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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Southern Myth Of The Cavalier–Regional Identity And Conflict With The North

In a review of two books by the historian George Frederickson, James McPherson of the New York Review of Books (12.4.08) discusses the issue of regional identity of the South and the North – Cavalier vs. Yankee.  The Southern gentry believed that they were descended from English aristocracy and earlier to the Normans, and continued that ‘cavalier’, chivalric and heroic tradition in the United States.  They believed that Northerners, coming from peasant stock were inferior, as were their social and economic models. 



McPherson dismisses these Southern ancestral claims as ‘nonsense’; but while there may be truth in the contention that Southern bloodlines did not in fact follow the exact routes that early Southerners claimed, the importance of the belief in and propagation  of this myth cannot be underestimated.  Not only the South but the North were guilty of myth-making and as time went on, not only had the South consolidated the conviction that its way of life was the higher expression of human society and its values, but the North also bought into it. 

Of the many causes of the Civil War, ‘free labor’ has often been cited as one of the most important.  This term did not refer to slavery per se but to the God-given right of Americans to benefit from the fruits of their own toil – the exercise of which was also ennobling and spiritually enriching.  This concept emerged out of the Enlightenment and found its way into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The Puritan value of individual, rewarded work was an essential part of early American thinking and life.  The Southern plantation values of work without reward – i.e. slavery – was anathema in two ways.  First, the slaves were unable to benefit from their work; and second, the plantation owners were becoming dissolute and depraved because of their idleness.

Image result for images american puritans 17th century


The Cavalier-Yankee myth was a key component of this distinction.  The Southern aristocrats felt that the plantation life they created was of a higher order than that of the common Northern working man.  It was a world of higher culture and distilled social graces.  So regardless of the accuracy of the origins of so-called Cavalier culture, its centrality to Southern culture and its embodiment of The South was certainly a factor in the War.  McPherson notes:

By 1860 the notion had taken hold in the South that Southern whites, at least those in the planter class, were descended from the English Cavaliers, who in turn were descended from the Norman conquerors, while “Yankees” were descended from the Puritan Roundheads, who in turn traced their descent from the Anglo-Saxons, who were conquered by the Normans in the eleventh century. One of the fullest expressions of this idea appeared in the leading magazine for Southern writers two months after the start of the Civil War.

This conflict, declared the anonymous author, was a contest of race…between the North and the South…. The people of the Northern States are more immediately descended of the English Puritans [who] constituted, as a class, the common people of England…and are directly descended of the ancient Britons and Saxons…. The Southern States were settled and governed…by…persons belonging to…that stock recognized as Cavaliers…directly descended from the Norman Barons of William the Conqueror, a race distinguished, in its earliest history, for its warlike and fearless character, a race, in all time since, renowned for its gallantry, its chivalry, its honor, its gentleness, and its intellect…. The Southern people come of that race.

The South’s foremost writer on political economy, James B.D. DeBow (1820-67), subscribed to this Norman-Cavalier thesis and helped popularize it in his influential journal, DeBow’s Review.

He justified secession on the ground of irreconcilable ethnic differences between Northern and Southern whites. “The Cavaliers, Jacobites, and Huguenots who settled the South, naturally hate, contemn, and despise the Puritans who settled the North,” declared DeBow. “The former are master races, the latter, a slave race, the descendants of the Saxon serfs.” The Confederacy was now achieving its “independent destiny” by repudiating the failed experiment of civic nationalism that had foolishly tried in 1789 to “erect one nation out of two irreconcilable peoples.” (McPherson)

Image result for image 19t century southern planter


These ideas percolated into the popular press. The Richmond Dispatch, with the largest circulation of any newspaper in the Confederacy, published frequent editorials during the Civil War analyzing:

the incongruous and discordant elements out of which the framers of the Constitution sought to create a homogeneous people. The great wonder is not that the two sections have fallen asunder at last, but that they held together so long. The dissimilarity between moral constitutions, habits of thought, breeding and manners of the Cavalier and Roundhead must run in the blood for generations, and defy all the glue and cement of political unions. (McPherson)

By the time of the Civil War, this mythology was complete.  It was not only a war about slavery, free labor, and economic competition, but about culture.  As I mentioned above, it makes no difference whether or not the claims to a Norman blood lineage held any water.  The point was the South fought to defend this Cavalier honor (McPherson)

Another historian claims that not only did the South believe this myth, but so did the North:

What exactly is it that shores up the [South’s] mythology? What is so appealing, and to whom, in the concept of the enduring uniqueness of Dixie? One answer to these questions emanates from the relations between the South and the North while the process of regional identity construction was at its most intense. Rapid urbanization and industrialization created a need for a usable opposite as an antidote to the speed of change. Emerging mass society, ethnic and racial amalgamation, the consolidating state machinery menaced the individual. The South seemed to be a very attractive cure for all these ills. Thus, to a very large extent it was the North that gave rise to the myth of Dixie, because the North needed it as desperately as the Southern whites professed their wish to be left alone. In this dialectic, what was on the surface the beginning of the end in social reality, i.e., the lost Civil War, proved to be a lasting mythological attraction.

For the pragmatic North the grace of the romanticized Lost Causism of the South held a great deal of irresistible power. Even in the heyday of abolitionist crusades, Northern representations of Southern life tended to have an aura of charming mystery. ("Southern American Regional Sensibility versus the North," Krzysztof Kowalczyk-Twarowski CLC, 5.11)

This conclusion was confirmed by Moyne:

“Cavalier and Yankee” shows clearly how the strident materialism of the
aggressive Yankee first aroused in Americans definite longings for some
form of aristocracy. By the 1830's this need seemed to be filled by the
legendary Southern planter with his large estates, his impressive style of
life, his Cavalier ancestry, and his reputed indifference to money matters.
Bly 1850 the Southern planter had become in the popular imagination the
symbolic representative of the agrarian South as the acquisitive Yankee.
the man on the make, had become the symbolic representative of the
mercenary North.

The Southern legend grew especially well in the North, where some
writers tried to counterpoint the limitations of the Yankee ethos by presenting  the legendary Southern gentleman, who seemed to have all the qualities which the Yankee lacked. The most active period of Southern mythmaking began in the 1830's, but the plantation legend was foreshadowed in some patriotic writing, such as William Wirt's biography of Patrick Henry, which appeared soon after. (Ernest Moyne, University of Delaware Review, 1961)

Image result for images virginia plantations early 19th century


The legend of the benevolent South, committed to land, family, and chivalry, intrigued two classic, Northern-born, novelists: Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James.

The former describes his father, descended from a Maryland planter family, as a man who "came from another America" (Gerster and Cords 330). In some of his short stories Fitzgerald betrays an uncritical fascination with the myths of plantation life and the Southern belle. In The Bostonians (1886) James idealizes the South although later on he was forced to admit that at the time of writing the novel he knew very little about the realities of life in Dixie. I argue that this myth of the South appears to be a lasting standard in American literature.

Image result for image f scott fitzgerald


One recent Southern novel, Walker Percy's 1987 The Thanatos Syndrome, provides an example for my notions about representations of the South and its relationship with the North: "The place where the strange events related in this book occur, Feliciana, is not imaginary. It was so named by the Spanish. It was and is part of Louisiana, a strip of pleasant pineland running from the Mississippi to the Perdido, a curious region of a curious state. Never quite Creole or French or Anglo-Saxon or Catholic or Baptist like other parishes of Louisiana, it has served over the years as a refuge for all manner of malcontents. ("Southern American Regional Sensibility versus the North," Krzysztof Kowalczyk-Twarowski CLC, 5.11)

Image result for images walker percy


Less well-known authors were also writing about and perpetuating the Southern Cavalier myth: 

Based largely on a study of ante-bellum American literature, “Yankee and Cavalier” and subtitled "The Old South and American National Character"by William Taylor is a critical survey of regional beliefs and concepts in both North and South before the Civil War, and their effect on the thought of the period. These concepts, born of a ""myth-making frame of mind"", were reflected in the literature of the time, which also helped form them: the Yankee is pictured as industrious, ascetic, mercenary and hypocritical, the Southerner as gay, generous, cultured, and also as weak and vacillating, the Gentleman who was a doomed Aristocrat. The ""plantation novels"" of the 1830's by William Wirt, James Kirk Paulding and others, helped build the myth of the Southern Gentleman (Kirkus Reviews 1961)

In conclusion the Cavalier myth, regardless of its origin, was a central feature of the antebellum South, and it must be thrown into the mix of causes and antecedents to that conflict.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, I found this very informative about the term "Cavalier." Of course, "Gone with the Wind," is a wonderful illustration of the Southern mythology, and your article helps me to understand the novel and film and the hold that they've had on the U.S.


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