevating the slave population to make them comparable to the serfs in feudal Europe. In the second edition however, Kennedy added entire paragraphs justifying slave holding. "In the present stage of his existence, he [the slave] presents himself to my mind as essentially parasitical in his nature. I mean that he is, in his moral constitution, a dependant upon the white race; dependant for guidance and direction even to the procurement of his most indispensable necessaries." The shift in southern sentiments cannot be more clearly illustrated. A sense of separatism existed in the South well before the name Harriet Beecher Stowe made its mark on the country. What Swallow Barn shows is the change from a gentle display of southern pride to a self-conscious attack on abolitionism and the North. These attacks in novels directly added fuel to the secessionist fire already flickering south of the Mason Dixon line.

The effectiveness of each of these forms of writing, however, varied throughout the antebellum period in Richmond. Though newspapers reached the largest audience, most frequently, politics and lack of space for in-depth commentaries limited their effectiveness. Novels suffered from the opposite problem. Their length and freedom of creativity allowed the authors to approach the major issues dividing the nation, as well as the philosophical, and inherently moral, principles behind them. Unfortunately, though, novels reached a smaller audience and required, as they still do, much more time than a one page newspaper article (Swallow Barn for example wasn't re-released until four years after Uncle Tom's Cabin hit the shelves). The Southern Literary Messenger combined the best aspects of both the newspapers and the novel, therefore proving to be perhaps the most effective means of displaying and encouraging separatism. The Messenger provided Southerners with their own literary outlet and presented critical essays, reviews, poems, and excerpts from novels. The Cincinnati Mirror wrote of the magazine, "Its correspondents are numerous and able, and its editor wields the gray goose quill like one who knows what he is about, and who has a right to. Commend us to the literary notices of this magazine for genius, spice, and spirit. . . The fact is, the Messenger is not given to the mincing of matter- what it has to say is said fearlessly." Although all of the various forms of writing played an important role in antebellum Richmond, the Southern Literary Messenger proved the most effective for illustrating and spreading the separatist sentiment throughout Virginia and the South.

As the Civil War approached, newspapers and novels became the bellows of the secessionist fire throughout the South. Richmond, as the publishing center for the South, played an indispensable role in furthering this separatist sentiment in the Old Dominion and throughout the future Confederacy. Beginning as an expression of southern pride and honor, the tone of writers in antebellum Richmond quickly shifted to one of self-righteous anti-abolitionism following the distribution of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. As the decade progressed, writers revealed this rift within the Union through their staunch defense of the southern way of life in editorials, essays, poems, and even novels. Although this rift was recognized, however, few if any authors suggested actual solutions to remedy the situation. As a result the conflict that most of the aforementioned writers foresaw erupted in 1861 into the Civil War. But secession and war did not quell the pride and honor Southerners held for the Confederacy, and Surry's words lived on even as the South struggled through defeat and Reconstruction.

"Yet oh! thou beauteous southern land, thy children love thee still,
And their hearts must ever cling to thee, through good report and ill;
And would not give the name they bear-- the fame their fathers won,
To gain the fairest heritage that e'er the sun shone on."
The chapter of history which these authors wrote may have been gone forever with the initial shots at Fort Sumter, but the South's pride certainly was not.